Building Learning Environments Beyond the App

Building an educational app is one thing, but if you choose to create a tool or a digital space in which children and young people can learn you really need to be thinking about the context. Beyond creating an app for a mobile device, how many developers and edtech companies look beyond the product itself? How are the creators of these tools supporting teachers, parents and even the self-directed learners (students) to best use what they have created?

Anyone interested in using technology to make an impact on student learning needs to think beyond just the functionality of an app. The action in edtech is increasingly in a space where digital collides with other learning spaces. Real progress is being made by people who are creating what I call “digital learning environments”. These are spaces where teachers can learn from each other, spaces where parents can engage with their children's work, and places where the digital intersects with the analogue and the enjoyment and playfulness of learning takes precedence over everything else.

This is a story about the value of building a digital learning environment around an app, and creating a community that celebrates and supports the play-based learning that occurs with that app.

Launchpad Toys builds digital toys and tools that empower kids to create, learn, and share their ideas through storytelling. They call their brand of learning “creativity at play” because it is built on constructionist learning principles and theories of play-based learning. Their Toontastic app empowers kids to tell stories through play just like the stories you told as a kid with LEGOs and action figures, but now with digital characters on a touchscreen with a record button.

Toontastic was the first app in Apple’s App Store that enabled kids to transform narrative play into tangible, shareable stories — by allowing kids to transcribe their stories in the same way they construct them — through play. There have since been many trying to replicate what Launchpad Toys has created, and while others may imitate the technical functionality, what everyone else has missed is the driving purpose behind that functionality. That purpose is to empower children to play together in digital environments, to tell stories, to share them and to learn and develop through that experience. It is this commitment to the learning experience that has helped Launchpad evolve into a thriving digital learning environment.

Children and young people do amazing things when given open-ended, constructive opportunities; Launchpad might never have imagined some of the things kids are doing with Toontastic. But the creators have watched children create, hack, and turn Toontastic into what they want it to be. They’ve seen the same thing with teachers — they’re doing amazing things with Toontastic in the classroom that Launchpad Toys never would have thought of.

Consequently, teachers were coming to Launchpad Toys with great stories about using Toontastic, and the team wanted to share the teachers’ work with the rest of their growing community. This led to the creation of a community where teachers could share their work and stories in the same way that children’s stories are shared via their cartoon-sharing network, ToonTube. The teacher-focused channel was designed to serve as a scaffold for other teachers using Toontastic in the classroom by sharing the best practices, and Launchpad Toys began establishing partnerships with teachers in order to curate lesson plans and resources.

In doing so, the company demonstrated to the world that they didn’t see themselves as an app development company. Instead, Launchpad Toys promotes and facilitates an effective play-based pedagogy because they’ve put their efforts into building a community around the use of digital toys and spaces for learning. In other words, the app is simply a way to support the development of the type of learning and learning environments that the company believes in.

The result is a dynamic space where teachers and parents can find inspiration. They have created professional development resources that help teachers use Toontastic effectively in the classroom - materials that are constructive, engaging, and most importantly, connected to an active network of educators. This is what makes up #LaunchpadEDU.

It includes:

  • Common Core-aligned Lesson Plans for everything from Math to Social Studies
  • Printables that support classroom practice
  • An iTunes U Course highlighting best practices to help educators get more out of Toontastic
  • A growing community of educators using Launchpad Toys’ apps in the classroom


For app developers keen to be an ongoing part of the world of education and learning, this is the horizon. Launchpad Toys has set the standard. It will not be enough to simply make tools, developers need to work with the people who are using their technology to not just iterate, but create whole new learning environments and connections beyond the touchscreen or mobile device they’re designing for.

This approach is so important for educators, who want to further facilitate their students learning, but who benefit most from connecting and sharing ideas and resources with others. Launchpad Toys has surpassed the status quo and shown what is possible with an iTunes U Course and an initial suite of resources for teachers. But, what is most powerful is the commitment they are making to those who are responsible for our children’s learning and development. Their efforts to establish a robust community for teachers say clearly: “We value what you do and we are glad you find what we have made useful. Now let’s work together to make it useful for others.”

About Daniel Donahoo
Daniel Donahoo is a researcher and author interested in childhood learning and development, as well as technology and emerging literacies. He has published two books, Idolising Children and Adproofing Your Kids. Daniel is currently the Director of Project Synthesis where he works with education and community organisations to support digital capacity, inclusion, and research. He is a contributor to Wired's and collaborates on digital projects like In B Flat 2.0. He tweets @ddonahoo and can be found at The NMC first came to know Daniel through his NMC Horizon Report coverage in the Huffington Post.

Creative Commons thumbnail and photo via flickingerbrad

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