Q&A: Research on Educational Apps

A new report published in the April issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest provides a set of four evidence-based principles that parents, educators, and app designers can use to evaluate the quality of so-called “educational” apps.

The report, “Putting Education in ‘Educational’ Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning,” was published by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Temple University; Jennifer M. Zosh, Penn State University, Brandywine; Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, University of Delaware; James H. Gray, Sesame Workshop; Michael B. Robb, Saint Vincent College; and Jordy Kaufman, Swinburne University of Technology.

*Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff are recipients of the 2015 APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award. They will deliver their Award Address at the 2015 Annual Convention in May.

Out of the four “pillars” of learning, which did you find to be displayed most prominently in existing apps?

One of the pillars that ‘popped out’ as being the most problematic in current apps is the use of ‘enhancements’ such as hot spots, sounds, games, or short activities that grabbed children’s attention in the middle of a story or activity. While these ‘bells and whistles’ might be fun, research suggests that these kinds of distractions actually take away from, rather than enhance, learning. Keeping children ‘on task’ is crucial for supporting learning.

The pillar we most commonly identified in current apps was active. A large number of so-called educational apps asked children to solve math problems or identify an animal that started with a given letter. One key thing to keep in mind is that what is active learning one day likely won’t be in a few shorts months or even weeks. A child who has to actively think about what 2+3 is one day will likely not have to actively think about the answer to this question in a few months. This is one reason parents have such a key role – they know what is too easy for their child and also too hard.

What is one educational app on the market today that meets all four of your recommended educational principles?

There ARE fantastic apps out there! One app that we talk about in the article is Alien Assignment. This app asks children to help a family of aliens fix their crashed spaceship with items around the house. Children go on a scavenger hunt where they decipher clues to figure out what is needed (active) and then take those pictures to a parent or grown-up (socially interactive).  As children work through the storyline, they see why they have this mission (meaningful) and that keeps the children on-task and not distracted (engaged). Finally, the app guides children towards exploring their world and their own knowledge (setting the context of guided exploration). This is by no means the only app that provides a great example of these pillars – it was just a favorite one of ours to play!

Are there certain skills sets or talents that would be better suited to learning through applications? For example, are artistic skills more readily absorbed through design apps than, say, mathematics?

Just as a skilled parent can make a rock ‘educational’ (What does it look like? Does it float? What is it made of? What would happen if we drop it though a piece of tissue paper?), we think that just about any kind of information can be learned through an app. The key is giving children the content (whether that be math or art or spelling or physics) in a context that promotes active, engaged, meaningful, and/or socially interactive experiences.

Despite some apps being misrepresented as educational, is the usage of any app particularly harmful to its users? Do existing “empty calorie” apps hold any benefits?

We aren’t advocating that the only apps children be allowed to play with are those that are educational. Just like adults sometimes need a few minutes of reality TV or to read a magazine about celebrity gossip, children also should be allowed to have fun sometimes – even with an app that isn’t educational. What we did not want, however, is for parents to think that their children are learning from apps that actually hold little, to no, educational value and use this ‘app time’ to replace more meaningful experiences – either with truly educational apps or other people around them in real life.  Just like ice cream, “empty calorie” apps likely are not harmful unless they are used in excess.

Do parents still need to place the same restrictions on screen time, whether children are using educational apps or not?

Anything done without moderation can be harmful – whether it is eating junk food, exercising, playing a game on an app, and yes, even playing educational apps. The thing that parents should keep in mind is that like adults’ time, children’s time is limited and if children spend too much time on a screen – doing anything – they are not spending that time playing pretend with a sibling or reading with a parent.  So making sure your child does not spend too much time doing any one activity is usually a good bet.

Would you or your colleagues ever consider designing your own educational app, in order to help spur the second wave?

Absolutely! We hope to both directly (perhaps by designing our own app) and indirectly (helping other app developers learn the science behind how children learn) usher in this second wave.

What type of feedback are you receiving on your report from app developers? 

The few who have seen the piece love it and are thankful that scientists are weighing in.



Its good that scientists are beginning to be interested in the measurement of the suitability and impact of the so-called educational apps to help maximize its potentials. I am currently spearheading such kind of research in the University of Jos, Nigeria. Our research seeks to determine the motivation created by educational apps and the factors responsible for it. we have currently collected data from over 1000 students who made used of an App called Mafuyai Graphing Tool (MaGT). we hope to make our findings public before the end of the year.

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