Monday, January 30, 2012

What is an educational app?

How exactly do we define what an "educational app" is? I think we all have a general idea of what we consider "educational," but with the explosion of apps, we obviously need a clearer definition and standards. I am not the first to say this. I've heard cries from our leaders in this field for setting standards, but what I'm not hearing are the answers.

Since starting this blog, I've been sent many requests for reviewing apps and in previewing these apps, I've really had to ask myself what I consider to be an educational app. I have to admit - I probably have not always been consistent in my judgement. So I thought that maybe writing this post would force me to come up with some guidelines for this little o' blog of mine and maybe start a conversation for how we should set some standards for our field overall. Here are some seemingly basic questions I've asked myself when previewing an app that have led to only more questions and issues to resolve.

1) Does this app teach you something?
At first, I naively thought that asking this question was enough. It would set apart the apps that were "just for fun" versus those trying to teach something. But then came:
  • Apps that stretch the definition of "teaching." Terms like "spatial cognition" and "memory" seem to get thrown out there a lot. Are these skills important? Yes. Does it make the app "educational"? I'm thinking no. A car racing game may lead to better spatial skills, but to me, it doesn't make it "educational." 
  • e-books. I want to say that all books are educational. We want to promote literacy and we want kids to be engaged in books - any books. But do all books "teach" something? I'm not sure. And now, many e-books are starting to look like games and movies. Where do we draw the line? Should we draw a line?
2) Is the subject matter of this app covered in school?
So then I thought a good way this might be a good way to narrow things down. It's not that I think that educational apps should only be about core subjects like math and reading, but it helped me to ask, "Would this topic be covered in school?" But then what about...
  • Preschool apps. Given their young age, preschool curricula is sometimes more loosely defined (speaking of standards...)
    • "Subjects" are not as clearly defined. Often, preschoolers are learning precursor skills, the basics that lead up to learning the concepts of a given subject. For example, learning about the seasons and weather isn't exactly science, nor is telling time exactly math. I would consider these basic skills "educational."
    • Social development. Many preschool curricula (and now apps) cover social skills like learning how to keep a daily routine or having more patience. While I think social development is important and should be taught in preschool, this is a gray area for me. For my own reasons, I've been saying no to apps targeting social development only because my background is more in cognitive development and those are the apps I prefer to be reviewing. But it does seem like apps targeting cognitive versus social skills should be very clearly labelled in separate categories.
  • The Other Subjects. Remember art or music class or library time? Sadly, funding has been cut to many of these subjects. Even gym has been scaled back. I think most would agree that art and music are educational. Library time would support that all e-books should be considered educational. What about gym? I guess gym is really about physical activity (although I do remember having to take tests about the rules of the game...) so I would not consider a sports app as educational as it does not promote physical activity.
  • "Edutainment" apps. For the purpose of setting standards, I am really not liking the term "edutainment". It just opens the door for virtually any app to be considered "educational." I like the idea of "edutainment" in that it trying to make learning fun - and that is a good goal. But it really gives marketers a wide reach to try to capitalize on parents seeking fun yet educational apps. I'm gonna stay away from this label for now and see where it goes...

This is as far as I've gotten. There are probably some gaping holes in my thinking or perspectives I've failed to take into account (hey, I've really only been at this for about a month!)  - you tell me.

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