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A shot of Ray Russo's app, which has a working title of Test Ace. As he develops the code for the app, Russo is working with a Harry Potter-trivia model as a tester.
Palm Coast Monday, Sep. 17, 2012 5 years ago

Flagler Schools IT department designs classroom apps

by: Megan Hoye Staff Writer

When he was in middle school, Ray Russo was experimenting with BASIC, an early computer coding language. Next, he moved to web design. Then, he started taking computers apart and reconfiguring them, eventually building one of his own.

“I think it was in about eighth grade when I figured out the great potential computers had for me,” he said. “I could see power in them.”

Russo, the webmaster for the Flagler County School District, works in the information technology sector of the district. He and Mark Saltmarsh, the senior programmer for the district, have been working alongside other IT personnel to develop a string of four applications for the iOS platform used in Apple devices.

The apps are developed with a classroom in mind and could potentially be distributed to other school districts in the future; they might become a source of revenue for the district if they gain popularity.

“Developing apps isn’t our job, necessarily,” Saltmarsh said. “But it’s something we’re interested in, so we’ve been working on it during our breaks and on our down time.”

Saltmarsh headed three apps. The first is called PE Coach, and it allows physical education teachers to track students’ fitness scores for The President’s Challenge, a nationwide standard for fitness testing. So far, it's being used in four district schools.

The second is called Who R You. This app allows faculty to look up students by name to see where they should be based on their schedules. It also allows them to track disciplinary write-ups, so a student’s behavioral history will be available to all staff members.

The third, which is more basic than the others, is called Flagler News and provides updates about the happenings at different schools. The app is available to the public for free on the iPad, and should be releasing for iPhones in the next several weeks.

Saltmarsh said the IT department recently submitted an application to Apple to join its iOS Developer Enterprise Program, which allows companies to distribute internal apps to their employees.

The district should know the status of their acceptance within a couple of weeks. Acceptance would allow the team to move forward with more widespread distribution of the apps.

And though developing apps is beyond his job description, Saltmarsh said he can’t imagine staying away.

“I’m fascinated by technology,” he said. “One of the cool things about creating Apple apps is the different parts of the creative process you use. You have to code, which is analytical, and then you switch to a being more of an artist with designing."

Russo’s app is a trivia game that could be used in the classroom for reviewing purposes. The game, which has a working name of Test Ace, combines the Apple TV with iPads and iPods for an interactive gaming experience.

To play, a teacher with an iPad selects a question from a "Jeopardy!"-style grid, which is then shown on the TV screen. The students are shown a series of potential questions on an iPod. If they select the correct answer first, they win points. If they answer incorrectly, a buzzer sounds.

“I wanted to keep it a bit fun with the sound effects,” Russo said. “Imagine that many kids in a classroom playing the game with those buzzers going off.”

Russo said his exposure to computers from a young age — his mother was a programmer too — is what he thinks made learning to work with them so easy for him.

He didn’t go to school for computer science like many of his colleagues; he volunteered in the technology department while attending Lake Brantley High School and when he graduated, was hired there.

“They knew what I could do,” he said. “So they gave me a shot.”

Eventually, Russo ended up as webmaster for the Flagler County School District, but he hopes to go back to school one day for business.

“A business degree would help me,” he said. “When I’m not at work, I’m working on one of my side projects. It’s just what I do.”

And this app is just one of those side projects. Eventually, Russo hopes it can be used within his district to aid the classrooms, but he also aspires to distribute it by next year through iTunes as an app that can be used as a classroom tool or as a home trivia game.

Even though neither of the two is using time out of his work week to develop these apps, their intention has always been to get their new technology into the classroom to benefit the district.

“I don’t think this will become a huge source of revenue for the district,” Saltmarsh said. “We might end up distributing it at a low price as an act of goodwill to other districts and to education. But giving it away doesn’t seem prudent to our taxpayers and to the time we’ve spent developing this technology.”

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