Open to Talent

App has own story to tell - Michelle turns to Possum 'Magic'

PhD student Michelle Somerton wanted to know if mobile technology was helping primary students to learn or was simply a form of entertainment, so she created her own app to find out

Michelle Somerton
Tech-savvy: Michelle Somerton's research into
the effectiveness of educational apps led to the creation of her own.

By Merian Ellis

Primary school students have a new furry friend to support their literacy learning in an app developed as part of a University of Tasmania research project.

Faculty of Education PhD student Michelle Somerton has breathed new life into the 1914 children's book The Adventures of Billy Possum by integrating the story into an app that embeds research-based teaching and learning strategies into iPad technology.

"Very few of the literary apps on the market are supported by research."

"My research is investigating the efficacy of mobile-technology platforms to support students' difficulties with comprehension," Ms Somerton said.

"There is a large amount of anecdotal and observational evidence from teachers and parents describing higher levels of student motivation and engagement when using apps, but the question is, are they learning?"

Ms Somerton said many of the apps marketed towards education were created using game-engine templates, not written for a specific educational outcome in the way a professional educator might deliver appropriate learning content.

Initial research into the currently available literacy apps indicated that very few of the products on the market were supported by research-based strategies.

"I decided to create an app of my own for this project to ensure that I could test the use of iPad technology for literacy using an app that used explicit learning strategies," Ms Somerton said.

"Unless we can be sure about the research and theories supporting app technology, we don't really know if they are helping children to learn or simply providing entertainment."

Ms Somerton called on North West Tasmanian expertise at 41st Degree Software in Burnie to design and build a highly interactive digital text to support the development of literacy skills as students progress from story books to chapter books.

Development manager Rob Vernon said his company was delighted to be able to work collaboratively with the University of Tasmania on such a worthwhile project.

"It took us five months of development time, but we could see so much potential in Michelle's idea that we were happy to put in extra effort and resources to ensure the success of the app," Mr Vernon said.

"It was a great opportunity to highlight the talents of our programmer and graphic designer in producing an app of exceptional educational value as well as a beautiful piece of digital art."

The Billy Possum app is being trialled in a number of schools to determine the educational effectiveness and benefits of mobile technologies as part of Ms Somerton's thesis.