App Design: Green Owls and Pots of Gold

Back in January there was an article on ELTjam that resonated with me. ‘To app or not to app?’ looked at the decisions involved when deciding whether to go down the app development path or not. I’ve been wrestling with many of the concepts it talked about in my own app design journey. So, I’m going to revisit the first four points of the article through the lens of my current experiences with designing an app.

ELTjam pointed out how Duolingo often weighs heavily upon the minds of potential ESL app developers. The Green Owl of Doom’s slick interface and somewhat tedious language translation activities make you dream of your own “I can do that!” pot of gold. Yet, could I realistically come up with something better?


Could I impact globally on language learning?

Definitely not.

Will I make a lot of money?

Zero chance.

But, might I learn something through the process?


1. Business or hobby

From the answers above you could probably guess that the project I am undertaking is a bit of a hobby. I am teacher who runs his own school and learning-with-technology website and I like to continually develop my own skills or push in new directions. Polymaths are “at our best when we turn our minds to many things.” Often the best ideas come from people working across fields not just within their own. Embarking on a project like this has allowed me to develop my skills in different fields such as project management, IT, sketching and also to collaborate with people who aren’t directly related to the teaching business.

At the beginning of our project we looked at it from a business perspective but we evolved, or pivoted, to a more hobby-like position. Taking the business model off the table allowed us to focus on the potential skills learned from a project like this rather than turning a profit. Further down the track, it might be a stepping stone to other opportunities and connections which lead to that mythical pot of gold at the end of the app rainbow.

2. Your Idea

I’ve had a few ideas incubating in regards to useful apps. These ideas all came from perceived problems in my classroom and ways an app could address them. The three ideas that were jockeying for top position were a pronunciation app, a listening app and a student language profile app. In order to get opinion on what people wanted from an app we decided to crowdsource for feedback online. We are currently giving regular updates online where teachers or other interested stakeholders can get involved in the development process. Teachers can participate at any stage of the app design with ideas on what they would like to see happen.damien2

However noble this intention might have been it is easier said than done to get people involved or to give a s**t. I even desperately fished for input from old colleagues and friends through Facebook — achieving a grand total of one comment. It might not be a lonely planet anymore but it can definitely be a lonely online world when you are looking for feedback.

So after breaking the different options down (more on the decision process can be found here) we decided on the student language profiler. An app that allows you to record quickly formative details about a student and then share that information with other teachers. This was the most appealing because it addresses a clear problem in my classroom and, from a technical point of view, would be the easiest to get up and running.

2. What Does Success Look Like?

Success for this project won’t be measured in cash but rather on three factors:

  1. whether it improves things in my classroom
  2. if other teachers get involved along the way, thereby broadening my online professional network
  3. what skills I bring out of this project

At the end it might be a piece of junk. However, I might improve my sketching skills which I can then

A sketch of a stage of the app - clearly not anything to be ashamed of!
A sketch of a stage of the app – clearly not anything to be ashamed of!

feel proud of in the classroom, rather than ashamed, or maybe I’ll broaden my IT knowledge which I can then apply to other ideas on my website.

So, some might define success as standing on the shoulders of giants but our success might be defined as the toe jam that elevated a giant a few millimetres higher for someone else to stand on their shoulders and take the idea to somewhere we never thought possible.

3. Your Users

Who is our target user? Well, not to sound too selfish, but it’s primarily me followed by other teachers and language colleges who want to track the progress of students to help mine the classroom for learning opportunities. Building on my experience working at language colleges, little information is shared between teachers on students’ strengths and weaknesses. Often the extent of it can be “She’s really good” or “He has a hygiene problem”. Effectively teachers are starting from scratch every five to ten weeks when there should be a profile of that student’s strengths and weaknesses built up over time through formative, summative and self-assessment. So instead of wasting time finding out these problems yourself, you know what the problems are and you can start working on them straight away.


If you’re sitting on the fence about whether to go down the app path, maybe don’t get obsessed with making a profit but rather think in terms of what skills and connections you might get out of the whole process.

Damien Herlihy has been kicking around the ELICOS industry for over ten years now. He went solo two years ago and started his own language college in Thailand and found out it wasn’t all Mai Tais, massages and smiles. He also runs his own website where he hopes to obliterate the silos of teaching through sharing ideas on using technology in the modern ESL classroom.


Image creditKorvar via Compfight cc Text added by ELTjam.

5 thoughts on “App Design: Green Owls and Pots of Gold”

  1. Hi Damien,

    I was recently talking to a very experienced (read over 60) sales professional. He said the biggest difference between today and say 40 years ago is the degree to which he is asked to document everything and make comments on almost anything. He said that the difference in documentation is almost unworldly.

    His key point to me was- he didn’t mind the additional load as long as the advantages to be gained from the use of his time was transparent and meaningful. In fact, he felt that over the last 40 years the time requirements of his job had increased by the same amounts of time he spent “doing reports” of all kinds. The implications were clear.

    Can you feel his pain? Have you taken this into account? The greater that you can empathize with this pain the more successful your app should be.

  2. Hi Mike
    Thanks for your input. So, to paraphrase I should be more careful in asking for comments from people if there is not a transparent and meaningful outcome for the readers as they are already time-poor. Well, do I feel their pain? Probably not. But that is not to say it doesn’t exist. Ultimately, I appreciate the time anyone puts in to read about what we are doing and I hope they also get something out of it as well (which might be gaining an idea that they can put into their own teaching or working together on a future project). But your comment does remind me that people are busy and I shouldn’t get hung up if no one responds. So, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing (though, be more mindful of the pain and suffering I might be inflicting on my potential readers) and see where it takes me.

  3. Damien,

    Hi! And sorry I wasn’t very clear. I think it is great that you are asking for feedback. I think if you can find the right people that you will get some great feedback. I really sympathize. Anyone who is building something usually wants and needs feedback to keep moving forward.

    No, I was referring to what happens to people working in organizations that “over-report”. I know schools are moving towards greater reporting however I also know that “over” reporting can be a tedious waste of time. I am sure you have considered this. I think you might experience resistance from some quarters concerning the mandate to report more about students. I am curious about what things you will ask teachers to report on and who will benefit from such reporting. I am curious if you have calculated the additional time it will take teachers to complete these reporting tasks.

    And I wonder what percentage of teachers actually have nothing to report but will “fill in the blanks” with needless information just to meet their reporting requirement.

    Actually, what sprang to my mind when you starting describing this app. is a deeper question of why more reporting is necessary. I wondered what Plato would have written about on his student assessments and if anyone but Plato would have had any use for that information.

  4. Okay, I get it. Sorry, I got my wires crossed with the comments and documenting part of your response. The points you raised here are important and I don’t want this tool to become an onerous, time-consuming task with little or no point.

    The tool is meant to support formative assessment in the classroom and the sharing of information on students’ strengths and weaknesses. So, for example in a ten week course you might note down one student has a problem with discerning the difference between a minimal pair such as /ch/ & /sh/. At the end of the ten weeks, the student can now hear the difference but can’t produce it. So this information is shared with the next teacher, via the app (this sharing could be done verbally with another teacher but often this is not the case in my experience), who can now work on the production aspect of that sound. The student benefits because the teacher immediately knows what problems the student has and is able to focus on their particular needs.

    The challenging part is making a tool which is simple to use and takes little time to record information and share it otherwise as you stated it will not be well received by the teaching community.

  5. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research about this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more clear from this post. I’m very glad to see such wonderful info being shared freely out there.


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