Almost nine out of 10 school pupils aged seven to 11 have a mobile phone, although less than three-quarters have books at home, reports the National Literacy Trust. With mobile use so widespread, the UK education sector is waking up to the opportunities that technology can offer in reaching everyone from pre-schoolers to undergraduates.
Manchester University is giving its medical and dental students Apple iPads in the first UK trial of its kind, and Cedars School of Excellence in Scotland also arms pupils with the device. As tablets, mobiles and apps become commonplace in education, how are brands getting involved?
BT is one business reaching young people more effectively thanks to the convenience of mobile. Julie Hindley, who manages community investment programme development at BT, which has been working on communications in the education space for over 15 years, says she saw a shift in demand from schools for digital products about 18 months ago.
“Historically, we used to provide booklets and DVDs for schools, at their request,” she says. “When we integrated our websites and moved from DVDs to PDFs and downloadable material, we saw increased uptake from schools. It made us think, ’OK, what is the next logical step?’”
BT’s first smartphone app was Coaching For Life, aimed at helping parents and carers to play with and train kids in games and sports. This was initially developed as a website resource, but Hindley and her team soon spotted the opportunity for people to access it on the move.
“With hindsight, if we had designed it as an app from day one, it probably wouldn’t be quite the size it is – it is a meaty download,” she says. “But once it is loaded, it looks fantastic and is easy to use.”
Another of BT’s apps, Moving On, is aimed at giving interview and career advice to 14- to 19-year-olds. “We hope that by pulling the information into an app, it might be used as a comfort blanket on the way to interviews,” says Hindley. “There are free text pages too so young people can jot down things about strengths and opportunities. We’re a communications company and we want to help all ages with important communications skills.”
Hindley is now wrestling with whether future BT apps should be designed for the smartphone or tablet – noting/ “We will probably play it safe and go down both routes”.
The Telegraph is also taking a multi-channel approach for the student audience. Last summer, the newspaper teamed up with UCAS to develop a clearing app for Android and Apple, allowing students to search available university places by course, institution and location. It had more than 10,000 downloads.
Telegraph classified sales director James Lancaster says: “Our research shows the iPad is likely to remain primarily in the hands of affluent 35- to 54-year-olds until mid-2012, whereas smartphones are common across all age groups.
“In fact,” he adds, “our clearing app was visited by twice as many people using iPods than iPads, so it comes down to understanding your audience and the devices they use before embarking on any development.”
Last year, educational publisher Britannica launched its kids’ app series across iPod, iPhone and iPad, with topics including the solar system, knights and castles and the rainforest, combining interactive games and pictures.
“They were all curriculum-led, with subjects chosen for their popularity with primary schools,” says Eoghan Hughes, PR manager for Encyclopaedia Britannica (UK). “Anecdotally, they have been well received by parents and teachers.”
The publisher is about to launch a series of apps aimed at the revision market, incorporating games-based quizzes designed for exam preparation. “More and more schools are waking up to just how smart devices and mobile phones can be used within the classroom, and as schools become more focused on mobile learning, we are in prime position to offer our services,” he says.
At the lower end of the age spectrum, educational technology company LeapFrog launched the LeapPad, the UK’s first tablet for children, in October, while Entertainment One (eOne), which licenses pre-school brand Peppa Pig, has used tablets to engage more deeply with its key audience.
EOne head of licensing and merchandising Andrew Carley says: “Three years ago we were looking at this space – apps and video games etc – and we all said it wasn’t for pre-school; it just isn’t relevant.”
This thinking was quickly proved wrong. “Here we are three years later with very successful apps and a Nintendo DS game,” he says. “Up until the tablet, there had been a barrier in terms of how a pre-schooler could interact with a sophisticated piece of technology, such as a computer, but the tablet overcame that in one fell swoop.”
While eOne has developed what it terms “simple” smartphone apps, the tablet has enabled it to create a more interactive and sophisticated offering through branded Peppa Pig games, involving shapes, colours and numbers. “It is learning through fun and creativity, rather than learning for learning’s sake,” says Carley.
For publisher Faber, the tablet has made literature more accessible to students. In June 2011, the publisher released an iPad app around TS Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land.
“We have a notes function so you can tap any word, line or stanza and see an explanation,” says Faber’s head of digital publishing Henry Volans. “It seems that an app is a good means of helping people to come to terms with difficult work.”
The app also includes six readings, a filmed performance of the poem and 37 short videos. “It gives you a place to put all these huge resources that you couldn’t obviously put in books,” he adds.
Faber was cautious in its expectations of the app. It has not been formally marketed to schools, but has been used by teachers. “We were expecting our money back in a year, but we were in profit within two months,” says Volans. By app standards, it is pricey [£9.99], but the strategy appears to have paid off.
Dorling Kindersley (DK), in conjunction with digital agency AKQA, has also leveraged the full functionality of the iPad with The Human Body app, which appeals to arguably the broadest cross-section possible – from doctors to kids.
Based on DK’s popular book, the app has remained a top-10 seller on iTunes since launching in August 2011. Jonathan Metcalf, publishing director at DK Knowledge, says: “We really went to town on the user experience and interactivity. As well as a navigation of the human body, the app also features haptic feedback [vibrations and movement], allowing the user to actually feel the heart beat, the lungs breathe and the nerve impulses race as they hold their iPad.”
With the arrival of the UK’s first mobile book in October – a novel written in chapters of fewer than 100 words on a Nokia E6 – coupled with the imminent launch of Amazon’s Kindle Fire set to rival existing tablets, the landscape is shifting fast and brands need to think on their feet.
“There are many ways brands can get involved in the educational space,” says Volans. “Content sponsorship is interesting, allowing for cheaper or even free apps. We would look at possibly working with brand partners – if it’s done well, with the right partner, it could be interesting.”
Tim Flagg, marketing director at digital publisher MindShapes
The challenge for any brand looking to engage with consumers through the [education] channel is how to create an app that is relevant and useful.
The app store is full of fun games, but few are conceived with knowledge of how children learn. There is a low cost to entry for apps but brands cannot take this for granted and should be looking at investing in a long-term relationship.
The opportunity for brands is to give purpose to game play. They have often already acquired insights into consumer needs and this should allow them to identify and develop promotional apps that offer solutions or entertainment with specific purpose. But they still need to deliver a positive brand perception and this must be done through high-quality production.
Apps are a logical brand extension in a world where major brands seem to be competing to become ’transmedia’, and offer their customers additional content. Historically, entertainment brands have naturally dominated this area but increasingly, all consumer brands will need to have a presence, and licensing existing intellectual property could well be an effective solution.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between rights holders looking to gain exposure for their properties and consumer brands, who have the budget to build the apps and the distribution channels to promote them but need the hook to reach the consumer.