In the last couple of years, many parents and teachers have turned to educational apps to supplement learning. But what makes an app educational? In a world where apps are not (usually) created or tested by educators, this can be difficult to work out.
In July, an EEF report highlighted the value (and difficulty) of applying research to education. When we are trying to work out if apps are educational, understanding research on “the science of learning” can help us make more informed choices.
The science of learning pulls together research from many different fields (such as psychology, biology and computer science) in an aim to understand how learning occurs and how we can optimise it.
Years of this research have identified key psychological principles that consistently support learning. Three of these “pillars” – first coined by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and others – we can apply to optimise learning from apps are:
- Cognitively active (“minds-on”) learning
- Engagement with the learning material
- Social interaction
If we can choose apps that can encourage one or more of these pillars, then we can be confident that they have educational potential.
Pillar 1: cognitively active (‘minds-on’) learning
In order to learn, children should be cognitively active in their learning. One of the biggest concerns around apps is that they can be passive, holding children in a trance, but not really making them think about what they are doing.
For an activity to be “minds on”, we need to give children the opportunity to interact with and manipulate the concept they are learning. In the classroom, we might support this by getting the class to think about what a new word might mean, based on what they already know (eg, its context, prefixes, suffixes), rather than giving the definition straightaway.
Sometimes a child can look like they are actively involved in their learning on an app when they’re not. Merely tapping or swiping the screen does not mean that children are cognitively active or “minds on”. These actions require little cognitive attention themselves, so the context they’re used in is important. While swiping to make some stars appear might not be very cognitively involved, swiping to pull together letters to form a word could be.
Apps can empower children to play an active part in their learning, through giving them an appropriate level of control (based on age/performance) and allowing them to explore, interact and proceed through the learning materials at an appropriate pace.
As teachers, we need to try the apps ourselves, to see whether any thought is involved, or whether these interactions are simple “minds-off” touch-responses.
Pillar 2: engagement with the learning material
To learn effectively, children need to be engaged with the learning material and stay on-task. In the classroom, a child may be engaged, but then distracted by another pupil. Similarly, if a child is engaged with an app and then an advert pops up, their learning may too be compromised. Research has shown that even adults struggle to perform well when distracted. If a child is unable to focus on the right thing, of course they will struggle to learn.
Children love apps because of their attention-grabbing “bells and whistles” (interactivity, mini games, pop-ups). However, these bells and whistles, while appealing to children, may distract from the content to be learned. For example, an app might be telling a story and then ask a child to click all the blue objects they can see. While this activity might be helpful in another context, research shows breaking the narrative in this way disrupts the child’s learning and understanding of the story itself.
However, because they often give an immediate response, apps can attract a child’s attention to the learning material very easily. They can also maintain this engagement by giving feedback, such as motivational praise – “great work!”, “keep going!”, “try again” – throughout the learning exercise. Through this interactivity and gamification, apps can be powerful tools for engaging children in topics they otherwise avoid.
Apps can be a great way to get children to engage with learning materials they might otherwise not be so interested in – for example, Times Tables Rock Stars – but make sure they are engaged with the right thing. It might be worth checking the controls of your app to disable pop-up features or mini games, particularly for children who are easily distracted.
Pillar 3: social interaction
We know humans are social animals, so it makes sense that we learn best when socially engaged. Being able to discuss what is being taught can help children think critically and deeply about what they have been learning. In the classroom, we might encourage this by getting students to learn about a topic and teach it to their fellow students.
While research shows that in-person interaction is best, advances in internet speeds have improved live-chat ability, to the point that children can now learn equally well from a live on-screen interaction as they can from a real person. This is a relief for educators who have been teaching remotely during the pandemic. However, with technology as well as in person, the quality of the social interaction is crucial.
An app may be able to give children touch-response feedback but is unlikely to be able to respond to anything going on off screen. For example, an app may be able to reward a child for clicking items beginning with the letter C but might not respond when a child says the letter themselves.
In my own experience, lack of social interaction is one of the main concerns I hear from parents and teachers. Apps are marketed as educational without the need to justify it, and parents may encourage their child to spend longer on them, believing they are learning from them, without us knowing if this is actually the case.
Apps can support social interaction by giving prompts for children to discuss what has been taught, or by encouraging collaboration within the app. While some might not explicitly give these opportunities, we can still invoke this pillar by encouraging discussions around the app. As with any activity, asking questions and encouraging discussion around apps can foster deeper learning.
Years of research on the science of learning has allowed us to understand how learning occurs, and how we can optimise it. If we can choose apps that encourage children to be cognitively active in their learning, engaged with the learning material and socially interactive, then we can be confident that we are choosing apps that have educational potential. However, just because an app is marketed as educational, doesn’t mean it is.
Grace Pocock is a PhD researcher at Royal Holloway. Her research focuses on the efficacy of educational apps for literacy development, and ways we can best support children's learning