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A cognitive approach to developing educational technology for secondary school children

Patrick Bongo
Merton College, Surrey. Email:


This article looks at the issues that need to be considered when developing educational technology for secondary school children. It also provides a blue print that can be used by educational technologists when developing educational products. It is almost evident that children of this age group (11 – 16) like their systems to be designed in a certain way, based on their behaviours, interests and reasoning ability. It has been found, that they like their products to have more graphics, animations, videos and sound effects. Therefore this article will suggest how such interests could be exploited by developers in incorporating educational materials. It looks at children cognitive development to determine how can computers be used to deliver a better teaching. The article also suggests how to evaluate educational software. Moreover, a survey was also carried out at Carshalton High School for Boys to find out exactly how secondary school children want their ideal educational software to look like.


Educational Technology is important, as the Government pledged back in 1998 that every primary and secondary school in the country should be on-line by the year 2002 (Educational Computing & Technology, Dec 1998). This does not just mean having a web site, but access to on-line learning materials for the various areas of the curriculum. Thus, the planning and design of educational technology that aid learning, is one of the toughest challenges faced by any academic institution.

From a pedagogical point of view, ICT appears to offer more educational benefits, than other more traditional teaching methods (Computers & Education Vol 36, 2001). Nowadays children can learn from home, or anywhere else other than a classroom, as long as they have access to the right computer terminal or a laptop to navigate through the relevant educational software packages. They do not always have to be physically confined to a classroom space. They can be taught through pre-arranged lectures that they can access online, from PowerPoint slides and other instructional packages.

Thus, what we mean by a cognitive approach to developing educational technology, is building instructional software products that take into account user’s understanding, knowledge, intentions or processing as referred by Dix et al (1997) on cognitive models. And in this case, we refer particularly to secondary school children as users.

We believe that if children have well designed systems, they will learn better, as Giacquinta et al (1993) cited by Mumtaz (2001) found out in his research that children viewed educational software as boring. Therefore, it is important to move away from a boring educational software to an interesting one from children’s point of view.


It is important for developers to study children’s cognitive development, before attempting to build educational software that could aid their learning.

Dr Robinson (1994) states that children learn by example from their parents and teachers. Although Dr Robinson makes reference in behaviour wise that children copy their parents and teachers, it is certain to say that even in their academic development, they easily learn through the examples that the teacher gives them. Therefore to facilitate their understanding an extensive amount of examples have got to be used when teaching them the various academic subjects. As a result, when computerising teaching materials for the various subjects, a concise visual representation of those examples have got to be rendered understandable wherever possible. For example, a software for a subject such as history can include components such as animated battles to illustrate war events. It could also include an adventure game that could give pupils control over the sequence of events that make up the story (Thompson, 1998).

The Child Psychologist Jean Piaget’s (1823 – 1952) theory on cognitive development states that from 12 years old and up, people are able to think about abstract relationships (as in algebra), understand methodology, formulate hypotheses, and think about possibilities and abstractions like justice. Different authors have quoted Piaget’s theory, but Tipton (2002) adds further explanation to his theory on cognitive development. She explains that in this period (12+), children need to develop cognitive abilities, such as knowledge of facts and principals, the understanding of facts and ideas, putting together information and ideas, judging the value of information, breaking down concepts into parts, knowing rules, principals and procedures and also how to use them.

Based on these theories, it is obvious to say that when developing softaware packages for children of this age group, information should be portrayed in a way that feeds their knowledge and give them an opportunity to deploy their idea and get constructive feedback. For example if they are taught that 4 x 3 = 12, they need to know the reason why 4 x 3 = 12 and be given a rule to apply with other similar calculations, and be tested on that. They might be given the rule to work out multiplications using their fingers, particularly if the numbers being multiplied are below 10, since one individual only has 10 fingers.

They should be allowed to be creative, have their understanding questioned and challenged in order to reinforce the maturity of knowledge. At this age, they are also aware of symbols and representations, as for instance they know and understand that a flag is a symbol of a country. In the same way they also understand that a car is a symbol of motoring.

Children ask questions if they do not understand something, and the teacher responds to those questions by explaining things in a different way. Thus the software package should have mechanisms in place to support student queries and elaboration of a particular point (Educational Computing & Technology, March 1999).

Jose et al (1996) suggests that children learn through short-term repetition and mental rehearsing. This is obvious particularly when they learn something new, such as a telephone number, they will repeat it mentally or aloud until they store it. The same principle applies when they have to revise for their exams, they will repeat the key answers in their memory over and over again until they can remember those answers automatically when asked in an exam.


Whilst designing educational software, great attention should be paid to the particular subject area that should be represented. Hence, this will be done primarily by liaising with the subject teacher, in order to identify the range of topics to be covered, as referred by Ayre (1981).

Whatever educational software being developed, it is clear to acknowledge that cosmetic aspects of user interface should not be neglected, but should be well balanced and set for a purpose.

It would be necessary before the software development project gets a go ahead from the Senior Management, to determine students’ educational goals. To identify those goals, we need to find out what do students need to learn, and how can technology promote those learning goals? To enable this in the most effective way, we will need to have a planning team comprising administrators, teachers, other instructional staff, technology coordinators, students, parents, and representatives of the community (Stoner, 1997). I must argue that out of all those participants, none can play such a key role than the students themselves, since their thought, imagination and conception are drivers of the end product.

Furthermore, Druin (2002) recommends that children can play four main roles in the design process, which are: user, tester, informant and design partner. Hence, by having children as testers, might lead might lead to new educational theories being applied in the system being developed, as they will provide recommendations on what needs changed to enhance their understanding and why.

O.S Fomichova’s article entitled ‘A Principal Cognitive Precondition of Successful Child-Computer Interactions in the Information Society’ cited by Vladimir Fomichov in an article from Educational Technology & Society 4(2) 2001, stated that the first central idea is that the systematic development of children’s reasoning abilities, teaching children to appreciate the work of their own brains has much in common with successful (in the long-run perspective) introducing children to computers. Fomichova also suggests that when developing computer game products, they should support and develop the love of children for nature, to understand nature and the desire to communicate with nature. Although we are designing educational products, we know for a fact that children like game products, therefore, we can use the criteria of designing game products in educational software design.

As an adult student, you want the system to give you the information you require, but as a child the partial representation of those heavily textual based information into components of nature, is an important aspect that makes the interaction simple and comprehensible. Components of nature are mainly the objects that surround them in their everyday environments.

Harris (1999) conducted a research on secondary school students’ use of computers at home, and found out that 77% of secondary school students had access to a personal computer at home, which they used several times a week, and the two applications that they spent most of their time using, were games/adventures and word processing. This justifies the sort of particular interest this age group has whilst using computers, therefore it is an area for developers to exploit when developing curriculum subjects applications.

Holmes (1999) suggests that computer programs for education subjects such as English, French, History, geography, Mathematics and Sciences should be highly interactive and provide realistic simulations.

As referred to Stoner (1997) when planning and designing learning activities, we should think again about everything that students might be doing within/for the course as learning activities.

Considering the fact that pupils of various schools may be more technologically advanced than others, based on the resources provided by the school, it is also wise to look at the school culture as Chen (1999) suggests. As by knowing the nature of students and their world views within a given environment, will help determine their abilities. It might indicate whether the students will easily cope with the changes or not. If they will not easily adapt themselves to the changes, we need to design some solutions in the system, that will match their ability.


Various evaluation techniques that take either a qualitative approach or a quantitative approach can be used in evaluating educational technology as suggested by Crosier et al (2002). Crosier also adds that, the evaluation should be used to determine mainly the usability and learning outcomes, alternatively it may aim to address issues such as the technology facility for iterative learning or the differences in the use of technology. It is obvious that some technologies may embed the software better than others, for example maybe certain input devices may work better for children than others. Or maybe, a sophisticated network infrastructure can provide quick response from user commands and a faster loading of information than a rather slow network.

Hence, a conference report published in the HCI journal No 35 (1997) suggests a framework that can be used in educational software design. The framework is opened for discussion of course, but it indicates that we should ask ourselves questions such as "Is the complexity of the multimedia environment appropriate?", "Is the learner active?", "Is fantasy used in an appropriate way?", "How appropriate is the content of the curriculum?", "How navigable is the software?", "What form of learner feedback is provided?", "What is the level of learner control?", "Are learners motivated when they use the software?".

Therefore, we can believe that a positive answer to one or more of these questions, based on users feedback, will measure the success achieved in the design of the software.

Pearson Technologies is the world’s leader in offering integrated technologies and services for the education market. For the evaluation of such technologies, they recommend three main factors. The first one is that the Educational software should offer multiple instructional designs and address several pedagogies. Secondly, it should offer flexibility in terms of classroom implementation for use as a presentation tool, as well as individual student or group workstations. Thirdly, it should be able to track individual students' performance and modify instruction accordingly.

After carefully considering those factors, the challenge that any educational technologist will have to face, is the training of teachers in tracking individual students performance through a software management system that can be incorporated in the system.


A survey was carried out at Carshalton High School for Boys, a local school in Carshalton, Surrey. The reason why the survey was carried out was to have an insight in the children mind on how they would like to perform their interaction for educational software.

A total of 30 questionnaires were handed out to students during their ICT class and only 24 responded to the invitation of filling them out.

When students were asked which positioning device they would rather use, 96% preferred the mouse and only 4% wanted a light pen, surprisingly nobody chose a joystick (See fig 1 for details).

Fig 1 shows raw results for choice of Positioning device.

This indicates that although there are different types of positioning device, the mouse is still widely recognised as a suitable design for usability. If children prefer it, that means it should not be changed for another type of positioning device. As maybe they physically find it comfortable to utilise or perhaps due to the fact that the mouse has always been the traditional and conventional positioning device widely used.

The following question was which sort of buttons they would like displayed on their screen, the response was 58% for 3D buttons and 42% for flat buttons (See fig 2 for details).

Fig 2 shows raw results for choice of Button style.

The results demonstrate to developers that 3Dimensional buttons are favoured amongst this group of users. The rational as to why most children preferred 3D buttons as opposed to flat buttons, could be due to the idea that 3D buttons are more graphical in appearance than flat buttons.

As they were asked which graphical representations they would like displayed on their icons/buttons, the results were 50% wanted object picture, 33% wanted symbols and 17% wanted cartoons (See fig 3 for details).

Fig 3 shows row results for choice of graphical representations.

This question was asked to identify if children, based on their cognition, find it easier to recognize the meaning of buttons / icons when they engrave cartoons representation or object pictures or symbols. It is true that object pictures are more interactive and more pleasant to look at, even to understand. Developers need therefore to be selective at infiltrating pictures that conform to real objects that are included in their interaction.

When students were asked how they would like information displayed, 52% opted for text, 38% opted for animations, 7% table and 3% drawings (See fig 4 for details).

Fig 4 shows raw results for choice of information presentation.

If a courseware is built for a mature student, the concern is mainly the content of knowledge. But here children have demonstrated that although the text based information cannot be avoided, it advisable to back them with animations where possible. This question was addressed particularly to determine how information for humanities subjects such as languages, geography, RE and history could be displayed.

The most astonishing results emerged when children were asked to say briefly how they would like their ideal educational software to look like and the comments they made are listed below:

More graphics, sound, videos and easier to use.

More graphics, more streaming video.

More graphics, audio and video.

More graphics and images.

Be Neat, presentable and able to read.

Look interesting.

Complicated looking but easy to use.

Interesting and simple to use.

More up to date monitors, icons and programs.

More graphics and sound.

Lots of graphics with sound.

Lots of graphics and moving images, and make it more fun and enjoyable.

With a new look and more animation images.

Colourful and modern looking.

Colourful and interactive to the audience.

Bright and interesting.

Modern and colourful.

Modern or futuristic, interesting and maybe weird.

Looking at the list of comments made, one cannot neglect the importance of graphics, video and sound effects for this group of users.

Perhaps those comments may remain the same if a similar question was asked to primary school children aged between 5 and 11, because they like moving images and comical cartoons representations. As Andrea Young, a Primary School teacher, says that children prefer multimedia with all the sound effects and also adds by saying it is like a different between sound and the old silent movies (Educational Computing & Technology, Dec 1998).

However, it advisable to state that if the survey was to be replicated in a girls school, the comments might be slightly different. As it would be great to prove whether boys and girls have different choices when it comes to computer interaction.

The results gathered from this survey could be contested, but the bottom line is that children of this age group are alike in terms of the way they think and learn

(Piaget 1923-1952), whether they are boys, girls or whether they reside in Manchester, Birmingham or London.


More field studies are to be encouraged, particularly in this area of cognitive psychology to find out from pupils what makes a subject or a lecture interesting and easy for them to follow. The results of the survey carried out and the guidelines that accompanied this discussion may provide a blue print to educational technologists on how they could design better educational software for secondary school children.

If we are to maximize secondary school children’s skills and knowledge in the various areas of the curriculum, it is highly important that we exploit information technology with a right approach. An approach that acknowledges and represents children values.

Particularly in this era where home use of computers have become ever so frequent amongst teenagers, to play games and surf the net, it is a core necessity to build courseware that are easily understood without the teacher’s presence and intervention.

In addition to consulting children, developers need to have an insight in the children reasoning, by thinking back when they too were children, and also use their experience as parents for those who are, to know what makes children tick.

A group of children with mixed abilities should be encouraged to take part in the development process. Children, who have a record of performing well in a particular subject that is being developed as a software package, should say what they would like in order to reinforce their strength. Also children who do not do so well in that subject should say what they would like in order perhaps to deal with their weaknesses. The developer can then delicately balance all views and the ones that would be of optimum necessity to integrate in the system.

Most researchers who carried out work in the area of children computer interaction, have never been specific as to draw boundaries between kids and children. They represented mostly kids (young children) needs than children in their teens.


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[21] Results from survey carried out at Carshalton High School for Boys (2002).

This document was added to the Education-line database on 14 January 2005