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Deciding What Apps to Use in the Classroom

By McGraw-Hill Education 2 months agoNo Comments
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Have you looked at the App Store recently? Whether you’re an Apple or an Android user, your devices allow you to select from millions of apps. The June 2016 numbers put Android apps at 2.2 million and Apple at 2 million. Besides apps to track your calories, calendar apps and Angry Birds, Apple boasts that it has 80,000 educational apps designed specifically for the iPad. As educators, we are being encouraged to incorporate more technology into the classroom. But how do we know which of these 80,000 apps is best for our students?


The Research

A group of researchers recently published a study, “Putting Education in ‘Educational’ Apps: Lessons from the Science of Learning,” where they defined parameters for evaluating education apps. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Jennifer M. Zosh, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, James H. Gray, Michael B. Robb, and Jordy Kaufman focused their study on apps designed for newborns to 8 year olds, because the possible effects on early learning can have long-term impacts. As the researchers developed their tools for evaluation, they focused on the science of learning and how apps can be designed to function the way a child learns. With their focus on young children and the science of learning, they chose not to evaluate or review the apps in the marketplace. Instead, they set up evaluation parameters that we can use as we look for apps to use in the classroom.


Science of Learning

In a previous blog post, we discussed learning sciences and offered this definition: “learning science is an interdisciplinary field focused on the development of effective learning methodologies and solutions.” It is a still developing field, but Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues propose that the science of learning provides us with the fundamentals to understand how children learn most effectively and we can then use that information to evaluate children’s education and the education apps. As Hirsh-Pasek et al said, they want to use the science of learning because it provides research and their evaluation of apps and proposals for app design can then be evidence-based.


The Four Pillars

Hirsch-Pasek and her colleagues discuss the four pillars as “four psychological principles that can be derived from the scientific literature” and propose using the four pillars to evaluate app design before incorporating them in our classrooms. The four pillars tell us that students learn best when they are:

  1. Cognitively active
  2. Engaged
  3. Having meaningful learning experiences
  4. Socially interactive
The Four Pillars of Evaluating Education Apps

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.


Active Learning

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

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.


Social Interaction

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.


Learning Goal

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.


Evaluating Apps

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.

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