The App Gap: Debating and Rating "Educational" Apps for Kids

02/18/2015 03:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

I'm in the grocery store and see a scene I see more and more: a harried young parent hands her phone to the fidgety toddler sitting in the shopping cart. "Here, play Abby Monkey!" says mom. Abby Monkey: First Phonics and Letter Sounds School Adventure ranked #4 on Amazon's 2014 list of best selling "educational apps" for kids. Sounds pretty good, right? Fun and educational, what could be better?

It turns out that there is a large and brewing debate over just what constitutes "educational" when it comes to apps, and whether there need to be more clearly guided ways of rating or evaluating this issue.

Do a Google search for "best apps for kids" and you get about 308,000,000 results. Searching for "educational apps for kids" yields a mere 58,300,000 results. There are well over 1300 "educational apps" on the iTunes store listings -- and that's just mobile apps -- and over 8700 "educational apps and games" for children listed on How are parents, caregivers and teachers ever to sort through these choices in thoughtful and meaningful ways?

Increasing numbers of well-respected and research-based organizations have started to tackle these issues. But no consensus has yet emerged about just what criteria should be used in evaluating mobile apps.

The Fred Rogers Center framework emphasizes that apps should be "designed for active engagement by and among users." They suggest that content should be "grounded in specific goals," that platforms and methods used should be "intentional" and that quality digital media for young children should encourage "joint engagement" by children with their parents, teachers, caregivers or older siblings.

Researchers at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center agree that evaluating apps should be done on the basis of developmental appropriateness, seeing whether apps have a balance of features, sustainability that can keep a child engaged, a variety of levels and types of rewards kids are offered within their play, and at least the potential for parental involvement when a child is playing with an app.

Warren Bucklietner, founder of the Children's Technology Review, has written for NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) that it's important to consider the child when selecting an app. He agrees that apps must be developmentally appropriate, neither too hard nor too easy, not commercial, be free of gender and ethnic bias and have good production values.

Given the relative commonality on the basic scaffolding that researchers for these organizations suggest in evaluating apps, it's still interesting to note how much variance is out there when people actually try to rate them. Sales figures are certainly one metric, but that doesn't give us much of a measure of how educational an app might or might not be -- that's kind of like using a popularity contest to predict educational outcomes.

Colin Johnson, a former app developer at Kidaptive and current teacher at the Stanford Laboratory School, believes that these various ways of defining "educational" in apps have clear differences. He points out that while Common Sense Media tends to value " lower levels of commercialization (i.e. fewer in-app purchases, fewer adds), while a place like Balefire labs is trying to quantify educational value through a "rigorous and evidence-based" schema, or check-list, I don't think any one of these is totally comprehensive." Johnson recommends that " it's up to adults to think about their own values regarding children's use of technology and find the tool that best aligns with those values."

Given the lack of agreement on what makes an app educational, a number of organizations have come up with their own ratings systems for the enormous numbers of apps that come on the market all the time. Cynthia Chiong at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, for example, has a ratings system of 0-5 stars that ranks apps based on various measures of developmental appropriateness, features, variety and parental involvement opportunities. Common Sense Media rates apps based on "age appropriateness and learning potential" based on engagement, whether kids can learn what the app suggests they can, if there is the possibility of giving feedback, accessibility and whether extensions for the app are available. The Children's Technology Review also has its own system for rating apps based on a rubric. Their system includes evaluating whether an app "empowers" children to interact equally, has equitable portrayals. CTR's ratings system is available to parents on a subscription basis. CTR states that its ratings system is " an academic attempt to apply a constructivist, active learning theoretical framework to children's interactive media; and this bias is burnt into the rubric. We acknowledge that not everyone shares the same ideas with our definition of quality."

But many people have serious reservations about the efficacy and practicality of any kind of ratings system, at all. Dale Kunkel, professor emeritus of communication at the University of Arizona, has for many years studied children's media regulation. He points out that the voluntary ratings systems devised by the television broadcast industry, the video games industry and the film industry are a mishmash of different letters and numbers with no cross-industry uniformity. This presents a confusing landscape of media ratings for parents who are genuinely interested in trying to understand if media content is appropriate or desirable for their children.

Kunkel is also dubious about whether anyone outside of industry even has the capacity to devise, much less implement, a ratings system for apps. "The prospect of doing this independently is the big problem," he says. He points out that the sheer volume of new apps that come on the market every day would make the possibility that any independent organization or governmental agency able to rate all of them -- even if reviewers could agree on the criteria to use and use it uniformly -- almost impossible.

Mike Robb, education director at the Fred Rogers Center, believes that while any ratings system is not perfect, "They can be a useful shortcut for parents or educators who need help picking something appropriate and high-quality. It's not reasonable to expect that every parent be a child development expert and know exactly which apps are good or bad, so ratings fill a need. It would be helpful to have one go-to rating standard that everyone understood, because it would also help parents have a better idea of why certain apps are better than others." Robb thinks that any app rating system should be inherently different than the ratings systems that have been developed for other forms of media: " I'd prefer to see ratings that go beyond the dangers of film and tv media ratings (violence, sex, commercialism, drug use, language, etc.) and veer toward things like engagement, interactivity, promotion of social interaction, etc. It's a very different lens than what people are used to."

Right now there is neither agreement on what makes an app "educational" nor whether there should be any kind of ratings system that helps parents or teachers to know about this. And kids are different -- they have different interests and abilities. What bores one child might motivate another.

Robb suggests that at this point in time, adults should " take care to think about what's right for your kids. I'd also recommend trying to engage with children around the apps they use - that may mean sitting down next to them when they, asking them questions afterwards, or finding related books or activities of interest. I'd also add that teachers need to be particularly thoughtful about picking apps for the classroom. Even a well-rated app can be a disaster in the classroom if the teacher hasn't thought explicitly about why a particular app is good for the class, what learning goals it supports, and whether it's developmentally appropriate for the kids they serve. "