You might say that Darren Schmidt, like many living on Hawai’i Island, wears a variety of hats — metaphorically speaking. Besides his tried and true favorites as musician, farmer, and teacher, his latest goes by the lofty title: software developer. More accurately, his recent publication of an educational mobile app has most definitely been informed by his cultivation of music, gardens, and students.
Shortly after obtaining an education degree at UH Hilo, Schmidt began a four year stint as an English teacher at the prestigious Seiko Gakuin High School in Yokohama. This was the beginning of what has now been a twenty year career in teaching English as a Second Language. These days he teaches ESL at United Hawaii College in Hilo, Hawaii. “At UHC we teach students from a school in Saitama prefecture named Urawajitsugyo High School. UJHS is a large private high school and one of the unique attributes of the school is that it operates a school in Hilo as a very unique and special supplement to the students’ education. During their third year in high school, the students come to Hawaii Island to stay in Hilo for nearly two weeks as part of an English language/Hawaiian cultural immersion. It’s a rather profound experience for these young people and sharing in their energy and enthusiasm is a real benefit of the job.”
Fostering enthusiastic participation and promoting meaningful expression is a big part of Schmidt’s work as an instructor at UHC. “I try to provide a very creative space for the students to express themselves within. With small class sizes and being situated on a gorgeous property above Hilo Bay, we all benefit from this lovely environment” says Schmidt with a sort of whimsical look. A big part of Schmidt’s pedagogical tools is his ever-present ukulele. Although diminutive in size, the ukulele is, in his estimation, one of the best tools available for teaching many aspects of expression. “Besides the pretty music that an ukulele can make, it also seems to succeed as such an unassuming instrument” Schmidt says smiling. “I tend to get the students singing through some subtle and not so subtle techniques. The song’s key, it’s melody, and a bunch of other less obvious details are required to get the typical seventeen year old student to chime in with their sometimes unsure voices.” “When I show up with this tiny concert-sized ukulele that I play, they seem to not really know if I’m just kidding or what. That really helps in establishing the attitude that we are all onto something new so we might as well go for it!” “I’m sure the vibe would be different if my chosen instrument were, say, the Hammond organ” laughs Schmidt.
According to Schmidt, the unifying quality that is necessary to his students learning, or anyone for that matter, can be summed up in one word: context. Without it, he says, you are fighting a losing battle. “Contextual learning — and by that I mean learning within our living, local, historical, and planetary context — without context, we introduce more and more fragmentation into our lives.” “In the past five years alone, it’s abundantly clear that the advent of smartphones and tablets is a profound change in how we transmit all sorts of information. It doesn’t show any signs of receding regardless of how we might regard it. From my experiences with better and worse approaches to curriculum, I definitely had a concept for an application that I felt was appropriate to the task of teaching context. However, I had quite a learning curve to scale in order to fulfill my vision. A lot of traditional programming is rather abstract. What influenced my workflow was the maturation of the Android OS devices which are inherently a little more open-source. But what really helped me was the emergence of a software development kit (SDK) that was initially supported by Google and is now hosted by the Center for Mobile Computing at MIT. It’s called App Inventor and it uses a drag-and-drop graphical interface that seemed to be a good match for my skills and approach to software coding.”
The end result of his effort is now for sale on the Google Play Store, Amazon App Store,Samsung Apps, as well as at several other stores that sell Android apps. It’s calledTopicMatch, as in TopicMatch: the text phrase matching game about people, places, nature, arts, and science, to borrow its promotional line. Schmidt’s happy with how it turned out overall. “I had to learn how to invent this thing that I envisioned as a sort of springboard for actual human discussion, or at least to promote thought beyond crushing candy or killing zombies or what not. Basically, how TopicMatch works is, you select one of 36 onboard topics. Then you study the seven pairs of matched phrases, and when you tap the GAME button all of the 14 phrases are shuffled and you choose a number from a grid of 14 numbers that hide the phrases. Then you try to choose the number of the matching phrase. Obviously, phrases need to be constructed so as to unambiguously match just one other phrase. Yes/no questions need to be used sparingly. So it’s a memory game — like so many of the match games that match pictures or words. However, matching phrases up to 60 characters long means that you can actually study and memorize a lot of meaningful content.”
“TopicMatch is meant to require some dialogic thinking. As the educator Paulo Freire expressed so well: without dialogue, you simply don’t have critical-thinking. It’s key to our hope, our love, our humanity — an ‘existential necessity’ as he put it. To this end, TopicMatch is probably never going to garner the popularity of the latest high-tech mesmerizing game. TopicMatch is maybe sort of a quixotic effort to promote conversation. An app with such an intention is perhaps a paradox, but if we’re gonna buy into these devices as the new textbooks, we’d better consider critical-thinking, and that means discussion. I’ve recently set up an online server for the game, and now users of TopicMatch can create their original TopicSets of seven pairs of matched phrases — in whatever language they want to — and then store them in the cloud using unique ID tags. This means that groups of learners can download, edit, upload, and collaborate on topics that are relevant to the context of their unique and diverse learning environments.”
“Beyond these aims, it also seems to me that folks interested in so-called cognitive memory training might want to check it out. I’ve played it a bunch in testing and it’s sort of interesting to observe how one’s memory works…or doesn’t. One curious example is that, while I might often go through with selecting a certain number, there seems to be a quicker ‘hunch-awareness’ that realizes the incorrectness of my choice even though my ‘monkey-hand’ goes through with the motion. It’s kind of weird that way.”
TopicMatch Free is the free version of TopicMatch. Schmidt admits that TopicMatch is downloaded considerably less than the free version. “Of the several thousand downloads of the free version, something like 3/4 of the downloads are to places where English is not the primary language. In some ways TopicMatch Free has its own unique qualities. It has 10 onboard topics that I sort of tailored to some of the context of the students’ lives and my life here in Hawaii. It’s got some basic English conversation study, stuff about Hawai’i including ukulele, and it even has a topic meant to explain about how the app was created. Most recently, I added a feature that allows for downloading of any available topic from the cloud including any of the 36 topics from the paid version. I tried to really take some time and effort to craft topics with rich context and plenty of room for expansion in a study setting. The limitation with the free version is that you can not edit nor publish topics to the cloud. However, one teacher could buy the $1.50 version, and students could all download the teacher’s topics on their free versions. I’m not necessarily the shrewdest businessman, but to me, it seems like a real open-ended learning tool that doesn’t cost very much. I’m also quite adamant about keeping in-app purchases or ads entirely out of TopicMatch”,says Schmidt.
TopicMatch requires some thought and reading by the user — and leadership by a teacher when using it in the classroom. (“I bought a 7′ Android tablet with an HDMI-output for $130. When you hook TopicMatch up to a large TV screen, you’ve got a learning tool that can be a lot of fun AND completely customizable depending on the subject-matter you want to explore with it.” adds Schmidt.) However, like some of the go-to textbooks he’s used over the years, a certain flexibility and adaptability to varying contexts makes for a learning tool well worth having as an option for promoting contextual learning.
TopicMatch and TopicMatch Free are educational apps for mobile devices using the Android OS. The Google Play Apps Editorial Board has approved TopicMatch for inclusion in the Google Play for Education program.