As local schools turn to educational apps for distance learning, parents and teachers struggle to find the ones that actually work


Kristin Brimfield said she’s been using mobile learning games with her son, Logan, since he was two. 

However, finding apps that were fun, functional, and educational wasn’t easy.

“Oh my gosh, there’s so many options. There were some I would get suggestions for and think they were going to be really great, download them and realize that they’re junk.”

Game-like educational apps seem like the perfect remote learning tool for 5 and 6-year-olds, whose short attention spans and undeveloped reading skills make long Zoom classes and written packets difficult, if not impossible.

“In Ohio, you have 611 individual school districts. We all have common standards, but you can meet them in different ways,” said Sheryl Sheatzley, spokeswoman for the Hudson City School District. 

She said schools worked for months to find the best apps.  “It’s certainly been a challenge, but we’ve been getting better and better at it.” 

The Cleveland Municipal School District, for example, loads kindergartners’ online learning portals with apps like Imagine Math, BrainPOP Jr., and MobyMax.

The curriculum director for the Euclid school district said they use apps like RazPlus and Learning A-Z, and are setting up a process to select apps that can be pre-loaded onto tablets.

Lindsay Ceresnie, who teaches second-grade English in the suburbs of Washington DC, said her district has added so many apps to students’ learning portals that she hasn’t had time to test them all.

Dozens of studies examining the educational potential of apps have found that high-quality apps yield promising results. But experts say that most apps advertised as educational fall short. 

Melissa Callaghan, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, systematically reviewed 171 of the top-rated apps.

Callaghan looked at four main criteria: clarity, feedback, game structure, and motion.

“The overall finding was that preschool apps are really good at providing clear, simple guidelines at the very beginning.”

But while most apps told children when they’d gotten an answer wrong, they rarely told them why.

Ideally, Callaghan said, kids learn best if an app tells them why they got an answer wrong and then helps them find the right answer.

Callaghan shied away from recommending specific apps because the digital marketplace evolves so quickly. However, she had positive things to say about a handful of app producers that seem to pay attention to pedagogical research. She highlighted Duck Duck Moose,  First 8 Studios, Age of Learning, and PBS Kids.

Callaghan also recommended parents use resources like Common Sense Media which  curates lists of recommended apps for various age groups.

Christine Elgersma, a senior editor for Common Sense Media, said that less than half of the apps for preschoolers would be considered high-quality. 

“In terms of the real cream of the crop, it’s a small handful in comparison to the literally thousands of apps that are available to parents.”

Many lose points because they have too many ads, or require in-app purchases for kids to keep playing. Many are simply lacking educational tools.

Elgersma said that for her to strongly recommend an app, it has to offer something that kids couldn’t do with just a pen and paper. For example, Metamorphabet is an app in which animated letters transform to illustrate words that start with that letter.

Metamorphabet, like many educational apps, isn’t free. But Common Sense Media allows users to filter by price range, and phone or tablet operating system. 

“During this pandemic parents, caregivers, and educators are all especially busy. But ideally, it’d be best for children to play these apps with an adult.”

Plymouth State University Professor of Education Patricia Cantor is worried that parents and schools are focusing on apps at the expense of personal interactions which are critical to early development.

I’m concerned that if preschool-age children are in front of a screen, they’re not getting the back-and-forth of a conversation.”

For example, preparing a meal with a child can expose them to specialized vocabularies, like words for cooking utensils. Talking with their caregiver during the activity builds their communication abilities. Using their hands increases their motor skills, which will be critical for learning to write.

Some daycares can make up the gap in human interaction, but Cantor worries that low-income families don’t have access to child care centers with high staff-to-child ratios and trained educators.

Cantor suggested that districts educate parents about the benefits of simply interacting with their kids, even if, for example, the parents don’t speak English, or can’t read, by giving parents ideas for in-person activities away from the computer screen.


This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including Eye on Ohio, which covers the whole state. Please join our free mailing list.

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