Friday, May 31, 2013

What is a "Montessori" app?

There is a growing number of educational apps with "Montessori" in the title. In a quick search, typing in "Montessori" in the search on iTunes yields about 450 iPad apps. I suppose claiming "Montessori"might automatically give you some cred, that the app follows a fairly successful educational approach developed by Maria Montessori. But does it? I think of the many educational approaches, the Montessori approach has the most potential as an app because of the underlying principles, especially the materials that require hands-on learning. However, many of the Montessori apps out there don't live up to it's name.

What are the Montessori principles? Here are eight principle of Montessori education - taken from Montessori - The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard (pg. 29). (Angeline Lillard was one of my professors in grad school and we spent quite a bit of time on Montessori!)

1) that movement and cognition are closely entwined, and movement can enhance thinking and learning
2) that learning and well-being are improved when people have a send of control over their lives
3) that people learn better when they are interested in what they are learning
4) that typing extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn
5) that collaborative arrangements can be very conducive to learning
6) that learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts
7) that particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes
8) that order in the environment is beneficial to children

So how do these principals translate to the app world? What I look for in a Montessori app:

1) Is there interactivity where the movement is meaningful and enhances the learning? Do the materials used in the app capture the purpose of Montessori materials? Can kids move around a bunch of "1" blocks and then see that 5 "1" blocks is the same length as a "5" block? Can kids easily make these types of connections from the interactivity offered by the app?

2) What is the premise/context of the activities? I've stressed this before...

3) Is there open-ended play? Is the open-ended activity well-designed and balanced? While we want to give kids control to explore and learn, the activity itself needs to have a purpose, context, and be engaging so that kids will want to choose to play it.

4) Is the app polished, simple and beautiful in design? This might seem like a trivial point, but Montessori materials are polished, simple, and beautiful. Kids should be attracted to it, but not distracted by it. (Back to my Balance issue).

5) How much are kids "rewarded"? I'm not opposed to light forms of rewards, but Montessori apps should be light on reward systems.

6) Are there cooperative learning opportunities? This doesn't just mean make it multiplayer. Do the open-ended activities encourage kids to work together?

Here are a few examples of Montessori apps I like. They may not hit on every principle nor the six areas I look for, but they are some of the better ones of what I've seen so far....

Apps from Les Trois Elles Interactive - I think overall, they do a solid job, though their latest app, Montessori 1st Operation was a disappointment. Check out Montessori Geometry or Montessori Letter Sounds instead.

Apps from Montessorium - These apps are clean and simple. I'm more familiar with the first three shown here...

The Survey Spot
Take this quick survey on parental gating on apps! If you've at all thought about children's privacy and safety while playing apps please take a minute to do the survey. Read the parental gating post for some context.

Click here to take the survey!!
The survey's for parents, teachers, developers, and whoever else. The more responses, the better the results - Help spread the word!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Are Toca Boca Apps Really Educational?

The #1 paid education app on iTunes is and has been Toca Hair Salon 2 for awhile. I don't question why - it's super cute, polished, and fun for kids. But what I do question is whether it is really an educational app - as it's categorized or should it really be under the entertainment category. In general, Toca Boca apps walked the line of educational or not, which for awhile I thought was a strength. Toca Doctor was great - kids could learn about some general health facts while having a fun time with the open ended style of play. I was still on board with Toca Band and Toca Kitchen as it led kids to experiment with music or food and learn about rhythm or about different cooking techniques. More recently though, with Toca Tailor and Toca Hair Salon, I'm not so sure anymore. Sure, they have a little more content than just a mere dress up/hair styling app. One could argue it's just the same as the other apps, showing the process of cooking versus the process of designing and making an outfit. I'm not so sure though. The processes taught in Toca Doctor or Toca Kitchen are much more obvious than the processes taught in the newer apps. Personally, I would rather let a kid who's played Toca Kitchen and Toca Hair Salon cook me something to eat than cut my hair (safety concerns put aside). Seems like with Toca Tailor and Hair Salon, kids can just focus on making something funny or pretty and not really get much else out of it.

A big reason Toca Boca apps have been able to walk the line of being "educational" is the open ended
style of play. There's much to be said of just letting kids explore a subject and figure things out on their own. This style of play also leads to "pretend play" which has been found to be important to young kids' cognitive development. While this open ended and or pretend play has good benefits, it doesn't make the app educational. If kids are pretending to have a tea party, I would say that they are having a nice time playing together, but I would not say they are engaged in learning. So let kids keep playing Toca Hair Salon, but don't call it educational.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments or just vote in the poll to the right.

The Survey Spot - Have you noticed the parental gating Toca Boca has in their apps?
Take this quick survey on parental gating on apps! If you've at all thought about children's privacy and safety while playing apps please take a minute to do the survey. Read the parental gating post for some context.

Click here to take the survey!!
The survey's for parents, teachers, developers, and whoever else. The more responses, the better the results - Help spread the word!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Gro Book: The Adventures of Sophie the Sweater

Gro Book by Gro Play is a book that may bring some nostalgia to some parents. It's one of those stories where you can choose different what happens in the story at various points and see where it leads you. I not only like these stories because I think they're fun, but also because I like that it leads kids to think about plot and storytelling while experiencing a story on many levels.

Given the multiple paths of the story, I think turning these types of books digital can be advantageous and really take it to the next level, which is why I chose to review Gro Book. Price: $3.99

Device RequirementsCompatible with iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPod touch (3rd generation), iPod touch (4th generation), iPod touch (5th generation) and iPad. Requires iOS 4.3 or later. This app is optimized for iPhone 5.

Developmental Appropriateness: The story is fun with a reuse, environmental theme, especially given the format. But don't expect a story that has a great moral or memorable message - it's a story that works with the format. It's fine - but I would not say that the format particularly enhances the story itself. It's a little difficult to pinpoint a target age as I think the book is appropriate for a range of ages. I'm going to put it at 7, which is on the older side because I think 6 yos can more fully take advantage of all the different paths of the story. At this age, they can remember paths they chose before, and also now also make connections between some of their choices. Don't get me wrong, a 5 yo or younger will fully enjoy this story as well. Rating: 4/5 (aim for around 6 years).

Balance: There's not too much here in terms of taking advantage of the features offered by tablets. The software of course helps the path choosing, so that you're not keeping your fingers on certain pages and flipping forward to a specific page to see what happens like back in the day. But otherwise, there's just narration and the option to turn it on and off and to take away or add the text. I'm not sure how I feel about the latter. There's certainly something to be said for just listening to a story - but maybe not in ebook format where kids have come to expect some level of interactivity. There's actually a lot of text - so with no interactivity on the pages and no words to follow, kids may get bored. The simplicity is fine, there's just not much that elevates the experience. Rating: 3/5

Sustainability: With so many paths, there's certainly re-read value here. Some of the paths repeat so don't expect a new story each time at every turn, but there's enough different paths to keep you interested at least the first few reads. Rating: 4.5/5

Parental Involvement: Nothing explicit here. It would have been nice to include some questions for parents to ask while they read or after - especially to compare and contrast the different paths. Rating: 3/5

Total: 14.5/5 = 4 stars

*I received this app for free for review purposes

Trend Alert: Check out these other great apps that let you take part in the story:

For those looking for more interactivity and a classic story in a new way: Little Red Riding Hood by Nosy Crow

For those with younger Elmo fans: Elmo the Musical -Storyteller

The Survey Spot
Take this quick survey on parental gating on apps! If you've at all thought about children's privacy and safety while playing apps please take a minute to do the survey. Read the parental gating post for some context.

Click here to take the survey!!
The survey's for parents, teachers, developers, and whoever else. The more responses, the better the results - Help spread the word!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Trend Alert:"Adaptive" Technology

I am both excited and skeptical about adaptive technology - when the app has incorporated software that will adapt the level of difficulty of the content to each child's skill level. A few examples are: Agnitus - Games for Learning, Leo's Pad: Preschool Kids Learning Series, and Monkey Math School Sunshine.

I am excited about this trend because adaptive software can help give kids practice on exactly what they need and not risk them getting bored by items that are too easy or get frustrated and lose interest in items that are too hard. It can then also provide parents and teachers with more accurate information leading to better instruction.

I am skeptical because while I'm not an expert in adaptive technology, I've worked on developing and evaluating assessments where adaptive technology was considered. So I know at least a little about what it takes to have accurate adaptive tasks. Of course, we don't need to hold apps to the standards of a validated assessment, but in the least, we need to have 1) data (where the items have already been tested on lots of kids of varying skill level) - case in point is Agnitus. I first reviewed Agnitus almost a year ago when they first came out. My biggest problem was their progression - that it was too slow. Now, almost a year later, you can tell that they've collected a whole lot more data from their users and have been updating their adaptive software accordingly. The progression is now much improved. 2) The app would still need to consist of enough items so that the technology can do it's work pinpointing the skill level. Both Agnitus and Monkey Math School Sunshine seem to have a large bank of questions to pull from. So when the software has determined the child has mastered a certain type of question, it moves on. I'm not sure the same can be said for Leo's Pad and how it's being "adaptive." Each episode is more like watching a tv show with only a few moments where they've integrated some activities. Perhaps once all the appisodes have been released? Or it's being adaptive in a different way?

As you'll see, the marketing text for these apps don't really provide any information other than it incorporates adaptive technology. So here are a few things I consider when deciding whether or not to buy an app that claims to have adaptive technology:

1) Does it have enough data? Do they mention having collected any data/done prior studies? Ok - that would be rare. So maybe, look at when it was released. If it's a brand new app, chances are, they are only starting to collect the data they need to improve the adaptive software. Or, possibly, if they are using items from existing curricula or any hint that the items have been tested with kids before.

2) Does it have enough items? Can a few or even several items really be enough to pinpoint each individual's skill level? I would say no. How many items per skill is asked? Maybe kids just got lucky on the multiple choice. Adaptive technology can be tricky because you don't want to leave things to chance, but at the same time, part of the goal is to cut down on repetitive items.

3) Consider the type of skills it's measuring - is it suitable for adaptive technology? Especially in early math, it can be hard to judge a child's skill level with just right or wrong answers. Here's a website from Teachers College, Columbia University and EDC that points out where educators can easily overestimate or underestimate a child's ability based on their answers. If you're developing a math app for preschoolers, it's worth a look. Check out the "Understanding Children's Responses" section.

This website was created to support a math assessment, but the content is pretty universal to early math understanding.
Temporary login for the website:

ID: mathcgm  
Temporary Password: mathkids11

This is not to say that math apps should not incorporate adaptive technology. It just depends on what you're trying to practice. Drilling math facts? Sure, adaptive technology would be great. The goal here would be for kids to be more fluent on math problems, so if they know addition problems pretty well, no need to keep going through them - move on to subtraction. Or similarly, memorizing vocabulary would be a good candidate for adaptive technology. Kids Vocab - Mindsnacks incorporates some variation of adaptive learning technology where you have to get each item correct x amount of times before they deem that you've learned it (kudos on actually providing an explanation for your audience!).

So while I'd like to see more apps with adaptive technology, I'd also like to see more information about why and how it's being incorporated.

The Survey Spot
Take this quick survey on parental gating on apps! If you've at all thought about children's privacy and safety while playing apps please take a minute to do the survey. Read the parental gating post for some context.

Click here to take the survey!!
The survey's for parents, teachers, developers, and whoever else. The more responses, the better the results - Help spread the word!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Trend Alert: Apps that encourage you to take your eyes OFF the screen.

As you can gather from my rating system, I place a lot of importance on parental involvement - more so than most of the other rating systems I've seen out there. For the most part, apps seem to only answer this criteria with reports for parents so they can review and track their kid's progress. Aside from the social benefits, a major reason I think parental involvement is important when it comes to learning is because parents can reinforce the content from the app with real world situations to help kids make those important connects. So I've been really encouraged to see several apps bring parental involvement and as well as the real world to the forefront.

A few examples:

PBS Parents Play & Learn

While this app has great interactive activities that center around everyday activities, what's more impressive are the related activities, or "teachable moments" they suggest for parents to do with their kids both in and out of the app. The related activities are not hidden under a "parent section" or under "more information." They are front and center. Granted, some parents may think these activities are obvious, but you'd be surprised how many parents may not have thought to do these types of activities with their kids - especially when it comes to apps. Especially given the young age that this app targets, it helps create a learning environment that's not just about the screen, but about the kids' surroundings and spending time with their parents in a meaningful way.

Apps from Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College
Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College has created some great apps. Admittedly, some are more polished than others, but at the core of most of them is family time. Alien Assignment and Out-A-Bout are two of my favorite apps because they seamlessly engage kids in their real world surroundings while involving parents in some direct way. Alien Assignment utilized the camera in the device and has kids take pictures of things they find in their surroundings that relate to the storyline of the app and then prompts them to give the device to their parents so they can check their work and get involved. Out-A-Bout
also utilizes the camera, but to create a story. Parents and kids go around taking pictures that are prompted by the app and the end product is a story with those pictures. In both cases, kids are up and about and not sitting around with their eyes glued to the screen.

Ok, so these apps aren't like hot off the presses new, but I remember being impressed and thinking that they were taking apps for young kids to a new level. I haven't seen too much similar stuff since from other developers, but I'm still hoping to.

Finally, I'd like to give some examples that aren't for young kids. Taking your eyes off the screen is not just a positive thing for young kids, but folks of all ages. Apps are on MOBILE devices - let's take advantage of that! There are the more obvious examples like exercise apps and some travel apps that give you virtual tours as you're at that location. But some flawed (these apps could use some usability improvements...) but less obvious choices like Sparkvue - which students can use to create science experiments as use the app as different measurement tools and LeafSnap - which incorporates a leaf recognition feature so you can go around snapping pics of real leaves to learn more about them - push the way we think about how to use apps.

And don't forget to take this quick survey on parental gating on apps! If you've at all thought about children's privacy and safety while playing apps please take a minute to do the survey. Read the parental gating post if you need some context.

Click here to take the survey!!
The survey's for parents, teachers, developers, and whoever else. The more responses, the better the results - Help spread the word!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Endless Alphabet

First off, let me say that Endless Alphabet is a great app from Callaway Digital Arts Inc. It's a super creative and hugely popular app but here's my problem: the title. It's a way better spelling and vocabulary app than it is an alphabet app! In fact, I think it's a poor app for learning the alphabet, especially if used without further reinforcement and support. So parents - get this app, but be careful who you get it for and how you use it. Price - Free (beware of ads though - can purchase ad removal for $0.99)

Device Requirements: Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 5.0 or later. This app is optimized for iPhone 5.

Developmental Appropriateness: This app covers a lot - Letters, phonics, spelling, vocabulary. I think it does a great job for spelling and vocabulary, and even phonics - for kids who have already started to learn phonics. For kids who are just learning their letters and phonics, this may not be so great. It's well, just too cute! It's too distracting. Sure, these younger kids may be engaged and even repeat the letters and sounds, but that does not mean they understand what they are playing with. Being able to repeat the sounds they hear is step one of many to actually learning and understanding letters. A better measure of if they "learned" the letters is to see if they recognize the letters outside the context of the app, in various forms. Kids don't fully understand the alphabet until about 6 years of age - when they are reading. Kids are able to repeat the sounds they hear not because this is a great app, but because they are kids who are at the ideal age where they are learning to produce sounds and talk in general. Do I think younger kids CAN learn from this app? Yes - but I think only with reinforcement from parents to connect the information from the app to other examples of the letters and letter associations and with repeated exposure. Do not get me wrong on this last point - I am NOT saying have your kids play with this app as much as possible, I am saying that they will learn better once the novelty of all the cuteness dissipates.

My fear is that parents of 3 yos or even younger are the ones getting this app - because it's called "Endless ALPHABET" when really it should be parents of around 5 yos who should be getting this app to help strengthen phonics, learn new words and how to spell them. Rating: 3 for 3yo (points for that this is in fact a highly engaging app for this age), 5 for 5yo, so an average of 4/5 stars.

Balance: I think it's ok for the older kids. They know their alphabet and that letters have sounds associated with them. They can get past the cutesy-ness and learn. But like I said, this is too much for the younger kids. Perhaps if the developers specified an age group and titled their app more appropriately (seriously, I think they are selling themselves short as it doesn't mention their best features!) I wouldn't have a problem. But they don't, and I think it's misleading. Rating: 3/5

Sustainability: Kids and even adults will find this engaging. The ever growing word bank also helps give this app longevity. Rating: 5/5

Parental Involvement: There's not much here to help parents be more proactive. Parents should take it upon themselves to play the app together and relate the letters and words to real world experiences. They can even have their own little spelling bees to practice the words they just learned. Rating: 3/5

Total: 15 out of 20 = 4 stars

And don't forget to take this super quick survey on parental gating! Case in point with Endless Alphabet - should the ads here have gating on it?
Click here to take the survey!!
The survey's for parents, teachers, developers, and whoever else. The more responses, the better the results - Help spread the word!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Parental Gating

As promised, I'm introducing a couple of new features for A Matter of App: "Trend Alert" and "The Survey Spot." They're pretty self explanatory, so I'll jump right in.

Trend Alert: Parental gating is popping up in more and more apps. This is when features that are really meant for parents rather than the kids who are playing the app are "locked." The features behind the gate can be in-app purchases, links to buy other apps (cross promotions), links to social media, email, sharing, etc. The parental gate, which varies in how its implemented, stops kids from easily accessing this information, which if accessed, may lead to unapproved purchases, release of private information, etc. Here's an example:
There are other examples where you have to hold for a few seconds, do a math problem, or enter a passcode, but the purpose is the same.

Given the recent FTC children's online privacy update, parental gating seems like it's a step in the right direction. It certainly does not address all the privacy issues, but can help alleviate some of the concern.

But where do we draw the line? What exactly should be gated? Who should be enforcing the gating (parents? developers?) And for what age? A 10-year-old can do math problems and read the gating directions, so is there another form of gating that's more effective? Or maybe parents trust their 10-year-old to be responsible enough to not buy something without permission?

This brings me to "The Survey Spot." This new feature is just a quick and dirty survey to try to get some answers and for you to voice your opinion. I'm going to try to limit them to just one question (ok, one main question - and I may cheat and make it one long question ;)  and a couple of demographic questions). Should take no more than a few minutes.

So for the inaugural "The Survey Spot" - tell me what you think about parental gating:

Click here to take the survey!!

The survey's for parents, teachers, developers, and whoever else. The more responses, the better the results - Help spread the word!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Putting Research to Practice

I thought it would be a good idea to do a refresher on a few of the  research findings that I've discussed and also to see how far we've come in terms of incorporating those findings in the app world.

Less is More: This has been my bread and butter as a researcher. As you may remember, much of my research has shown that preschool-aged children learn better from materials that are simple in presentation. Most directly related is a study I worked on with the Cooney Center showed that kids recalled more when reading a traditional book and an e-book with simple interactions than when reading the same book but with a highly interactive e-book version. I've found the similar findings with pop-up books versus plain, and across different learning domains (learning letters, numbers, facts, etc.) Although this "less is more" theory is more prominent with young children, it can also be applied across the ages into adulthood. A new study found that slightly older kids, 6-8 years learn better from graphs that are plain and simple than from graphs with more colors and pictures (Kaminsky & Sloutsky, 2013). One of the first studies I did in graduate school with a couple of colleagues was very similar, but with middle-schoolers and adults comparing their accuracy in reading plain vs. 3d graphs. They were of course more accurate when looking at plain graphs. So while all the interactivity that can be incorporated in an app may seem cool, it may not be beneficial for learning.

*Check out the Publication section for some of these studies.

Where are we now? Right before my hiatus, I talked about how we were starting to see a shift from let's explore what we can do with apps, which resulted in some apps throwing the kitchen sink in there, to more purposeful inclusion of interactive features. I feel we've definitely continued down that road. It's much less frequent that I might tap on something just to see it sparkle or animate with no purpose. Instead, I might tap on a character in the book and he would say something related to, but not in the text, or tap on the tv to turn it on. However, I think there are still plenty of cases where we could still scale back. Not EVERY item on the screen needs to do something. Is what the character is saying really adding to the meaning of the story? Do we really need to label the chair EVERY instance it appears? And while I've seen more apps incorporate encouraging features like a linked dictionary, many are not well done (understandably, animated dictionaries take a lot of effort).
Grade: B

Realistic vs. Abstract: What is it about seeing letters as animals or other images that make adults think it's so cool? Well, it may be cool to adults, but kids probably just don't get it. I found that kids did not recognize this picture of a dinosaur as the letter D until about 6 years-old - when they already new their letters. So for kids who need to learn their letters, well, this is cute, but not what you need to teach. Other research has found that kids learn labels better from photographs and realistic drawings rather than cartoons. Think about it, if you're trying to teach kids about something they don't really know yet, shouldn't you show them what it really looks like first?

Where are we now? While I've seen many apps now use realistic drawings (especially in the special ed realm), I'm still seeing anthropomorphic numbers and more. While I'm not saying apps should be devoid of amazing art and fun characters, but if it's the to-be learned material, show it in multiple ways making sure to include a realistic version.
Grade: C

Scaffolding: This is probably one of the oldest and more prominent tenants in the education world. In a very general/loose explanation, it's when a teacher, parent, or whoever is helping a student learn and offers the needed support. This person gages the student's ability level and offers prompts, guidance, etc. when needed to help the student reach the goal. This individualized level of teaching is of course effective, but hard to accomplish for a teacher of 30 students or a busy parent. This is where I think an app can shine.

Where are we now? I've seen some, but not a lot of this. Most of the time when I do see efforts of scaffolding, it's in the form of a character providing "hints." However, often the hints are so basic you can barely call it scaffolding. Repeating the question does not count. Just offering up the answer does not count. Rephrasing the question *may* count if maybe new information is offered. But most of the time, I feel apps are still really just focused on right or wrong answers and not providing the extra information to help deepen understanding.
Grade: D

Monday, May 13, 2013

Phase 2 of A Matter of App

I'm baaack!

Hello to those who still follow this blog - I hope you're still there! First off, thank you to those who contacted me about your app while I was on hiatus. While I could not reply back to you, I did read every email and checked out every app!

As I explain in the "About" section of this blog, I feel in the last year or two, I've accomplished my goal of seeing what apps are out there and really just familiarizing myself with apps. My head is filled with apps - I even dream about them (Is that sad?) - reading or chemistry apps, apps with parallax or the gravity feature, apps you shake or just watch, iOS apps and even android apps at times and so much more. So I'm ready to move on to Phase 2 - taking all this information I've gathered and trying in my own little way to synthesize it in a way that I hope can help push the field forward. I'll still do reviews - just less and more selectively - meaning I'll probably only be responding to a small percentage of the emails I get (apologies in advance - but I promise I'll at least be reading them!) And stay tuned for some new features.

I'd also like to bring your attention to the new tabs up top here. I've merged my former Digital Kids Research website here so everything is all in one place and more importantly, because I want to inject more research into this blog rather than just reviewing apps. I've also added to my research services "app consulting." One thing I've learned is that reviewing apps often meant that it was too late to make any substantial changes, so I'm now offering services to get involved earlier.

I hope you continue to join me on A Matter of App.