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Mobile "Edutainment" Means Serious Learning at Georgia Regents University

For GRU, developing mobile technology that both entertains and instructs is not just a theoretical goal — it's a whole new approach to education.

Hanyu App
GRU's Hanyu app uses interactive multimedia and sound to teach how to read and write Chinese.

"Edutainment" — the concept of education blended with entertainment — may make traditional academics cringe, but there's a reason it's become a buzzword on today's college campuses: student demand.

"Students now have an expectation that they will be 'edutained' while they are educated," according to Michael Casdorph, associate vice president, academic and research technology, information technology services at Georgia Regents University. "They want a higher level of educational experience, and 'traditional' doesn't meet that need."

"The faculty are not only educators but actors who bring learning to life for the students," he continued. "While not all faculty would appreciate this perspective, nor agree that education should necessarily be entertaining, it should be considered a viable option — if providing edutainment leads to higher levels of learning outcomes and student satisfaction, and if it also attracts students in this new competitive education marketplace."

Casdorph and his team are on a mission to bring edutainment into their mobile projects for the Augusta institution, which now includes nine colleges and schools. With 9,000 students and residents and more than 1,000 full-time faculty, GRU houses a traditional four-year liberal arts school, medical school, the state's sole dental college and an academic health system.

Mobile Apps That Engage Students
Using the Blackboard mobile application suite and Unity 3D gaming development platform, Casdorph and his team develop mobile applications, multimedia, animations, simulations, gaming, 3D and other forms of technology-enhanced communications as a way to facilitate edutainment and engage students.

"Our utmost goal is to try to meet the needs of our faculty," said Casdorph. That means helping them deliver a highly integrated, technology-infused curriculum that reflects and responds to students' evolving learning styles, he explained.

As an example, he cited a professor who teaches brain anatomy: "He started out with a model of the brain in the classroom. We took that idea and turned it into an application called Build-A-Brain Explorer. You can take virtual slices of the brain and study it, and rebuild it virtually in the app."

The technology team developed another app for GRU's Confucius Institute, which was established to generate student interest in the Chinese language. "The College of Education came to us looking for an idea on creating an app for our new Confucius Institute," recalled Casdorph. The app, called Hanyu, is an educational game for students from middle school through college that uses interactive multimedia and sound teach how to read and write Chinese. "Users can reproduce Chinese calligraphy, and the app will tell them if it's correct. It combines both education and entertainment," he explained. The Hanyu app was recently selected as a finalist to be presented at the European Conference on Games-Based Learning in Berlin.

The emphasis on edutainment has extended to GRU's Children's Hospital, which developed a series of educational games for children. "With an iPad and an app, a nervous child can walk through the hospital, learn about his or her surroundings and find out what's going to be happening in a fun kind of way," said Casdorph. "There are a number of GRU apps available in the iTunes store, including a gaming app called Allergen Alert, in which children can destroy allergens." Casdorph added that there are also patient education apps for adults on such topics as dentistry, kidney transplants and an upper respiratory virtual lab.

Communication is a key part of getting faculty involved with the mobile apps and generating ideas, said Casdorph. "We give road shows so that faculty see what we're doing, and what we're capable of doing. We try to spawn their creativity. At the conclusion, we frequently get ideas for new apps from our faculty."

Faculty involvement is also crucial to making the apps successful. "We have found our faculty to be great partners in infusing technology into the curricula," he continued. "Their ideas help to create the seeds, and our team takes those seeds and creates the final product for students to use. Whenever faculty have a success, we publicize it, which gets more of the faculty on path to innovate using academic technologies. The ultimate result is improved student learning outcomes, as well as improved student satisfaction."

The Student Push
"The other big thing we have going for us is the push we get from students," Casdorph said. "The current generation's aptitude for technology feeds into this. The students help to motivate the faculty, which is key, because when the faculty agree to make an app, they have to make the commitment to hang with us, to support us, on top of their regular teaching and research responsibilities."

Students also help vet the apps' usefulness, Casdorph noted. Mobile devices have a finite amount of space, and "students want room for video, phone, and so forth —they'll keep only what they find most valuable," he said. "They pick and choose what they think is relevant; therefore, we don't simply add every new app we create to the basic GRU app. We know students don't want that." He added, "What we think is 'cool' is frequently not what our students think is 'cool.' Therefore, it's important to get student feedback to validate the direction an app is going in."

Outsourced or In-House?
When Casdorph and his team started their mobile initiative in 2009, they sought out opportunities to partner with third-party application developers and media publishers, but outsourcing did not fit into their budget. "Back then, outsourcing mobile was cost-prohibitive, and publishers were not interested in partnerships," he explained.

Fortunately, the university was willing to invest in in-house development. "It's not a charge-back model," Casdorph said. "We don't charge faculty for our assistance. GRU has a fairly unique way of thinking about its return on investment. While most universities want to see a traditional ROI, with us it's about improved learning outcomes, student satisfaction, marketing and visibility. While there are times when outsourcing is appropriate — especially when things need to be done quickly — all of our customized work is done in-house."

He added that outsourcing has become more affordable over time, and is a good option to consider when you have a project that is too complex, or needed in a very aggressive timeline that your team cannot deliver. "With the popularity of mobile development, the costs for outsourcing have come down," he noted.

Sharing Success
Casdorph and his team hope to expand their work by collaborating with other institutions. "When we've spoken about our mobile development efforts on multiple national platforms, we offer to partner with other universities, and have generated a great deal of interest," he said. "One of our goals is to find faculty at other institutions that want to contribute content that we can populate in our apps — with the possibility of creating a co-branded app."

In making recommendations for other schools considering a combination of mobile education and entertainment, Casdorph concluded: "Certainly, successful edutainment is a mix of technical wizardry, superior aesthetics and, most importantly, compelling content. In addition to your team of programmers, multimedia developers and graphic artists, you need dedicated faculty who are subject-matter experts, and who follow through with providing content and guidance throughout the development process."

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