How we developed an education platform with an award-winning University
ELSA apps are play-based, encourage active learning, and inspire children to interact with nature and explore it.
University of Canberra
Design & Development
2018 – 2019
IOS and Android
We had the opportunity to develop an ambitious new learning programme with the University of Canberra and the Department of Education. We were selected based on our creative approach and experience delivering outstanding apps for large-scale pilot programs. In the year since we first worked on ELSA, the programme has gained full approval, with $5.1M in first-round funding.
ELSA is a national play-based program developed by the University of Canberra with Mode. Over a 3-year period, it has demonstrated a strong evidence-based curriculum. All children, whether in remote indigenous communities, regional towns, or urban centers, have equal access to ELSA's pedagogically rich and technologically innovative programs, enabling cultural and contextual learning, regardless of where they live. More than 11,000 children have participated in ELSA to date.
Within the apps children could do the following activities:
Order and sequence a day experience
String together decorations
Sing-along and dancing exercises
Sort healthy food items into lunchboxes
Play hide and seek
Explore and navigate the zoo
Arrange books and objects on bookshelves
Create and take photos in a playground
We provided the following services:
Game design and development
Character development and art direction
3D art and modelling
Animation and character rigging
Provided print materials to extend exercises into the learning centres
An augmented reality experience to teach spatial terms
Within the apps activities, the following STEM topics are covered: patterns, relationships, location, and arrangement.
In partnership with the University of Canberra, we created two apps for the Australian Department of Education. A variety of activities are included in the apps for children and educators to engage in STEM learning. The aim is to improve outcomes in early learning centres.
The ELSA apps focus on play, encourage active learning, and inspire children to explore and interact with nature. Two-thirds of the ELSA program takes place off-application, according to the ERA model (Experience, Represent, Apply). Instead of focusing on discrete STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), ELSA apps emphasise STEM Practices: the ideas, methods, and values that underlie STEM.
Play-based activities within the apps encourage children and educators to create their own content (UGC), which reflect their lives and communities. Children's apps for ELSA are available for tablets only.
Children can play many activities within each of the apps we made. As part of our development deliverables, we also created four different characters. Each character has traits and characteristics that make them distinctive and suitable for the topics they represent.
We developed characters that reflect the diversity within families and communities where the children reside and attend preschool with the ELSA apps. The characters avoid cultural tokenism and gender bias with clothing, colours and hairstyles. This resulted in us creating meaningful, distinct, real and relatable characters for children to interact with.
Each character developed by Mode was modelled as a stylised humanoid. In order to play full-body and lip-synch animations, we developed a sophisticated rig for each of the characters. ELSA's target age group is very young, so all of the scaffolding and introductory messages had to be voiced over. None of the activities within the app require children to be able to read text. With lip sync animations and voice audio, the young target age group was able to get instructions to play the games on their own. As a result, they could pay more attention to what the characters were saying. Technically speaking, we rigged the mouth by using blend shapes. These covered all the potential mouth poses, which naturalised and emphasised how each character spoke to the player.
We used a custom plugin to parse audio files into mouth animation expression files. By using this, along with additional eye movements and body gestures, they were able to emphasise what the characters said to children during ELSA activities.
To teach young children STEM concepts, we developed two apps for children. The first app we made introduced the concept of understanding patterns and arrangements. Children learned this through various activities including ordering a day's activities, stringing together decorations, singing and dancing exercises, and sorting healthy food items into lunchboxes.
The app activities in ELSA by their design allow for kids to play and learn freely, being taught various STEM concepts. Some activities allow children to play individually or in small groups. Other activities encourage play off-app as part of a group activity. The flexibility of content we delivered to the client enabled educators to choose activities that suited resources and requirements in the learning centre.
The second app we developed for ELSA covers understanding spatial terms, such as over, under, on top of, underneath, etc. Within the app, children could play hide and seek, explore the zoo, arrange books and objects on bookshelves, and take photos (to comprehend points of view) in a playground setting.
In the hide and seek activity, Augmented Reality (AR) was used appropriately to teach educational content, rather than a form of gimmick. AR allowed for a small group of children to be motivated to play together and practise using spatial terms in a real world activity.
As part of the hide and seek activity, one of the children hides one of the animal cards. The children then tell the other children where they hid the marker. Children can then present the marker to the app once it has been located. This reveals a 3D image, with high-quality animations and limited interaction, as well as some educational information. The purpose of this is to reward the group.
In 2022, the federal government will provide $5.1M for further development of the ELSA apps
To summarise, the children's apps we developed for ELSA include activities for understanding patterns and relationships through dance and sorting objects into sequences or groups. They also cover location and arrangement, so that young children can comprehend how to use terms like over, under, on top of, below, etc., as well as grasping what points of view are.
We had the pleasure to work with the Mode team on the development of digital learning apps for the Early Learning STEM Australia (ELSA) program. The final products were innovative and conceptually strong, in part because they are able to establish a strong nexus between creative design and functional use.
Dr Tom Lowrie, Centenary Research Professor – University Of Canberra
ELSA apps have received positive feedback from educators involved in the ELSA pilot. Further research and news can be found on the ELSA website.
"Mode have a level of polish and attention to detail to their work that is impressive and rare. I'd recommend that you talk to them about your next game project."
Digital Product Director, Scholastic Inc.
"Thank you Mode for believing in the kids we work with and throwing everything that you and the team had at this project. And finally – thanks for delivering a super cool and engaging game. Hip hop meets maths and science – got me hooked!"
Jack Manning Bancroft
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