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Parents, do your homework when looking for educational apps

Whether it's for a family road trip or just a trip to the grocery store, parents need to do their homework to find apps that keep kids' skills sharp over the summer, say several University of Georgia researchers.

The key is to find a phone or tablet app that is not only engaging, but also hits certain research-based educational marks that typical commercial game manufacturers don't consider, said David Nix, a digital animator with the UGA College of Education. "There's an interesting line between what's academically correct and educational, versus what has consumer appeal and people are going to pick it up and play it," said Nix.

"It's a very fine line, and I feel like a lot of what we're doing is trying to ride that line as closely as possible," added his colleague, Alex Turbyfield. The animators are creating a computer program funded by the National Institutes of Health that uses cats to teach children about diabetes. Their goal, they said, is to keep a game engaging while structuring it around educational research that supports the game's concept.

This is something parents can consider when seeking out apps and other electronic distractions during summer break. While there are plenty of apps that entertain, there are others that can also reinforce skills taught during the school year—and even help expand a child's conceptual thinking to help them learn new concepts.

For example, science-based apps can sharpen literacy skills as part of the fact-finding built into the game, while apps that support math skills are often more focused on a specific skill set. Although a good math-based app, said Anderson Norton, a College of Education alumnus who is now an associate professor of mathematics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, helps expand a child's thinking about problem solving, rather than helping them memorize equations.

"What most apps are missing is, does it align with the mental actions that are necessary for new concepts?" said Norton, who is part of a team developing math-focused apps. "If you go through and look at most of the math apps out there, they take a procedure, break it down visually, and have you get faster and faster. There's no attention to the mental actions."

For example, if a child only thinks of fractions as a part of a whole, then 9/7 makes no sense. "I try to understand the underlying mental acts that students need to engage in problem solving—organizing, partitioning, iterating (making copies of a fraction)," he added. "I focus on how the app can engage students in that mental action, and have them coordinate the action in different ways."

Norton, along with Nix, Turbyfield and faculty members at the College of Education offered some tips for parents looking for quality educational apps:

  • Play the game yourself. Just because an app has equations and graphs doesn't mean it's teaching the meaning behind the numbers.
  • Some of the best apps are free. Apps from textbook companies tend to be more traditional and often come with a price tag, while teams of researchers at colleges and universities are developing free games that are more conceptually driven. They just may not have the extra bells and whistles that come with commercially produced apps.
  • A good app involves both content and engagement. It's important to be able to immerse yourself in a game, but it should also create opportunities to construct content knowledge through that experience.
  • Think beyond 'kid' apps. Sara Kajder, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Education's Department of Language and Literacy Education, looks to digital recorders, books and journaling tools that can be used for digital storytelling.

Norton, who keeps a Pinterest page of apps he finds engaging, said it's important to be picky. He will download 50 apps and find five that are worth sharing. "When parents do this, they probably just look and grab it—but they're not thinking about what it means to conceptualize equations or graphs," he said. "If it has equations or graphs in it, they just assume their child is learning about equations and graphs. Parents aren't trained to think about math as a psychological product."