Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

The Problem with Apps in School

on July 2, 2013

More than a million apps flood online stores around the world, thousands of which claim to be educational. And they threaten to drown educators who already have a huge workload to carry.

Here's the problem. Teachers don't have much time to sift through thousands of apps and figure out how they'll work in the classroom. And the quality and educational value of every app varies.

Linda M. Burch, chief education and strategy officer of Common Sense Media, said it's exciting that developers are creating apps for learning, but "then the problem becomes one of discovery: What is quality in a world in which 1,000 flowers are blooming, and who is the arbiter of quality at the end of the day, and what is it grounded in in terms of research principles and learning design?"

That's why the not-for-profit Common Sense Media decided to launch Graphite, a no-charge platform for educators with financial support from Bill Gates. Graphite acts like a Consumer Reports or Yelp for educational apps, games and websites. Here, educators review apps based on a rubric, share how well they worked in their classroom and make suggestions to app developers. 

The rubric won't be published until teachers evaluate it one more time. But it basically judges apps on a five-point scale in areas including engagement, pedagogy and support. Ultimately, Common Sense Media plans to publish the rubric so that everyone can see exactly what they're being graded on.

Graphite shows promise for educators if teachers become involved in the community, said Principal Kris Mitzner from Diane Winborn Elementary School in Texas' Katy Independent School District. The field notes will be especially helpful because they share actual teachers' experiences with the apps in the classroom.

The co-founder of Launchpad Toys, Andy Russell, has a storytelling app Toontastic that has been reviewed on Graphite and said teachers "have these wonderful new devices of iPads in the classroom, but it's unclear as to what are the right tools to use to achieve their goals and which apps should they be using and how they should be using them because they don't work the same as the old textbooks used to."

Because there are so many apps, a lot of them get buried under the ones that have a huge marketing budget or generate enough revenue to get featured in the app store. But a platform like Graphite levels the playing field and helps teachers discover apps that work best for their classroom, no matter where they come from.

It's important for teachers to band together on their quest for good educational apps. Mitzner's school recently brought 24 teachers together to look for apps that would work for their content area, grade level and students. And when they pass along what they've learned online, they help even more teachers.

"By us sharing, we're making the world a better place because we're improving education for kids all over the world," Mitzner said.

These reviews could also help developers learn what apps teachers need and how to improve existing apps. Many of the apps tend to encourage rote learning and memorization in old tools like flashcards. While these tools have their place, they don't take students deeper into concepts or allow them to learn in ways that last beyond the screen, said Seeta Pai, vice president of research and digital content for Common Sense Media. 

The success or failure of tools like this one depends on whether Graphite can build a large community of educators who contribute reviews on a regular basis. And it also depends on how respected the review standards are.

Whether it's a local school group of teachers or a larger scale platform like Graphite, educators are looking to find the best apps as quickly as possible. And when teachers uncover quality apps that engage students, they'll help solve today's problem of too many gems being buried in the dirt.


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Tanya Roscorla

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.

E-mail: troscorla@centerdigitaled.com
Twitter: twitter.com/reportertanya
Google+: Gplus.to/reportertanya

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