by: Kyle Snow, Ph.D.
In 2015, the Apple App Store included more than 80,000 apps classified as education or learning-based. These apps are finding a ready audience. A 2013 survey by Common Sense Media found that 58% of parents of young children had downloaded apps, a number that is certainly higher today. A 2014 report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that just over half of parents thought their children learned “a lot” from educational technologies, but they also said they were looking for guidance on how to choose educational apps from trusted sources.
How do we know whether an app is educational?
Most online sources for apps include customer reviews. Web sites like Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review provide reviews as well. But to date there has not been a clear view about what makes an app educational, creating what some have called “the digital wild west.”
Applying the Science of Learning to defining education apps
A recently published paper by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues provides a frame for evaluating the learning potential within apps. They describe four “pillars” of learning from the emerging research field called Science of Learning. These pillars describe the best circumstances for children’s learning. They are:
1. Active Learning - This is not just physical activity, but mental activity. Simply tapping or swiping to make something happen on the screen is not as “minds on” as moving images around to complete a puzzle or word, for example. Many apps get children touching the screen physically without much active learning.
2. Engagement in the learning process – Engaging in the learning process means not just getting the child’s attention, but also holding it on those elements of the app that support learning, and avoid distractions. As the authors write, in many apps, “animations, sound effects, and tangential games might be appealing to a child when activated but not add to the child’s understanding of the primary content because they disrupt the coherence of the learning experience and the child’s engagement.”
3. Meaningful learning – Learning occurs when it connects directly to the child. It could be meaningful because it is directly relevant to the child, because it relates to things the child already knows, or because it provides information the child was looking for.
4. Social interaction – Apps can allow for social interaction in several ways: (1) children can interact in-person with the app as a focus of their interaction; (2) multiple users can engage in the app at one time, interacting through the app but not in-person; and, (3) children can interact with characters in the app itself.
Not all apps are educational
While many apps can be active, engaging, meaningful, and interactive, the apps that produce deep learning are those with a designed educational goal that guides the child’s learning. Apps that hold children’s attention and engage them can lead to deep learning if they are built around an educational goal that is appropriate for the child. Some apps can be effective at engaging children, but without an educational goal built into the experience do not lead to deep learning. What is appealing about the model described by Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues is that is recognizes that apps can be used by children for many purposes – to engage in an educational process and learn, or to be engaged in technology in ways that are playful.
How to use this research
While there continues to be debate around young children’s exposure to technology, it is clear that technology, and apps marketed as educational, are here to stay. The framework provided by Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues can be a valuable guide to parents and teachers making choices between apps should they choose to use them. It also provides a framework for developers to consider in designing apps that are highly appealing for young children and can support deep learning.
Parents and teachers can use this framework to evaluate apps that children are using. Applying the four pillars to other information from review sites can guide intentional choices about what apps to allow children to use and which ones to avoid.
Developers can use these pillars to guide the design and implementation of apps that can maximize the potential for learning while clearly providing an educational goal.
Guidance on how to use technology with young children
- Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 - A joint position statement issued by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College
- Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight—Research-based Guidelines for Screen Use for Children Under 3 Years Old - A White Paper from Zero to Three
- A framework for quality digital media for young children - Fred Rogers Center
- Linn, S., Wolfsheimer Almon, J., & Levin, D. (2012). Facing the screen dilemma. Young children, technology and early education. Boston, MA: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. New York, NY: Alliance for Childhood.
- Guernsey, L. (2012). Screen time: How electronic media—from baby videos to educational software―affects your young child. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Kyle Snow, Ph.D is the Director of the NAEYC Center for Applied Research