Headphones anchored in place, arched over a desk, 10-year-old Zeke Acton pores over instructions on a computer screen that asks him to fix a sentence - "Oort It Sut" - so that it correctly says "Sort It Out."
"Was it age appropriate?" asks a woman sitting near him during an interactive exercise in the lab.
"Not really," replies Zeke. "It's probably too easy for all fifth graders. And it takes too long to say all this stuff."
"You mean the instructions?" she asks. "You would just like to have more control?"
"Uh huh," says Zeke, enthusiastically.
More control by youngsters like Zeke is a key philosophy behind a Pearson initiative, known as "user-centered design," that taps students to help design the software behind some of the company's most innovative projects.
Based on the fourth floor of Pearson Education's new Innovation Center in Chandler, Arizona, near Phoenix, a "usability lab" equipped with more than a dozen computers has enlisted real expert learners - students themselves - to shape Pearson's digital learning products. These include SuccessMaker, a digital product for reading and mathematics; NovaNET, an online system that combines interactive curriculum with assessment and student management, and Ellis software, for English-language learners. www.pearsonschool.com/digital
"We think of it as kids designing for kids," says Deborah Stirling, Pearson Education's design research director, the female behind the voice speaking to Zeke. "When we see them get excited or go 'wow' about something, then we know it is working, and we've created an engaging learning environment for them."
The idea behind the focus group-type project is to identify at an early stage where the software design might be breaking down from a cognitive perspective, meaning how children think and interact with the technology.
Implemented early this year, the project has already hosted hundreds of students age five through 13 to help Pearson smooth out any rough edges before digital products are launched. These products are always designed with the end user in mind, and the users who have visited the Innovation Center don't mince their words.
For SuccessMaker, for example, the digital program reinforces students who get correct answers with slogans like "good job" or "awesome" or "you're a super word builder" - all of which have been well received. By contrast, "you did it!" got a big thumbs down.
"They said it sounds silly," says Dr. Stirling.
Body language is as important as actual language in evaluating how students interact with the software, so Pearson monitors observe the youngsters' facial expressions and mannerisms through one-way mirrors. The students' eye movement is also scrutinised, to determine whether they are progressing properly on the computer screen from left to right and from top to bottom, as if reading a book.
"Body language is really key," says Matt Murphy, a Pearson spokesman based in Chandler. "Do the students look perplexed? Do they look fully engaged? Are they smiling and shaking their heads, which indicates that they get it?"
Each student spends an hour to an hour and a half critiquing the digital programs, and they are rewarded by $25 or $35 gift certificates from Amazon, with which they are encouraged to buy books or other educational material.
As he works his way through SuccessMaker reading exercises, Zeke seems particularly tickled by a colourful online skeet ball game: he clicks on a copper-colored ball, which flies in the air before landing in the bulls-eye hole.
"Oh cool," he exclaims. "Yeah!"
But colourfulness can sometimes get in the way. One background pictures a teddy bear, a bunch of purple spring-like squiggles hanging from a ceiling, a candy-striped tail, Lego-type blocks and some light and dark green checks.
"What do you think of this background right here?" asks Dr. Stirling.
"Cool, but too much distraction," says Zeke, and the user wins the day. The next version of the software will substitute a more neutral background in place of the eclectic distraction.