What Makes an App for Teachers Effective: A New Lesson Ninja Gap-Fill Maker

What Makes an App for Teachers Effective: A New Lesson Ninja Gap-Fill Maker


I am very pleased to have with ELTcation, as our guest today, Maciej Szwarc, co-creator of the Lesson Ninja web app. Our ‘case study’ will focus on apps for teachers, what makes them effective, and factors to consider when choosing an app.

‚What’s Your Most Impactful Tool?‘

Edutopia drew a rather mixed response the other day after asking its Facebook followers to name their most impactful tech tool and how they were using it. Many educators mentioned a handful of useful tools for teaching, e.g., Flipgrid, Padlet, Loom, Google Forms, etc. However, quite a lot of teachers said that they would prefer ‘no tech’, ‘paper and pencil’, ‘pen and paper’, ‘old school tech like foldables’, or ‘ditching technology and getting back to basics.’

Although the irony of teachers complaining about not wanting to use technology in the classroom on an online platform, as pointed out by one educator, was quite obvious, this did not come as a surprise. I often feel this way myself! There are quite a few factors that come into play, including poorly focused CPD programmes, teachers’ own learning experiences, and often quite unrealistic expectations about where teachers can leverage technology. However, the determining factor here may as well be excessive supply of apps, leaving teachers feeling overwhelmed by the best-one-million-no-educator-can-live-without tools rather than being well equipped, and eventually resulting in app fatigue of teachers – We ‘got tired of so many online tools!’

With over 520,000 educational apps on the market now, finding an app that does what it promises and meets all our needs at least 90% of the time can be quite tricky, and some disappointment might be inevitable. However, this does not mean abandoning the use of technology, but instead becoming more selective about which apps we use and keep in use the ones that are truly effective.

How to Select an Effective Tool

I thought it would be a good idea to make a checklist of top factors to consider when choosing an app that will serve as a guide for teachers, and run through this list together with an app developer to look at it from all angles.

My guest today is Maciej Szwarc, co-creator of the Lesson Ninja web app. Initially, Maciej developed this web app together with his friend Tadek, a programmer, to save time on making gap-fills for his students. Later on, they added more features and created the Lesson Ninja platform to enable other teachers to make customizable activities way faster and easier. So, in this context, Maciej will be speaking partly as a teacher who had very specific expectations and needs at a given point, and partly as the app creator.

First, let’s see which factors are important for educators when using educational apps.

What Makes an App for Teachers Effective

An app is effective when it is not superfluous but adds value to teaching and learning. This means it should enhance teaching by helping teachers save their scarce time and resources, and make learning more meaningful for students.

With this in mind, we’ve come up with the following top six factors and considerations when choosing an effective app. 

What makes an app effective
  • The app saves my time – the app does what it promises and saves my prep time;
  • The app saves my money – the app is free of charge or relatively inexpensive;
  • The app is easy to use – the app is pretty much intuitive. Help or tutorial is available in the app;
  • The app offers flexibility – I can alter content and settings to meet students’ needs; I can export, copy or print content;
  • The app enables sharing content and collaboration – I can share content with my students and fellow teachers;
  • The app provides useful feedbackthe app keeps track of my students’ performance and provides useful data.

Now let’s see how the Lesson Ninja web app would pass this checklist.


How does Lesson Ninja save your time, Maciej, and how much time does it really save?

‘That’s exactly what I had in mind when I first came up with the idea of Lesson Ninja and our first tool: a gap-fill maker. To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about the students that much, but mostly us, teachers. At that time I was extremely busy running several individual classes per day and was struggling to create customized exercises for each of them.

It almost physically hurt me every time I pressed underscore or dots multiple times preparing exercises for my students in Word. Or when I copy-pasted TED transcripts and worked on them tediously in text editors.

Lesson Ninja can limit all this to a minimum, so something that used to take an hour is a matter of 10 minutes to me now, and I end up with a digital interactive exercise I can do in class and make my students happy. I also focus on examples and context instead of definitions and make activities that are relevant to my main class material (reading or listening).’


How costly is Lesson Ninja? 

‘When we had our first take on pricing, we knew we were aiming at a monthly payment that would be a fraction of a typical language teacher’s hourly rate. We managed to land at 1.5 of a Latte, which I think is a fair price. This amount helps us keep the servers running and provide basic maintenance for the app.’

Ease of Use

How easy is Lesson Ninja to use? Do you provide any support to your users?

‘I think in Lesson Ninja you pretty much know what to do right away as you probably come there for a specific reason. Nevertheless, we’re still improving our user experience (UX) or how users interact with the app, and our goal for the app is to be self-explanatory and inviting for different types of users, not only the tech-savvy ones. That’s why we’re having plenty of conversations with different language teachers and I would love to hear from some of your readers, Lana.

We also created a set of guides which you can explore. And these are actual videos featuring me using the app, so you can go through the basics with a fellow teacher, which I hope might be nicer than some generic animations.’


Can I customize Lesson Ninja’s settings and content to meet my students’ particular needs? What can I do with resulting gap-fill or matching exercises? 

‘This is something that lays at the foundation of my teaching work in general. I’m an ardent advocate of repurposing. In Lesson Ninja, we call it the 3R’s formulaReuse, Recycle and Repurpose. Whenever I create lesson materials, I want to use them multiple times which not only saves my time, but helps me teach better.

A lot of my decisions, when it comes to Lesson Ninja development, reflect that approach. First of all, after creating an exercise, you can easily duplicate it and transform it from a gapped set to a matching set, or vice versa. You could also easily redo exercises by picking new phrases to gap or splitting the sentences in new ways.

There are also different modes and configuration functions, so your students can, first, do a vocab exercise with a group of words to select from; second, do it with the first letter of a word only; and, finally, do the exercise without any clues. By that point, they will have mastered the material. Thanks to all these possibilities, there are plenty of ways you can work with just one set.

Sharing and Collaboration

How can I share my activities with my students? Can I share them with other teachers? 

‘Lesson Ninja features an interactive student’s link, which, very importantly, DOES NOT require logging in. So your students just receive the link, open the activity and get to work right away. This has been one of the key points for us when developing the app and it does make us stand out.

You are easily able to share your set created in Lesson Ninja with other teachers. They do need an account for that, and after clicking the link, the set gets added to their library.’

Monitoring and Feedback

Does the app keep track of my students’ performance? 

‘This has actually been our most requested function, and something we implemented lately. Teachers need to know IF, WHEN  and HOW the activity they assigned was done by their student to keep track of their performance. That’s why they can see a list of all attempts by their students in a special section of the Lesson Ninja website.

This could also potentially help teachers identify most problematic items for their students.’

Thank you, Maciej!

To Use or Not To ____

From what we see, it seems like Lesson Ninja has everything to become another very effective tool in our toolkits.

The best way to check this is to go to the Lesson Ninja platform and try and use the tool – Lesson Ninja comes with a 14-day free trial – to make a few activities for your students.

Let us know about your experience in the comments below!

If you’re looking for more ways to use gap-fills in the classroom, check our 10 WAYS TO MAKE GAP-FILLS MORE LEARNING-RICH.

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September 15, 2022 at 05:24AM