With the promise of a single tool that can replace the pen, paper and repetitive inventories of books at schools, a multimedia eReader tablet provides a multipurpose educational tool that not only lets the student read and write, but can also go one step further and engage the student directly, replacing sometimes dull and lifeless teaching methods that can marginalize students with different learning styles and habits.
While the western world has been talking about introducing better educational tools for years, schools elsewhere across the globe have taken a major step toward incorporating tablets into their curriculum. A recent report from Pyramid Research shows tablet sales are set to skyrocket as South Korea vows to move to an all-tablet education curriculum by 2015. India and Thailand are close behind. Educators are looking for improved methods to prepare students for admission into professional college programs like engineering, medicine and business management.
In 2010 Luminum InfoTek approached Lumium (although our names are similar there is no connection). Their vision was to create and introduce a handheld wireless electronic device for students with age- and skill-appropriate learning content. Out of this came the Tuto eReader. "Tuto" is a shortened version of the word "Tutor", because with Tuto, the hope is that students would be able to teach themselves.
As a vertically integrated design and engineering firm, our job was to design not only the hardware components of the learning device and how it would look and feel, but also the embedded software design and learning materials for the device, which would meet the needs of students and educators.
Bringing the Tuto to schools: Steps and Challenges
While many customers can be stringent with their product requirements, Luminum InfoTek empowered the Lumium team to stay flexible with the eReader components, allowing us to experiment with different strategies and designs that would best fit the target demographic while including basic tablet functionality (Wi-Fi, audio speakers, and Bluetooth connectivity). Our overarching principles were reliability, durability, patentability, time-to-market and cost.
We needed a platform we could modify over time as student, teacher and syllabus requirements changed, but we also needed to build a closed control program to run on top of the device OS. This was important not just to protect the integrity of the content and capabilities but also so Luminium InfoTek could offer customized branding and custom-control for individual user password access, for each school offering the Tuto to students.
In total we spoke with 500 students in grades 9-11 in Ahmedabad, India. The students and teachers researched came from diverse economic and social backgrounds. Given the diversity of India, in terms of religion, culture, language and economic means, we were able to gather a good range of emotions from all users. The influencing factors for each group impacted what they saw as the primary need for this device. Their exposure to and actual use of small, smart digital devices varied, as did familiarity of such devices by the teachers who also needed to understand and interface with the Tuto device.
Students interact with a Foam Prototype
Lumium's engineers and designers traveled with and observed students throughout the entire school day—from their homes, to school, to their after-school coaching classes and back home in the evening. We were looking for patterns in the way students approached their daily learning; everything from studying for exams to assignment execution, personal organization and methods for planning ahead. What times do students typically sit down to study (if at all)? How long do students stay working on a particular assignment until they move to the next one? What is the preferred method of learning for each student?
Once we had the human and technological demands in mind, we began sketching, building off a basic underlay of hardware framework provided by our engineers. Because the client was flexible when it came to certain aspects of their hardware; for example, there were no strict requirements for LCD screen size, we had the ability to pivot to alternate designs based on peoples' reaction to several rounds of sketches and detailed renderings.
To determine which model was most aesthetically pleasing and functional we took handcrafted foam prototypes of our top 5 device designs out to a number of middle schools. Not surprisingly perhaps, students wanted the largest screen size possible. Thus, our engineers went with a slide-screen design with a tucked away keyboard concealed underneath.
Six foam prototypes
With our hardware designers working on the look and feel of the eReader, our software engineers worked on the graphical user interface (GUI) that is customized around modern e Learning practices. The student can browse any chapter and page like any other e-book and for that the UI follows a typical structure. But, studying against plain reading is a non-linear activity; and our UI centric research showed that students often go to the portions they have highlighted in the text, they often go to the last-read page, they often go directly to the Q&A section or to the problems and solutions, and they have timetables of school and their own schedule for studying. The features that facilitate the above are all placed for immediate access at any time while browsing.
Reflecting this work and studying behavior, the device has touch pads on right and left side of the screen, which when tapped, will allow immediate access to Q&A, highlighted portions, animations, schedules. This eliminates the need for the student to go to the main menu repeatedly in order to access the data in various scenarios.
Not only can students create their own task lists; the Tuto is also designed to assist in creating to-do lists based on the student's progress with the embedded coursework. Once they finish their required reading on the device for the day, Tuto will sound an alarm prompting them to take action on corresponding assignments and homework. In effect, each student would get a personalized plan for studying and completing assignments in a timely fashion The schedule function built in the UI also allows parents to set study reminders for their children, taking the screen to the chapter and page that is scheduled to be studied at that time.
Currently the UI is one directional, based on a set curriculum, but teachers can use the device's WiFi connectivity to communicate with their students. A parental portal/interface for school personnel and parents also enables them to interact on a regular basis for things such as student progress reports, displaying appropriate new feeds related to a students course work, school alerts or announcements, sporting events, and college prep course related information, making Tuto an important tool inside and outside of the classroom.
Creating Embedded Content: Conversion and Animation
The first step in producing embedded learning content for the Tuto eReader involved the conversion of the traditional media, textbooks, worksheets, and lessons into digital media. Every subject for each class needed to be coded, verified for accuracy and delivered to a range of devices such as school PCs as well as the eReader. The cost of this process means that initially the Tuto will be targeted at just 3 grades.
Content for the Tuto is not restricted to material found in traditional reading material however. Lumium also helped bring the French Revolution to life and to the Tuto through animation.
Bringing it Together: A Vertically Integrated Product and Process
While designing the user interface for Tuto, we knew it was important to keep it simple and directed toward learning and productivity. The home screen displays all the relevant subjects for a given student—science, social science, English, mathematics, and so on. When selecting a subject on the home screen, the student will then be guided to where they last left off in their coursework. Using the Android operating system, we unified the device's embedded content, and were able to present Tuto as a device whose hardware and software were designed and engineered concurrently by the same company; an edge that yields extremely beneficial efficiencies throughout the design process.
Students' response to our embedded OS and UI was phenomenal. Not only did they enjoy the educational games and assistance with organizing their own schedules, but bridging the gap between old and new from being able to inquire about an old Shakespearian quote or word that they hadn't seen before. Students are engaged more when they can match up animated faces and videos to historical events, interactive and fun quizzes. The self-assessment and personal development tools also enabled students to choose the best comprehension method for their unique needs.
Challenges and Lessons Learned: Completing the Tuto project
The Tuto eReader is now in the culminating stages of end-user development with Luminum InfoTek, and we are reflecting on the challenges encountered and lessons learned in getting to this stage.
- The diversity of the target audience and a very green field domain for such design. There was no precedent for the schools using a tablet-like device for imparting education.
- High expectations from stake-holders for what Tuto could or would deliver: Students/Teachers/Administrators, who in general are not in control of the overall educational requirements, policies or syllabus.
- Proving the effectiveness of the device in enhancing the educational learning experience and the ability to achieve higher grades. This was essential in making this design a commercial success, where the students and parents will buy this device.
- Getting the Students User Experience in helping them use this device for revisions of lessons that they are used to doing in conventional paper books.
- Re-layout of the keypad design to facilitate typing of Math/Science symbols effectively
- Designing a UI that will match the UE of the stakeholders.
What did we learn? Ongoing participatory research with the users is a must do for building the UI. We got great insights some of which went beyond the obvious, while others were very subtle and easily missed by a conventional approach. Both students and teachers provided valuable input to the software design based on their approaches to studying and teaching. They helped ensure we did not merely reproduce books.
During the initial research phase, information gathering was rather chaotic, given the diverse sample size of students. We had to spend a great amount of time in collecting data and also consolidating that information to form opinions and build "persona" or "profile." Also, getting consistent data was a challenge with a younger audience; the opinions keep changing in a short period of time. This can be attributed to socio-economic factors and the students' exposure to electronic gadgets at home.
What would we do differently? Increase the scope of research and reach more students. We'd also do this within a shorter period of time, as the trends, or requirements change rapidly. We'd also aim for an earlier buy in from the stakeholders. Both Lumium and our client faced the challenge of getting feedback and input from a bureaucratic entity and how best to approach them and how best to convey the value of this product. If these challenges can be addressed up front, the design phase could be reduced in half.
The importance of maintaining frequent communication with the client throughout the product development process is of course a given. As a vertically integrated company, Lumium was able to provide additional flexibility along the process, so adjustments could be made based on changes in the intended features of the device. With both designers and engineers in-house we have a daily dialog that works to reduce DFM issues, resulting in a high quality product at the most competitive price point.
Lumium is very pleased to have developed an educational tablet containing rich animated study material and functional, form-fitting hardware design. In the end, we didn't just create a new eReader; we opened up students' worlds to a 360 degree study environment where they can actually see, hear and feel the material.