Dubai Design Week: Digitising education

At the Global Grad Show, creators of projects like Coding Pirates and the Grasshopper appcessory have positive effects on children’s educational development

A child not yet old enough to talk or perhaps even walk sits happily on his playmat. Rather than stretch out to cuddle his favourite soft toy, he grasps at the glowing iPhone on the floor. Before long he’s intuitively swiping through colourful images and prodding at the smartphone, mimicking his parents – who might look on in mock horror. 

This scene, repeated in households across the world, has enough resonance that it’s provoking increasing debate about whether technology is helpful or harmful to a child's education. Tablets are now widely used in early years and pre-school education, where apps ‘gamify’ learning, but in the playground, parents are regularly overheard discussing how to strike a balance; between making sure their child doesn’t become addicted to digital screens while encouraging the technological intelligence he or she will undoubtedly need.

Which is why it’s fascinating that, among more predictable designs for new portable coffee cups and futuristic transport systems, some of the participants at Dubai Design Week’s Global Grad Show – featuring more than 145 projects from 50 of the leading universities – are harnessing technology to educate children rather than merely entertain them. 

Dubai Design Week: Digitising education
The Global Grad Show will feature more than 145 projects from 50 leading design universities, like Monstas, from Shirley Rodriguez (Art Centre College Of Design)

Sara and Nicole Marshall’s 'appcessory' certainly taps into the desire for iPads to be more than just a convenient distraction. 'I wanted to see if I could reverse the negative stigma surrounding technology use with children', admits University of Auckland graduate Nicole Marshall, and to that end her Grasshopper encourages children to jump or dance on large silicone buttons in response to visuals and audio on a tablet screen.

'Put simply, Grasshopper moves a child from sitting and staring at a screen to being up and active', she explains. 'I was hanging out with my younger cousins and they were all squished onto a sofa, staring into their tablets. A flash, animated and exciting game has becomes cooler than a game of hide-and-seek. But with technology you can do so much with the gameplay. I truly think that we’re just using it in a wrong way - not to its full potential. So that’s how Grasshopper was born.'

Elsewhere at Global Grad Show, Royal College of Art designer Lori Miao-Ju Ho uses technology to expand on an element of childhood we’re all familiar with: the imaginary friend. Once a child has submitted a drawing of their virtual pal to the Hirde website (or indeed customised one from the Hirde library), they receive an app which allows for much more satisfying interaction with their made-up play-mate, including a touch screen to create stories and adventures. 

Each idiosyncratic product has already proven its impact on children’s lives

Even the humble wooden toy train set has a multimedia future at the Global Grad Show. Jiwon Jung, Jundong Park and Hoyeon Nam from Kaist, South Korea, have embedded coloured blocks on the train track each with a different note. When the train’s cars pass over it, the note is played both wirelessly via a digital music player and through the speaker in the train. The idea is to encourage children to compose and learn basic music through play, and the effect being much like a xylophone. 

Each idiosyncratic product has already proven its impact on children’s lives. Monstas, from Shirley Rodriguez of Art Centre College Of Design in Pasadena, USA, has designed interactive exercise toys for children with juvenile arthritis. The interactive element is an iPad game that teaches them how to exercise correctly. And Leticia Ratkiewicz’s astronomy app Kosme (already available in the Google Play store), encourages young students to stargaze while logging their discoveries in fun ways, in order to build up and enhance knowledge. 

Dubai Design Week: Digitising education
Jundong Park and Hoyeon Nam's Musical Train (Kaist, South Korea) encourages children to compose and learn basic music through play

It’s Telegran, however, that is the least unapologetic about the importance of technology to our lives. The private video-sharing platform was created by masters students at Keio University Graduate School of Media Design, Japan for grandparents and their treasured grandchildren, to interact despite geographical constraints. The technology comes with a frame to place a tablet in and spectacles embedded with a camera, so that both parties can act as naturally as possible with each other.

There are also more traditional forms of ‘edutainment’ on show at Dubai Design Week, too. Coding Pirates, a strategic board game from Sarah Ragab at the German Institute in Cairo, helps those 10 years old and above master programming concepts and the art of logic by charting routes across the high seas on the computer. On a similar note, Panic In The Arctic, by Zekun Chang and Heeju Kim at the Royal College of Art, teaches the fundamentals of electrical circuits to children, via a gorgeously designed interactive book complete with the chance to design circuits in the second chapter.