What Makes an App Educational?

When I speak about educational technology, one of the first questions I am asked is, “What does the research say?” This is a fantastic question because we want the work we do at the Fred Rogers Center to be evidence-based. But it is a very difficult question to answer. Technological innovation and change rapidly outstrip the ability of research to catch up. Parents and teachers are being marketed many apps, and it is hard to choose which ones have legitimate value for children. But that does not mean we cannot make evidence-based decisions about how young children use technology. Research on new interactive technologies may only be a few years old, but we have decades of good research on child development.

In a new article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, my coauthors and I pull together findings from the “science of learning”–an interdisciplinary field that combines psychology, linguistics, neurobiology, machine learning, computer science, and other areas–to articulate what can make an app truly educational for children ages 0 to 8.

We combed through more than 200 articles and suggest four “pillars” that parents, educators, and media makers can use to evaluate children’s apps:

  • Active participation. Children should be more than hands-on, they should be minds-on. Look for apps that require deep mental effort and not just quick reaction times or mindless swiping.
  • Sustained engagement. Well-made educational apps keep users engaged with activities and immediate feedback that are related to learning goals, and do not distract with unnecessary animations, sounds, or games that do not add to children’s understanding of the content.
  • Meaningful connections. Apps that relate to children’s interests or prior knowledge are particularly well-suited for learning. Be careful of apps that present knowledge in a vacuum. For example, getting children to learn about shapes by showing them flashcards of shapes may be less useful than an app that helps children recognize shapes in the world around them.
  • Social interaction. Apps that encourage conversation, cooperation, and even competition with other people can deepen learning. Apps can even provide characters who socially respond to children’s input, and that children feel connections to. Keep in mind though that no app is as responsive (or as loving) as a live human partner!

Of course how much a child gets out of an educational app depends on how the child is using that app. Apps that score high on each pillar may be even more effective if they are used in a supportive educational context, for example alongside an adult or in a classroom setting.

Apps that have explicit learning goals (e.g. “this app is meant to teach about animal habitats”) and well-thought-out designs can be more successful because they allow children to explore and grow. Context can also be provided by teachers if the app is used in classrooms, or by parents providing their own guidance.

There are also many excellent high-quality apps that provide engaging, playful experiences for children ages 0 to 8, but do not necessarily have explicit learning goals. Those apps have a place in children’s lives too, and children should have opportunities to choose apps that interest them.

When choosing apps for your children, don’t despair. Use the four pillars as a mini-checklist to determine whether the app your child is using is likely to be truly educational or is just marketing hype.

The article, Putting Education in Educational Apps: Lessons from the Science of Learning was authored by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Jennifer M. Zosh, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, James H. Gray, Michael Robb and Jordy Kaufman.

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  • Maureen Boggs / 22 December 2015 5:42

    Greetings. I attended a presentation at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum in October and heard/saw a presentation by Mr. Rogers’ colleague (I can’t recall his name). It was a compelling video and a wonderful presentation from a parent’s perspective (conducted by a researcher) on the value of quality early childhood. I loved that presentation and am so glad to now be connected with the Fred Rogers Center. I attended that event as a part of a national Build meeting. Thanks for your good work. I represent a child care resource and referral agency in Southeast Ohio, serving 31 mostly Appalachian counties as a service of a coalition of 17 Community Action Agencies. We can learn a lot from Pittsburgh on how to approach early childhood in our communities.

  • Maureen Boggs / 22 December 2015 5:48

    I found this particular article insightful this week as Christmas draws near. I know many young children will be introduced to new technology as a gift. It’s good to have such a tool as this article to share with the parent giving gifts.