Andrew Buck is a Graphic Design teacher at Hastingsbury Upper School in Bedfordshire. He and his design students have created an app that is hopefully going to transform the way students can prepare and succeed when it comes to the dreaded exam season. Whilst the app isn’t necessarily linked to Publishers, it’s an interesting app and has come from identifying a real need in the market. I asked him more about ExamPal, how they’ve priced the app, how he got the attention of Apple and what he thinks about technology in the classroom.
What prompted you to create the Exam Pal app?
The idea came from having run the exams in my school for 5 years. Exam boards release dates for exams months in advance but schools only tend to issue dates and personal exam timetables weeks prior to the exams. When I asked my year 11 GSCE students when their exams were last summer they all held up a piece of paper with exam details, duration, venue and seat number (all of which can be stored in the app). I thought at the time this should be something scheduled in an app. Students will often lose their exam timetable but rarely lose their phones! Having also mentored students for many years I was constantly being asked by students “When should I start revising, what are the best methods, and how do I create a revision plan?” So ExamPal was really born out of experience and a need I saw in my students. Once we had created the app I sent an email to Tim Cook and Phil Schiller at Apple. I got their attention by sending them £2 via PayPal to download the app. Neither Tim nor Phil responded (although not too sure where my £2 is) but I was sent an encouraging email from Mary Jane Beth at Apple Education UK & Europe. She loved the app and passed the details onto her iTunes team and sales staff.
How does the app work?
The app works on many levels. It integrates exam dates for students, provides exam date countdowns, stores previous exam results, it syncs to iCalendar and Google calendar. It also enables students to put in their timetable, log and track homework and has access to key revision tips. The calendar function is pretty useful as anyone with an iCal or Google calendar can sync – which means parents can have full access to their children’s exam timetables, revision timetables and homework alerts too!
Was it created as two separate apps – ios and Android or is it a stand-alone HTML app? And are there any differences between how the apps work on each platform?
We created the app on iPhone first as this is our favored device and the one that takes the longest to get through to Apple.
We’re currently working on the Android version, which should be up and running by Christmas. Both apps are identical.
How did you settle on a price for the app bearing in mind it is aimed at students for the whole of their school/exam career? And will you experiment with the price?
It was a difficult one. We were originally going for 99p but with this price there is nowhere to go except up. So we moved to £1.69, we thought if it didn’t do well we would drop the price or we can offer a promotional price for a short period prior to the exams. We had a meeting with marketing and PR and they suggested £1.99 for the app. This is alongside rivals in the US (istudiezpro) and others. Its £1.99 as a one off payment and students are tested from year 10 to year 13, that’s 4 years, which is less than 50p a year!
How much r&d did you do with your own students? And how has this impacted on the development and design of the app?
We’ve done constant testing throughout with a sample of students. And the app is currently being trialed by 6th formers in our school. Feedback so far is great with a few minor tweaks. You can read these on the app store. I have tested it myself and believe that I have a good understanding of what students need. We will constantly be upgrading the app, we are on 1.1 already as we have fixed minor bug issues and added March exam dates for next year.
You worked with a design agency but did you get any of your students involved with the production process earlier on?
Yes we did with the look and graphics. I have five Graphic design groups of Year 10 to post 16. It was them who decided on the logo and name.
What do your students (and others) think of it?
It’s early days but first response is great and very positive. Teachers love it and think it is a great idea. Students can’t get enough of it at the moment. For us it’s about providing a tool to improve academic success especially with exams and revision. Many students want to revise but do not know the best methods and where and when to start. The great selling point about the app is that it is a rolling product and there will be demand every year a student comes up to Year 10.
You’re a teacher by day so how are you finding getting into the marketing of digital products world?
A product like an app can no longer be left to sell itself on the app store (we are no Angry birds) so marketing is key. We are looking at schools buying the app in bulk for their students such as year 11 and post 16. Apple offer educational discounts on apps if brought in bulk so this is a route we are looking at. Hopefully the web site will also grow too. We are trying to get national exposure but you can imagine it’s very hard, BBC Click, Gadget show etc. We need a good break and it will go crazy. We are on Facebook and Twitter – which of course is where all our target market is, which we think is key!
How easy do you think it is for teachers of all ages and ability to embrace technology, particularly technology that is being used in a positive way to help with educational success – ie the ExamPal app?
There have been mixed reactions from my colleagues. Most who are in my age bracket (25 to 40) think it is great and such a cool idea! Some other colleagues have asked me but don’t really understand the concept.
Students are so attached to their phones, iPads etc that this is the way forward. My colleague and I use Apple TV in our classrooms so we can mirror our own phones on the screen. We can also go around to students and video/show their work on the projector screen.
Do you see a divide between younger/new generations of teachers?
Oh yes. I am myself considered an old school teacher having taught for 15 years. Fortunately my subject is geared towards technology. I watch the Gadget show, Dragons Den etc so I know what is new and exciting. We need new technology to inspire our students when teaching. Teaching has changed so much in the last 6-7 years. No longer can we teach didactically we have to tune into the students interests and engage them. I read recently that a student’s attention is their age + 9 mins!!