With the recent boom of digital technologies available to the average household, more children today have access to tablets and smartphones than ever before. According to a 2014 survey of 1,577 parents, 35% of 2- to 10-year-olds play educational games on a mobile device at least once per week in the U.S. Most parents believe that educational media can help their children learn key concepts in math, reading, and vocabulary.

But with over 80,000 educational apps in Apple’s App Store — not to mention those in Google Play and the Amazon Appstore — parents can easily feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options out there. Because these apps aren’t subjected to evaluation for educational value, they remain largely unregulated and untested.

In a 2012 report, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and New America referred to the burgeoning apps marketplace as the “Digital Wild West” — new educational apps popped up daily, but with little to no information on developer background or vetting practices. As a result, the researchers concluded that many of these so-called “educational” apps may not be providing the benefits they claim.

At the Society for Research in Child Development‘s special topic meeting, several talks focused on how parents navigate the Digital Wild West, what challenges they face, and why they choose to download one app over another. Technology and Media in Children’s Development, held at the University of California, Irvine in October, brought together a diverse mix of developmental psychologists, technology developers, and media producers to discuss the role of technology and media in children’s lives.

Scanning the apps marketplace

Sarah Vaala, a Senior Fellow at the Cooney Center and Research Associate at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, presented an analysis of information contained in over 100 educational app descriptions. Her talk, titled “Popular Educational Apps for Young Children: An Analysis of Product Descriptions and Content,” scrutinized the apps marketplace from a parent’s perspective when searching for language- and literacy-focused content.

“The Cooney Center has been conducting a series of studies on children’s educational apps for the past few years, and our interest has grown out of the exploding marketplace of apps for children — in particular, the proliferation of apps marketed as educational for children,” said Vaala. “This is a booming industry, and one that impacts increasingly more children as more families gain access.”

The analysis included 101 language- and literacy-focused apps that targeted the 0-to-5 age range. Most came from Top 50 lists (both free and paid) on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play, which the researchers sampled once per week over 8 weeks throughout spring 2014. The remainder had received top scores or awards in 2013 or 2014 from three expert review sites: Children’s Technology Review, Common Sense Media, and Parents’ Choice.

“One primary question was whether the apps that won accolades from expert review sites tended to be the same apps promoted as the top educational apps in an app market,” she said. “It turns out they mostly weren’t, or at least not at the same time.”

Only three out of 101 had a place among Top 50 lists while also being awarded by review sites. In addition, out of 23 total curricula-based skills in literacy development, 16 skills were mentioned in less than 6% of apps — and some not at all. Most apps focused on fairly basic skills like alphabet knowledge and letter sounds, but ignored the higher range of skills kids need to learn to become confident readers and communicators.

“Popular and award-winning children’s apps do not contain the full array of important language and literacy skills young children need to develop.”

Less than 40% of apps mentioned the participation of an education or child development expert in app development, and very few described the use of a guiding curriculum of any kind. Notably, the rate was particularly low among the expert reviewed apps.

Another benchmark of educational quality for parents is evidence of app testing, such as usability or educational efficacy testing. Thirty percent mentioned app testing in their description, but only 4% referenced educational efficacy testing. About a quarter of apps contained no information for adults within the content.

“The results suggest that popular and award-winning children’s apps do not contain the full array of important language and literacy skills young children need to develop,” Vaala said. “Overall, we think greater consistency and information provided for parents by apps designated as educational would aid parents considerably.”

Armed with a better sense of what information is available to parents, Vaala and her colleagues are in the process of delving deeper into how parents choose which apps to download. They recently conducted an interview study with 41 parents in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Nashville on strategies they use to find and select children’s apps.

Choosing one app over another

Elisabeth McClure, a Fellow at the Cooney Center, presented preliminary results at the meeting from a study in which parents viewed one of several different versions of an educational app description. The various descriptions featured the presence or absence of educational quality benchmarks (e.g. app was developed by experts, research tested for educational effectiveness, etc.), research-based content characteristics shown to enhance children’s learning (e.g. Four Pillars of Learning), and indicators of popularity.

Her flash talk, titled “The Search for a Good App: How Parents Choose Educational Media for Their Children,” explained the creation of a fake app (“Wormy the Word Eater”) for the online survey experiment. Nearly 1,100 parents of children between 4 and 6 participated in the study.

When educational benchmarks like educational effectiveness testing were present in the description, parents were willing to pay more for the app than if it emphasized popularity or the Four Pillars of Learning. The presence of educational benchmarks had a greater impact on parents who believed more strongly in the educational potential of children’s apps, had a lower household income, and indicated that they pay close attention to app descriptions.

“We want to maximize the utility of these data for encouraging more purposeful educational app designs, such as greater quality, underlying curricula, and efficacy testing,” McClure said. “We encourage app producers to include more information that parents find valuable in their descriptions.”

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