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Strong Acids and Shakespeare Sonnets: Making Mobile Apps for Liberal Arts

Unimpressed by the digital textbooks their students are using more and more, these two profs have set out to augment learning with small but potent mobile apps.

What often gets lost in discussions about digital textbooks is that most of them are created through processes meant to scale. Frequently, publishing companies take content intended to be printed and put it through some kind of automated conversion that turns the book into an e-text. Often the results are anemic, little more than PDF files with functions such as text highlighting thrown on top. Two professors at tiny Albion College in Michigan have concluded that the results aren't good enough. Neither instructor has a background in mobile application development, but they've each developed an app for their respective courses that is helping their students become more engaged in the content they're teaching.

Lisa Lewis is a professor of chemistry and Ian MacInnes is chair and professor of English at the 1,400-student, four-year liberal arts institution. In 2011 they received funding from their own school as well as a grant from a Great Lakes Colleges Association program specifically intended to invigorate mid-career liberal arts and sciences faculty members by allowing them to undertake projects outside of their areas of expertise.

Neither was happy with what they were seeing in the e-texts increasingly in use by students. In a poster presentation produced for Educause Lewis shared one example of a digital chemistry book that includes quiz material and animations. "You can click on a link and obtain a rotatable molecular model," she said. "It's pretty. It's interactive. But will students make the implicit connections about molecular bonding and attraction? That is, are they thinking while they're interacting with this material? Our expectation is that this is not the case."

In the area of humanities, MacInnes pointed to a dearth of e-texts, particularly in the area of literary anthologies. Those that are available may include "engaging illustrations" but the tools that are included may not be appropriate to the work. For example, he said, "Ebooks tend to allow the students to make notes, but the notes tend to be invisible. They allow highlighting, which is really inappropriate when you're looking at poetry. And when you click on a word, you get an opportunity to look that word up in a Webster's dictionary, but with Shakespeare, that kind of look-up is not only not helpful, it's problematic."

Ian MacInnes describes his app to Dian Schaffhauser at Educause 2012.

The original intent was for both instructors to learn the basics of iOS coding. But in order to deliver programs that would run on the variety of devices in use by their students--smartphones, computers, and tablets--the two decided to develop Web apps instead of native apps. The development for each app used the same set of tools--HTML 5 and JavaScript, Adobe Dreamweaver and jQuery Mobile. They enlisted the help of the college's Ferguson Center for Technology-Aided Teaching and Learning and on-campus game design students to take the project to completion.

In spite of that common starting point, however, the results are quite distinct.

The Strength of Knowing Six Strong Acids
Lewis chose to focus on a single learning objective: She wanted her students to understand what a strong acid or strong base is and to recognize them when they saw them. "Traditionally, this is one of the hardest sections, and it's largely because the students do not take the time to learn those concepts until the exam, which is three weeks after the initial concept is introduced," she explained. The problem is that every concept during that three-week period builds on that first one. If the student doesn't get that early on, he or she will subsequently miss out on a lot more.

The app developed by Lewis, AcidBase, has four distinct sections. A background information section provides a "concise" description of the theory associated with strong acids and bases. Two reference sections list the strong acids and bases. Two quizzes test the students on how well they can identify strong acids and bases and check their understanding of the concepts of concentration and strength; in the process they also get real-time feedback. The fourth section is a game that requires students to quickly tap on or click the strong acids or strong bases. The game has five levels that increase in difficulty, and when the student chooses a weak acid or base, the game ends. The app also maintains a "high score list," which provides "additional motivation for students to improve," Lewis said.

An early assessment of the program found that students perceived the value of the app to be equivalent to the value of their online homework program, Lewis noted. "They've generally been receptive to this project. They like that they can study chemistry anywhere. They enjoy the game. And they appreciate that we appreciate their obsession with technology."

The results of pop quizzes also seem to bear out the idea that the app has helped students learn the strong acid content faster. In spring 2012 two groups of students were given three surprise tests. One group had the use of AcidBase and the other didn't. Of the group that did have access to the app, 59 percent had either a perfect or near perfect score on an early test when asked to identify strong acids. That count was only 29 percent among the group of students without access. It took until the third quiz for the results to come out fairly evenly between the two groups.

The preliminary data suggests that the app use "had a positive impact on student learning," Lewis said. "From my perspective, it's augmenting what we already do." Students have their textbooks, they do things in class, they have their online homework. "This is just that extra piece that is drawing them in."

Lisa Lewis Talks to Dian Schaffhauser about the costs of creating her app at Educause 2012.

Learning How to Study Text
For his app, MacInnes chose to explore the reading of a short poem, Shakespeare's Sonnet 138 ("When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lies...") "I aimed to create an experience that would feel like a mobile app rather than a glorified PDF," he said. The goals were many: to "facilitate student interaction with the text that went beyond highlighting and making cryptic notes"; to include many different kinds of materials; and to provide a way for students to share their comments about specific words and lines with the rest of the class.

The "heart" of the app, MacInnes said, is the textual study. It allows the student to click on particular words or lines and to read definitions MacInnes has culled from the Oxford English Dictionary. The instructor has added questions to guide the student's thinking about the given text. And the student can add notes that display at the bottom of the screen when the text is open. Also, MacInnes has added recordings of varied readings of the lines, which the student can listen to and then comment on.

MacInnes has also added a social networking dimension. "One of the things e-textbooks do is give students a way to look at commentary," he explained. "But that comes from everywhere. You'll see a big list of things--some useful, some not." His app allows the students to see comments only from other students in the same class, which "creates that sense of community."

Although MacInnes hasn't done the same quantitative assessment that Lewis has, he knows the app has changed how students approach their work. "I'm asking them to look at a poem and to interact with it in ways that can guide the method of reading itself. All of the comments I've gotten from students are about how [the app is] used to read the poem," he said.

Now MacInnes has a first-year student working on replicating the app for a different poem. All he has to do is feed her the questions he wants students to answer about it. "That’s the kind of content creation that all literature and humanities faculty do all the time," he observed. "We're always coming up with driving questions. My colleagues do that whether they know anything about technology or not."

So far, he said he's convinced that the mobile app he's created can have a more dramatic impact on student learning than the typical digital textbook can deliver. "It's nice that [students] remember that particular sonnet and remember what some of these interpretations are--but more importantly that they approach reading differently. That's something an app can do that at the moment e-textbooks aren't doing very well."

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