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Creating Educational Android Apps

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Rob Frank is Assistant Professor of English at Harford Community College.

Key Takeaways

  • With the popularity of mobile apps, converting the most popular class lessons to Android apps seemed a good way to reach students.
  • Although relatively few students owned Android phones, the free release of a resume app reached a worldwide audience who could also benefit from the advice.
  • Even with minimal programming experience, faculty can follow this model and create their own apps for mobile phones.

Switching to an Android phone in the summer of 2010 sparked my interest in educational apps. As an assistant professor of English at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland, I quickly decided to take one of my most popular classroom lessons and turn it into a mobile device application. I admit that my computer programming experience was (and still is) relatively limited, though I did take a few classes in college.

I successfully created a few original apps in less than six months; however, when I polled my classes afterwards, I found that most of my students had little use for an Android app — only about a third of them were using Android devices.

One of my former Technical Writing students, Joseph Hollingshead, agreed to an interview, in which he pointed out:

"There were several tips that I used from your app that I'm absolutely positive helped me land my job. The person who interviewed me for the position commented several times on how she loved the fact that my resume wasn't full of grammatical errors like the vast majority of the ones she had reviewed. … [T]he Android app is also valuable, especially being completely free. I'm surprised that most of your students do not own Android phones, but I feel that issue has more to do with the demographics of the college."

Even so, the app reaches individuals all over the world who are looking specifically for the information it provides. Plus, I learned a lot in the process of creating apps. This tutorial is designed to share what I learned in order to help other educators save time in creating their own mobile-learning applications.

How I Began

First, I had to set up my computer for Android Development in Windows 7. The following video demonstration of these beginning steps includes all of the download links needed:

Resume Tips Reference Guide App

The resume and cover letter unit in my Technical Writing classes is by far the most popular part of the course. I figured that a reference guide of simple tips would be relatively easy to program, as there are no complex graphics or user interactions. I had already authored a list of resume and cover letter tips, which I posted on my website, RobJohnFrank.com, and it has consistently been one of the most visited pages on my site.

Creating the app turned out to be manageable, though time-consuming. In the end, the app received high ratings on Google Play and has been downloaded over 50,000 times. The following video demonstrates the resume app:

Comma Command App

I wanted to program an educational game app that goes beyond a simple quiz, and in this case, I specifically wanted to create an interactive game that teaches proper comma usage. I succeeded in creating the basic model of the app, but I found that it only works on devices with larger screen sizes. As a result, I put the project on hold because an app will receive low ratings if it does not work well on all Android devices. Low ratings mean few people will use it, which makes developing it a poor use of time.

Although a failure, the Comma Command app succeeded in helping me improve my limited programming skills.

The following video demonstrates the basic app:

Lessons Learned

If I had known then what I know now, this is the advice I would have given myself:

  • Plan your app on paper as much as possible to avoid needing to start over later.
  • Consider screen size carefully when programming for Android devices.
  • Time and patience are required, but the challenge of creating an educational app is not insurmountable.
  • Take unknown error messages or issues and try copying and pasting them into a Google search. You might find just the answer you need.
  • One website in particular, StackOverflow.com, is very helpful at answering programming-related questions.
  • The official website Android Developer Resources has plenty of training to help you understand what Android is capable of and how it works.

Before creating your own app, start with the "Hello World" Tutorial to orient yourself. The following YouTube video walks through the creation of the "Hello World" app from scratch:

Research the Environment

When you first have an idea for an app, it is a good idea to see if the app already exists. Searching the market for competitive apps is fast and easy, and even if an app already exists, you may feel that you can do better. Academic reference guides are very common, as they are relatively easy to program and are more content-based. Educational apps appear to be an effective way to deliver content; following are some examples of a variety of educational apps that have already been studied:

My Experience So Far

My apps have always been available for free, though I did later add basic banner advertisements through AdMob, which is owned by Google. Although the apps have made very little money, I have no plans to start charging for them.

I launched a few apps into the Android Market before the spring of 2011, including a film trivia game and a collection of Einstein quotes, but the resume tips guide was by far the most popular. My favorite app, Comma Command, was actually never released into the Android Market, though I am considering turning the project into an iPhone app, especially because this would minimize the screen size issue. Having recently switched to a Mac, I could see myself exploring iPhone development next. It may be a while before Comma Command is complete, but I feel that it could act as a fully functioning example of a truly interactive mobile-learning app that engages students all over the world.

Pick your favorite lesson and think about converting it to an app for your students, colleagues, or the world community. It might never add to your income, but your contribution to education will available for anyone interested.

Rob Frank

Assistant Professor of English
Harford Community College

 

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