By: Todd Cherner, Ph.D.
Corey Lee, Ph.D.
With school districts from across the nation purchasing tablets for all their students and teachers (Murray & Olcese, 2011; Pilgrim et al., 2012), there is a pressing need for resources to support how teachers are integrating these technologies into their teaching practice. Additionally, with over 20,000 IOS apps available for download (Earl, 2013; Rao, 2013), teachers need support in selecting and using these apps effectively with their students, or they risk becoming overwhelmed by the amount of apps listed in the App Store (McGarth, 2013; Walker, 2011). In response, two education professors from Coastal Carolina University’s Spadoni College of Education collaborated to create App Ed Review. App Ed Review is a free searchable database of app reviews available online designed to support teachers in using apps when planning lessons, delivering instruction, and assessing student learning. In the current technology-enhanced educational climate, App Ed Review is a needed resource.
A Review of Existing App Resources for Teachers
Before App Ed Review was created, a systematic review of current educational app resources available to teachers was conducted. To locate these resources, the key search terms “best educational apps,” “top apps for teachers,” “best educational apps for 2012,” and “recommended educational apps for teachers” were entered into Google’s search engine. In response, a large quantity of educational app resources were found, and these resources were grouped into one of three categories: online articles, personal blogs, and database websites.
The “online articles” category typically features apps that are grouped together around a common theme (e.g. Top Apps for Middle School or Great Apps for Science Teachers). Although the amount of information may vary slightly, these online articles usually provide very limited information about the apps they suggest that includes: (1) the name of the app, (2) a link to iTunes where the app is listed, and (3) general comments about all the apps included in the grouping of apps. When teachers read an online article that recommends apps, they are usually only provided rudimentary information about the apps. Plus, if teachers are interested in an app, the amount of information provided by the online articles is so sparse that it requires teachers to conduct significant research about the app independently if they wish to use it with their students.
The “personal blog” category usually features a list of apps the blogger favors, anecdotal information about why the blogger likes the recommended apps, and a link to iTunes where the app is listed. Representative examples of these blogs include Greg Swanson’s “Apps in Education” and Terry Heick’s “The 55 Best Free Educational Apps for the iPad.” When teachers read an app blog and identify an app that interests them, they must then download the app and conduct additional research about it before using it in their classroom. Moreover, because personal blogs only list apps favored by a blogger, there is no vetting process to establish the quality of the app. Instead, there is only the blogger’s anecdotal comments about why he or she likes the app.
The “database website” category features online indexes of apps that users can search, and Appititc andApps4Edu are representative of this category. Database websites usually provide more detailed information than lists and blogs in that they categorize apps by theme (e.g. grade-level, subject area, and price) and allow teachers to search for apps by selecting different categorized criteria. The shortcoming, however, is most databases do not systematically evaluate the apps they categorize, offer instructional ideas for how to use the apps, or provide authentic app descriptions (they often embed the description provided in the App Store). These shortcomings require teachers to conduct additional about the app, so they can use it effectively in their classroom.
Additionally, other limitations of all these resources is that very few, if any, are aligned to a theoretical framework such as TPACK or are informed by the Common Core State Standards. Both of these limitations are significant because they impact how and why teachers would actually use the suggested apps. Because of the previously identified shortcomings and limitations, App Ed Review was created to better support teachers in choosing and using apps effectively in their teaching practice.
Introducing App Ed Review
App Ed Review is a free searchable database of educational app reviews designed to support classroom teachers finding and using apps effectively in their teaching practice. In its database, each app review includes:
- A brief, original description of the app;
- A classification of the app based on its purpose;
- Three or more ideas for how the app could be used in the classroom;
- A comprehensive app evaluation;
- The app’s target audience;
- Subject areas where the app can be used; and,
- The cost of the app.
Providing teachers with this information supports them in using apps appropriately and meaningfully. Whereas other app resources for teachers may provide some information about the apps, App Ed Review provides robust, detailed information that supports teachers in how they can integrate the app in their classroom. The following subsections provide additional information about App Ed Review.
Because the app descriptions posted in the App Store were written to market the app, App Ed Review composes a succinct description of each app it reviews. Unlike the descriptions posted in the App Store that were written to sell and market the app, the purpose of App Ed Review’s app descriptions is to explain the essential elements of an app to teachers. Specifically, App Ed Review’s descriptions discuss the purpose of the app, its functionalities, how users will engage it, and the experiences users will have while engaging it. Because teachers need information about apps quickly and clearly, none of the app descriptions posted to App Ed Review exceed 200 words.
App Ed Reviews classifies apps according to their purpose, and it does so by placing apps into one of two larger categories before breaking them down into subcategories. The first category is Instructional Apps, and it includes apps teachers can use with students. The Instructional Apps’ subcategories include Skill-based apps, Content-based apps, and Function-based apps. The second category is Teacher Resource Apps, and it includes apps teacher can use to prepare for all aspects of a lesson and complete classroom tasks. The Teacher Resource Apps’ subcategories include assessment, classroom management, grade book and attendance, instructional tools, and lesson planning. Using App Ed Review, teachers are able to search for the app they need and are then provided with ideas for integrating it into their teaching practice.
Instructional Apps Subcategories
Skill-based apps is the first instructional app subcategory. These apps focus on teaching students the foundational knowledge needed to be prepared for deeper, higher-order thinking and learning activities. For example, apps that teach students how to spell, read, and multiply are categorized as skill-based. When analyzing these apps using Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, these apps tend to be classified as placing lower-order thinking demands on students; however, the foundational skills and knowledge these apps develop in students prepares them for future learning tasks, which makes this group of apps valuable.
Content-based apps is the second instructional app subcategory, and it includes apps that provide students access to documents, images, recordings, and videos needed to conduct research or to learn independently. For example, search engines that allow students to explore the internet for information they can use when conducting research or video libraries that offer students the opportunity to learn individually are categorized as content-based. When analyzing these apps using Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, these apps are typically thought of as placing mid-range thinking demands on students. By this, students will have to analyze and synthesize the information these apps provide; yet, students will not create a learning artifact when engaging them.
Function-based apps is the third instructional app category, and it includes apps that allow students to create learning artifacts such as documents, videos, recordings, graphic organizers, presentations, and art. These apps are very useful when teachers have taught students a skill and want them to demonstrate that skill, or teachers can use these apps in conjunction with content-based apps. For example, teachers can have students use content-based app to research information about a topic and then present that information using a function-based app. When analyzing these apps using Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, these apps rate highly because students are creating learning artifacts.
Teacher Resource Apps Subcategories
Assessment is the first teacher resource app subcategory, and it includes apps that support teachers in evaluating their student learning. For example, apps that support teachers in creating evaluation instruments such as rubrics and checklists that can be used to assess student learning of an objective qualify for this subcategory. Or, apps that collect student response data when students answer a question are also placed in this subcategory. In both examples, teachers are using assessment apps to analyze student performance, whether it be in grading an assignment or responding to a question.
Classroom management is the second teacher resource app subcategory, and it includes apps that monitor student behavior. Classroom management apps may monitor individual student behavior or the behavior of an entire class. The common characteristic of these apps is that they either identify poor student behavior or they allow teachers to record poor student behavior.
Grade book and attendance is the third teacher resource app subcategory, and it includes apps designed for teachers to record students’ grades and attendance. These apps often take a digitalized form of traditional paper-and-pencil grade books and attendance records; however, these apps usually allow teacher to share student grades and attendance over email or by posting it to a secure website.
Instructional tools is the fourth teacher resource app subcategory, and it includes apps that help teachers deliver instruction. These apps may digitalize traditional instructional tools such as allowing teachers to use their iPad as a whiteboard, or they may assist teachers in providing copies of instructional materials digitally. The common characteristic these apps share is that they support teachers in delivering instruction to students.
Lesson planning is the final teacher resource subcategory, and it includes apps teachers can use to create lessons. These apps may take the form of digital libraries filled with lesson plans, ideas for creating lesson plans, or they may provide teachers with access to standards that need to be embedded into their teaching.
Ideas for Using the App
A dynamic feature of App Ed Review that further sets it apart from other educational app resources is that it offers at least three ideas for how the app could be used in the classroom. When reading about an app classified as instructional, App Ed Review provides multiple ideas for how it could be used by teachers and students to advance learning and pedagogy in the classroom. The instructional ideas that are offered are informed by the Common Core Anchor Standards, and often the ideas promote students reading, writing, presenting, collaborating, and researching. When reading about an app classified as a teacher resource, App Ed Review also provides multiple ideas for how teachers can use it. However, these ideas focus on teachers’ efficiency to evaluate student performance, monitor student behavior, record students’ grades and attendance, deliver instruction, and design lessons. Furthermore, the ideas App Ed Review offers for using apps are meant as a scaffold, which means the ideas are put forward as a way teachers could use the app. In no way are the ideas meant to limit teachers in designing their own creative ideas for using the app.
To support teachers’ understanding of an app’s strengths and weaknesses, App Ed Review created and uses two comprehensive rubrics to evaluate apps. A 26-point rubric was designed to evaluate Instructional apps and a 20-point rubric was designed to evaluate Teacher Resource apps. Using comprehensive rubrics to evaluate apps differs from methods used by other website databases in that they typically either import rankings from the App Store or only provide a generic overall 1-5 point score for each app. By comprehensively evaluating apps, App Ed Review provides teachers with detailed information about the app before they download it. This information, in turn, saves teachers time by them being able to quickly understand an app’s strengths and weaknesses. To present this information to teachers, the Instructional App rubric and Teacher Resource App rubric are both divided into three domains, and each domain is further broken down into multiple dimensions. Each domain analyzes a different portion of an app, and the dimensions ask specific questions about the app. Then, instead of ranking an app using a 1-5 point scale in response to each dimension, App Ed Review provides a description for what constitutes a rating of a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. Plus, if a dimension does not connect with an app, App Ed Review provides a “not applicable” scoring option, and that dimension is omitted from the app’s evaluation. The following subsections will further detail the different rubrics.
Instructional App Rubric
App Ed Review’s Instructional Rubric was designed to analyze how an app supports student learning, and it is broken into three larger sections: (1) Instruction, (2) Design, and (3) Engagement. Plus, each of the Instructional Rubric’s subsections is further broken into multiple dimensions, and each dimension evaluates the app using a five-point Likert Scale rating system. Using the three larger sections, App Ed Review provides quality information, and each section will next be explained.
Instruction. The Instruction section is comprised of nine dimensions, and each dimension was created to measure an app’s educational value. App Ed Review defines educational value as an analysis of the cognitive demands placed on and support offered to students by apps as they work to meet the app’s learning objective. The nine dimensions ask the following questions to measure an app’s educational value:
- Rigor: Which level of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge must students engage to meet the app’s learning objective?
- 21st Century Skills: Does the app require uses to engage “21st Century” skills, which includes the ability to collaborate, make data-driven decisions, and solve complex problems?
- Connection to Future Learning: Does the app’s content build users’ literacy and numeracy skills so they are more prepared to engage future subject area learning and on track to be “college and career” ready?
- Value of Errors: If users answer a question incorrectly, does the app use the incorrect answer to advance student learning?
- Feedback to Teacher: How does the app allow teachers to monitor students’ progress?
- Level of Material: Is the app’s content for specific grade-levels appropriate for its target audience?
- Cross Curricular Connections: Is the app’s content relevant to multiple subject areas?
- Cooperative Learning: Does the app allow users to communicate (e.g. send/receive messages and post to message boards), share learning artifacts (e.g. images, recordings, videos, and documents), and collaborate (e.g. create presentations and larger projects) with other users?
- Accommodations of Individual Differences: Does the presentation of the app’s content recognize that users learn in uniquely different ways (e.g. visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic)?
Design. The Design section is comprised of 10 dimensions, and each dimension was created to measure an app’s overall functionality. App Ed Review defines overall functionality as an analysis of how users interact with the app. The 10 dimensions ask the following questions to measure an app’s overall functionality:
- Ability to Save Progress: Does the app allow users to return to the content they were last engaging after exiting the app?
- Integration: Is the app enhanced by how it connects to: (1) other apps, (2) online communities, (3) independent websites, and (4) users’ email?
- Screen Design: Is the app’s text, graphics, sound, and speech well-organized?
- Ease of Use: Is the app intuitive and are users able to engage it with minimal guidance?
- Navigation: How easily can users move through the app’s content and options?
- Learning Demands: Are the choices and decisions users are required to make when engaging the app’s content clear?
- Goal Orientation: Does each component of the app contribute to users learning the intended objective?
- Information Presentation: Is the app’s content presented in a logical manner? (e.g. does the app’s content grow increasingly rigorous as users experience success, does the app activate users’ background knowledge before presenting them with new information, and/or does the app provide an overview of its content before users engage specific tutorials or activities?)
- Media Integration: Are the app’s text, graphics, videos, and speech integrated effectively so each of the app’s media components complements each other and forms a cohesive program?
- Cultural Sensitivity: Does the app use culturally responsive teaching methods to represent diverse populations?
Engagement. The Engagement section is comprised of seven dimensions, and each dimension was created to measure an app’s potential to motivate students to interact and learn from it. App Ed Review defines potential to motivate students as an analysis of why users may choose to interact with and learn from an app. The seven dimensions ask the following questions to measure an app’s potential to motivate students:
- Learner Control: Does the app allow users to select the level (e.g. grade-level, age level, or difficulty level) where they will begin engaging content?
- Interactivity: Does the app only present content to users, or does the app allow users to make decisions, answers questions, or actively engage it in some other manner?
- Pace: Does the app allow users to control the rate at which they are presented content? If the app does not allow users to control the rate at which they move through the content, does the app present the content at an appropriate rate for its target audience?
- Flexibility: Can users personalize the app by setting individual preferences (e.g. background music, images, and/or avatars) easily?
- Interest: Will the app’s content likely appeal to its targeted audience?
- Aesthetics: Will the app’s graphics and interface likely motivate users to engage it?
- Utility: Will users be motivated to engage the app because they see it as being valuable to their academic, professional, or personal lives?
Teacher Resource App Rubric
App Ed Review’s Teacher Resource Rubric was designed to analyze how an app supports student learning, and it is broken into three larger sections: (1) Utility, (2) Support, and (3) Design. Plus, each of the Teacher Resource Rubric’s subsections is further broken into multiple dimensions, and each dimension evaluates the app using a five-point Likert Scale rating system. Using the three larger sections, App Ed Review provides quality information, and each section will next be explained.
Utility. The Utility section is comprised of seven dimensions, and each dimension was created to measure an app’s productivity and functionality. App Ed Review defines productivity and functionality as an analysis of how the app increases a teacher’s efficiency in the classroom. The seven dimensions ask the following questions to measure an app’s productivity and functionality attributes:
- Frequency: How often will teachers use this app for planning instruction, monitoring students, tracking student performance, or completing a similar classroom practice?
- Productivity: How much potential does the app have to increase teachers’ efficiency for completing classroom related tasks (e.g. monitoring students, recording data, and/or researching lesson topics)?
- Authentication System: If teachers accidentally input incorrect data into the app, how easily can they correct their mistake?
- Security: How confidential is the data that is entered into the app?
- Sharing: Does the app allow teachers to send data they collect about students’ performance and/or behavior with other stakeholders (e.g. parents, guidance counselors, and/or school administration)?
- Saving Features: How are teachers able to save materials in the app?
- Cross-Platform: Is the content available on the app sharable across the multiple platforms (e.g. websites, iPhones, desktops, and/or other apps)?
Support. The Support section is comprised of five dimensions, and each dimension was created to measure how an app’s content helps teachers use the app effectively. App Ed Review defines help for effectively using an app as an analysis of the support systems embedded in an app that enable it to be integrated quickly and efficiently into a user’s teaching practice. The five dimensions ask the following questions to measure an app’s support systems:
- Use of Ideas: Does the app present different examples or explanations for how teachers can use the app?
- Help Desk: Does the app provide teachers with support resources?
- Credibility: What is the quality of the information presented in this app?
- Goal Orientation: Does each component of the app contribute to teachers utilizing the app and its content meaningfully?
- Feedback: Does the app provide teachers with notifications about their actions (e.g. the app sends notifications to teachers if they are about to delete or modify stored information)?
Design. The Design section is comprised of eight dimensions, and each dimension was created to evaluate an app’s overall interface. App Ed Review defines overall interface as an analysis of how users interact with the app. The eight dimensions ask the following questions to measure an app’s interface:
- Metaphors: Do the app’s action buttons clearly symbolize their intended functionalities? (e.g. Does tapping the trash can icon always delete a document? Does tapping the “i” button always load information?)
- Layout: Is the location of the app’s function buttons and navigation bar consistent?
- Distractors: Is the app free of advertisements and other distracting features? If advertisements and/or other distracting features are part of the app, are they embedded in a way that does not interfere with teachers being able to use the app?
- Ease of Use: Is the app intuitive and are teachers able to engage it with minimal guidance?
- Customization: Can teachers personalize the app by setting preferences (e.g. background music, images, avatars) easily?
- Media Integration: Are the app’s texts, graphics, videos, sounds, and speech integrated effectively so each media component in the app complements each other and forms a cohesive program?
- Navigation: How easily can teachers move through the app’s content and options?
- Screen Design: Are the app’s text, graphics, videos, sound, and speech well-organized?
Unlike other website databases that assign apps to individual grade levels, App Ed Review uses grade bands because justifying why some apps may, for example, be reasonable to use in 4th grade but not 5thgrade could be potentially challenging. Using grade bands, App Ed Review is able to make generalizable grade band suggestions for apps, and teachers are competent professionals who are able to make decisions about an app’s appropriateness for their students. The grade bands App Ed Review uses are:
- Kindergarten-2nd grade;
- 3rd-5th grade;
- 6th-8th grade; and,
- 9th-12th grade.
These grade bands were selected because students develop at different rates, and the grades were created to match apps to students’ developmental rates. Additionally, when classifying apps for different grade bands, App Ed Review does recognize that some apps can be used in multiple grade bands while other apps are more specific to one grade band.
In addition to categorizing apps by their purpose, App Ed Review also classifies apps by subject area. This way, if teacher want to browse apps that are applicable to their specific subject area, they will be able to do so. Moreover, if a teacher of a specific subject area wants an app students can use for a specific purpose and/or grade band, teachers will be able to select their subject area, grade band, and/or the type of app that performs in such a way that it meets their purpose. The specific subject areas App Ed Review uses are:
- Early Literacy;
- English Language Arts;
- Foreign Language;
- Social Studies; and,
- Across the Curriculum.
Although the different subject areas are commonly understood, the “Across the Curriculum” option allows teachers to look for apps that can be used in multiple subject areas.
Cost of Apps
App Ed Review uses three distinction for classifying apps by cost that include:
- Freemium; and,
Free means that users are able to download the app and all its content at no cost. Freemium is a combination of the words “free” and “premium.” When an app is labeled as a freemium, it means that users can download portions of the app for free, but they will be required to purchase additional portions of the app if they wish to have access to all of the app’s content and/or functionalities. Freemium could also mean that users will be able to download the entire app, but they will only be able to use it for a trial period. Paid means users will have an upfront cost before they are able to download the app.
App Ed Review’s Search Functions
Because the structure of the app reviews includes multiple components, it allows teachers to narrow their search for the app that will best fit their needs. On the App Ed Review website, it features a search menu. When searching for an app, teachers can choose any combination of the following criteria: (1) grade-level, (2) subject area, (3) category and subcategory, and (4) cost. By inputting this data, App Ed Review will search its database and report all the apps that meet the search criteria. For example, if a high school English teacher is searching for a free app to help him/her teach literature, that teacher would select: (1) Grades 9-12, (2) English language arts, (3) Content-based (category) and Literature Study (subcategory), and (4) Free. This would result in App Ed Review generating a list of apps that teacher could use.
Additionally, when users view the search menu before or after conducting a search, they will see numbers in parentheses following each search criteria. These numbers indicate how many apps have been indexed in that specific category. This feature is important because it allows for teachers to search App Ed Review strategically.
If teachers are going to use tablet devices and apps effectively in their teaching practices, they need quality resources to do so. Resources that only offer “Top Ten Lists” of favorite apps, whether it be in the form of a blog or article and only link back to the app’s listing in the App Store, are limiting and not supportive. Moreover, database websites that only categorize apps generically are not providing teachers with meaningful information about the apps or ideas for using the apps. In response, App Ed Review has created an indexing system that supports teachers in using tablets and apps with students by providing them original app descriptions, ideas for integrating apps into their current teaching practice, and comprehensive evaluations of the apps. If teachers are to use tablets and apps to their full potential, they need high-quality resources to support them in doing so.
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