Debbie Forster of non-profit ‘Apps for Good’ trains students to identify challenges that are important to them and develop mobile apps in response.
We are excited to have Debbie Forster, COO of CDI Apps for Good, as a speaker at our PSFK CONFERENCE LONDON. Apps for Good is a program operating within over 100 schools in the UK that challenges students to identify real-world problems and build a mobile application as a potential solution. On September 13th, Debbie will discuss how the program is disrupting the traditional model of education and instilling a sense of ownership in addressing real-world challenges.
The final product of your program is a smartphone application. How do you think building a mobile app can inspire young people to tackle bigger problems?
Our program brings people together to share information and learn from each other, while also giving young people a real‑world connection that helps them take their mobile apps to the market. We work within schools across the UK to help students usher challenges from problems to prototypes, which means we help them break down problems into smaller parts where they can actually make a difference. When we’re talking about a smartphone app, it’s not going to create the cure for cancer and it’s obviously not going to solve world hunger. It’s more about helping young people connect challenges with solutions, and instilling a structured approach.
I think the process is just as important to people as seeing how they can make a difference. A lot of the reservations we have as adults (and even more so with young people) stem from a sense of the sheer scale and magnitude a problem. Part of the skill-set we are teaching is centered on how to break down a challenge into manageable chunks; to find an entry point, start small and scale up from there. We don’t require projects to have a social focus. All that we require for the apps is they cannot be built solely for profit or for entertainment. Within that framework, we’ve seen people address some issues that were deeply important to them.
What kind of issues have students built apps on?
We’ve had people build apps in response to bullying, and issues with self‑esteem, eating disorders, and more. It’s whatever matters to young people, and could be as simple as sleeping through an alarm or getting somewhere on time.
At the end of the day it’s about unlocking a capacity for hope and teaching people how to become problem solvers. As adults, we need to step out of the way and let young people begin addressing a challenge from where they are, not where we’d like them to be or where we may have imagined they would be. Oftentimes, the path a student finds to a solution is very different from how we might approach it as adults.
In the last two years, CDI Apps for Good has been growing at a rapid pace. Why do you think that is?
There is a real appetite for a different kind of education from the three key groups that we’re working with. The first group is obviously young people. They are hungry to move from memorizing information and regurgitating it for exams to wanting something that feels authentic, challenging and lets them create rather than just consume.
What we’ve also found is that teachers and schools are hungry for this too. There are a growing number of educators who are trying to make a genuine difference with young people and to give them the skills, abilities and experiences that will prepare them for challenges we can’t even imagine yet. They are embracing our challenging model of teaching delivered in a very different way.
The third piece of the puzzle is our expert community. These are people from an industry who know what they need in terms of the growing workforce. They see what challenges are coming – within industry and also more broadly – and decided there is a need for something more than what traditional education can offer.
What does Apps for Good add to a traditional curriculum?
It’s about more than just coding. It takes young people through the whole process of deep problem solving and learning about lean start‑up models. It helps them understand the importance of market research, working in teams and pitching ideas. It’s about communication as well as acquiring the technical skills for developing wireframes and building prototypes using different coding tools. Essentially, Apps for Good takes students through an entire mobile app product development cycle.
It also helps students identify problems that they care about and learn how they can devise a smartphone app to address them. It is not only the idea of imagining a future, but also having the skills to try to engineer a solution. It’s not easy by any means, but there is a huge appetite across our key audiences.
We hope that young people won’t just come out with knowledge of whether or not they are talented or interested in software development, but that they will acquire a whole range of skills, where it might be graphic design, sales, project management or something related to the technology sector.
How important is a sense of ownership to a program like this?
Ownership is huge. The program is built on a bottom-up model that often isn’t used in education. One of the requirements of the course is that no teacher, company or sponsor can snatch the problem from a young person devising a solution for it. After all, these are young people’s problems, so they should be responsible for the solutions and any products that come out of the process.
We also run a national competition in which we provide our winners funding to hire a development team to take their app to market. Throughout that process, the student’s voice has to remain authentic because it’s a challenge to see the process through. If it isn’t important to them, it doesn’t deserve the perseverance that’s going to be required to get it there.
Come see Debbie talk more about how Apps for Good is disrupting the current education model and empowering students at PSFK CONFERENCE LONDON on 13th September 2012.