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So Many Apps, but What Do They Do? Ideas for Embracing Different Types of Apps

I think we’ve all been there. Our administrator proudly hands out a bunch of tablet devices or tells us that we can use a whole set of tablets in our classroom… and then the administrator leaves feeling that the job is done. What happens next, in my experience, is first I get excited about the possibilities represented by the tablets and then I get overwhelmed. Questions like, how do I use these, what apps should I load, and how do I teach with these tablets run through my head. My main rule in this situation is not to teach to the tablet (or technology), but to use the tablet as part of my teaching. With that mindset, I then go looking for apps to load and use on the tablets. With that in mind, I’m going to share how and what I think about when selecting apps.

When thinking about the types of educational apps available, I find it best not to classify the app by its grade-level or content-area distinction. Instead, I classify apps by how they function or by their purpose. What I have found is that there are basically three types of educational apps for use with students that include: (1) Skill-based, (2) Content-based, and (3) Creation-based apps. By understanding these three types or purposes of apps, I have better expectations for what the apps will do and how I can use them with my students.

Skill-based apps teach students how to do “something.” This may include students learning letter sounds (ex. Phonics Genius), the multiplication tables (ex. Sushi Monster), vocabulary words (ex. World’s Worst Pet – Vocabulary), or prepare for a standardized tests (ex. ASVAB Test Prep). In all these examples, students are learning a skill, fact, or piece of knowledge to complete a task or answer a question.

Then, content-based apps don’t teach students anything. Instead, this group of apps gives students access to knowledge. Examples of these types of apps include search engines (ex. Search22), video libraries (ex. TED Talks), dictionaries (ex. Multi Lang Dictionary and Translator), and calculators (ex. MyScript Calculator). The key to identifying these apps is that students cannot typically change the content they are viewing; rather, they can only access it. That makes these apps great for researching or learning about topics

Last are creation-based apps. This group lets students create learning artifacts such as notes (ex. Explain Everything), word processing documents (ex. WPS Office), presentations (ex. Prezi), artwork (ex. Let’s Create! Pottery HD), and movies (ex. TouchCast). Of the three groups of apps, creation-based apps are the only ones that let students display their own unique thoughts.

By knowing how the app is going to function or its purpose, I can better plan to use the apps with my students. For example, when assigning a research project, I know that I need to offer my students some content-based apps to locate information and then use some creation-based apps for them to present that information. Or, if I want an app to teach my students a specific skill, I know I need to find a skill-based app to do so. By first understanding the type of app I want, I then can make grade-level and content-area distinctions when searching for the app, and this understanding has implications for differentiating instruction using apps.

If I am teaching about a topic and I want my students to further explore that topic, some of my students might do better by reading an article about that topic, while others would be better served by viewing a video or listening to a recording. With this understanding, I can then offer them a variety of content-based apps that present information as articles, videos, or recordings that engage different learning styles. The same is true for creation-based apps. If I have students who prefer writing out their thoughts or research findings, I can allow them to compose a paper using an office app. However, if my students are more comfortable making a presentation, there are creation-based apps for that too! If my students would rather make a video of themselves presenting an app, they would likely want to use a moviemaker app for that purpose. The bottom line is that if I know how my students learn and I understand the purpose of apps, I can then knowingly select and match (or at least suggest) apps to students that meet their differentiated learning needs.

I hope this blog helps you to start thinking about apps and how to use them with your students!