Making an App

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New Horizons [The Technologies Ahead]

Anthony Fontana ([email protected]) is Learning Technologist and Instructor of Art at Bowling Green State University.

Comments on this article can be posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

In the summer of 2010, I set out to find the best tool for enhancing my lecture classes. I had iPad fever, amazed at how simple and fluid everything felt in my hands with the iPad. After searching high and low for the app of my dreams to no avail, I finally decided, “I’m just going to make an app.”

My app had to be useful, social, mobile, student-savvy, and faculty-friendly. I had a vision, and I wanted to share it! The first hurdle . . . I didn’t know a thing about building software. I’m an artist, educator, and learning technologies consultant for the Chief Information Officer (CIO), whose research deals with using classroom technologies, not building them. My research into learning technologies might have helped me design my killer app, but the key to my success would be finding the right collaborators.

I took my designs to Dr. Joseph Chao, Director of the Bowling Green State University (BGSU) Agile Software Factory. “We build software,” said Dr. Chao, and the app I could envision became a project for the computer science students in an agile software development class. I became their client. 

Over the course of the initial semester of development, each feature I’d put into the design was implemented. Through the process, I learned about things like “feature creep,” which occurs when a software project stalls due to designers adding more features rather than focusing on the functionality of what exists. I also learned the value of a computer science student who, with graphic design skills, could bring my user-interface ideas to life. From the students’ perspective, they were learning to work with a client in an integrative teaching and learning experience. By the end of the fall semester, the beginnings of a web app had arrived. Hello QizBox.

QizBox is a web application that uses online communication and game mechanics to create a social learning environment. It was created to enhance the real-life classroom lecture and presentation experience by providing the presenter with the ability to share slides, quiz audience members, and provide real-time feedback. When QizBox is enabled, the audience may discuss the lecture in a chat room, ask and answer questions, and create notes, which are then accessible for review through a dashboard interface.

QizBox also incorporates a dynamic award system that honors audience engagement. Users can accumulate, create, and distribute awards that contribute to a coactive and cooperative learning environment.  For example, audience members can be encouraged to post their QizBox awards to their Facebook wall, giving them the opportunity to boast about their achievements within a social learning or collaborative environment.

After the initial semester of development, additional funding provided by the BGSU’s Office of the CIO allowed for further development. With funding secured, I continued to work with Dr. Chao and five of his students in the BGSU Agile Software Factory for the spring semester. At this time I also enlisted the expertise of Associate Professor Lori Young, in the Graphic Design Department, to design a sleek new user-interface and the badges for the award system (it looks amazing on an iPad!).

I learned that my own potential to create and enhance classroom experiences using technology was greatly improved by involving others who shared a vision of how this space could evolve. Student developers provided input from their perspective as learners, just as faculty members gave feedback on how the app might work in their classroom. In an iterative development process, we were able to make improvements before the application ever moved into a classroom.

By the end of the spring semester, the system was ready for alpha testing. It was taken to a learning community at the BGSU Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), where ten faculty members tested and critiqued the app. Their feedback was invaluable and served as the catalyst for a number of improvements and feature additions. I returned to that learning community with an improved version for testing several more times. Additionally, I have since partnered with the CTL, a hub for innovative faculty on campus, to continue recruiting testers for QizBox at BGSU.

Over the summer of 2011, I took the opportunity to show off the project at the Emerging Learning Design Conference at Montclair State University, where it was met with great enthusiasm. The first time I fired off an award to someone in the audience for asking a good question, another hand went up: “Can I have one?” By creating an economy of awards in a classroom or presentation setting, the app motivates users to engage with the content on a different level. This is what I had envisioned when I set out to create a technology-enhanced experience in my lecture classes.

This fall, QizBox will enter private beta testing on the BGSU campus. Since it’s a web app, it can be accessed through a web browser on any laptop or tablet device. Another agile software class will continue work on QizBox, developing a mobile user interface for improved use on small-screen devices such as smartphones and iPods. I am working on research collaborations with a number of faculty and graduate students on testing the efficacy of QizBox in the classroom.

It is my hope that by 2012, QizBox will be available to enhance every educator’s lecture or conference presentation experience.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 6 (November/December 2011)