Crowdsourcing — the practice of using a large collection of people to move mountains. There are plenty of examples such as raising funds for a potential product (Kickstarter), making improvements on an open source operating system (Linux), or pulling together programmers to create a new game or application (Hackathons). I love crowdsourcing. It’s the idea that 100,000 people can more easily contribute $1 each versus 1,000 people each contributing $100. It’s the idea of having multiple skillsets available, with as many eyes on the end result as possible. And it’s the idea that one good idea can flourish and become many good ideas when interested parties choose to take the original idea and run with it.
And that’s what this post is about. An idea. I want to throw out this idea and open up some discussion. And maybe… just maybe… one or two interested parties (individual, group, or even corporate) might see some potential and run with it.
Before I share this idea, let me explain the concept as I see it, along with some background on where it came from… and then I’m going to set it free in the wild and cross my fingers that someone or some group might know how best to proceed. I’m going to use a bullet list to organize my thoughts, but please feel free to use the special forum over on our new GeekDad Community site to add your own thoughts — here goes:
1. Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age introduced “The Young Ladies Primer,” an interactive book that teaches its owner (typically a child) at a customized speed. Asking the book a question such as Why is the sky blue? might first involve teaching the child some basics about light. A discussion of light might involve a video or narration that teaches an older child about wavelengths. The point is… the book evolves, tracking what the child knows, and offering up tangential discussions to expand the knowledge base using entertaining stories, interactive elements (the book talks back to the child), and two of the most basic components of the Internet, the hyperlink and the search engine.
2. The latest iPad comes with the Dictation feature. It’s not Siri, but a child who can form sentences and pose questions can easily submit his or her queries to Google with two taps of the Dictation button — one to start the recording and one to end it. I’ve seen first-hand how a 5 year old child takes to the Dictation feature to find what he wants to watch (in this case, Thomas the Train videos and songs). It’s a powerful feature that begs to be pushed further.
3. The sheer volume of information available via a simple Google search is overwhelming. And I’m not talking about just to kids. I’ve gotten quite good at using the Advanced Search features of Google, but kids don’t always understand the Boolean logic. Without some way of filtering, kids can accidentally stumble upon unsafe webpages, videos, pictures, and more. The Internet is huge, but for a kid to use it properly requires some safety features put in place first.
So, where am I going with this? Let me first throw up an image for you to examine, and then I’ll explain. And please know that my graphic design skills are horrid, so I apologize for the rough look of this image. It would definitely need to be visually pleasing to all age ranges, so the interface will likely need to change based on the user’s age.
What you’re looking at is an idea for an app — maybe it already exists, but I’ve been searching and searching and have yet to find it. Here’s how it would work:
1. First, the app is kid-friendly. Like Google, it opens to a very simple query page where a question can be typed in or spoken using the iPad 3′s Dictation mode. (An iPhone can also be used, but I believe the smaller screen will be a drawback to this app. Maybe someone thinks differently?)
2. After the query is made, the app uses a variety of search engines — Google? Bing? WolframAlpha? Others? — the key here is to build in the safety features that apply filters based on user settings. The settings should be password locked so the parent can access but not the child. Settings would include defining the child’s age or an age range, turning off feedback options such as Video or Images, and possibly disabling hyperlinks that would allow a page to take a child off reservation. (Not sure how this can be done as I’m no programmer, but my guess is that it can be done.)
3. The results are displayed using a number of screen sections — Videos, Images, Text, Referrals. These are the worst categories I can imagine, but it’s a start. The idea is that a question such as Why is the grass green? might provide a handful of videos that answer that question, along with maybe a few PDFs or webpages that attempt to answer the question. The Referrals section would be where the jumping off would occur — questions such as Why is the sky blue? or Where does rain come from? would be listed here as topics that might interest the user and allow them to dig deeper… to continue learning.
4. Videos should be displayed in such a way that comments are hidden (we’ve all seen the horrible, nasty comments on YouTube, right?). PDFs and webpages should be scanned (initially) for foul language or at least maybe using whatever rating systems are currently in place.
5. It’s possible that all this might have to be done using sandbox-type servers that have already approved videos, images, PDFs, and websites as being kid-friendly. A big task, I’m sure. But there are dozens of filtering services out there that do the pre-screening for you (either for free or for a fee), so maybe that database can be tapped for results?
I want to take a break here and respond to the inevitable But Google already can do this! response. No, it can’t. I can only speak from experience in saying that even the most innocent Google query will often turn up pages, videos, and image suggestions that are not kid-friendly. Google can only do so much when it comes to verifying the quality of a result, and as a parent I’m not comfortable letting Google make that choice for my child. I want a sandbox app that I can lock down and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that while my children are using it that any videos, text, and images are safe. Again… a big order, but definitely doable.
Okay, so back to this app idea.
First, if this app were available today… I’d buy it without hesitation. My son is throwing questions at me left and right these days, and I can’t help but think how much fun it would be to sit down with him and explore his questions together with a sandbox app. It would need to be visually pleasing (for both of us), and designed specifically for the touch-based interface of the iPad — this means that when a video is done, or an image has been viewed, that a single tap on a button will return my child to the previous query results. Even better would be an option to save a query — I frequently take the iPad away after a certain amount of time has lapsed (time to go outside and play!) and it would be nice to be able to return and continue an exploration at a later time.
And I’m calling them explorations — call them what you will, but in my mind this app would let parents possibly save a handful of Explorations. Consider priming it with questions that lead to Khan Academy discussions, websites with hands-on experiments for kids and parents to try out… even worksheets!
And speaking of worksheets — I’ve written previously about how I scan in worksheets for my child and use the Doodle Buddy app that can allow worksheets to be reused over and over. What would be nice is a built-in feature that allows the child to write on the screen (with finger or stylus). Imagine an older child wanting to know how to do long division and a series of videos and worksheets being offered up as results; your child watches the videos and then taps on a worksheet that opens up and allows some immediate exercises. If the worksheets are PDFs, a download feature would be great so that they can be used outside of the sandbox app.
I’m not sure if this would be useful, but it’s another idea — like Reddit, allow kids to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to a video or webpage. Imagine using this rating system to help find the best of the best in terms of query results. Put a smiley face to the left and a frowny face to the right of any query and let the child make the decision about whether the result was helpful or not. Again, just an idea.
I hope you’re beginning to see where I’m going with this. If someone knows of an app like this that already exists, please tell me! But I don’t think it’s out there yet. And that’s too bad, because word of mouth on an app like this would be tremendous. And if it works? Charge me whatever you feel is fair! Even a subscription service wouldn’t be out of the question if the app worked, the results were solid, and the child was engaged and finding it useful. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed when it comes to parents, we’ll spend the funds on those books, items and services that feed our children’s appetite to learn.
Teachers could add in a 30 minute Explorations time period to their classrooms (those with iPads) and allow kids to go and discover things that they want to learn about… things that might not necessarily be taught in school.
Parents would find this app useful during the summer months to keep their kids’ skills sharp — teachers will tell you that kids forget a lot of stuff over long breaks, and homework assignments could easily be generated by parents or teachers that would force kids to learn a few new things as well as reinforce existing skills and knowledge.
Don’t track my child’s information! Or at least make this an opt-in option. If my son’s queries will be tracked, you can have his age and that’s it. No names, no genders, no What is your parents’ annual income? questions. Queries that are saved should be saved on the iPad, not in the cloud. If a logon is required, I’ll understand, but my child is off limits when it comes to collecting marketing info, got it?
Badges and Achievements! Every kid loves awards, so build in a reward system that awards badges or achievements after so many queries are performed, after so many videos are viewed, after so many worksheets are opened and filled out. Build on the popularity of new sites such as Fitocracy.com and ClassRealm that have levels and experience points and ranks… and make it fun for the kids! (But again, try to store this type of thing on the iPad and don’t link it to a child’s name.) At a minimum, have younger kids get the occasional screen wipe and a big Congratulations! message displayed or maybe a short video of geek heroes telling the children they’re doing a good job — imagine a video of Stephen Hawking or maybe a popular cartoon character offering up a short bit of praise! And if your child doesn’t know who Stephen Hawking is? Query — Who is Stephen Hawking?
Keep in mind that if the user’s age can be specified (or at least an age range), you can easily see how this app could grow and adapt with your child over time. Even the interface could change based on the age of the user — give older kids a more streamlined, less cartoon-y look… make the results appear in smaller text and offer up fewer videos and images and more PDFs and websites. (I can’t imagine older kids not going straight to Google, but for parents who really want to limit their children’s Internet exposure, this app could fill that void and offer up a safer option.)
In my mind’s eye, I can see this app. Hopefully you can, too. But honestly… I don’t think it exists. Maybe in bits or pieces, sure… but not all of it at once.
So there’s the bulk of my idea. A sandbox learning app that incorporates video, images, text, worksheets, referrals, and maybe more. Something that a child can sit down with and pose a question or two or a hundred. Something that a child will find easy to use and not at all intimidating. Something that won’t embarrass a child who asks a question that maybe his or her friends already know the answer to. And something that a parent can feel confident about in terms of safety.
A lot to ask for in an app, but I believe something that is completely possible. And possibly very lucrative for the person, group, or company that makes it happen. Parents are very fast to share websites and apps, books and toys, and just about anything they feel benefits their child, with other parents. An app that can do these things and maybe even more? Name your price!
So, I throw this idea out there. I’m not a programmer. But maybe you are — either as a hobby or maybe a career. Or maybe you work for (or own) a software company. Or maybe you’re a member of a hackerspace or programming club that is looking for a challenge.
I don’t know how to make something like this become a reality. All I know is that I want it. And if I want it, I imagine there are other parents out there who would like it. Bring us into the discussion and allow us to help you fine-tune its features, and you’ll have an even greater chance of a successful app. Throw up a Kickstarter project if you like… or create a website/discussion forum and use some open source concepts to make it happen. I don’t know how programmers/developers do this kind of thing, so please excuse my ignorance.
I can just see it now:
* An 8 year old budding chef sits down with her mom on the couch, opens the app, taps inside the query field, taps the Dictation button (until she learns to spell or type better), and says How do I cook an omelet?
* A 5 year old in the car sees a lightning bolt in the distance, opens the app, and asks Where does lightning come from?
* A 12 year old watching a science fiction movie opens the app and queries Is faster than light travel possible?
* A parent is asked Where do babies come from?… and the iPad remains closed. Sometimes its best that we parents handle certain things on our own.
We’re trying out a new way of discussing this post over on the new GeekDad Community site. Comments have been turned off and a special forum has been created where we can all chat about the post, bounce ideas around and upload images etc.
Please head over to http://geekdad.hotwired.com and sign up if you haven’t already done so, and then join in the fun.