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How an iPad App Can Help Answer the Age-Old Question: What Did You Do At School Today?

It’s a conversation heard around countless dinner tables or on the way home. What did you do at school today? The answer most often is nothing or "I don’t know" or "I played."

That one-sided conversation is common in early education students. Parents can try to talk to teachers during the shuffle of picking up their child, but that’s usually only slightly more productive. So computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Create Lab partnered with early childhood advocates at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children — or PAEYC — to adapt existing classroom technologies to enable children to better communicate with their parents about what they did at school.

While some form of the Message From Me program has been in development since 2008, the team recently acquired a grant that allowed the program to be piloted in all 86 Pittsburgh Public School Early Education classrooms this fall.

When the create lab first took the program to schools, it built Plexiglas kiosks with big colorful buttons. Students would use a digital recorder and a microphone and could easily send photos and voice messages to a parent or guardian’s cellphone or email.

Two years ago the team decided to drop the kiosks and develop an iPad app. Most of the schools involved in the program already have iPads in their classrooms, so making the transition was easy.  

“The photo has a border that says ‘don’t forget to ask me who, what, when, where and why.’ So asking guided questions to extend that conversation at home," said Sue Polojac, programming director at PAEYC.

Polojac is half of the duo responsible for the program. While senior researcher at the Create Lab, Emily Hammner, helped developed the app and deals with the technical side, Polojac trains teachers and parents. When parents sign up for the program they are given examples of questions they can ask to encourage the home to school connection.

“And so the hope is that when the children get home, the parents will say ‘tell me more about that photo, how did you make play-doh today, who did you play with?’ So to really ask more questions about what happened at school," Polojac said.

Hammner said the Create Lab team didn’t want to invent something new, they just wanted to adapt existing technologies.

“I think pretty much they can just sit them down once or twice and show them how to do it. They pick it up pretty quickly," she said. 

Hammner said there was hesitation at the Create Lab when first designing the program because many educators say young children need personal interaction not more screen time. So the team made sure the app could be used together with other students and the teacher.

A 2012 study of members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children conducted by the Fred Rogers Center and Northwestern University found that respondents generally believe technology has a positive role in early childhood classrooms.

For example, respondents said digital cameras were used to foster social-emotional development. But teachers said they used technology to document a child’s learning.

“They can look and listen to the recording at the beginning of the school year say in September and then throughout the school year so they can hopefully see a change in language and use that to share with families at parent-teacher conferences," Polojac said. 

After using the app for some time, she said the goal is for the student to use more advanced language and better describe to the adult what they are doing at school.

So far there have been some roadblocks in certain cell phone service providers not being able to receive the messages or parents not having access to the internet to view the messages.

“And the bigger problem we have is there is a group that changes their phone number every month if they have like a pay-as-you-go number. And then if they can’t pay the bills, they shut their phone off, then they get a new number. And so that’s a group that we really want to be able to reach and a group that the schools really want to be able to reach,” she said. 

The 2012 Fred Rogers study also found that the economic status of a neighborhood predicted the access to newer technology – the higher the income and greater the education levels, the more likely students were to have access to technology.

In economically disadvantaged Homewood where the iPad app is being piloted, Dena Metz encourages her students to use the iPads throughout the day, not just for Message From Me.

“I just appreciate Pittsburgh Public actually getting them into this technology because a lot of them, they don’t see it. They don’t have the means to get it at home. So at least if we start them here and start them early, it’s nice for them. So when they do transition into Kindergarten, they know how to use it and they can just build upon it," Metz said. 

Both Polojac and Hammner say they hope to eventually integrate the program in other elementary grades, but until then, they are continuing to learn.

“We actually had one parent that said it changed their family dynamic a little bit. Once the dad saw what was happening in the classroom, he was just so excited about it started asking the child more questions, the family got more involved with their school, they wanted to go visit and actually be a part of what was happening," Polojac said.