Making sense of educational apps
There are way too many educational apps out there.
Companies as big as Google and Apple put out education-related apps and there are an enormous amount that are created by independent developers. As an educational professional, it is almost impossible to sort through the offerings and see which ones would work. When you add in the idea that some of this is driven by business, you get wary about the choices you make as well.
I know I am not the first person to say this, but if you wait around long enough in education, things will change. That’s not to say that technology will disappear from the education landscape, but instead, the use of technology might change over time. When you see books like “Amplify” by Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke talk up the ways to incorporate technology to fortify current educational practices, it’s easy to see that technological resources will only grow stronger in the short term. To make the best of a landscape that’s continuously changing, it’s up to educational professionals and developers to work together to get the best out of the resources that are available.
In one way, I am saying that developers should consult with experts in the field in which they are trying to make a game or app. In another way, I am saying that developers and educational professionals should be seeking each other out because educators might have ideas but not the resources to get them out there.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some seriously solid offerings out there. You can assess children (Moby Max, Articulation Screener), work on goals (Super Duper Hearbuilder, iXL, Raz Kids), post-test (Moby Max, iXL, Raz Kids, Read Works Digital), and keep them engaged. You can explore scientific concepts in a game format (Check out Tiny Bop: Human Body, The Earth). You can take virtual field trips to see museums or cities that you’ve never seen before. The possibilities are amazing (though not endless as some might want to say). Sometimes you can get exploration, data, engagement and fun in one app. Then there are other ones that tout themselves as educational but are basically crap.
Here are some basics that any developer should be looking to make in an educational app or program.
- Pre-assessment: Can the program/application figure out a student’s level before they do any work? Some web-based programs such as ones offered by Reading A-Z and Moby Max give kids a “test” so that they can be started off at their level. This is crucial in making sure that time spent in educational technology is worthwhile for students.
- Differentiation: Will the app present information to the student on their level, or is it a blanket presentation? Many apps that I have encountered start children at a basic level. There is a “tutorial” of sorts so that navigating the app is understood, but then children might start at a level that is too easy for them. This really hurts their engagement, and leads to less interest over time.
- Data: Will the application collect data? We all need data these days! If an app or program can collect data, it is treasured by an educator. Anything that allows the teacher to track progress and be able to report it easily is gold. While some apps track data, reporting it is not simple to access. Being able to batch data from multiple sessions/interactions into one report is priceless for an educator. Some offerings from Super Duper Publications do just that.
- Principles: Is the work/lessons in the app based on sound educational principles? Here’s one of the biggest challenges. Not all developers have educational backgrounds or consult with educators. Beyond that, there are different teaching styles and learning styles. It’s impossible to account for all of those things when making a program. However, some “universals” can be accounted for and added. Repetition of material (or at least the ability for a student to access a “repeat” button). Multi-sensory presentation is essential. When working with students with typical materials (i.e.; paper and pencil), multi-sensory techniques involve tapping out on fingers, looking at visuals to represent words, auditory presentations of more challenging materials, or text to support auditory directions. Overall, multi-sensory presentations mean looking at the initial presentation of your material and then thinking of a way to support it. (i.e.; if presenting text, could there be an auditory support?).
- Post-assessment/Review: This is important when thinking about changing levels of difficulty. How can students move up levels or seek out challenges? Are there “quests” to increase difficulty? Do students feel appropriately challenged? When considering this aspect, principles of games can absolutely be incorporated. For example, earning badges for completing quests or earning special points or incentives (fun videos or side games) for completing all parts of a quest. Can concepts be reviewed or tested at the end of a “quest” or unit? These are all crucial things to consider.
Of course, let’s not forget engagement, reward systems, and visuals..
Engagement is a hot topic in education. Are students engaged? How do we keep them engaged? Why do students lose engagement with a topic? By their very nature, computer programs and apps pull kids in. Technology is cool, and kids like to use it. On the other hand, if games or programs don’t challenge kids, they can quickly lose interest. If they are too complicated or hard to navigate, children will lose interest. There is the balance of engagement; keeping the kids interested, but not frustrated. A great way to do this is to plan for pre-assessment. By setting the child’s level from the beginning, you are meeting the child at their level so they feel appropriately challenged.
We discussed rewards in the post-assessment. Some of my favorite apps have the simplest rewards. Quick 10–15 second videos in between tasks are great! Short little mini games are excellent too. When thinking about mini games, try and make them “real” activities. Some apps/programs have games that are random, and not incorporating skill/purpose (i.e.; the guy drops into the water bucket after a random number of throws instead of purposeful action/plan to get the guy to fall). Overall, the idea is to give the child a short brain break before returning to work. Too long, and it’s more game than work. Too short or not interesting enough, it’s too much work and not enough break.
When giving a student visual supports, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. How iconic is the image (will the picture mean the same thing to different children)? Is there an expectation about what things kids should know (i.e.; cultural/regional differences in areas of the US, or even internationally)? Are you using cartoon/line drawings or real pictures? Is the goal to improve understanding or just to make it look nice? You can separate these 2 ideas because images for understanding should be clear. On the other hand, if there is less demand for understanding, images for aesthetic reasons can be an excellent addition to an app/program.
As an educator, I cannot begin to imagine the amount of work that goes into programming an application or program to be used for educational purposes. The hours I spend in planning are overwhelmingly dwarfed by the time programmers log in making programs and apps.
My area of expertise (Speech/Language Pathology) has shown me that there are some developers out there with amazing vision for what they want to do: help people communicate.
There are likely other educational developers out there with similar visions in that they want to help children learn. My purpose in writing was to show all of the things that can go into the planning to make the offering even better, or at least to a standard that would make it clear to people purchasing that it has some basic needs covered.