Joint development of autism app strengthens students' collaborative skills

Joint development of autism app strengthens students' collaborative skills

For more than ten years, software students at Aalborg University have been working on the same project: To develop an app that can help children with autism structure daily life. The collaboration across year cohorts, groups and with external users makes for a unique and innovative learning environment.

Last modified: 30.06.2021

The fact that students at Aalborg University work in a problem-based manner in groups is hardly anything new. But for the past ten years the Department of Computer Science has given the method a boost and introduced multi-projects where several groups of students in the same year in a programme work on a joint project.

For instance, in the fifth semester of the software programme three recurring multi-projects are running. In one of these projects, students are jointly developing an app that can help children with autism structure daily life.

The project, which has been ongoing for ten years, is called GIRAF and it is receiving a lot of attention after an international association of educational institutions, CEEDA, recently highlighted it as an example of an innovative engineering programme.

The coordinator of GIRAF is Ulrik Nyman, Associate Professor and Deputy Head of Studies at the Department of Computer Science. He explains that the unique thing about the project is that students continue to work on what previous students have previously produced.

- They’re not starting from scratch, which also means that they gain insight into what works and whats doesn't. At the same time, it gives them a sense of what it's like to be a developer. In most cases, they also have to work on tasks that others have already had their hands on. In addition, of course, they learn a lot by having to coordinate across many groups.


Since the beginning of the project, Birken and Egebakken, which are day and educational services for children with autism, have played a key role in the development of the app.

Pedagogues, teachers and other professionals work to support children who particularly need daily life to be predictable. Today, in many places physical schedules are used so that each child can see how the day is going. The GIRAF project is working on moving this schedule to an app. Susanne Grotkjær Dremstrup Hansen, pedagogue at Birken who is involved in the project, sees great advantage in a digital platform:

- Many children are happy with their schedule and using their iPad. A physical schedule has advantages, but also limitations. It would be smart if you had the schedule at hand when you’re standing in a supermarket for example and need to explain something to the child. Similar products already exist, but they lack some of the features we'd like. So we’re really glad to be involved in the project and help make decisions.


It is the students who have contact with the staff in the schools and institutions, and according to Ulrik Nyman, having external clients helps to make the project extra motivating for the young people. This is something Susanne Grotkjær Dremstrup Hansen is aware of, and she is pleased that she and her colleagues can give the students valuable feedback:

- We are involved as test subjects and can tell them what’s logical and illogical. That's probably the most important thing – that we bridge the gap between developers and users. Every year, students come up with new ideas, and a number of games were also developed previously. But there we’ve had to say: No, the app doesn’t need all the added features. The most important thing is that the system is stable. It's crucial for these kids.


Although it has been ten years since the first students started, there is still no app ready for use. Ulrik Nyman hopes that a number of new tests can soon be launched and that within a few years there may be a group of students who will continue working on the app after graduation. However, this is less relevant.

- To be honest, this isn’t an optimal way of developing software – to start with new developers every other semester. But the most important thing in my view is not the product; it’s the pedagogical tool that the project creates. We let the students manage the entire process themselves, and it’s actually not a mistake that they get so little support from above. It's more like a feature of the project, says Ulrik Nyman.

The users would really like the app to be completed, but they also understand that this is a process:

It’s still motivating for us, and I can also easily see it from the students perspective. They don’t have much time, and they constantly need to take new technology into account. But we’re ready to test the app when hopefully one day it’s ready to use, says Susanne Grotkjær Dremstrup Hansen.


Want to know about the GIRAF project?
View video on the project
Learn more about AAU's software study programme (in Danish)


Ulrik Nyman, Associate Professor and Deputy Head of Studies, Department of Computer Science, Aalborg University
Tel: +45 4089 2156

Susanne Grotkjær Dremstrup Hansen, Pedagogue, Birken
Tel: +45 9931 7001

Adrian Zippor Plesner, student in the GIRAF project
Tel: +45 2182 5955

Thea Skovgaard Jepsen, student in the GIRAF project
Tel: +45 2963 3186

Media: Nina Hermansen, Communications Officer, Department of Computer Science, Aalborg University
Tel: +45 2294 0459