LSC Journal Club: January 2018 Recap: Educational Apps

On Sunday we had our second Vancouver Library Services for Children Journal Club meeting.  Have you heard about the LSC Journal Club? My friend Christie and I started it as a way to promote research-based library service and professional development opportunities for anyone serving children in libraries. In November we discussed executive function and this month we took a look at what counts as an “educational” app.  We highly encourage you to start a local group if you’re interested in being research nerds like us!

The research article we read this month is called “Putting Education in ‘Educational’ Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning.”  I led the group discussion this month by reviewing the purpose of the article and the term Science of Learning which was new to me.

Purpose of the Article:

  • There are thousands of unregulated apps in the app store categorized as “educational.” Parents and educators have a hard time navigating this marketplace. Can they trust that label?
  • What does the Science of Learning tell us about how kids learn best? The researchers investigated research that applies to kids ages 0 – 8 years old. Their goals are to guide researchers, educators, and designers in evidence-based app development and to help people like us (library staff) evaluate already existing apps.
  • They came up with 4 Pillars of Learning that define “educational.”  This definition means apps should promote active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning.

Science of Learning

  • This is an amalgamated research area that takes different learning theories and draws similarities between them. It is relatively new, about 20 years old.
  • It includes research from a variety of fields – psychology, linguistics, computer science, animal behaviour, machine learning, brain imaging, neurobiology, etc.
  • It seeks to know HOW children learn not WHAT we should teach children. More about the process, less about the content.  Strives to identify strategies kids can use to think flexibly and creatively in the future.
  • Views kids as active learners, not vessels to be filled with knowledge. Takes its cue from Piaget who called children “little scientists.”

From there the article goes into depth for each of the four pillars of learning looking at what the Science of Learning says about them, what television research says, and how we can apply this knowledge to apps. At our meeting we broke up into groups and each group wrote down the key points for each of the four pillars before sharing with the whole group. Here are our notes:

Pillar #1: Active Learning

Pillar #2: Engagement in the Learning Process

Pillar #3: Meaningful Learning

Pillar #4: Social Interaction

The article then talks about what I call Secret Pillar #5: Scaffolded Exploration Toward a Learning Goal. It states:

  • Apps need a context for learning. They should promote exploration toward a learning goal.
  • Adults can play a supportive role in guiding play to lead to the best overall learning outcomes. A halfway point between complete free play and direct instruction.
  • Apps can provide scaffolding options such as providing background knowledge, offering more or less challenging levels, or by responding to individual children’s needs.

The article evaluates an app called Alien Assignment and discusses how the four pillars hold up. We were able to download the app to view it but the sound didn’t work on the iPad we had as it is an older app. It’s interesting to note that the developer is the Fred Rogers Center who came out with a position statement in in 2012 in conjunction with NAEYC that states, “when used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.” So it’s not surprised their app is pretty great.

We ended our meeting by talking about the following discussion questions:

  • Do all apps need to be “educational” for us to recommend them to caregivers?
  • How can we apply these guidelines to our work with children in libraries?
  • How does this research compare to other research, position statements, and app rubrics that have been developed?

We all agreed that the four pillars are a good tool to use when evaluating apps for educational content. We can look at the apps on the anchored iPads in our children’s area, on our website, and on our bookmarks to see if they hold up to the “very deep” learning category.  While the majority of the apps we select for these things should be educational we also discussed the merits of other “playful” apps such as the Toca Boca apps.  We still think it is worth including some of those types of apps as caregivers and kids often use them in unintended ways that foster learning.  Having the four pillars in our minds when talking to caregivers is a great tool we can use to guide these conversations. One of members, Kate, came up with an acronym and mental image to help her remember the four pillars. It’s called M.E.A.L.S. She says, “Choosing Apps: Are You Serving Your Child Balanced M.E.A.L.S?” Meaningful, Engaging, Active, Learning Goals, and Social Interaction.

We also talked about how it is common for caregivers to set their child down in front of the iPads in the children’s library and leave them there unattended or without engaging with them. Parents wanting or needing a break and using technology as a babysitter, while alarming to some, is not something we as library staff can solve or regulate in our spaces.  We discussed how we provide the technology to help bridge the digital divide and we can encourage joint media engagement through our signage and handouts and conversations with caregivers.  The research from this article is further evidence that caregiver participation in media is essential for learning, especially with young children.

In terms of other research around evaluating apps, we discussed Lisa Guernsey’s 3 C’s for choosing digital media: Content, Context, and Child. Perhaps a fourth C could be something like “Cause” to align with the learning goal element discussed in the article. There are two other app rubrics we looked over, both developed by Claudia Haines. They are both worth a look and can be used to evaluate the apps you recommend and provide in the library.  Check out Evaluating Apps and New Media for Young Children: A Rubric and the Diverse and Inclusive Growth Checklist for Inclusive, High-Quality Children’s Media.

What did you think of this month’s article? Let me know in the comments!

5 thoughts on “LSC Journal Club: January 2018 Recap: Educational Apps

  1. Wahoo! Great recap. Such a good meeting.

    The only thought I’d add is around some of the limitations/challenges with evaluation systems like the one developed by Fred Rogers Centre (and Guernsey’s) is the individual “child” measure. As this is variable according to each child, it is difficult to evaluate for meaning and engagement universally.

    In this way, I think this form of evaluation is arguably best used as a tool for parents, librarians and teachers, on a individual child basis (more personal).

  2. Thanks for the great thought-provoking conversation, as always! I love how we librarians are always jumping to acronyms. Our group came up with GAMES. 🙂

    Here’s our write up: https://storytimeinthestacks.wordpress.com/2018/02/25/lsc-journal-club-reflections-not-all-screen-time-is-created-equal/

    As a former teacher, I really appreciated so much of what this article brought to the table. I think it’s a great framework to evaluate educational apps and for us to keep in mind when we work with teachers… but it may be necessary to work our own framework that acknowledges the value of playing for pleasure, just like reading for pleasure. I think gaming is gradually gaining ground as something to be embraced in public library programming for tweens and teens, but why shouldn’t we also make room for gaming and kids? So many thoughts and feels from this discussion!

    Thanks again Lindsey and Christie! Can’t wait to talk about play and spaces next!

    1. LOL, the acronyms just won’t stop! I love GAMES, especially that it relates to your second point. We did talk about apps that are play-based such as the Toca Boca ones and definitely feel that those have value. Our discussion was focused more on the early years end of things but for the tweens and teens it’s even more of a trend. Thank you so much for organizing the Denver meet-up and the round-up! I’ve added your blog post to the LSC Journal Club website 🙂

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