tablet-childrenThe educational app market has mushroomed in recent years, with an enormous range of new apps hitting the market.  With such a volume to choose from, the challenge for parents is selecting the most appropriate app, and indeed knowing when an app is right or not.

In recent months we’ve seen services like Ender Metrics emerge to try and provide some insight into the academic merits of an app.  Their analytics solution sits underneath educational apps to measure and gauge the learning performance of users.

Choosing the right app

The importance of selecting the right app was highlighted by a recent collaborative project conducted by us and the University of Edinburgh, the pre-school children’s television channel, CBeebies, children’s media industry partners Dubit and Foundling Bird and Monteney Primary School, Sheffield.

The study first examined how pre-school children are using apps and tablets.  It emerged that in households where tablets were present, nearly 1 in 3 pre-school children had a device of their own, using them for over an hour each day.

Whilst the apps aimed at pre-school children did have some educational benefits, many also included adverts for other apps that would then often wipe out any of these benefits.

Principal investigator Professor Jackie Marsh, of the University of Sheffield’s School of Education, said: “The study showed that the use of apps on tablets by pre-schoolers can be very productive and foster a wide range of play and creativity. However, apps need to be chosen carefully by parents for this age group.

“Apps that contain adverts and pop-ups for in-app purchases can limit children’s play. In addition, whilst children of this age want to play some of the same games that their older siblings or parents play, these are not age-appropriate and do not offer a great deal of value for pre-schoolers.”

Most popular apps for pre-schoolers

The study found that children’s top ten favourite apps are:

  1. 1. YouTube
  2. CBeebies (Playtime and Storytime)
  3. Angry Birds
  4. Peppa’s Paintbox
  5. Talking Tom (and similar)
  6. Temple Run
  7. Minecraft
  8. Disney (general)
  9. Candy Crush Saga
  10. Toca Boca

The challenges of selecting the right app for your child was highlighted by a recent report from researchers at Temple University.

“Many apps marketed as ‘educational’ are basically the equivalent of sugary foods,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University, co-author of the report. “At best, most of these apps will do no harm; at worst, they add even more distraction to children’s deeply distracting lives.”

How to choose the right app

The report explores how we can get better at selecting the best content.  It reviewed the latest research into the science of learning, before identifying the kind of features that should prompt us to avoid an app, including:

  • an excessive reliance upon passive activities, such as swiping
  • a heavy usage of distracting bells and whistles rather than allowing the learner to focus on the task at hand
  • the presentation of knowledge in a vacuum rather than helping the user make connections between new and existing knowledge
  • the absence of any human element.  The app needs to encourage social interaction with others
  • the provision of too rigid a style of learning.  They shouldn’t be telling the learner what they need to know, but rather helping to guide the exploration the learner embarks on

“We want parents to know that claims about educational content are completely unregulated, any app developer can slap the ‘educational’ label on their product,” the researchers say. “Using scientific research as a guide, we can help parents begin to evaluate the morass of stuff that exists in the app store.”