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.

How we developed an education platform with an award-winning University
University of Canberra
Design & Development
2018 – 2019
IOS and Android

Project Overview

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.

Project Execution

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.

Amy, Elliot, Piper, and Remy are the four main characters of ELSA's children's apps. Each character represents one of the topics and activities found in one of the apps.

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.

In ELSA Patterns, children learn about patterns through three dance songs. This is done through rhythmic movements of their bodies through dance steps.

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.

Amy is introducing the sorting activity; she speaks with gestures, natural eye movements and lip-synched mouth animations.

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.

In one of the app's activities, children make paper decorations to learn how to make patterns. Visual and audio cues are used well in this exercise to scaffold children's understanding of what to do. Children can learn how to recognise and make a pattern sequence within a variety of problem scenarios within this activity.

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.

There are four distinct characters that represent each of the ELSA children apps. Toy versions of these characters were made as 'Budsies' plush toys and provided to learning centres that were part of the ELSA programme.

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.

Children hide Augmented Reality marker cards, which, once found, can be presented to reveal a 3D animal.

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.

Using the Locations and Arrangement app, children learn spatial terms by planning paths through the zoo. Children will get to meet a variety of animals at the zoo, including this snappy one!

Project results

In 2022, the federal government will provide $5.1M for further development of the ELSA apps

Children can sort healthy food items into lunch boxes as part of this group activity. The app then asks children to describe why they sorted these items together. Within the ELSA apps, audio recordings from the children are shared as user generated content.

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.

The Patterns and Relationships app offers children a variety of ways they can make and solve a pattern. As a next step, they can take photos of anything to make patterns with their own objects. Children can also describe their patterns using the device's microphone.

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