Interactive eBook Review: Underground Kingdom

As I explore Interactive Fiction and Choose Your Adventure genres, I realized that I have an app that is all that on my Ipad. I had forgotten about Underground Kingdom, for some reason, and yesterday, I returned to the interactive ebook to see how it might help me think about my students reading and writing interactive stories. Underground Kingdom does a nice job of adapting the old Choose Your Adventure story concept (there are 23 possible endings and you can access a map that shows your path and your dead ends, so you can always jump back into the story at different points).

Underground Kingdom was financed via Kickstarter, and the app (which costs $2.99 at the iTunes App Store) takes advantage of the technology by integrating motion graphics, simple animations and, of course, the hyperlinked tree effect, which allows a reader to jump around the story arc based on choices made. The plot of the book has to do with a black hole at the center of the earth, a strong gravitational field, and a hidden kingdom … of monkeys. Yeah. So, you can get a sense of the fun and adventure that this sort of story brings to an iPad (Underground Kingdom is not yet available for other devices.)

 

I had fun reading/playing this story, although I wasn’t all that overwhelmed by the graphics and the story is still pretty text-heavy. Still, the plot moved at a rapid pace, and the use of second person narrative making choices was effective. I liked that when I hit a dead end, I could venture back to the story map and keep going in another direction. In fact, after 25 minutes of reading/playing, I still seemed to have a long way to go with the story.

It makes me wonder if there are other Choose Your Adventure stories out there in ebook/interactive format. Do you know of any others?

Peace (in the paths),
Kevin

 

CommonSense Media: App Collection for Special Needs Students

CommonSense Media just put out an interesting guide to Apps called PowerUp that might help students with special needs and learning disabilities. I think one of the possibilities of touchscreen and multimedia devices is that it can make a wider array of content more available to a wider range of students. But, let’s face it, there is a lot of junk apps out there, too. CommonSense Media does a nice job of annotating the apps in this  free list (which is also downloadable as a PDF) and putting them into various categories, and then sorted by difficulty/age levels, that can be helpful for teachers and parents to consider.

The apps are sorted into:

  • Communication
  • Social Interaction
  • Organization
  • Reading
  • Math
  • Motor Skills

Not all of the apps are free, however. But they do seem like an interesting collection worth a gander.

Here’s what they say about their list:

“No matter which hurdles your kid faces, the apps and other media included in Power Up can give them an added boost. We don’t expect an app to be a complete solution, of course. Working with kids who face challenges requires lots of time, attention, and patience on the part of a parent, teacher, or other adult caregiver. Our goal is to offer you a host of fun, well-designed apps that were recommended and tested by field experts. We hope they can become a part of your toolkit as you work with your child.” — CommonSense Media PowerUp

Peace (in the powering up),
Kevin

 

 

App Review: GarageBand

For less than five bucks, the Garageband App on the iPad is an amazing steal. I hadn’t quite realized it until I sat down yesterday morning to work on a new song that my guitarist/friend John had started writing as a sort of theme song for our band, Duke Rushmore. The idea is to have a short, jumpy song to get us into the night. He asked me to write some lyrics, and I decided to use GarageBand on the iPad to replicate his riff and add some drums.

I am still waiting for an adaptor that will allow me to connect my Snowball Microphone directly into the iPad, so I had to bounce down tracks and email the master file to my laptop, where I worked on adding the vocals. But the music was all done directly on the iPad. I really love the drum feature, which is built as an intuitive touchscreen creator. You move elements of the drums around a cartesian coordinate system (loud/soft, simple/complex) and the beat changes. For the bass and keyboards, I turned off the automatic chords (which are fun to play with) and plucked strings/hit chords and notes on the keyboard to create the music, and while it is not perfect, it worked for a demo.

I also handed the app to my 8 year old son and my 12 year old son, and within minutes, they were creating songs, and having a blast. It’s that simple to use. And I like the feature that allows you to email the file or set up an account on Soundcloud to instantly share the music that way, too. There’s a lot to like, and for $4.99 — it’s got to be on the best deals out there.

Here is the song that I ended up with: Dancing with the Duke. Remember, it’s only a demo. We’re going to funk it up a whole lot more than this.

Peace (in the muse),
Kevin
PS — this is a great tutorial site for the app.

 

App Review: Newspapers

I ‘m a news junkie. I admit it. It comes from spending a decade as a newspaper reporter. So I have been pleasantly surprised by an app I found called — wait for it —  Newspapers, and what it does is synchronize and provide access to hundreds of newspapers around the world.  It’s free, too, and pretty easy to use. You just use the globe to find countries (or the search engine), and then choose the newspapers you want to read (some are in English and some are in native languages. Both experiences are pretty neat.) You can favorite newspapers, too, to make it easy to return to their sites.

For example, I just went from looking through some Russian newspapers to learn about local reaction to the meteorite event that happened last night, and then bounced over to a New Zealand newspaper to read about developments in the Pistorius case, and then ended up closer to home with my local newspaper — all off the same app. One thing that this kind of news traveling does is remind you of the lens in which countries and publishers see and report the news of the world.  Biases can be uncovered, and even political filtering noticed.

It would be an interesting to use this app to do an analysis of a single news event across various newspapers.

The Newspapers app is a potentially valuable tool for learning, but also for grazing for information. (Note: some newspapers do have paywalls but mostly the front pages are free for access. Also, some newspapers are better at updating their online versions in a timely fashion than others. The St. Petersburg Times in Russia, for example, was still showing a front page from two days ago when I took a look.)

Peace (in the app),
Kevin

 

App Review: Animation Desk

It’s no secret that I love stopmotion animation (See my website resource for teachers: Making Stopmotion Movies).

I love watching it as magic on the screen and I enjoy trying to make my own, too. I’ve always often brought stopmotion animation into the classroom. So I was intrigued by this app called Animation Desk, which is available for the iPod and iPad. I have it on the iPad, where the canvas is larger and easier to use. Essentially, it is a fairly intuitive program to use that allows you to draw, frame by frame, and then create a simple movie that can be exported to YouTube and other sites. I liked the relative simplicity of the design of the App, and while I am still trying out some of the bells and whistles, I had made a short video (Bouncy) in minutes and when my son joied me, we worked together on another one (Dognose). It was a lot of fun.

There is a free version of the app but I shelled out the  $4.99 because I wanted all of the features. I think the free version is a good place to start, though.

Check out our short videos:

and

Of course, now I realize that I had better do some app updating on my stopmotion website resource. I don’t even have an App area there.

Peace (in the stopmotion),
Kevin

 

App Review: Marble Math


My son and I tried out the free, limited version of Marble Math Multiplication on the iPad. Here is one example of an app that functions better on the smaller screen, in my opinion. Given that the math skills game works mostly via the twisting of the device to move the marble to the right answer in a maze, the larger iPad seemed to be more of a pain in the neck than an optimized playing experience. We’d twist the iPad to put the marble in play, and then lose sight of the play. (You may feel different, and there is an option to use your finger to “guide” the marble instead of tilting the device, but really … what kid will choose that?) An earlier version of Marble Math on our iPod Touch was easier to play, since the Touch is there in the palm of your hand at all times.

The free iPad app is a taste of the larger Marble Math app (two versions — one for younger kids and one for older kids). The larger app has more options for creating avatars and choosing the math operations that will be featured, which is handy. While the concept of the app is clever enough — you have to solve a math problem and then move the marble through a maze to the right answer, avoiding various obstacles along the way — the arcade-style app loses its flavor after a while. In this situation, the app really is more of a skill re-enforcer than a game that keeps kids coming back for more and more. The developer certainly tried to bring in elements to make it more engaging — the ability to redo a level that you do wrong, a scoreboard, levels of increasing difficulty, etc.

What I did notice with my 8 year old son, however, is that he gave up on solving the math problems and instead, began moving the marble randomly around the screen, hoping to bump into the right answer and purposely hitting the obstacles. When he failed at that a few times, he quit the app altogether. In the classroom, you’d be wise to set up some system for kids making progress, I suppose. In the end, Marble Math is one of a growing stream of skill-related apps that are a notch above worksheets, but will not likely keep all kids busy for long stretches of time. For parents, it is a game that can help reinforce some basic math concepts.

Peace (in the app),
Kevin

 

eBook Review: Bartleby’s Book of Buttons, Volume 1

I am on the hunt for interactive books on the iPad that really use the technology of the device to create a different kind of reading experience. Perhaps I err in having The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore as the ebook/Holy Grail that I compare others to, but I figure: isn’t it about time that companies push the development of interactive books in new and interesting directions? (or am I being unrealistic?). Just adding some sound to a book doesn’t make it much of an interactive experience.

That said, Bartleby’s Book of Buttons (today, I review the first volume, The Far Away Island, and another day, I will review the second volume in the series) does a pretty decent job of pulling the reader into the experience of the story. Simply put, Bartleby is on an adventure to collect more “buttons” for his book of buttons, and that leads him to Mystery Island where danger rears its head. (When I first heard “buttons,” I thought of shirt buttons, and wondered why anyone would collect those. I soon realized that “buttons” are literally buttons that you can press and make things happen. Perfect for a game, right?). The narrator’s Australian (I think) accent gives the story a different kind of “feel” to it, at least for my son and I.

The story here, such as it is, moves along at a good pace, and it’s not always obvious what the reader needs to do to advance the story. That’s not a criticism. In fact, it is a plus. You have to think, and listen, and follow clues that don’t always appear to be clues. There’s a solid mix of sequencing activities, discovery via touchscreen, and more. I’d rank The Far Away Island near the top of the some of the interactive books I have been experiencing lately (volume 2 is even better)

I suppose the challenge for developers is how to match the possibilities of the technology with the development of a good story for a wide age group audience.

Peace (in the touch),
Kevin

PS — check this interview with the developers of the book:

 

 

 

App Review: HistoryMaps

One of the major shifts in the Common Core is the move towards reading informational texts. This includes charts, graphs, maps and more. So when I noticed this free app — HistoryMaps — I was curious. Maps can tell amazing stories, but students of course needs strategies for learning how to “read” a visual display of information. This particular app can be helpful, although you should know that its name tells you exactly what it is: a collection of historical maps (and very Europe-focused). There’s almost no text, and very little historical reference to the maps (other than some time periods).

But that lack of information is what makes this app so fascinating. What can we infer from the map of Omaha Beach from the WW II section? Where do troops land and what was the landscape like? How about Waterloo in 1815? Or the layout of the city of Paris during the French Revolution? And what did the European continent look like in 814 after the death of Charles the Great? Pull up the map and see. One of the more fascinating maps is the Map of Discovery, which shows the paths of explorers from 1340-1600.

Sure, you can probably find many of these maps with some online searching. But why bother? This free app has them all, handy and ready to be “read.”

Peace (in the map),
Kevin

PS — it’s free but you have to put up with some banner ads at the bottom of the page. Just thought you should know that.

Resource Review: Summer Apps and Tech for Kids

CommonSense Media just put out a handy guide to summer technology activities, broken down by age levels. I might share this with the parents of my students, as I often get questions about what kind of technology is appropriate for my sixth graders (I often say, the kind that gets them creating not just consuming). This guide is worth checking out and maybe sharing.

I like that Minecraft, Machinarium, Scramble with friends, and other games that stimulate the mind are on the approved list here. And the apps are grouped around themes, too, as if it were a summer camp flier. I appreciate that stab at humor. Keep in mind that CommonSense has a pretty strict filter for technology — they are a bit narrow in what is good for kids. I’m fine with that, but it is important to be aware of that bias around technology, too.

Peace (in the summer),
Kevin

 

 

App Review: Sketch Nation Studio (for gaming)

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ovdmXdmGJbk/T01PoVjCFrI/AAAAAAAAD-4/bYE0fFiNHAw/s220/sns_icon512_rounded.png

I’ve been intrigued by Apps that provide the tools for the users to create their own video games. Sketch Nation Studio is a free app that does just that. The platform allows you to create and play original games, by using either artwork that you draw right in the app, or artwork that comes off your device, or art that you draw on paper and then take an image and import into the game.

There are several variations of platform-style games, and while the end result is not nearly as sophisticated as some of the apps you might buy for your device, it provides enough creative outlet to feel as if you have, indeed, created your own app game.  You can set the style of game, add energy boosts and enemies, adjust gravity, create backgrounds, and more.

And did I mention that the Sketch Nation Studio App is free? I don’t see any advertising on the app, in case you are wondering .

 

iPhone Screenshot 1
There are also options to publish the game onto the iTunes store (and the company promises to share in the profits from any sale of the game app, so I guess your game funnels through their publishing system). I’m not sure if that would actually work (yet I may give it a try just to see what happens), nor if the game app provides enough variation to actually create a game that would sell, but even sharing a game via iTunes is pretty interesting. And, therefore, I am intrigued by the potential of that opportunity for creating and publishing for my students. And I am now wondering if using this app on our school’s iPods wouldn’t be a neat end-of-year activity to tie into our earlier Game Design Unit.
Hmmm …
Peace (in the app),
Kevin
PS — here is a video overview of the app