The Worst Ways to Select Education Apps

kmThe challenge for educators now, as is the case with every other wave of hardware tools in the classroom, is to figure out how to best use tablets to help improve student-learning outcomes. In addition to learning how to use the devices physically, one of the biggest hurdles they face is finding appropriate content, or apps, for students to use on tablets.

Many teachers who are new tablet users fall into similar patterns of searching for and selecting educational apps for their students. And these most common patterns tend to be the least effective:

Choosing an app because it comes from a familiar company.

As consumers, we often buy products from companies with brands that we recognize. In the educational app market, those recognizable brands are often large educational publishers and media companies. But just because these companies make great textbooks, movies and television shows doesn’t necessarily mean they will make great educational apps. What we see in our reviewing is that these large companies tend to be very inconsistent in the quality of their apps… some are very instructionally good, and some are really poor. What that tells us is that there isn’t a deliberate method of instructional design underlying the development of these apps. They tend to be very visually appealing, oftentimes with familiar characters from other media, but are hit and miss with respect to instructional quality.

Choosing a paid app because you believe that “you get what you pay for.”

How many of us have shopped for a product and bought the one that was priced “kind of in the middle,” because we didn’t really want to spend to buy the most expensive option, but the cheap options couldn’t possibly be good? I know that I’m guilty of that. But in educational apps, price doesn’t predict quality. We recently ran some analyses of the more than 1300 app reviews that we’ve completed. When we ran a correlation between price and quality score, we found that there is no relationship between price and quality (r=0.0547). This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy paid apps. It just means that you can’t assume that a paid app is any better just because someone’s charging for it.

Choosing an app based on the developer description or user reviews in the app store.

If you’ve been to any of the apps stores lately you’ve probably noticed something: pretty much all of the apps claim that they will teach your kids. And if you’ve downloaded any variety of educational apps, you know that’s simply not so. Well, it turns out that it gets even worse. You know those “user reviews” that appear below the app description? There are some problems with their objectivity. We would expect that developers’ friends and families would post very flattering reviews of a product. But what I was surprised to learn (call me naïve) is that sometimes competitors try to sabotage each other by posting negative reviews in the app stores. It seems to be a widely acknowledged problem in app developer circles. The upshot is this: you can’t completely rely on the information in the app store.

Choosing an app because it’s on a “Top Chart” in the app store.

It’s obvious that Top Charts are just based on popularity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t good pedagogical reasons for educational apps reaching the top of the charts. Of course, I got curious about that, so one day I went to one of the app stores and downloaded the top 10 paid apps from the education category and I reviewed them all. I found that I could recommend only two of the top 10 apps based on their instructional quality (read the full post here). So it’s useful to remember that just because a lot of people bought an app, that doesn’t mean it’s a good app.

Choosing an app because someone tells you his or her students liked it.

This might be the most tempting option of all. You hear from a friend or colleague or reviewer that the kids they work with liked the app…and they’re sure your kids will like it, too. But here’s the thing: learners like being successful. What does that mean? If kids say they like an app, it’s likely to be (at least in part) because they have the necessary skills to use the app successfully. This doesn’t mean that kids only like to use apps that are super easy for them… quite the opposite. They like to be challenged, just not to the point where they lack the skills to continue to make progress. So while your colleague’s students may have liked an app, their skill levels could be vastly different from your students’. And that will impact your students’ enjoyment. So unless the app being recommended has adapting levels of difficulty to accommodate all users, be wary.

That’s a lot of what not to do, but how many of you have been selecting apps in one (or more) or those ways? So, what should you do? I can recommend two approaches:

First, if you have been spending money on apps, only to be disappointed, start opting for apps that use a freemium model. In a freemium model you can access a limited amount of functionality in an app for free to see if you like it. Then, if you do, you can upgrade to the fully featured app for a fee.

Second, find a reliable resource for app recommendations. There are quite a few educational app review services out there and they’re easy to access online. As you shop around for educational app review sites, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are the rubrics being used clearly defined and transparent? Can I easily understand how the reviewers decide whether or not an app is good?
  2. How did this organization arrive at these rubrics? Are they objective or opinion-based?
  3. Does this organization charge a fee for completing a review? If so, should I be concerned that this is influencing the review the app receives?
  4. Does this organization take advertising money from app developers? Again, should I be concerned that these monies are influencing the reviews?
  5. And once you’ve tried some of the site’s recommended apps ask yourself: What was my experience? Did the recommended apps prove to be useful to my students?

Between the iTunes and Google Play app stores, there are already more than 150,000 educational apps available today. As the volume of available apps increases, decisions about which apps to use with your students will become more difficult. But by avoiding some of the most common selection mistakes and finding a reliable source of recommendations, you can avoid some of the biggest frustrations with disappointing apps. Not only that, but your students might actually learn and have some fun along the way!

Karen L. Mahon, Ed.D., is an Educational Psychology and Instructional Designer. She is the President and Founder of Balefire Labs, an educational app review site targeting PreK-12 mobile apps for math, science and English language arts. Balefire Labs is known for having the most rigorous review criteria for instructional quality in the market today. To learn more about Karen, Apps and Balefire Labs, visit www.BalefireLabs.com.

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  • Gordon Frohloff
    11 November 2013 at 8:32 pm - Reply

    Agree with your point…..”. But by avoiding some of the most common selection mistakes and finding a reliable source of recommendations, you can avoid some of the biggest frustrations with disappointing apps. Not only that, but your students might actually learn and have some fun along the way!” Thanks for sharing. @gfrohloff

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