In The Classroom

80,000 + Educational Apps: Digital Learning or Digital Candy?

If you are looking for digital tools in the education category prepare to make yourself comfortable. Over 80,000 apps are labeled “educational” in online app stores. The notion of “educational app” implies that children will acquire new knowledge and skills as a result of their activities. However, research from the Science of Learning shows that not all learning apps are created equal—or are even designed with learning in mind for that matter.

Use the Four Pillars developed by the Science of Learning to determine if an app is truly educational, and select educational apps with real substance. Apps that don’t make the grade are equal to digital candy or cognitive junk food.

Authors of the Science of Learning maintain that most mobile apps promoted as educational are, in fact, digital diversions that are ineffective in terms of knowledge-building, supporting higher order thinking and skill development. “Only a handful of apps are designed with an eye toward how children actually learn,” these scientists say. “There exist whole categories of very good apps that are fun to play with but that have no real educational goals. These might be highly engaging, but they are beyond the purview of what we consider ’educational’” (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015).

Toca Boca, one of the most popular app developers for children in the education category, have acquired over 100 million downloads. In an interview with Games and Learning (2014), Björn Jeffrey, CEO of Toca Boca, says that “…all the apps are in the education category because that is where parents look for children’s products. Now are they, then, educational because they are in the education category? Not necessarily and looking at most of the apps, most probably not.”

Jeffrey also remarks that children learn in other ways such as “collaborating or using your imagination or being creative.” Collaboration and creativity are two out of four Cs of 21st century skills, so why doesn’t Jeffrey sell to schools? He explains, “I don’t see us as an educational company. I see us as a company that makes apps for children or digital toys for children or, more simply, products for children, but it is about the children first. If they can be used in an educational context, great, but that’s not the intent” (2014).

The education label in app stores can be both misleading and confusing.

According to evidence-based research, an effective learning experience is brought about by specific qualities in app design and development: “children learn best when they are cognitively active and engaged, when learning experiences are meaningful and socially interactive, and when learning is guided by a specific goal” (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). Studies find that some apps that are designed to be used in educational settings fall short of developing higher order thinking skills in children. The four pillars embedded in this statement by the Science of Learning inform the evaluation of educational apps designed for K-12 students. Teachers (and parents) can use these criteria to determine whether or not an app truly promotes learning.

Four Pillars Apps to Choose Apps to Avoid
active participation Activities require “minds-on” taps and swipes to solve problems or make critical decisions. Apps that keep children engaged through repetitive taps and swipes.
sustained engagement Audio and visual elements are streamlined to focus students on the task. Background music, extraneous animations and other “bells and whistles” engage students but distract attention from the task.
meaningful connections Students relate new information with prior learning. Guided discovery leads to construction of new knowledge. Apps that tell students what to know; information is presented in a vacuum.
social interaction Apps encourage interpersonal discussion and competition. Apps do not incorporate human conversation.

On a side-note: another body of research suggests that non-educational mobile apps, particularly puzzle games like Cut the Rope and Bejeweled can stimulate cognitive functions resulting in improved mental abilities such as task switching (mental flexibility), adapting to new situations (versus using fixed strategies), visual attention to certain stimuli (Flanker task).

Michael D. Patterson, Ph. D. believes that the implications of findings on puzzle games may extend educational settings, but not all games present the same cognitive effects. “In future, with more studies, we will be able to know what type of games improves specific abilities, and prescribe games that will benefit people aside from just being entertainment.”

Can addictive puzzle game like Candy Crush Saga possibly have more cognitive benefits than an app categorized as “educational”? Perhaps, but in order for a game or app to truly promote learning, the activities need to be guided by a specific goal. Here’s some food for thought: a student can play hours of Candy Crush Saga, but how well do these cognitive benefits transfer to other aspects of the student’s life?

The Science of Learning sets the standard for selecting educational apps with real substance—apps that are effectively designed for digital learning. Apps that don’t make the grade are equal to digital candy or cognitive junk food.

Get in the Twitter conversation @iSAFEVentures: How does your assortment of educational apps measure up? Are they digital learning tools or digital candy?

Hirsh-Pasek. Putting education in “educational” apps: Lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2015; 16 (1): 3 DOI: 10.1177/1529100615569721
Oei Adam C., Patterson Michael D. (2015). Enhancing perceptual and attentional skills required common demands between the action video games and transfer tasks. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(113), 1-11.

Games and Learning. (2014, March 17). Björn Jeffrey on Why Toca Boca Won’t Be Selling to Schools. Source:
Rick Nauert PhD. (2014). Pysch Central. Source:
Nanyang Technological University. (2014, June 24). NTU study shows puzzle games can improve mental flexibility. Source:
e-Learning Works for Kids. Source: