New report on how educational educational apps can be

Lately there was some bad media coverage on educational apps with schools in LA suing Apple and Pearson, but what is the real potential of apps for learning? A comprehensive new report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, integrates research from scientific disciplines like psychological science, linguistics, and neuroscience to provide an evidence-based guide that parents, educators, and app designers alike can use to evaluate the quality of so-called “educational” apps.

Still… this report is not discussing the apps as such, because there are too few studies around. Therefor the scientists took a different approach, from the press release:

While scientific research examining specific features of individual apps may be scarce, scientists have amassed a wealth of knowledge about how children learn and this knowledge is directly applicable to the assessment of new forms of digital media, including apps, the authors say.

In their report, Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, Golinkoff and colleagues present a comprehensive review of research from many disciplines related to the science of learning, offering a set of four evidence-based principles that can be used as guide, both by developers creating new products and by parents hoping to find high quality games for their children.

The researchers conclude that “educational” apps best support learning when they are:

  • Active in a way that requires mental effort and not just swiping
  • Engaging, not distracting
  • Meaningful in the context of a child’s life
  • Socially interactive because children learn best with others including parents and peers

“These four principles can help us distinguish apps that masquerade as educational from those most likely to engage children in an educationally meaningful experience,” the researchers say. While not all of these principles are necessary, the more an app promotes these types of learning experiences, the greater the educational value of the app will likely be.

The researchers point out that many apps feature content that seems educational, like letters or numbers, but this doesn’t mean that they have true educational value. For example, studies have shown that e-storybooks that contain lots of “bells and whistles” can distract young children from attending to and learning from the actual story. These findings suggest that apps that feature attention-grabbing sound, movement, or other visual elements may be more distracting than they are engaging, and are unlikely to serve as effective educational tools. (note by me: see also Clark & Mayers 2011 redundancy principle)

“There are a number of great apps in the marketplace,” the researchers note. “One of the major reasons we sought to complete this project was to empower a much wider audience to be educated consumers and developers of apps. Since we embarked on this project, we have been approached by a number of the leading app developers who seem excited to include more of the scientifically informed processes in their product lines.”

With the science of learning at their core, Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, Golinkoff, and colleagues believe that the next generation of apps will be able to fully realize their potential as effective and engaging educational tools.

Besides these 4 pillars of learning the authors of the report introduce, I was really enchanted by the example analyses of the different app to explain these pillars (check here), still the report can’t tell if even the truly educational app’s are really working better than other non-app supported approaches. More and different research is needed for this goal.

Abstract of the free report:

Children are in the midst of a vast, unplanned experiment, surrounded by digital technologies that were not available but 5 years ago. At the apex of this boom is the introduction of applications (“apps”) for tablets and smartphones. However, there is simply not the time, money, or resources available to evaluate each app as it enters the market. Thus, “educational” apps—the number of which, as of January 2015, stood at 80,000 in Apple’s App Store (Apple, 2015)—are largely unregulated and untested. This article offers a way to define the potential educational impact of current and future apps. We build upon decades of work on the Science of Learning, which has examined how children learn best. From this work, we abstract a set of principles for two ultimate goals. First, we aim to guide researchers, educators, and designers in evidence-based app development. Second, by creating an evidence-based guide, we hope to set a new standard for evaluating and selecting the most effective existing children’s apps. In short, we will show how the design and use of educational apps aligns with known processes of children’s learning and development and offer a framework that can be used by parents and designers alike. Apps designed to promote active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning—four “pillars” of learning—within the context of a supported learning goal are considered educational.

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