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Four Pillars for Using Ed Apps (Spoiler Alert, the Difference is the Teacher)

In a joint publication titled “Putting Education in ‘Educational’ Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning,” the authors put forward four major pillars in place for selecting educational apps. Their pillars include:

  1. Active Learning
  2. Engagement in the Learning Process
  3. Meaningful Learning
  4. Social Interaction

In their publication, the authors pull from existing research to explain each of their pillars, relate the pillars to research on television, and apply each pillar to the intellectual development of children. I want to briefly describe each of the authors’ pillars before offering my thoughts.

  • Active Learning. The authors explain this pillar as “minds-on” interaction between the child and an app. This “minds-on” approach means children are engaging the app, both on a physical and mental level and by using higher-order thinking skills. For example, tapping an icon or selecting an answer is a “minds-off” activity or lower-order thinking skill because children are either identifying or picking an object on the screen. However, as the authors explain, “minds-on” or higher-order thinking happens if the app requires children to solve a problem, find a solution to a challenge, or organize data in some manner. In these examples, children have to think deeply about the task they are to complete, which requires their minds to be turned on in order to be successful.
  • Engagement in the Learning Process. According to the authors, this pillar is essential to have in place if students are to be focused on a learning objective presented by an app. The authors explain that an educational app must engage children on the behavioral (e.g., willingness for active participation), emotional (e.g., feelings of “buying into” the learning task), and cognitive (e.g., intellectually stimulated) levels if it is to be considered effective. If an app fails to do so, it risks becoming a distraction to learning. The authors explain that an app designed to read a book to children might be distracting if there are too many “bells and whistles” (e.g., background sounds, animations, clickable features). If that is the case, the app will not engage children on its content; rather, it could be consider “edutainment” and not educational.
  • Meaningful Learning. For apps to be considered educational, children must consider the information or tasks they are required to do. The authors explain, however, “meaningful learning takes many forms, including learning with a purpose, learning new material that is personally relevant, and linking new learning to preexisting knowledge” (p. 13). This broad range of learning gives app developers great flexibility in designing the way an app can present knowledge or tasks to children. The underlying concept being that an app must make a relevant connection between the knowledge presented or task to be completed and the children’s interest. If that connection is not made, the app’s meaningfulness to children may be diminished.
  • Social Interaction. The authors point out that social interaction between children or children and a computerized character can have positive effects on learning. The authors refer to previously conducted research that strongly correlates the sociality of language and how children learn from it. Even newborns benefit from social interaction. When an object is presented to nine-month old babies, they only recognize it if they are prompted by another person’s voice. As children develop and enter school, the authors point out the benefit of engaging others (e.g., peers and computer characters) face-to-face or virtually when completing a learning task. When engaging their peers or characters, children must be required to talk about a subject, teach a piece of knowledge, or complete a higher-order thinking activity with them. Apps that have these functionalities, the authors argue, have more benefit educationally than apps that do not include them.

I do agree with these pillars, and they are reflected in the rubric Dr. Corey Lee and I created and use when reviewing apps for App Ed Review (Please click here to access our article about evaluating educational apps). The nagging thought I have though is the role of the teacher. I feel very strongly that the difference maker in using an app effectively versus ineffectively is the teacher. The teacher is the one who can position an app so that it is part of an active learning activity, that it is engaging, that it is meaningful, and that is does provide social interaction. Conversely, a teacher can use an app so it isolates students and present activities to them that are unconnected and meaningless.

In my next blog, I plan to further explore the role of the teacher as it relates to the Pedagogy Wheel 4.0. Until then, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave your comments below.



Kirsch-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in ‘educational’ apps: lesson from the science of learning. Psychological Science, 16(1), 3-34.