Educational Apps Require Testing, Careful Development

As the use of iPads and tablets is rising in classrooms, demand for educational applications for those devices is also growing. Education technology has become an attractive market for software and mobile application development companies looking to both satisfy the needs of educators and turn a profit.

Even the government is encouraging app development, as The National Science Foundation financed a $3 million project, called Next Generation Preschool Math, to support the creation of apps. E.D.C. and SRI International, both research organizations that have expertise in evaluating educational technologies, are responsible for the NextGen project.

Recently, six software developers and designers from NextGen went with WGBH, the Boston public television station, to visit Little Sprouts child care center in Massachusetts to test prototypes of math apps they had been working on for months. With the help of academic researchers, software developers are trying to create a suite of educational apps that will hopefully ease the learning process for pre-schoolers.

Educational apps have been booming in the six years since the arrival of the iPhone's touch screen, despite the warnings of some educators that children will spend too much time with devices and too little time exploring the physical world. The iTunes store offers more than 95,000 educational apps, many of them free. Nearly three-quarters are aimed at pre-schoolers and grade schoolers, according to a 2012 report by Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a research organization affiliated with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit producer of "Sesame Street."

A survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that nearly 3 in 10 classrooms have an iPad or other tablet — a number on the rise. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has taken the nationwide lead in implementation by recently announcing an ambitious plan to buy and distribute free iPads to 640,000 students in the nation's second-largest school district by late 2014 in what could be a sign of things to come.

But the use of ed tech and related apps depends on teams that work on software development, testing, data gathering, observations of classroom dynamics, interviews with teachers, assessments of children's learning, and controlled comparisons. NextGen researchers this school year will assess children in 16 classrooms in New York and California at the beginning and end of a four-week unit to see performance and efficiency of their apps as part of that process.

The software developers in the first year of the NextGen project focused on making sure children had fun, "while the researchers were adamant about making sure they could see evidence of learning". In another phase of the project, teams will also examine what kind of guidance teachers need.

"However, the project is not set up to test whether showing teachers new methods for teaching math without the apps would do just as much good."

The National Association for the Education of Young Children said in a statement published last year that it is important to introduce interactive technology in early education, but added nuance.

"With guidance, these various technology tools can be harnessed for learning and development. Without guidance, usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development."

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