Involved in educational publishing since 1980, Bruce Brown initially developed supplemental instructional materials, a series of high interest, easy-reading textbooks for struggling learners—and has more recently developed manipulative materials and learning games. In January 2010, Bruce was speaking with a district administrator who shared with him how mobile technology was being used in the schools. “The light bulb went
on,” says Bruce. “I began my research about the use of mobile technology in the classroom, how teachers were using it and what teachers needed to become more effective.” He learned that there were a tremendous amount of apps on the market, but teachers were looking for content-specific apps that were aligned with the core standards. “They wanted strong curriculum apps, not edutainment,” says Bruce. “That was the beginning for me. I set off to develop a line of content specific apps, much as I had done with learning games over the years.” And so it goes; here, Bruce shares his views on education, technology, learning “e-skills” and of course—what eSkillsLearning can do for educators.
Victor: What does the name of your company mean?
Victor: What is it? Who created it?
Bruce: The name was just a brainstorming session among a group of us who are now all involved in the development and marketing of this product line.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Bruce: We, of course, compete with all of the traditional publishers who have entered or are now entering the mobile learning market. Much in the way that I developed content specific learning games, I am approaching the development of our iPod apps. We have a broad product range on the drawing board with the introduction of several new apps each month.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Bruce: We started developing the first app in January 2010 by programming various “engines” that we could use to facilitate our production. Apple approved our first app – Fractions – in September 2010, and we made it available Free of Charge to acquaint teachers with our product. We now have two Reading Comprehension apps (Reading for Details and Reading for Inferences) and two Math apps (Fractions and Decimals) available at the iTunes store. Analogies should be released shortly, followed by Homophones, Synonyms, and Antonyms.
Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?
Bruce: With our new Reading Comprehension apps, we have tried to make the passages engaging to encourage student reading. We had a writer create the Reading for Detail apps around Inventors and their Inventions. The same writer developed Reading for Inferences around the civilizations of the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs. Each app can be played in three different ways—Practice Mode, Single Player Mode, or Multi Payer Mode. This gives the teacher a wide range of possibilities on how to incorporate the use of mobile technology into their lesson plans. A unique feature of our reading apps is that we have carefully controlled and measure the reading levels using recognized readability formulas. This allows a teacher to use the same app with a wide range of student abilities.
Bruce: The prices range from $1.99 to $8.99 depending on the app. The Lite versions are less expensive, have a limited data base and operate only in Practice and Single Player Mode.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Bruce: The apps are primarily intended for Grades 3 and up. Since the apps are not age specific, they can readily be used with older students who need more practice, learners of English as a second language, GED students, and adult learners.
Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?
Bruce: Technology is exciting and engaging. It gives teachers yet another tool to help with differentiated instruction, extra practice for other students, and fun quick test practice activities. Also, new technology has opened up tremendous new possibilities for special needs students.
Victor: Any formative experiences in your own education that helped to inform your approach to creating eSkillsLearning?
Bruce: Personally, I had a tremendous public school education. My parents instilled in me the value of learning and encouraged me to succeed in school. I attended an academic regional high school which at the time was an all boys school (Central High School, Philadelphia, Penn.). That high school education prepared me well for college. At Drexel University I opted for the 5-Year Work Study Program—six months of classes followed by six months of real world work experience in my chosen major. Nothing can help the learning process better than to apply what you have learned to a real world setting. Accordingly, in addition to our mobile apps, we have created a series of offline real world application materials that help students transition from digital learning to real world applications.
Victor: How does eSkillsLearning address some of your concerns about education?
Bruce: Our work at e Skills Learning has a significant focus on language and reading. From my own personal experience, supervising employees over the years, and my observation of young students in school today— reading and language are the foundation blocks for learning. Strong writing and language skills are the foundation for good communication in adult life and the world of work. Students need to read and develop strong reading comprehension skills to be effective in adult life—to understand fact from opinion and to have the knowledge and skills to research information that they need.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Bruce: Very positive. Our education system is fortunate to have many dedicated teachers who work hard and have the dedication and vision to help students learn. These teachers deserve our financial and emotional support. They are helping shape the minds of those people who will be running our country in the future. Like others, I use a variety of social media to communicate with teachers. Teachers spend their evenings preparing for class the next day, twittering with others to exchange ideas, reading Blogs about new materials that are available, and attending Webinars—not to mention the amount of money that they spend personally to purchase materials for their classes.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of eSkillsLearning?
Bruce: Not quite a specific answer to this question but more about technology. Students today are called digital natives—not my term but one coined by others. They have an intuitive understanding of technology and begin using it at a very young age. They have no clue how to use a rotary dial telephone phone or adjust a set of rabbit ears on a television antenna. But they can keyboard with their thumbs at record speed. We have to “meet these students where they are”. Learning has changed and we need to adapt and engage these new learners in a way that helps them succeed.
In addition, in these times of budget constraints, technology offers tremendous value for the money. Online textbooks are more current. Changes can be made more quickly. Information does not become dated. New products do not need to wait for the long arduous process of waiting for the next catalog to be mailed. Technology allows us to be more responsive.
Further, mobile technology helps teachers offer special help for individual students. A student needing extra practice in decimals can practice the decimal app at home while another student practices fractions. Assignments can be much more individualized. The iPod and iPad, like other mobile devices, are instant on. No need to wait for an operating system to load. Students can do work on the school bus, waiting at the dentist office, or any other free time.
A caution: technology is a tool—another resource for teachers to use in the education process. It is not the “be all and end all”. Just, as we found that manipulatives and learning games helped engage students, so too, technology is a tool and should be used as such.
On the e Skills Learning web site (www.eskillslearning.net), there are many resources that can be downloaded for Free to help teachers with ideas on how to incorporate technology into their lesson plan plus the use of pre tests and post tests to measure student progress.
A final comment—for those districts facing tough budget constraints, visit my Blog at www.helpingourschools.com. There are tremendous non government grants, funding and other money sources available to help schools. Don’t be intimidated by the grant writing process. If you can write a lesson plan, you can write a grant.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com