Finding Value in Mobile Learning Apps

| December 30, 2010 | 1 Comment
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Tina Barseghian

The mobile app world is changing constantly, as are learning theories around them. For more context on the Cooney Center’s study “Is There an App for That?” here’s my Q&A with Dr. Michael Levine, executive director of the Center, Dr. Cynthia Chiong, the report’s lead author, and co-author Carly Shuler.

How does this report change the thinking around mobile learning apps?

Before the report, we thought of the mobile device as simply another platform for educational applications, only more mobile. But we discovered that the unique affordances of the mobile device is actually going to shift how technology is used in educational settings. This breakthrough has potential to address long standing concerns with young children using media. 1) The average session is short – this calls for a different kind of application. Kids probably aren’t going to watch a 30-minute show on a phone or spend an hour playing a game like they might on a computer or video game console. This may help to allay concerns of too much screen time for kids. 2) The touch screen allows for more active involvement. This can help to address concerns of passive learning (like watching a show).

Should parents feel guilty about allowing their kids to use their mobile phones for games?

No. Kids see their parents using mobile phones all the time. It is only natural for them to want to use them too. And from the data in our study it looks like many parents are letting their children use them responsibly – with restrictions and in moderation. We recommend a balanced media diet that consists of content that is fun, educational, and doesn’t take up too much time in a given day.

However there is reason to worry that such vigilance will erode over time and we would be quite concerned if young children, especially preschoolers began to dramatically increase their mobile screen time.

Based on the design principles the study lists, are there any mobile apps you’d recommend to parents now, even if they’re not fully “there” yet? The study mentions Martha Speaks and Superwhy, but any others that might not be PBS-related?

There are dozens of fun and educational new app’s for elementary age children. Two that we have looked at closely are Project NOAH, a citizen science app that allows children to collect real time data on their favorite animals, flowers and other organisms. A second one is Motion Math, which teaches fractions to children.

Were you surprised at the finding in the study that “there is reason to believe that children currently may not play with an app for long enough to learn much”?

Not surprising at all. Researchers and designers are just at the beginning of their work on mobile apps and there isn’t yet an established “mobile theory of learning.” The shortened sessions we observed will probably be an important factor for designing educational apps. It’s especially not surprising when you think about the context that children are most often playing with apps – in the car and on the go.

What are the most important factors of a great educational app?

At least for right now, mobile apps are meant as supplemental and informal – so make it fun! We also value the intergenerational potential for the apps to help start rich conversations among adults and their children. They should be based on pedagogy and we should continue to do more research in the area.

Why is adaptive technology important in these apps? Are you seeing any encouraging products in the market that truly qualify as such?

The shortened sessions we observed will probably be an important factor for designing educational apps.

Students learn and progress at different paces. It is important to be able to target specific skills at an individual level. Adaptive technology makes it easier to pinpoint those specific skills and also monitor individual student progress. Thus, adaptive technology is often seen in relation to assessment measures. The leader in creating adaptive mobile learning tools in classrooms for young children is Wireless Generation. Another group well worth watching is the work of the Teacher Mate technology.

How can parents differentiate between legitimate educational apps and those that just claim they are?

This is a significant gap in this rapidly emerging field, and one of the main recommendations that our report makes: App developers’ claims of educational impact are largely unsubstantiated and should be based on specific evidence. Parents need more information from consumer groups and educators on how mobile devices can and should be used as learning tools.

1) Go to trusted sources–groups such as Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review are establishing criteria to judge just how effective, age appropriate and well-designed apps are.

2) Most products that have research backing the content will have those research studies available on their website.

How can the educational community make sure that kids from under-served communities have the same access to these educational materials?

We know that the average smart phone buyer – at least for iphones – is skewed towards higher income individuals. But reports still show that more lower income families own a new smart phone than a new computer. Smart phones are cheaper. Perhaps smart phones are a good way to start bridging that gap.

Ideally, these devices will begin to get integrated into the education system through public funding and other grants, taking the expense away from the consumer. However, at this point examples of such are few and far between.

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  • Alelondon

    A few (3? 4?) students discussing on a big(ger) screen seems to me a more interesting setup than reduce even more the socio-physical interaction to a palm-sized touchscreen in isolation. But definitely a more profitable bussiness!