Log into any app store and parents will find hundreds of options for kids that claim to be educational. But new research suggests these apps may not be as beneficial for children as they appear.
A new study analyzed some of the most downloaded educational apps for kids using a set of four criteria designed to assess whether an app provides a high-quality educational experience for children. The researchers found that most apps scored low, with free apps scoring even lower than their paid counterparts on some criteria.
Jennifer Zosh, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Brandywine, said the study – recently published in the Journal of children and media – suggests that applications should not replace human interaction nor guarantee learning.
“Parents shouldn’t automatically believe that something marked ‘educational’ in an app store is actually educational,” Zosh said. “By playing apps with their kids, telling them about what’s going on while they play, letting them know what’s going on in the real world related to something shown in an app, and selecting apps that minimize distractions, they can leverage the pillars of learning and successfully navigate this new digital childhood. “
According to previous research, about 98% of children aged eight and under live in a home with some type of mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet. While watching videos and playing games are popular ways for kids to spend their time on these devices, the researchers said there are also plenty of apps that are not only popular, but claim to be educational.
Marisa Meyer, a research assistant at the University of Michigan, said the idea for the study arose when reviewing the most downloaded apps on the Google Play Marketplace for different searches.
“We have noticed a disturbing number of applications marketed to children as being ‘educational’ without justification or reputable verification of these educational claims,” said Meyer. “Our study was an effort to create a coding scheme that would allow us to evaluate applications marketed as educational and have a framework to verify or disprove these claims.”
For the study, the researchers developed a system for evaluating educational applications based on Zosh’s earlier work in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, which used decades of research in the science of learning to uncover ” pillars’ of learning – or the contexts and traits of truly educational experiences. In this article, says Zosh, “we explored how these pillars might give us insight into how to leverage new technologies to create truly educational experiences for young children.
In the current study, Zosh and the other researchers tested the apps kids actually use against these pillars to find out what today’s apps work well and where they struggle to support youth learning. children. Researchers judged a high-quality application based on its performance in each pillar.
“The first pillar is to facilitate active and reflective thinking in children – asking them to question, guess, assess and think deeply, rather than just touching or reacting to stimuli on the screen,” Zosh said. “The second is that it helps kids stay tuned in to the learning at hand, rather than distracting them with awesome sound effects, flash ads, and nifty rewards.”
The researchers said the third pillar contains relevant and meaningful content that facilitates a connection of application-based learning to the user’s external world. Finally, the fourth pillar is that the application provides opportunities for social interaction, in person or through the screen.
The top 100 educational apps for kids from the Google Play and Apple app stores, as well as the 24 apps most frequently used by preschoolers in a separate longitudinal cohort study, were analyzed for the study. Each application was scored from zero (low) to three (high) for each pillar. Applications that had a combined score of less than five after adding scores for each pillar were considered low quality.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that a grade of “1” was the most common grade for all four pillars. For the fourth pillar – Social Interaction – a score of “0” was the second most common score.
According to the researchers, because these apps might not provide high-quality educational experiences for children, they risk parents choosing them over other activities – such as reading, physical activity or pretend play – which could. in fact be more beneficial.
Meyer added that the study also had implications not only for parents, but also for app developers.
“If application developers intend to generate and promote educational gains through the use of their applications, we recommend that you collaborate with child development experts to develop applications rooted in the how children learn most effectively, ”said Meyer. “We also recommend that app designers and app stores work with experts in child development to create evidence-based appraisals of apps, so that better quality products with fewer annoying improvements can. be easily identified by parents.
Caroline McLaren, University of Michigan; Michael Robb, Common Sense Media; Harlan McCafferty, University of Michigan; Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, University of Delaware; and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Temple University, also participated in this work.
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development helped support this research.