Teen software whiz shows challenges facing schools

Alex has earned more than $50,000 from the iPhone apps he's developed.

Ninth-grader Alex Britton, and the friends he has made throughout North America with the help of Skype, offer insight into the challenges schools face in educating members of the so-called iGeneration.

A software entrepreneur at age 14, Alex learned how to develop iPhone apps by watching YouTube videos posted by other teens. He and his friends are living examples of the themes often spouted at ed-tech conferences and highlighted in research such as Project Tomorrow’s annual Speak Up survey: Many of today’s students are taking ownership of their own learning outside of school and are teaching each other through digital media … and educators will have to change their approach to instruction if they hope to engage this generation of youth.

Alex is now trying to put his most professional foot forward, so the teen recently took his Whoopee Cushion iPhone application off the market.

“I just want to be more professional, and be taken seriously,” said the Darien, Conn., teen, who spends his spare time creating programs for Apple products.

For more on teaching the iGeneration:

eSN Special Report: Empowering the iGeneration

Author: ‘iGeneration’ requires a different approach to instruction

Report: Digital access, collaboration a must for students

Alex created his first app—the Whoopee Cushion—a year-and-a-half ago.

“I started out making YouTube videos, reviewing apps,” Alex said as he sat in front of a desk holding two Apple computers, an iPad, and an iPhone in his bedroom, which also serves as his office. “Then I started seeing videos of 14-year-olds—tutorials they made about how to make apps.”

“Thank God for YouTube,” said Alex’s father, Tony. “They just post these tutorials on there. It’s great. Some people learn with books, and some people learn this way.”

Alex reached out to the teens via Skype, the computer program allowing users to talk over the internet, and formed a friendship as well as a working relationship. His new friends—who, according to Alex, hail from California, Iowa, Canada, and everywhere in between—guided him through the product development process. Shortly thereafter, he launched the now-defunct Whoopee.

“I just needed to make something simple,” said Alex. “If I were to do a Whoopee Cushion now, it would take me like an hour.”

Alex and his friends exemplify a finding highlighted in the most recent Speak Up survey: the emergence of what Project Tomorrow calls “free agent learners”—students who increasingly take learning into their own hands and use technology to create personalized learning experiences.

“For these students, the schoolhouse, the teacher, and the textbook no longer have an exclusive monopoly on knowledge, content, or even the education process, and therefore it should not be surprising that students are leveraging a wide range of learning resources, tools, applications, outside experts, and each other to create a personalized learning experience that may or may not include what is happening in the classroom,” 2010 Speak Up report says.

The survey indicated that students increasingly are seeking out and finding technology-based learning experiences outside of school—experiences that are not directed by a teacher or associated with class assignments or homework.

For more on teaching the iGeneration:

eSN Special Report: Empowering the iGeneration

Author: ‘iGeneration’ requires a different approach to instruction

Report: Digital access, collaboration a must for students

Alex has gotten a lot of practice in programming: In the 18 months since creating the Whoopee Cushion, he has launched more than a dozen apps, including programs designed for iPhones, iPads, and Apple computers.

“I’ve had about 75,000 sales total,” he said.

He typically charges 99 cents per download, of which Apple takes 30 percent. In total, Alex’s business, iPowerStudios, has earned more than $50,000 since its inception.

“He’s going to have to file taxes this year,” Alex’s mother, Lisa Britton, said with a laugh.

Alex isn’t quite sure what he is going to do with his earnings yet; he purchased an iPad and some lighting equipment to help build his business, and he recently spent about $1,000 to hire a graphic artist from England to draw the characters in his newest app, Doodle Zombies.

Doodle Zombies is a game for iPhone users in which a player hunts zombies.

“People like it, I guess,” he said. “It’s cool because you can voice chat with other players, and you can play in multiplayer [mode].”

Negotiating work contracts can be tricky, Alex said with a smile, revealing braces.

“I don’t like to tell people how young I am,” he said. “I’m 14, and I feel like they won’t take me seriously.”

But he has serious business initiative.

For more on teaching the iGeneration:

eSN Special Report: Empowering the iGeneration

Author: ‘iGeneration’ requires a different approach to instruction

Report: Digital access, collaboration a must for students

When Apple’s iPad came out last spring, Alex anticipated that users would want shiny new apps for their shiny new tablets, and he created Chalk—an app that simply allows users to draw on a virtual chalkboard with a virtual stick of chalk—which was listed as one of the top 100 selling apps for the device and made it to the Apple Store’s front page in April.

“With Chalk, it was mainly a hit because it was one of the first ones out there,” he said. “I try to do, like, three apps a season, and two or three games throughout the year.”

He added: “I started off doing mostly games, but I think it’s easier to get noticed if you have a utility or a photo application.” He recently launched Photo Booth Plus, an application that allows users to paste new or archived pictures from their iPhone’s photo library into a filmstrip background and upload them to Facebook and Twitter.
“Facebook and Twitter apps are huge,” he said.

While he has had successful sale figures, Alex said he views his program development as more of a hobby than a job.

“On the weekends, I try to do my homework pretty early in the morning, and then I spend like two or three hours a weekend on this,” he said.

The rest of his time is dedicated to being a ninth-grader.

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