At Haaga-Helia UAS we run several software project courses, where software engineering students build software for real clients. In autumn 2017, we started a school project for building mobile learning applications for two Finnish education technology companies, Viope and Promentor Solutions. The goal was to help them expand their operations to Brazil and possibly to other developing countries. The project was a commission from the Tekes funded SCALA project which is coordinated by Haaga-Helia UAS School of Vocational Teacher Education.
This setup formed a tripartite coalition: the SCALA project would coordinate testing sessions and feedback collection in Brazil, the companies would provide the content and the actual commission for the project and the software engineering students would provide the technical capability and resources for building the applications.
Experimental software design with software engineering students, a research project and two companies
It was clear that the software engineering students were starting their software project with many unknown factors: There was no bigger vision of what kind of applications would fit the needs of the Brazilian schools. The technologies used in the project were mostly unknown for the software engineering students. Yet, the software engineering students would have to produce clear tangible results.
To address the unknown factors in the project, we wanted to support the creation of many experimental solutions in the spirit of The Lean Startup. The 42 software engineering students were divided into eight smaller application teams. Each team would build a small application for mobile learning. Dividing the software engineering students into small application teams also supported the learning of our students, as they would get a clear ownership of their own product.
The software engineering students started by defining a minimal relevant content for their applications. This was done in cooperation with the client organizations and Brazilian teachers. Minimizing the applications was a critical phase for ensuring that the students could get something out for testing. The Scala research personnel tested the applications in Brazil as planned half way the software project course. The Brazilian students were excited about the applications and engaged in using them, despite the obvious shortcomings in the content and visual appearance. Apparently planning the applications together with the Brazilian teachers had worked out well.
The most popular of the tested eight applications was by far an application teaching pronunciation. The pronunciation application would be a good horse to bet on for Promentor, if trying to make a market entry in Brazil. It was also typical for the Brazilian students to use the applications together in smaller learning groups, especially when learning mathematics. Designing a mobile application around group learning could be a novel strategy, when entering a mobile learning market in Brazil. These findings proved that learning about the unknown world by splitting the work into many smaller experiments was a good strategy.
Results for students, clients and the research project
All the three parties, the students, the companies and the research project, gained clear results from this cooperation project, thus making it a success:
- For our software engineering students this project provided a challenging real life case, which taught them professional designing and engineering skills. The student feedback from the course also verified that the students were satisfied and found the course motivating. 27 students of the 42 answered the course feedback query. They gave the course an overall grade of 4.4 out of five.
- The client organizations learned about entering the Brazilian market. They learned what kind of content would fit the Brazilian schools. I believe they have a more realistic picture about what it takes to build mobile applications and integrate them to their existing systems and content.
- Thanks to this cooperation, the SCALA project was able to produce clear tangible results in the form of eight mobile applications. The project researchers were able to use the applications to build concrete testing sessions around mobile learning in Brazil.
The author Ohto Rainio, M.Sc. (Tech.) is a Senior Lecturer at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences Department of Digital Economy.