Expert Interview with Heather Picov on Apps for Good for Glance

9 min read

An app to help work-averse kids find motivation to do their chores.
A virtual piggybank for kids and their parents to avoid squabbling over cash.
A cattle management app that helps farmers keep track of cow in their herd.

These are just a few examples of apps conceived of, designed and pitched by students as part of Apps for Good, a U.K.-based app development course created for students.

Founded in 2010 by Iris Lapinski, Apps for Good grew out of the work of the Centre for Digital Inclusion (CDI), a social enterprise started in the favelas of Brazil in 1995 to use technology to fight poverty and stimulate entrepreneurship.

Through her work with CDI, Iris recognized that the U.K. could adopt some of the concepts surrounding using technology for social improvement. But rather than focus on learning software skills as the program did in the developing world, she thought it would be more relevant to get students in the U.K. to innovate using a tool many of them had in their pockets: a smartphone.

To learn more about how Apps for Good works and why there’s so much excitement surrounding the program, we checked in with Heather Picov, head of communications and communities. Here’s what she had to say:

How does Apps for Good work?

Apps for Good partners with schools, FE colleges and learning centres across the U.K., who deliver our app development course to their students aged 10-18.

Educators access our online training and use our course content framework based on three key pillars: student-driven learning, using technology to solve problems creatively, and providing real world context. The course takes students through the process a real entrepreneur or business would undertake in developing a product, from user research to creating wireframes to business modelling. Importantly, we call it a course “framework” rather than a course, as educators adapt the materials to make them fit within their classroom – whether that’s for students’ age, class size, or the abilities of the students and/or teacher. This means that what the course is like for students in practice will vary from school to school.

The majority of educators are computing teachers, but some might teach the course in other subject areas such as business, and most deliver Apps for Good within curriculum time. 

An app to help work-averse kids find motivation to do their chores.Click To Tweet

Apps for Good educators also have access to our network of over 900 technology and business professionals: Apps for Good Experts. Educators organise one-hour mentoring sessions with Experts for students throughout the course, mostly via video conferencing, providing students with real world insight as they develop their ideas.

Educators access everything they need to teach the course through our online platform, including our professional development materials, the course content framework, and procedures for setting up Expert sessions.

At the end of the course, students can enter our national competition, where the winning apps are launched on to the market.

Apps for Good is supported by corporate partners and trusts and foundations, which allows us to offer the programme for free to non-fee paying schools.

What makes students good candidates for app development?

Young people 10-18 years of age are the first generation that has grown up immersed in technology. They are massive consumers of technology, especially on their mobile phones. Our mission is to help them to also be creators and makers using technology.

Young people are often not as hindered in their creativity as adults, so they can be freer in their ability to think creatively to solve problems. Young people are also better placed to build technology products for other young people; they will intuitively understand what is needed better than a middle-aged developer or entrepreneur.

The technology world lacks diversity, and this is stifling innovation. By not tapping into young people who are traditionally excluded from the technology industry – whether that’s girls or those living in a rural area – we’re missing out on ideas and insight that could have a big impact on the world.

For example, imagine you are a boy who lives in rural Scotland. Your family are farmers, and as part of your daily life you are expected to help your parents looking after the herd of cows that sustains your family’s livelihood. Due to various disease outbreaks over recent decades, rearing cows is a highly regulated activity. For instance, you need to keep track of vaccination records for each animal. Your job as the farmer’s son is to transfer paper notes into the computer back at home, but you are fed up doing this. The result: Cattle Manager, an app to easily manage your herd on the go, which won our national competition in 2013.

What’s the process students use to come up with the ideas for the apps they build?

The starting point for students is their own life experience: their friends, family and the community they live in. It has to be a real problem with a tangible impact on real people. To kick off this process, students undertake a series of activities to help them think about problems in their day-to-day lives and those related to their hobbies and interests. An example is our “average bad day” activity, where students list all the things that could go wrong in the worst day imaginable – they missed their alarm, the hot water wasn’t working so they couldn’t take a shower, they missed their bus, they forgot their homework, etc.

Through this idea generation process, students create a long list of potential app ideas. They then scope and refine these ideas, checking them against market research and speaking to Apps for Good experts, often pivoting the ideas based on feedback or abandoning ideas altogether. In doing this, they can take the most viable idea forward to a prototyping stage.

There’s a key rule in Apps for Good: the app idea must come from the students themselves. This can be one of the hardest parts of the Apps for Good course for students and teachers. So much of education is based around students being told what to do and teachers feeling they need to do things for students to help them move forward. But the ownership of the idea helps drive students’ learning forward, especially when they encounter challenges. Building a great product is hard. Learning how to code is hard. Developing a business model is hard. But if it’s based around something students care about and has a goal they can grasp, they have a reason to invest the time and energy.

How does teaching young people app development enhance their classroom experience? What about their life outside of the classroom?

Apps are a good, contemporary way for us to ground students’ learning in the real world and to make this attractive to students. Students aren’t just being told to learn something because a teacher or parent says, “it’s important.” There’s no right or wrong answer known by the teacher ahead of time, nor are students memorising and reproducing known solutions to known problems.

In developing an app, students learn to build fast, to test assumptions by collecting real feedback on a solution they have come up with, and to work in a diverse team. What they are doing has a connection to a real world problem, and they build a product that they can be proud of. They learn problem solving that is much more relevant to the messy problems of the real world. They build their confidence and resilience by seeing failure as part of the problem-solving process.

How has the programme been received in the U.K.?

We started in 2010 with just two centres and 50 students, while now in the 2014/15 academic year we’ve been working with over 500 schools and more than 25,000 students. Apps for Good’s first pilot was in a community centre in South London for 18-25 year olds; but quite quickly there was a demand from schools to run the programme, and this pivot has been a key driver of our growth.

Apps for Good launched at a time when a lot of teachers and students were frustrated with the way that computing was being taught in schools, where the focus was on software skills rather than learning to make and create with technology. Last year, a new Computing Curriculum was introduced in England which has also helped us grow, including within primary schools. We’ve seen phenomenal growth in Scotland too, where our course not only aligns with their curriculum, which has a greater focus on creative learning, but also many teachers there like that the course helps students reach out beyond their local community. Our course materials and training are all accessed online; and crucially, Expert sessions are conducted remotely. So a teacher in, say, the Highlands can connect students with an Expert based in Glasgow or London or even Brazil.

What surprises you the most about working with students?

My background is not within education, and I think when you are outside of the sector you can be inundated with negative portrayals of young people and the harmful effects of technology – whether it’s online bullying or children spending too much time playing online games. What’s been so refreshing and exciting is to meet so many students who contradict those stereotypes – young people who are excited about technology and want to use it to make a positive impact on the world. What impresses me too is their confidence and how quickly they adapt and overcome their fears. It’s inspiring to see a group of 13 year old girls pitch their app to a panel of C-suite executives, which would be incredibly intimidating to many of us. We’ve seen students who can barely speak one-word answers at the beginning of the course go on to give interviews to the BBC a year later.

What have the students taught you about app development?

Working with students on app development has certainly reinforced the importance of user-based app development and that young people are a unique user group. For example, for the I’m Okay app, which provides support to young people exploring their sexuality and gender, the student team behind the app knew that an important feature for their users was that the app needed to be hidden on the phone or not have any obvious LGBTQ branding, because the students understood from experience that friends are always going on each other’s phones – something adults are unlikely to be aware of. Another example is a bullying app where the user can seek help from other students rather than from an adult, which is what we adults always try to design.

What have been some of your favourite student-developed apps?

I always love the apps created by students for students, where you get to see what students come up with to help each other.

The I’m Okay app was created by a team of girls who wanted to provide support to young people struggling with issues around sexuality and gender, as all of them had friends or family who had faced this and found it difficult.

Last year, we had an app created by a team from a primary school to make sleepovers more fun, which I doubt an adult would ever have thought of. In our competition this year, we have two apps to help students learn about science: one has videos and recipes to do science experiments at home, and the other helps make learning chemistry more fun with quizzes and an interactive periodic table of elements.

What’s the future for Apps for Good?

A major focus for us right now is international growth. We are fortunate to get a huge amount of interest from other countries; but as exciting as this is, we know that we need to approach international expansion slowly and strategically. We’re running international pilots in Europe and the USA to understand how Apps for Good fits within these countries and what does and doesn’t work for us for an international model.

Another big strategic development is our Fellowship programme, which changes how we work with students in the long term. Up until this year, outside of our national competition, we had nothing to offer students once they had completed the Apps for Good course. Now, with the Fellowship programme, we can provide ongoing opportunities for students to get hands-on experience in app development or one aspect of the course such as coding or UX or marketing. This is especially important for us as we grow and a decreasing proportion of our students have access to our national competition, where we work with seven winning teams. It will also help us to understand the long-term impact that Apps for Good is having on our students.

We often get asked if we will only ever teach students how to build “apps.” The definition of apps themselves is inherently flexible: apps are a recipe to do something. Students can already build a mobile, social or web app in the course, and we’ll be pursing the direction that apps go in – such as robotics, the internet of things and wearable technology – to keep the course grounded in the real world and exciting for students.

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