Millions of apps vie for educators' attention. And with limited time and budgets, it's not always easy to find the ones that will keep students' attention and teach them at the same time.

As school districts search for the few quality apps that will fit into their curriculum, instructional technology staff at three elementary school districts shared how they measure and find quality apps.

What is a quality app?

Not all apps are created equal. Sometimes, Carol Kliesen, an elementary instructional technology coordinator at Ladue School District in Missouri, thinks an app will work great. But when she downloads it, the app doesn't always help students learn.

"It has to be engaging, but it has to be more than just fun, and it has to be content-related," Kliesen said.

Instructional Technology Coordinator Nadine Norris from Community Consolidated School District 15 — the third largest elementary school district in Illinois — defines quality apps as:

  • stable;
  • easy to use;
  • flexible;
  • integrating text and images;
  • updated periodically; and
  • integrating seamlessly with the cloud.

When the apps integrate text and images, students communicate in a way that's engaging for them, Norris said.

And with seamless cloud integration, students can take pictures from a camera, the Internet or ones they've drawn and pull them into a presentation. For example, the mobile office productivity software Quickoffice integrates with Google Apps for Education and Dropbox, which students and teachers use to share documents.

Checklist for app hunting

Because there are so many apps, it's best to focus in on three or four, said Craig Badura, K-5 media/technology integration specialist at York Elementary School in Nebraska's York Public Schools.

"You can have 50 to 70 apps on your iPad and your iPod, and really you're never going to use all those," Badura said. "So find the three or four that will work for your classrooom."

And before he sends an app to teachers for their consideraion, he gives the "kid test." He has students try it out and tell him what they think. They're not afraid to say it's a boring app.

A student in Kliesen's distric also gave a frank assessment. The student was bored at home and asked for something to do. Kliesen gave him six websites to test out. By the next day, the student had tried them all out and told her which ones were a waste of time.

Along with choosing a few apps and having students test them, apps should provide immediate feedback to students, Kliesen said. They also should address areas where students are struggling, and should go along with Discovery Education for language arts and math, which the district uses to benchmark student progress.

For example, if test scores show that students aren't grasping fractions, Kliesen looks for apps that will help them work on that concept. She also finds apps that have an adjustable difficulty level. For example, when students struggle with telling time, they got to work on an app at a lower level while students who had already mastered worked at a level that challenged them.

Apps should fit into curriculum and instructional strategies for a wide range of grade levels and content areas, Norris said. This way, they're more economical and flexible.

"I tend to be very careful in terms of apps that are for isolated skills or isolated pieces of content, and go for things that would help the kids communicate and learn and create content for all different curriculum areas," Norris said.

In summary, these educators look for apps that are:

  • engaging;
  • related to curriculum content;
  • stable;
  • easy to use;
  • flexible.
  • kid tested;
  • updated periodically; and
  • integrating text and images.

They also look for apps that:

  • provide immediate feedback;
  • cover a range of grade levels and content areas;
  • offer different difficulty levels; and
  • integrate seamlessly with the cloud.

What do you look for in a quality app? Let us know in the comments!

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.