Making sure that app time is quality time

Admit it. Even if you once vowed never to let TV be a babysitter, there probably came a day, maybe in the middle of fixing dinner, maybe when multiple members of the family were sick, maybe when the incessant refrain of “I’m bored” became too much, when you either channel-surfed or popped in a DVD and said, “Here. Watch this.” And you bought a half hour or even an hour of time to focus.

It’s OK. It happens. An equally common—and more public—scene involves parents “surrendering” their smartphones or tablets to quiet down hungry, cranky kids in restaurants, grocery stores, and waiting rooms. Good? Not-so-good? Natural? Probably all of the above, combined with inevitable. With mobile devices everywhere, they are quick and easy pacifiers. At least one figure indicates that as of June 2013 there were 327,577,529 mobile phones in the U.S. The European Travel Commission’s former New Media Trend Watch reported that as of December 2012, there were 52.4 million tablet owners in the U.S.

For example, Harry Walker is principal of Sandy Plains Elementary School in Baltimore County, Maryland. According to the Learning in Hand with Tony Vincent blog, fourth and fifth graders at the school are piloting one-to-one computing with iPod touches. Walker is also a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University and is investigating the impact of iPod touch on student achievement.

Walker created an evaluation rubric for iPod apps for that age group. Attaining the highest scores were apps in which “skill(s) reinforced are strongly connected to the targeted skills or concepts,” “targeted skills are practiced in an authentic format/problem-based learning environment,” and “students are highly motivated to use the app and select it as their first choice from a selection of related choices of apps.” These particular criteria could also be applied to apps for even younger kids.

Margaret A. Powers, a technology and education consultant, last year posted to her resume blog, “Apps in Early Education—The Big Questions,” a look at how educators and young learners are using apps, what rubrics exist for evaluating apps for early ed, and how apps can best be used when you only have one device. She expresses her feeling that “any technology should be used as a tool to enhance learning and simply another language kids can use to express their creativity.”
Like any other tool, some apps are higher quality than others.

It’s important to ensure that little learners are not just “zoning out” in their apps, tablets or other devices, but engaging and interacting with quality content that helps them safely and effectively learn, explore, and grow.