Bringing design thinking to grade schools

blogNashville was lucky to receive a visit from SparkTruck yesterday as part of their cross-country tour to bring design thinking and hands-on learning to young students.

From higher ed to primary ed

SparkTruck is a mobile maker lab run by a handful of alumni from Stanford’s Their goal is to bring fun, hands-on learning workshops to grade school and middle school children across the US.

The idea for SparkTruck came from a year-long thesis project at Stanford in which a group of students talked with teachers, students, and other experts about hands-on learning. The group learned that many schools don’t have a budget or room in their curriculum to support programs for young builders.

SparkTruck is promoting these types of projects with workshops hosted through their “educational build-mobile.” In the back of their truck, they’ve packed a 3D printer, a laser cutter, and lots of tools for curious minds to get building.

Physical learning and digital learning: BFFs

We love what the SparkTruck team is doing. At Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute—an establishment that shares many beliefs and practices with the—Ben & I studied design thinking for both digital and physical products. In fact, Ben’s capstone project required extensive prototyping and iteration of a collaborative educational system with a major physical device component. Kodiak wouldn’t be the product it is today if that work wasn’t a part of his higher education.

Designing physical objects taps parts of your brain that aren’t activated by virtual interaction—but the payoff carries into the digital world. As today’s children grow up in a world where technology is embedded in an increasingly large number of objects, it will become more and more important that they learn to harmonize the physical with the digital.

Read about SparkTruck’s Nashville stop on their blog.

Sharing is caring: Pooling resources to help kids

Sharing through large organizations


We were excited this week find out about a fantastic organization right here in our home state of Tennessee. is an online collection of toolkits for teachers in families to use in educating Pre-K through 3rd grade children. The toolkits address a wide range of topics: Common Core subjects like math and reading; physical education and development of motor skills; even social and emotional development like making friends and building self-esteem.

ReadTennessee’s goal is for this collected information to allow teachers, families, and communities to work together in educating young children. Almost anyone should find something useful here—go ahead, take a look for yourself.

Individual teachers contributing their expertise

Meanwhile, teachers and parents who are in the vanguard of technology adoption continue to provide invaluable feedback on their experience with the latest hardware and software. To name a few shining examples:

  • Carl Hooker is Director for Instructional Technology in the Eanes Independent School District. He’s written several blog posts and given numerous presentations about the lessons learned from his school’s 1-to-1 iPad pilot.
  • Jennie Magiera (who we’ve mentioned on this blog before) frequently posts awesome, helpful articles on her blog Teaching like it’s 2999, such as this post comparing Google Docs to Apple’s iWork apps.
  • The Moms With Apps blog and forum contain contributions from parents nationwide who want to find the best apps for their kids.

Kodiak chips in

Kodiak makes several contributions to the globally shared knowledge base for education. We use anonymous information about how real students are using apps so that you can make better choices about the apps you buy for your children. We post app reviews from teachers and parents—and unlike the App Store, we separate teacher and parent reviews, so that you can better understand where the author is coming from. We allow our users to tag every app with the educational concepts it contains, which makes it easier than ever before for you to find out if an app will teach your child what he or she needs to learn.

By tapping into these shared resources, teachers can make a quantum leap in how fast they’re able to prepare the necessary materials for their classrooms. We’re proud to offer what we can to create a better digital ecosystem for educators and their students.

Educators renew research on iPads for next fall

By the end of June, most schools have wrapped up spring classes, and teachers and administrators have time to begin thinking about the next school year. Education Week’s tech publication Digital Directions recently gave a little insight into what those educators are thinking.

Taking another look

In the June 21st edition of their email newsletter, Digital Directions published a list of the 5 most viewed articles on their entire site over the previous two weeks. The #1 most viewed article? A piece titled “Educators Evaluate Learning Benefits of iPad.”

This statistic is made even more significant by the fact that the article was written over a year ago, in June 2011.

Why is an article about iPads from last summer suddenly trending so strongly? Educators are obviously hunting for information on iPads in eduction, trying to get a feel for how this investment is paying off in other districts.

The iPad proves its worth

These days, there is an increasing amount of evidence that iPads are indeed an effective tool for education. CNN reported earlier this year on a pilot study using an iPads to supply e-textbooks for Algebra 1 courses; the study found that 20% more students (78% compared to 59%) scored ‘Proficient’ or ‘Advanced’ in subject comprehension when using tablets rather than paper textbook counterparts. 9ine, a consultancy in the UK, published a report just last week revealing a number of benefits for both teachers and students using iPads at Longfield Academy in Kent, England. Among the findings:

  • Teachers have identified significant benefits for their workload and have also identified cost savings.
  • The quality and standard of pupil work and progress is rising.
  • Both staff and student feel they can work more effectively with iPads.

You can download the report, titled “The iPad as a Tool for Education,” on 9ine’s website.

At Kodiak, we see the potential the iPad has as a revolutionary piece of education technology. Our features—reporting on student progress, keeping teachers informed up to the minute, and guiding app purchasing decisions—provide schools and educators with even more value from their iPad purchase. Take a tour of Kodiak to see what we have to offer.

Personal vs. professional social media

Our friends at EdSurge put together some interesting thoughts this week on what constitutes “professional” or “personal” social media for students. EdSurge collected a great set of links and ideas on this topic.

NYC DoE tries to draw a line

The NYC Department of Ed recently published a set of social media guidelines seeking to delineate between social media used for professional and personal purposes. However, as EdSurge points out, this is a fuzzy distinction for students.

Critics of the NYC guidelines emphasize the importance of teachers to being familiar with the social networks that their students are using both in and out of the classroom. If teachers don’t interact with students on their own turf—mobile devices, Facebook, Xbox Live, or social games such as DrawSomething—they could be missing out on an important opportunity to engage their students.

Kodiak helps teachers and parents understand how children are using the iPad to learn, communicate, and entertain themselves. As the new generation of digital natives grows up with these devices, it will be increasingly important for educators to understand their activity and to interact with them through their favorite mediums.

iPad purchasing guide for schools

Over 600 school districts nationwide adopted 1:1 iPad programs in the 2011–2012 school year, and that number is projected to grow by leaps and bounds next year.

As more schools adopt iPads, there are more services providing ways to supply those iPads. With a wide array of options available, it can be difficult to figure out what method is best for your school.

We’ve put this guide together to help you sort through the information that’s out there, and to make it easier for you to figure out how to bring iPads to your classrooms. Let us know what you think in the comments!

Which iPad do my students need?

There are three generations of iPad available to purchase, and each comes with options for size and wireless capability. These three factors—generation, size, wireless options—affect the cost of the device.

The sizes are 16, 32, and 64 GB. The more storage you get, the more the iPad will cost: each boost in storage costs an extra $100 when buying directly from Apple.

All iPads have the ability to connect to wi-fi networks. Apple also offers a more expensive model that can connect to the internet over a 3G cellular network. Not only is the 3G iPad itself more expensive, you have to pay a network provider like AT&T or Verizon to use their network.

Many schools find that a recent version of the iPad (currently the second or third generation) in the 16 GB size with Wi-Fi only (no 3G access) is the most cost-effective way to meet their needs. Some schools are purchasing 64 GB devices to make it less likely that students will run out of storage space.

Apple’s website breaks down how different features affect the price when purchasing an iPad.

For schools, leasing is more common than buying

Most schools lease their iPads as opposed to buying them. Leasing iPads is an attractive option for many reasons, some of which are listed here by Scott Hutchinson, president of Webb School in in Knoxville, TN. It spreads the cost out over multiple years—3 years is a common duration—which makes iPads an easier addition to the school’s budget. Leases can also include very helpful services: for example, Webb can offer same-day replacement to students with broken devices. Schools can use their institutional buying power to negotiate reduced prices for these services.

Leases frequently include a buyout option when the lease is up. Apple’s financing plan, for example, gives schools the chance to purchase their leased iPads for $1 at the end of the lease term.

Schools typically pay around $20–25 per month for iPads, depending of course on which iPad model is purchased, which features are included, and the duration and terms of the lease.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs lower costs to schools

Some schools allow students to bring their own iPads. This can be an effective budget-saving measure in schools where many students already own iPads.

Schools with BYOD programs build a core list of device settings and apps that must be installed on all devices, whether leased through the school or owned outright by the students or parents. However, these schools don’t prevent students or parents from installing additional apps on the devices they own.

The School District of Palm Beach County has implemented a BYOD program, and has built a wiki with lots of great resources for planning an iPad program, BYOD or otherwise.

Grants can help you pay for iPads

If you want to reduce the impact an iPad program will have on your school’s budget, consider applying for a grant. Grants are offered through a number of government organizations at the federal, state, and district levels. Chicago Public Schools piloted iPads through a mini-grant program. More than 20 schools were awarded 32 iPads, one MacBook Pro for syncing purposes, $200 in iTunes credit for applications and a storage cart for the hardware.

Other schools find grants through the private sector. Brady Public Schools in Nebraska secured funding for an iPod program through the Mid-Nebraska Community Foundation.

Jennie Magiera, a Chicago teacher and creator of the blog “Teaching Like It’s 2999,” was a recipient of a CPS grant. The “Grant Me Some Tech” page on her site lists places to find grant money or other funding for tech purchases, such as Technology Grant News, along with some great tips on how to write a successful grant application. She even includes a link to the grant she wrote to get her iPads. Thanks, Jennie!

Squidoo, a content organization site, provides another iPad grant advice page created by user amylaine. One of her recommendations: use the site to get free email grant alerts for education and classroom grants.

Apple offers discounted education pricing

For many years, Apple has offered discounts for products that will be used in education. Your school might be eligible for these discounted prices on iPads. Go to Apple’s Education Pricing page to find out more.

Additional items that will affect cost


Extended warranty coverage usually isn’t included in the terms of the lease. Schools usually encourage parents to pay for warranty coverage, but do not require it.

AppleCare+ is an excellent warranty program offered directly through Apple; it costs $99 for a two-year plan. Baylor School in Chattanooga, TN, offers parents a 3-year warranty for $79 through their lease program.


You’re going to want to pick up a case for every iPad to shield it from the rigors of day-to-day use. Apple’s Smart Cover ($39 at has a slim profile and attaches to the iPad magnetically, but offers almost no protection against damage. We recommend a sturdier case for your students, such as the Defender series from Otterbox.


Purchasing apps for your students is an ordeal all its own :) . We’ll dig into that topic in another blog post. If you’d like our advice sooner, send us an email! We’d love to help you find the right apps for your students.


Know your tools: School loses data collected via Google Forms

Google Docs can be a fantastic tool for working digitally. The suite of products is comprehensive (word processor, presentation creator, spreadsheet program, and more), the collaboration features are top notch, and to made the deal even sweeter, it’s free.

However, Google Docs has its drawbacks. Teacher and blogger Vicki Davis discovered one recently—in a very frustrating way.

Google’s ToU prohibit personal data collection

Davis’s school lost information when Google deleted some data that had been collected using Google Forms. Google’s terms of service prohibit users from collecting personal information with Google Forms. “This includes a userid, password, AND emails,” writes Davis.

Google runs pieces of code on its servers that search for Google Docs that might be in violation of their terms of service. Problematic files are then deleted automatically.

Google Docs: Good, not perfect

Issues like this aren’t the only potential problem with using Google Docs in your school. You need an internet connection in order to use it, meaning your files won’t be available offline. And some people find that the programs, while simple to use, don’t have all of the features they want.

As we’ve mentioned before here on the Kodiak blog, privacy is a serious concern for us, as we know it is for you. Be careful out there when looking for ways to manage your students’ data.

Kodiak on privacy, COPPA, and data collection

Kodiak believes in using data to help parents and teachers improve their children’s education. We’re “big data” people who get excited about using information to do great things.

As we worked with parents and teachers to build Kodiak, we learned that data collection has gotten a bad rap. Many web service companies have abused their users’ trust and taken liberties with information that most people consider private.

Data can be your friend

Data collection in a broad sense isn’t bad. In fact, we think data collection designed to help parents and teachers is going to make the iPad an incredibly powerful educational tool.

Educational apps using our platform send data about what students are doing to our servers, and we process that data to provide insights for parents and teachers. A teacher using our software can look at a web dashboard and see that eight of her ten students are having trouble with the same spelling words, or that Billy has been speeding through an app without taking the time to answer questions correctly.

As cool as our platform is, there are legitimate privacy concerns when dealing with web-based services. Many of these have been brought to light recently as a result of FCC investigations and media exposure.

How Kodiak protects the privacy of you and your children

The Kodiak team takes privacy very seriously. Here are some of the steps we take to comply with COPPA and other legislation, and to respect your privacy.

  1. We use an encrypted, non-Apple device identifier (not your UDID). When you sign into Kodiak from one of our supported apps, we send the identifier to our servers so we can sign you into other Kodiak apps on the same iPad automatically. Since it’s not the device UDID, you don’t have to worry about it being intercepted and used to identify you to advertisers or other parties.
  2. You must be signed in to our service for data collection to take place. Unlike Flurry, Google Analytics, etc., we don’t send anything anywhere without a parent or teacher signing in to Kodiak first. We don’t want to track your kids—we want to give you insight into what they’re doing so you can help guide their learning!
  3. We ask for student’s first and last names, but nicknames are fine with us. We don’t need student’s real identities for any reason.
  4. At any time, you can visit our website and delete all data about your students permanently.
  5. We don’t share personally identifying student data with any third parties, and only the account owner can see data about their children. We use the data we collect to create graphs and charts, notifications, and app recommendations for our users when they visit our website and sign in. The data we share with developers is anonymized, aggregate information they use to improve their apps.

Check out our privacy policy for more details.

I hope this gives you a window into the steps we’ve taken to protect the privacy of our users. I’m curious to know if anyone has any ideas how we could do better? Our service is still in beta and we’re developing launch partnerships with app developers now. We want to make the iPad an outstanding educational tool, and I think we all need to nail the privacy issue to do it.

A look at student profiles and reporting in great educational apps

Here at Kodiak, we’ve spend a lot of time playing with educational apps. To understand the state of learning on the iPad, we like to study common practices, look for design patterns, and find the apps that are pushing the user-experience envelope.

Over the last couple of months, we’ve noticed an exciting trend. Apps like Mathboard, Jungle Fractions, and others are adding classroom management features – most significantly, support for multiple student profiles. This is an important step toward
usability in the classroom setting. Teachers are interested in understanding students’ use of the iPad, and parents want to be able to identify the progress of individual children. Apps that offer a global leaderboard or high-score lists aren’t very useful at the end of the day, because iPads—on a cart shared between teachers—may have cycled through the hands of fifty or more students.

We’ve taken a look at some of the apps that allow parents to create and manage profiles for each of their students. We’ve been impressed by a few of them in particular, and we wanted to call out some of the patterns we’ve identified here.

Choosing Student Profiles

Most of the apps we’ve seen let students select their account before they start playing. Quite a few of the apps, such as TeachMe: Kindergarten and Dot to Dot Numbers and Letters (below) allow a parent or teacher to add student pictures, which is a nice touch that adds an extra layer of personalization to the app. In the apps we looked at, parents could add or remove players directly within the app, making it easy to create new accounts. Each app requested the student’s first name, and for apps with multiple difficulty levels, other information to place them at the right level within the app.

When designing a student selection interface, there are a couple things to note:

  • Apps with good student selection interfaces force the student to identify themselves before they start playing. You shouldn’t assume that the same student is playing if they close and re-open your app.
  • If there are a large number of students in the class, it’s important to indicate that the user might need to scroll to see all the users. We liked TeachMe: Kindergarten‘s student selection bar across the bottom of the screen, but it’s not clear that you can scroll to see more students. A child might just tap a random name if they don’t know they can scroll over to their own. Having a button half-visible on the edge of the scroll view can help make this obvious.

In-app performance reports

Math Fact Master and TeachMe: Kindergarten have some great features that allow teachers and parents to see how children have been performing. These apps give summary-level information to parents, and also let them see which specific questions students have been answering wrong.

The reporting interface of Math Fact Master

The reporting interface of TeachMe: Kindergarten


MathWise goes one step further, offering detailed charts that show students’ proficiency with different numbers and topics. They offer an “All Students” option so it’s possible to see where an entire class might be struggling or need practice.

Going a step further with Kodiak

We believe that separating student profiles will help make educational apps more useful in a classroom setting, and it’s great to see apps trending in this direction. With the Kodiak Reporting SDK, we’ve taken classroom management on the iPad a step further. With many apps and many different account management interfaces, it’s an incredible challenge for teachers to set up student accounts and teach children to sign in. Adding accounts and understanding student progress can still be a major undertaking when a class is using a handful of iPads and a variety of apps. In our research, we found that the interfaces above are more commonly used by parents, who only have to put a few kids’ information into each app.

To help teachers, student account management needs to be centralized. With Kodiak, we’ve taken the approaches above one step further. Educators can set everything up on the web, and sign into Kodiak from a supported app on each iPad to link those devices to the school’s account.

Whenever students open a Kodiak app on a class iPad, they see the student list below and log in:

The student list, complete with previous achievements, saved game state, etc… are synced with the cloud. Students can be managed from our website, and changes take effect in all supported apps on all the classes’ iPads. 

In talking with teachers, we realized that many of them weren’t interested in viewing student progress on the iPad. They loved the sort of graphs and charts that MathWise offered, but they said it was more of a feature for parents, since the progress monitoring broke down as soon as multiple iPads were in use by the class.

To accommodate this, Kodiak provides a completely cloud-based reporting platform. Our partner apps can submit student questions and answers to our API, and then teachers and parents view reports on the web:

If you’re building an app that needs classroom management features, or if you think they’d be a great new feature in your existing app, check out our free SDK. Using Kodiak, you can integrate this functionality into your app without having to build it from scratch and benefit from our teacher-approved reporting platform!

Kodiak vs. SmarTots: Our approach

Over the last two weeks, we’ve talked to quite a few app developers who are looking to incorporate classroom management and reporting features into their apps. There are great reasons to add these features:

  • Your apps will most likely be used by multiple children. It might be two kids sharing an iPad in the back of a car, or thirty kids sharing a classroom set of five iPads during an activity center.
  • High scores lists just don’t cut it: teachers and parents need to be able to look at the progress of each child using your app individually, and understand their learning over time.
  • As more and more iPads find their way into homes and schools, educators are looking to use the iPad for secondary assessment. It’s no longer about drilling on multiplication facts or spelling words. Your app should help teachers gauge class progress, understand their student’s learning needs, and more.

Kodiak makes it easy to add these features to your app—using our SDK, you can add classroom management, cloud syncing, and progress reporting features to your app for free. SmarTots is similar in many ways—their SDK also allows parents and teachers to set up student profiles within your app, and they track how much time students spend in your app. But the comparison ends there.

Here’s how we offer a stronger solution:

  • The SmarTots SDK only tracks the amount of time kids spend in different apps. They claim to be able to show kids improving, but it’s all based on the assumption that time=learning. Kodiak records the questions students are answering, the amount of time they spend on each question, and other information developers feel is relevant, such as the difficulty level kids are working at within the app. Our algorithms turn the data into insights for parents and teachers and make sure it’s presented beautifully. We can tell a teacher that 7 of 10 kids using your spelling app missed the same questions, that Billy is speeding through questions without answering them, and more.
  • We provide much richer feedback to educators, and we emphasize insights from data. Because it only tracks time spent in apps, SmarTots isn’t all that useful to teachers, who—in a lot of cases—are already familiar with how long students are spending on class iPads. We want to make the iPad useful as a supplemental assessment tool, which means providing much richer feedback for teachers.
  • We’ve worked to design interfaces that will look good in a wide range of apps. We’ve spoken with developers who have complained that SmarTots interface is pretty bad and lowers the quality of their app. We’re user experience researchers and developers ourselves, and we care a lot about the way our partner apps look to users!
  • We’ve designed Kodiak for schools and one-to-one programs, not just for parents. We’re only a few months into our release, and we already have schools lining up to take part in a beta of Kodiak for Schools. Kodiak provides teachers with a live view of what students are doing in your app, and you can save student achievements, difficulty settings, etc.. in the cloud so students can use any iPad in their classroom. We plan to market Kodiak to schools heavily, which means more sales for you!
We want to create an ecosystem of the best educational apps, and we’re looking to partner with developers like you. Learn more about our SDK and join our developer program for free at Help us build a platform that delivers data-driven insights to educators from the best apps out there. Together, we’ll leading the advancement of apps in education.

Full steam ahead!

Welcome to the Kodiak blog! Over the next few months, we’ll be pumping this full of interesting news, app reviews, and commentary from the team here at Kodiak. We’re excited to have an outlet for our design thoughts and user research results, and we can’t wait to share what we’ve been working on.

Stay tuned,

- Ben
Kodiak Founder & CTO