These four pillars probably sound logical and familiar because as educators we have been using and considering them in our classrooms. The study shows us that these pillars apply across any educational medium. Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues discuss how each of these pillars are studied in the literature, how they have been evaluated in educational television programming – because it is the closest equivalent with a body of research – and how it can apply to apps.
The buzz-word that Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues develop for active learning is “minds-on.” The term tells us that the requirement for active learning does not mean that students are in the classroom jumping, running, or dancing. Instead, minds-on tells us that students are mentally focused on what they are doing.
Apps allow for student interaction, but Hirsch-Pasek et al remind us that it does not take any mental activity to tap or swipe a screen. In fact, you may be swiping the screen to read this, without even considering that you are swiping.
The researchers encourage us to use apps for education that encourage active cognition. For an example, Hirsch-Pasek and her colleagues tell us that learning a language requires active cognition that could be encouraged by an app through “interpretation, translation from words to mental images, and manipulation of symbolic material,” focusing on the student’s activity.
Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues define engagement as the ability to stay on task. A variety of factors are involved with engagement and apps have the ability to manipulate a lot of these factors.
The first issue is ease or challenge. As we choose an app to use in the classroom, we need to consider the sweet spot that makes the app challenging but still accessible for the student. The second item to consider is distractions. In a reading app, does the app suddenly break into the story and ask the student to count the number of items that are red? That is a distraction from the learning. Students remain engaged when they are in control of the action, which gives us the third factor to consider. In the same reading app, does the student get to move the page forward? And the final factor is motivation, both extrinsic and intrinsic. The app can provide a variety of extrinsic motivation through cheers or earning badges or praise. But the motivation should be focused on fostering a growth-mindset and must allow space for intrinsic motivation.
Meaningful learning is created when we tie the learning experiences to real life. Meaningful learning allows students to go beyond simply memorizing a formula to understanding that when faced with a problem, they might choose to use that formula to solve the problem.
Hirsch-Pasek and her colleagues recognize the difficulty of evaluating an app for meaning, and say, “A reasonable proxy might be to consider the quantity and quality of connections between the app experience and the wider circles of a child’s life.” One example they give is an app that asks students to interact with the environment around them using the device’s camera. If teaching counting, it may ask the student to count the number of tables in their classroom, showing them how they might count in real life.
Another option for creating meaning is to focus learning around a narrative or plot. This allows students to see situations in the story that use a particular set of knowledge and understand how that might apply in their life as well.
The final pillar is social interaction. Research shows that when students are able to interact with others, they learn more effectively. Our image of a student using an app for learning has the child sitting alone looking at a device. But Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues make the comparison with television, which also seems like a solitary endeavor, but offers opportunities for social interaction. Television becomes social through co-viewing, and through relationships with the characters. Apps have the opportunity to use these interactions as well.
An app can incorporate social interaction first by requiring real interaction with another person in the room with you. Students may team up to play the app or solve a problem or interact with their real environment. The app might also encourage parent-child interaction or create parasocial interaction – creating a character that the student can relate to like television does with Elmo on Sesame Street. The app could also create a teachable agent, a figure in the app that the student can then instruct. And finally, apps have the opportunity to create mediated social interactions by linking students through their devices so that one child can learn from another using the same app.
As they finish the discussion of the four pillars, Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues mention that the four pillars must function in the context of a learning goal. It is not enough to be minds-on, there must be some specific learning goal.
With a goal in mind, the technology of apps provides a variety of opportunities to make learning easier for students. Apps can provide scaffolding through hint systems and leveling. Apps can also use technology to create adaptive learning, moving quickly through topics that students know and providing detailed instruction for topics students don’t know.
Concluding their discussion of the four pillars, Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues present a quadrant to evaluate apps simply. The four pillars are on the y-axis and educational content is on the x-axis. As we examine an app, we can determine which of the quadrants it falls into, whether it is low value or whether it allows deep learning.
As educators, we will continue to be asked to incorporate technology into our classrooms. We need to consider this fundamental question of what is the educational value of the technology we incorporate. With 80,000 educational apps the field is overwhelming, but we can use this evaluation method to make the best choices for our students.