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Contributor: ThinkFWD
Taking a swipe: Creating apps to improve learning

Screen time for young children is currently a hotly debated topic. How much is too much? And what role could mobile devices and apps play in the education sector? 

Traditional naysayers will insist that staring too long at a screen will give children square eyes. But the fact is that touch screens and interactive experiences are seldom out of arm’s reach and promise to become even more ubiquitous in the near future.

So is it right to limit a child’s time with this richly interactive medium which is bound to play an important role in their development and their adult life to follow?

Learning about learning apps

The advent of mobile computing has led to the growth of a huge market for apps claiming to offer educational benefits. In fact, more than 275,000 apps available for mobile devices are classified as educational – representing just under ten per cent of all apps in the marketplace – and many are targeted at young children.

However, the burning question is, just what do these apps teach? In addition, how truly effective and relevant are these apps in helping to educate young children?

The results are, of course, as varied as any other type of app, with some good and some not so good.

The science of learning

Aiming to find some order in the chaos of the educational app market, a team of researchers at Victoria's Swinburne University of Technology recently collaborated in an international academic effort. The team combined resources and knowledge to conduct a detailed analysis of educational apps and pedagogical research – applying a conceptual framework called the science of learning; thus recognizing four core pillars that contribute to an app's educational value:

  •   Active learning.
  •   Engaged learning.
  •   Meaningful learning.
  •   Social interaction.

The researchers combined decades of knowledge in psychological science, linguistics, computer science, brain imaging, neurobiology and other areas to give context to the research. “With a 'science of learning' approach, apps will certainly provide learning opportunities unavailable in today's apps,” said Dr Jordy Kaufman, a senior research fellow at Swinburne's BabyLab, which uses innovative techniques to explore cognitive, social and brain development in infants and young children.

The four pillars of an effective educational experience

Active learning

Humans learn best when they are actively involved in an educational experience. This involvement can be either mental or physical, but does not include mindless finger tapping or screen swiping an app, which alone has no educational value.

Apps need to engage the mind of the user by encouraging interaction with the content, especially with regard to influencing outcomes and solving problems. Steering a spaceship by swiping left or right won’t have much cognitive impact compared to content that encourages the user to make decisions, such as choosing characters or objects to enhance a storyline.

Engaged learning

Children are easily distracted and need to be kept on the task and engaged with the subject matter to enable effective learning. There is no point having an app taking a child on an educational journey if their attention is constantly diverted by unconnected stimuli like flashing lights and noises that are not specifically designed to be coherent with the core message or task at hand.

Apps with virtual rewards like animated stickers being the goal do not educate as effectively as those, which focus on purposeful prompts that harness a child’s innate motivation to learn and pursue new information.

Meaningful learning

Apps that make learning relevant to a child’s own experiences and employ personally relatable content are more valuable than those simply encouraging memorization by rote.

Learning is processed at a deeper level when it builds on a child’s real-world paradigms or contextual knowledge. For example, rather than rewarding a child for picking out a triangle shape on the screen, an app might explain that a triangle has three sides and then ask the child to find other triangle-shaped things in their home and take a picture of them.

Social interaction

Finally, apps that use social interaction are more educationally effective, which means the wealth of one-to-one communications tools in today's market could offer exciting new possibilities to enhance learning and engagement. This may manifest as groups of children collaboratively solving a puzzle remotely, mediated interactions through technologies such as Skype and FaceTime, or in-app characters that realistically respond to choices or instructions from users.

However, it could also be as simple as children being encouraged to ask questions or discuss content with parents or teachers.

Balance is required: Educators are the key

No matter how well designed, Dr Kaufman warned, even the best present-day apps do not come close to replacing a good teacher or real-world educational experience. “Whether apps can provide entirely new opportunities compared to what can be provided by an excellent teacher, is still a lofty goal.”

Educators are best positioned to engage in effective pedagogical practices when they can competently select and use high quality resources that have been built around a strong evidence base. Apps have great potential but they must provide teachers with the ability to enhance their delivery of teaching, not attempt to replace it.

Teachers have a strong awareness of what content will be effective. The choice of a particular pedagogical approach, or the selection of a particular program, will then depend on the response to identified student learning needs as highlighted by educators.

At the very least, in an unregulated environment where little or no scientific methodology is applied to educational app design, the Swinburne team’s research represents a conceptual advancement for those wishing to develop the next generation of educational apps, and a valuable reference for parents, teachers, and researchers wishing to evaluate the educational quality of apps created for children.

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