Dear Education App Developer,
Although you have wonderful intentions with supporting student learning and engagement, I think your app can be improved. You might be wondering why I would know what I am talking about? After all, I am not a graphic designer nor do I know how to program. I couldn’t explain to you how Objective-C works and I don’t know the first thing about iOS SDK. But what I can tell you is, I am an educator. I am the teacher of a long history of students. I open my door each morning and greet 25 eager second graders. I am responsible for roll call, bandaid dispensary, bulletin board designing, data entry of grades, collaborator, web developer, and recess duty whistle blower. But most importantly, I am a lesson developer of art, music, physical education, reading, writing, math, social studies, science, and character education.
In addition, I also manage 30 iPods, an iPad, and a small computer lab. I decide what apps are worthy of my students educational experience. Before an app can be uploaded onto one of my students’ iPods, it must meet a high standard for what I determine to be a quality app. In a perfect world, an educational app should have the following qualities:
- Tied to Learning Targets/Standards – The app must be relevant to what my students are learning and tied to a learning target or standard that is necessary for my students to be successful.
- Promotes Critical Thinking– Far too many apps require students to follow the old “drill and practice” method. While this may be good some of the time, most of our students’ time should be spent promoting 21st Century skills such as collaboration, innovation, communication, and self-assessing. The app should promote problem based learning.
- Provides Feedback/Assessment– The app should be able to provide instant feedback to the learner and to the teacher. In addition, the app should be able to collect a history of the student’s work and progress.
- Multifaceted– The app should be able to adapt to the learner as they progress. Scaffolding and differentiation should be provided within the app to allow the learner to have success, but just enough challenge to move them further ahead in their learning. An app that has only one learning level will be quickly outgrown.
- Ability to Share– Students should be able to easily share their work with other devices, desktop, email, and social networking sites.
- Engaging/Student Motivation– Just because they are working on an iPod does not necessarily mean students are engaged. Remember, we are competing with other technologies they are accessing at home, like the Wii, which provide more of an entertainment environment. The power of “gaming” is strong. Students who feel like their learning activity is fun, are far more likely to have better learning outcomes. An app that successfully motivates a child is an app in which students will continually choose to access on their own.
- Age Appropriate– The app should have qualities that are appropriate for the age level of the students who will potentially be accessing the app.
- Reliable– Nothing is worse than an app that continually shuts down. The app should be free from bugs and upgrades should actively seek to fix any problems. Upgrades should never clear a child’s data history.
- Research based– App developers should be testing their apps with students and working in collaboration with classroom teachers. Apps should be able provide data that demonstrates student success prior to the release date as well as on-going data after the release of the app. In addition, the design of the app should be based in some form of sound educational theory.
- Intuitive– An app should be so user-friendly that it is intuitive to use. In addition, a good app should include user instructions or a support page that a child can easily read or follow. In this case, if an app is designed for an emerging reader, the instructions should be provided in a format that an emerging reader can access.
Why should you worry about the quality of your educational app? First and foremost, a teacher’s time with his or her students is precious and society holds us accountable to use that time wisely. Secondly, educators have a limited amount of funds to purchase applications and funds need to be used to purchase only the most educationally sound, research-based apps.
In addition, educators do not want to just layer on old teaching practices on top of new technologies. Education is in a time of great change and there is a shift in teaching philosophies. In order for our students to be successful in the future they must be able to utilize the four C’s: create, collaborate, use critical thinking skills, and communicate. Your app should strive to enhance all four areas while keeping the learning in a context that is accessible and relatable to the learner. Therefore, the design of your app should enhance a child’s learning experience and provide a platform which promotes project/problem based learning.
So here is what I challenge you, the app developer, with. Can your company rise to the standards I have set here in this letter? Can you ensure you are working in collaboration of the education community to create the best possible apps for our students? An app created without the learner’s needs at the forefront, is like creating an app for an empty desk. When designing your educational app, please keep the child and the learner’s need at the top of your priority list. Remember, your apps will potentially be purchased with tax dollars to educate the very people you may one day want to hire.
So here is my open and honest letter to you and a call for action. I hope you find this advice worthy of your time.
Jo-Ann Fox, M.Ed.
To find even more resources for evaluating apps using checklists or rubrics see Tony Vincent’s webpage LearningInHand.com. His post titled “Ways to Evaluate Education Apps” was an inspiration for this letter. Tony posts his own rubric and several other rubrics/lists he has collected.