Shapes - 3D Geometry Learning is making the case for Polish educational apps – interview with Paweł Flieger
During Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference in June, the company informed that users can now find over 1.2 million apps in its popular iTunes App Store, with a total of 75 billion downloads. Assuming that last year's data from 148Apps remained significantly unchanged, educational apps make up approximately 11% of these, with well over 100,000 apps. This data alone goes to show that educational apps are not an area to ignore. Especially in Poland, amidst lively debates about the benefits of introducing more technology into the K-12 education.
With that in mind, I got a chance to talk to Paweł Flieger, the new business manager of Setapp, a Polish educational app developer. Their recent “Shapes – 3D Geometry Learning" app turned out to be quite a success, making the main page of the Apple App Store in over 100 countries and earning a spot in the “Best New Apps” category. Shapes is meant to help students deeply understand solid geometry by giving them the chance to freely manipulate all kinds of solids, such as prisms, pyramids or Platonic solids. Features include rotating the shapes, highlighting and coloring the vertices and edges, zooming in and out and more.
'Shapes' can offer teachers new ways of engaging students and teaching them about shapes in a manner that’s hard to achieve with physical models. But whether it is also a good business idea is something one can hopefully learn from the interview with Paweł Flieger.
The beginning of your company's interest in e-learning is related to your cooperation with the biggest Polish education publishers, for whom you worked on digitizing paper versions of education materials as well as producing apps. Was it then when you noticed that there is market for tech innovations in Polish education?
Cooperation with publishers made it possible for us to learn more about the education market and its conditions. We knew that with technology we are able to create wonderful educational apps. We just didn't know how to benefit from it. Now we realize that in order to succeed, we have to think globally. The Polish market is not our final target and its limitations don't concern us. Thanks to digital distribution we can successfully sell our apps in the U.S., Canada, Australia or China.
How has your app been received by Polish and foreign students and teachers? What did they initially like and dislike about 'Shapes'' prototype 'Solids'?
The idea itself, to create an app about solids, was very well received. At the same time however, we learned what we absolutely need to change to improve its usability. We introduced a lot improvements and the app's popularity surged. The initial opinions let us gather a lot of ideas for further development. We took them into consideration when working on Solids' successor – 'Shapes'.
'Shapes' seems like a very versatile app. Is the way people use it exactly as you expected? Or were you were surprised by some of the ways people used it?
'Shapes' is mostly used as a training aid during math classes, just like we originally intended. We did hear, however, that it has proven to be useful during art lessons. As it turns out, 'Shapes'' ability to freely manipulate 3D solids makes it easier to understand the rules of perspective. It's one of the usages that didn't completely come to our minds.
You cooperated with the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań to improve your app. What advice did you get from them?
The university helped us verify the names of all of the 27 unique shapes we included. That part proved difficult for us because of the variety of names in usage and language differences. The real challenge was meeting with mathematics students. Talking to these future teachers helped us test our ideas with their expectations.
Your app seems to have taken iTunes by storm. How did you manage to get included in the Apple Volume Purchase Program for education and then get featured on the home page?
The true milestone for our app was the inclusion in the Apple Volume Purchase Program for Education, where educational units can buy in bulk numbers with a 50 percent discount. That helped us acquire a lot of new users, especially in the U.S., Canada and Australia. We joined the program because Apple asked us about it, having noticed the potential of our app. Currently the program is very widespread and a lot of educational app creators are joining.
There is no simple way to make the main page of the App Store. Apple chooses from among thousands of apps, picking those they consider most worthy. It's not accidental. You have to first develop a great and useful product, that simultaneously complies with all of Apple’s guidelines. Then you have to learn how to acquire users, respond to their needs and profit from your product.
'Shapes' is part of your learn | teach | explore idea. Could you tell us more about it?
'Shapes' made us realize what the main value of any educational app is. The whole secret is to create apps that let one understand an actual educational problem. We started the learn | teach | explore project to offer students and teachers new possibilities of learning, explaining and exploring the world around. We believe in the Confucian thought, “Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I'll remember. Involve me and I'll understand”. New technologies give us a chance to introduce the idea into real life regarding scientific subjects, which so far has been mostly abstract.
Do you believe that educational apps can be a genuine business idea? What do you think about the Polish market and its current trends? Do you face serious competition in Poland and worldwide?
Because of its size and current level of development, the Polish market is not the main target for us. We act globally – we want to benefit from the dynamic growth of the mobile market in the field of education and become an educational apps publisher on a global scale. Google Play alone now has over 100,000 educational apps. So does the App Store. Despite such great numbers, there are still relatively few truly high quality apps that could be of real help to teachers. We don't want to compete with currently available solutions, we wish to create values for users. We don't try to comply with any program basis of any country; instead we focus on showing specific educational problems so that they can be understood.
But do educational apps actually make money? A lot of them are paid-only, but many are free and I presume that stuffing them with ads is not the best idea as they may be really distractive. What do you think are the best ways to be profitable?
The freemium model, in which monetization is achieved through micro-transactions or ads inside apps is a solution that has recently been gaining popularity. This model has been made well-known by games and now a number of app developers are trying to adopt it. This solution has some advantages, but we decided to stick with the paid app model. We are positive that this model will prove best at schools – our apps have neither ads nor micro-transactions. The teacher receives a fully functional product and has no need to bother with ads or extra costs.
The variety of apps and other technology offerings for education also includes gamification. There are a bunch of educational games such as Kids Preschool Puzzles or Bobbopp, or online game-like experiences, like busuu. Have you tried these games? What is your take on their effectiveness?
We also started in the gaming industry; we created gamification-based solutions and now, as part of the learn | teach | explore project, we aim to completely give up on this... Not because we consider the idea itself bad; we're simply convinced that it won't work with us. Gamification apps work well as part of an individual education plan, especially with younger children. Some gaming educational apps aim at replacing the teacher. We want the opposite – for us the teacher is the most important link in the educational process and the app is meant to serve them. There is a shortage of such tools on the market.
There is much debate over the digitization of Polish schools. You're very obviously on the “pro tech” side of the debate. Do you believe that apps like this can become an integral part of the education process?
Apps offer new fantastic possibilities of exploring and explaining the world. But we have to remember that no app is capable of replacing the teacher and they are the ones most responsible for the process. We appreciate the work teachers do and that's why we want to create apps that serve as tools in their work.
Do you have plans to further develop the 'Shapes' app? Are you going to limit your reach to Apple devices?
We're currently working on the next update to 'Shapes'. At the same time, we will work on new apps in the learn | teach | explore project. 'Shapes'' success gave us a great boost to work even more, but we realize that it's just the beginning to the large scale success we want. At this very moment we're focusing on Apple devices, but in the near future our products will appear on Android and Windows OS as well.
Got any questions? Send an e-mail to the author