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Common Sense Media Launches Learning Ratings for Apps and Games

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One of the key problems with educational media is that there are no objective, neutral arbiters who are evaluating apps, games, and Web sites to determine whether or not these media offer meaningful learning experiences. As a result, developers have an incentive to focus on making their products "appear" educational rather than focusing on actually making them meaningful learning experiences. There is no external review for developers making any kinds of claims about their products.

How might the marketplace change if an external judge was introduced into the system? Would it help parents and teachers make better choices? Would it force developers of educational products to think more carefully about their claims? More importantly, would it pressure them to make better educational products?

These are the questions that the Susan Crown Exchange (a philanthropic foundation) has decided to try to answer by funding the development of a learning rating system created byCommon Sense Media, a leading public advocacy group for parents and educators.

Over the weekend, the Susan Crown Exchange and Common Sense Media announced the beta version of their Learning with Technology ratings. The first phase this effort is an attempt to rate a wide variety of apps, Web sites, and software programs with a Learning Rating, which will go alongside Common Sense Media's other ratings for age-appropriateness, quality, and safety. So far, they have rated 150 products, with a goal to complete 800 ratings by the end of 2012. Common Sense Media describes their rating efforts with this introduction:

Because media profoundly affects our kids' social, emotional, and physical development, Common Sense Media rates media based on age appropriateness and learning potential. We rely on developmental criteria from some of the nation's leading authorities to determine what content is appropriate for which ages. Research on how kids learn from media and technology informs our learning ratings. Our goal is to give you trustworthy information so that you can decide what works for your family. We know every family and every kid is different -- but all families need information to make great media choices.

In the short term, the hope is that these ratings will give parents an objective tool to make good decisions. For now, the ratings, on a scale from 0-3, are publicly viewable on a Website and the products are searchable by type, title, age and learning rating. So if a parent is thinking about making some app purchases for a child's birthday, he or she could go to the Common Sense Media site for some suggestions before going to a vendor site to purchase the product.

In the future, however, these ratings could be seamlessly integrated into online vendors such as Amazon, Toys R Us, Google Play or the Apple App Store. As a simple start, they might exist as visual annotations to a product guide on Amazon or the App Store (imagine the learning ratings being placed right next to the customer reviews). It also might be possible to have the ratings be incorporated into search results in some way, perhaps invisibly. Imagine if, when you select the Education category in the Apple App Store, the results were presented such that apps with high learning ratings from Common Sense Media were more likely to rise to the top, or if highly rated products were more likely to be "featured." If developers knew that a strong rating from Common Sense Media could give them an edge in visibility, they would be much more likely to make products that actually promote learning, rather than feeling pressure to market products that are fun, attractive, and appear to promote learning--regardless of their actual learning potential.

When I think about the project, I think about my colleague Andrew Manches, who has developed an iPhone app, Digicubes, that replicates Cuisinaire Rods, colored manipulatives designed to teach basic number sense and arithmetic operations. Andrew has a PhD in early childhood development and has done extensive research on early childhood education and new media, but he's competing in a marketplace with companies who can put together huge marketing budgets to make all kinds of learning claims that don't have to have any basis in learning sciences or anything else. It will be exciting to see if Common Sense Media ratings can tip the scales for developers like Andrew.

One of my strongest hopes for Common Sense Media is that their strategic plans will look very seriously at how their learning ratings can be useful to the widest possible set of parents, families, caregivers, and educators. Of course, Common Sense Media is making their ratings available to everyone for free, but as I've written about before, making things free doesn't mean that they will be distributed equitably. It's quite possible that these ratings could be one more way that affluent parents have more information and more tools to give their children an educational advantage from early on. I hope that the partnership between Common Sense Media and the Susan Crown Exchange is developing specific plans to make sure that the ratings and tools are widely publicized among diverse parents and educators. It will be important to advertise the ratings and get good publicity in diverse media sources, not just ones that serve tech-saavy educators. Another strategy might be to incorporate language translation tools into the site, so that it's very easy for speakers of Spanish and other common languages used in the U.S. to take advantage of these resources. These learning ratings can do the most good if they are available to families who face the greatest challenges in getting access to high quality educational experiences.

Perhaps the most fun part of the learning ratings project is that the ratings provoke really difficult questions about "what is learning?" and "what is good learning?" In my next post, I'll look at some of the products rated by Common Sense Media, and think about what the ratings say about what we think learning is.

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