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When Is an Educational App Classroom Worthy?

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Thumbnail image for 9-blended-learning-ipads-pldistrictprofile.jpgBy Swaroop Raju, co-founder of eduCanon

There are over 80,000 apps in the Apple store marked as "educational." The ed-tech marketplace sometimes feels like the Wild West with no regulations or testing required for an application to be deemed appropriate for the classroom. So how should educators and schools distinguish quality applications from those that are subpar?

Websites such as LearnTrials and edshelf can help educators assess the pedagogical effectiveness of an ed-tech tool. (For specific examples of top ed-tech tools recommended by teacher experts, see our earlier post.)

Beyond ed-tech review sites, Hirsch-Pasek et al. recently published a paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest on a set of principles that can help define the potential educational impact of current and future apps. At the cornerstone of the literature review is the realization that learning is optimized through an app when students are actively engaged with the learning experiences. So what are the pillars of an educational app that encourage active learning? 

1) Active Involvement ("minds on")
Being physically active with an app (tapping or swiping) is not the same as being mentally active. The real educational value of an app comes when the student is engaged in thinking or reflecting upon a problem/challenge. Physical engagement can serve as a conduit to mental engagement (i.e. tapping on a screen to respond to a question during video or physically manipulating an interactive timeline), but it doesn't guarantee this is taking place.

2) Engagement
An app is able to encourage meaningful engagement when it removes the distractions potentially available on-screen. This helps the student effectively meet the learning goals. For instance, although YouTube offers a wealth of educational video content, it is full of distractions for students. Suggested videos, advertisements, and lack of accountability measures all leave plenty of room for students to zone off or navigate to another website. An app that removes such distractions and incorporates accountability measures leads to deeper student engagement. A few apps/web resources in this realm are safeshare.tv and TubeChop. Of course our own product, eduCanon, is pretty good for this too.

3) Have Meaningful Experiences
True learning occurs when we make connections between new material and related content we already know. For that reason apps need to put teachers front and center. For instance, a teacher can use an app to customize a reading activity or video to the history and interests of the students. It is crucial that the app goes beyond the rote memorization that many apps in the marketplace encourage.

4) Using High-Quality Social Interaction
Social interactions between students and their peers, parents, and teachers are significant contributors to the education of a student. Apps can play an important role in this through their ability to facilitate high-quality social interactions. This can take place either through a tech tool that facilitates student cooperation on an activity (i.e. Google Apps for Education Suite) or a product that tightens the feedback loop between teacher and student (i.e. giving feedback to students on a class activity through Classkick, or remediation on misunderstandings during a video through eduCanon).

See also:

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