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).
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.
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.