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Back To School With The Educational App Boom

Educational apps are all over these days. How are they working for the education of our children? Plus: why our kids need more sleep.

Matthew Triska, 13, center, helps Alex Fester, 10, to build code using an iPad at a youth workshop at the Apple store on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, in Stanford, Calif.  (AP)

Matthew Triska, 13, center, helps Alex Fester, 10, to build code using an iPad at a youth workshop at the Apple store on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, in Stanford, Calif. (AP)

The new school year is revved and revving up all over now.  Backpacks, notebooks, new sneakers – and technology.  At home and in the classroom, educational apps are all over now.  Apps for babies.  Apps for toddlers.  Apps for kids in school.  We’ve got The Three Little Pigs and Monster Physics.  Frog Dissection and Duolingo.  Apps for the classroom, and for home, and apps for teachers to communicate with home.  Is it all rocketing our children ahead in learning?  This hour On Point:  In school and out, wading deep into the age of educational apps.

– Tom Ashbrook


Betsy Corcoran, CEO and editor at EdSurge. (@betsy_)

Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Author of “Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child.” (@LisaGuernsey)

Annie Murphy Paul, educational consultant and author of the forthcoming book, “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.” (@anniemurphypaul)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: Smart Phones for Smart Kids – “For years entrepreneurs and educators have been pushing to bring education technology into the classroom, but adoption has often been slow. Now the education tech landscape is shifting toward mobile devices and new, free and easy-to-use services. The impact is enormous: This year more than 750 million educational apps for mobile devices will be installed world-wide.”

School Library Journal: Too Soon for Technology? — “Even the most experienced librarians and educators may find themselves flummoxed by the recent profusion of digital resources intended for the youngest users: preschoolers. The number of websites, apps, and ebooks for children under five has grown exponentially, leading librarians, teachers, and parents to wrestle with new questions about which digital offerings are appropriate and when.”

The Atlantic:Why Some Schools Are Selling All Their iPads – “iPads have so far been a gadget of choice at both ends of the economic spectrum: in wealthier schools with ample resources and demand from parents, and in low-income schools that receive federal grants to improve student success rates. Last fall, enthusiasm for the Apple device peaked when Los Angeles Unified Schools, the second largest system in the nation, began a rollout out of iPads to every student.”

Our Kids Need More Sleep

Dr. Judith Owens, pediatrician and director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Health System.

Pediatrics: School Start Times for Adolescents — “Although a number offactors, including biological changes in sleep associated with puberty, lifestyle choices, and academic demands, negatively affect middle and high school students’ ability to obtain sufficient sleep, the evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (ie, before 8:30 AM) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption, in this population. Furthermore, a substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.”

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  • Jasoturner

    Our reliance on technology to address fundamental issues – such as the need for hard work and studying to master a subject – worries me sometimes. Are we creating a generation of dilettantes, who know a little about a lot, but who know a lot about pretty much nothing?

    • Leonard Bast

      As a college teacher, I can answer your question, based on what I observe: yes.

      • The poster formerly known as t

        Right, and college teachers don’t have a bias towards deep knowledge in narrow subjects and a bias against examining the utility of that deep knowledge to the students when they enter the private sector (because we all can’t be academics).

    • The poster formerly known as t

      According to at least one study generalists were found to provide a better ROI to society than specialists who are only good at one narrow thing at are oblivious to anything outside their specialty. Deep knowledge in increasingly narrow subjects has fewer applications.

  • spudoo

    I look forward to the exploration of the technology topic on today’s segment, but I hope that the discussion can be a bit more reflective than is often the case when these sorts of issues wind up in public and media discussion. Particularly when considering the movement to adopt mobile devices in schools and classrooms, all too often the discourse is one that focuses on after the fact outcomes — “test scores didn’t go up”, “students abused the technology”, “such and such district ended their program because it didn’t work” — and thereby ignores the fact that so many school districts/communities develop no clear/realistic/consensual intent for technology BEFORE its implementation. If schools (not to mention parents and the public at large) would spend time with their entire school communities developing strategic goals and objectives for technology — as well as the procedures for measuring (qualitatively as well as quantitatively) progress in meeting those goals — then school technology initiatives such as the proliferation of mobile devices in classrooms would be much less frustrating and much more cost-effective for the communities undertaking these initiatives.

    I work with a firm that facilitates such strategic, reflective, work with school districts nationwide (and in the Greater Boston area), and I can verify that there are smart ways to implement mobile devices for learning and then again many not-so-smart ways of introducing new technologies to the learning environment. (We only work with planning and assessment and do not actually sell or promote any technology) For all of the many success stories that exist, there are unfortunately all too many stumbling and in some cases disastrous tales to tell. But rather than capitalizing on the failed and failing efforts as cautionary tales, I believe that we can best move ahead by applying basic principles of strategic planning — vision setting, stakeholder involvement, goal development, and realistic assessment — to maximizing the value that inevitable and ubiquitous technology will bring to education.

  • Salty

    I have been a professional educator for close to 25 years. For many of those years I worked with teachers on integrating technology in the classroom. From my expert perspective I can say, unreservedly, that the best “app” is a dad sitting down at the dining room table going over the day’s homework with their child. (Moms are great and crucial but I would go for Dad’s first – It would help solve the fathering crisis we are dealing with as well…)

    • http://argonnechronicles.blogspot.com/ Dee

      Dads (and it’s plural not possessive) first? Why? Shouldn’t the best parent for the job do it? Perhaps the one with the appropriate skills to the task?

      • Omaha Guy

        this is just her empirical findings. maybe she should have qualified her statement. but her statements are valid as a personal observance.

      • Salty

        Perhaps I was referring to a dad’s ability (the possessive intended…)? I was making the point about the fathering crisis we face… and that dads (plural not possessive) should not see education as the mom’s (singular possessive intended…) work.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Change the program. Start school at 6 pm and run until the wee hours. Since that’s when everyone is sharp as a tack.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    How about we just get rid of high school per Leon Botstein.. and me?

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    The app that mirrors the American public school system: Monkey See Monkey Do.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    I use Duolingo, German*. Thanks for the plug.

    * On my Nook while I watch public television shows. And baseball on ESPN.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Youtube has Quantum Mechanics lectures available from Stanford University, lecturer Leonard Susskind, PhD. Try watching one and think they’re not educational. I’ve watched many of these ~ 2 hour sessions. And I already have a couple of EE degrees.

  • Leonard Bast

    Tom asked if this emphasis on technology as a magic bullet is being driven by schools and teachers or by parents. It’s actually being driven by technology companies, who make a killing from this captive audience.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Music is a poor handmaiden for instruction and focused thinking.

    • Omaha Guy

      oh wow… you don’t know what you are saying on this topic.

  • J__o__h__n

    They ruined Tom Lehrer.

    • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

      No one can ruin the master. Play his New Math and chuckle again. Hoober Doober

      • J__o__h__n

        He plays the piano adequately.

        • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

          A pity he doesn’t teach math on Youtube. HD

  • Omaha Guy

    books vs tablets…

    When I worked as a school bus driver, I was very impressed by the immigrant children. While other children were vegetating on the bus, and using Ipads and iphones… the immigrant children would open a book and share it and the older one explained it to the younger ones. When they started other children would be excited for them and answer their questions… the next year… the other children would be interesting and ask them what was in the text book. During that time, the bus was just as valuable as the classroom…. (that doesn’t happen often)


    My kid used scratch and loved it… he would create a little maze video game, and the other kid would be the game tester.. later, he attended community college during high school and gained computer programming credit.


    in high school, give a teen a chat-pal with another teen of the opposite sex, and as they say nice things to each other… motivation will happen!

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Screens + Technology = Aspy Nation

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    No bigger mindless junk than commercial television.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Where’s the app for cleaning the bathroom or scooping out nuggets from the cat boxes?

    • The poster formerly known as t

      Even if there was an app or robot that could do that, the job market would react to it by raising expectations, i.e., hours. Earnings would go up due to the app or robot for cleaning the bathroom or scooping the nuggets from the litter boxes, because people would be working more, to pay for the app or robot for cleaning the bathroom or scooping the nuggets from the litter boxes.

  • Tom

    It’s the new babysitter much in the same way that the T.V. was for past generations. That’s how I’ve seen it most used. And you feel somewhat justified because they are “educational” apps. So give your kids the iPhone and iPad and you can go about doing your own digital surfing. I’m guilty of it because life is seemingly so busy. I’ve decided to limit time to 30 minutes a day for my kid.

    • The poster formerly known as t

      ” life is seemingly so busy. “Doing what exactly? Why are people so busy these days? I thought technology was suppose to free up people for more leisure time.

  • Omaha Guy

    for older kids and adults, if a major company included in their curriculum an app to connect people to chat with who are at a similar level with each other’s language… if you make friends with people in another country, it will become easier to motivate learning.

  • Omaha Guy

    In the 90′s and eartly 00′s, my toddler was given a lot of “leap pad” stuff. and later, when the fad was over, my other toddler was not using it.. the second kid seems a bit smarter…

  • Kyle

    why do the schools always use obscenely overpriced apple devices? Are they getting some deal or do they just want to be cool?

    • Omaha Guy

      apple made an investment in the 80′s and 90′s early in schools. that was back when their stuff was made in the USA. they are still riding the residual good will from that era.

    • Rick Evans

      They listen to public radio where an all to common phrase is “your iPhone” or “your iPad”.

    • KC

      Apple products are designed to be consumer-oriented. It is so easy to use that it is great to turn your little ones into loyal consumers and lock them into buying over-rated bad products for the rest of their lives. Schools should consider alternatives like RasberryPi + GNU/Linux. They are not only cheaper (almost free) but also come with tons of great free tutorials to teach you how to do great things with them. Let’s stop wasting the precious education dollars on the billionaire tax-dodgers.

  • Omaha Guy

    If education is reduced to an app that competes with other apps like angry birds, is this an improvement? So education is pushed into the corner to compete for attention, in the same device that distracting and dividing attention?

    I have attended various public gatherings, such as weddings, funerals, parties, church, or just going shopping… kids used to watch their parents interact with the world, even if they were bored.

    How sad it is that i see kids at a funeral for a heroic war veteran, and the only way you can get them to attend is to allow them to space it all out in a game. They get annoyed when the taps player distracts them..

  • Omaha Guy

    When i was in college, it was a very nice and easy thing to gain access to “silver platter” legal documents. I would spice up my writing papers in various classes with recent legal rulings on the given topic. That database empowered me to prepare better papers. Since then, that database has been removed from our college library, and the online is no longer searchable as well.

    If an app does provide a real value as the old silver platter… i doubt it will help.

  • Omaha Guy

    Teacher as screen monitor does sound like a dystopian view of the world.

    My kids had unfiltered access to the internet.

    But, they were often too busy with real books to get in trouble.

  • Omaha Guy

    To let teens sleep, play onpointradio.org

    lol… just giving you a hard time…

  • couchdog27

    I am sorry, this is one of those cases as if the speaker is missing the main point…

    Tom needs to look at the research of what happens to kids when they are in front of a screen as much as they are, now it is the computer companies and app companies that want MORE screen time.

    The attention span is down…. and the depth of knowledge is lost

    • Omaha Guy

      it’s unclear if you are for or against increased screen time. I think you might be against it… but you might simply be against companies getting all the screen time.

      • couchdog27

        I am against screen time.. All those in education know the problems with it… but when they can get a grant for a new smartboard — they jump.

        After they jump, they feel obligated to use it…

        The person really benefiting from this is the candy companies, not the students.

        Edit: I don’t blame companies for wanting to make money… but they are the cigarette companies of modern age.

        • iSquidball

          So what happens when they get to the workforce, which in many professions is compromised of needing to know how to use and learn new computer systems? What then? These are skills they also need to have.

          • couchdog27

            I have heard time and time again, the skill workers lack — not computer.

            Newbes don’t know what a file cabinet is… they don’t know how to talk to their fellow workers.. if a computer doesn’t do it for them.. the can’t do it.

            Take a look at the average 18 year old… do you think the skill t hey are lacking is how to use a computer or a smartphone?

            That said, I was mostly talking about students in classes younger than eighth grade.

  • Jeff

    Have these kids do a 2 a-day football practice…they’ll be going to be at 8 pm and waking up at 7 am every day!

    • couchdog27

      I was just going to mention sports…. Basketball is inside, but many sports need to start early to beat the dark

    • Omaha Guy

      football has an increased for head injury… do i ask young people to injure themselves for my entertainment?

      • couchdog27

        You would have a hard time taking any sport away from the public schools… even if it makes you dumber.

  • Omaha Guy

    ! Comments can’t be blank.

  • Rick Evans

    I thought the tabby slap at Youtube as a place to watch cat videos was silly and uninformed. I saved $125 after watching a Youtube instructional video on how to change the serpentine belt on my Corolla.

    I restored a hazy, crazed pair of classes after watching a video on how to use hydrofluoric acid etching gel to remove the anti reflective coating.

    I learned how to process astronomical images with a piece of NASA developed freeware by watching a well done Youtube video.

    There are tons of great educational videos, long and short on Youtube. Many well done instructional videos are done by kids.

    Lumping Youtube in with cat videos is lazy parroting of an old narrative. Laziness is a lot worse for education than any app.

  • CJJMansfield

    What happens to teenagers when they go camping and don’t have a campfire to tend? My experience (if they have had optimal physical exertion, which is at least an hour of hard exercise) is that they fall asleep relatively soon after the sun goes down, and then wake up when the sun rises.

    What keeps them awake late at night? Duh, not enough exercise and the one-to-one devices that the schools send home, bathing the kids in melatonin-disrupting blue light from screens.

  • http://spindlewidget.com Gin Ferrara

    As a media educator for nearly 20 years, I believe technology is what you make of it. It would be hard to be anything but a monitor if you don’t integrate the tech into your classroom. I teach workshops for teachers that use iPads to create videos in the classroom — a project-based, team oriented approach that uses the tablets to promote interaction. And to be honest, I’ve been doing this work in various ways with each new wave of technology, but it has never been easier or more accessible.

  • Julia Brown


    ☗☗☗ ☗☗☗ ☗☗☗ ☗�☗☗ ☗☗☗

  • leoniehaimson

    I hope you address privacy concerns of parents who are alarmed at the irresponsible sharing of personally identifiable information of their kids with for profit vendors– with associated risks that far outweigh the proven benefits of these apps.

    • http://spindlewidget.com Gin Ferrara

      I’ve seen many teachers take a lot of care and thought with this issue. iPads used in schools around here are not the personal property of the child, and no personal information is saved or shared through using those devices. When a student brings their own device to school, it’s more complicated — teachers do address privacy issues, but the parents need to back it up when the tech is used for personal/home use.

  • Cassie

    I totally agree with you. I think this way of teaching is horrendous, and just a naked ploy to get kids addicted to electronics as early as possible, so that they’ll become good consumers of these products forever.

  • Cassie

    As someone who suffers from sensory overload and becomes distracted by having too many “voices” clamoring for my attention, I would go crazy if I were a kid again, and had to learn this way. Literally. Pushing apps for everything on kids is a naked ploy to get kids addicted to electronics at an early age, and ensure they’ll be “good” consumers in the future.

  • Stephanie

    I wonder if there’s any evidence of sentiments when reading/books started being used for schooling children (and in part replacing lectures or work/apprenticeships). I bet these sentiments would echo what we hear about the integration of technology, but the issue now is that the speed of the transition does not allow time to adapt our teaching, and school-wide & state-wide policies. I experienced first-hand that textbook companies develop companion technology as an afterthought for state approvals. I’ve also witnessed a freshman lecture hall lit up like a concert with mobile phones. It’s hard not to feel there is a problem. However, as it now seems evident that reading was not the issue “back then”, but rather what books and how they were integrated; the parallel is that the issue now is not technology, but what media, how you use it, and what balance you can provide with other occupations to make sure the kids develop social skills and other developmental milestones. My toddler likes going through all the instruments on the Richard Scary orchestra page with me, but she LOVES watching an iphone app of 10 second videos showing people playing instruments (among other things) – with me and without me. There is no denying that the videos are more informative about the world than the images on paper, yet I don’t hear anybody crying out against toddlers looking at picture books (lol). My main concern about technology use at such a young age (and any age, really) is what it is doing to the eyes and brain development. The territory is uncharted.

  • Argon

    Can we put faces in apps? How many of the reading apps cataloged and coded by your guest have a user interface which includes video of a real person’s mouth/lips articulating the words on the screen?

  • iSquidball

    I think part of the problem is that you can’t just hand an iPad or a stack of iPads to teachers and expect them to be able to use them properly to teach their students. iPads and the apps they contain are tools that can, when properly deployed with an MDM (mobile device manager) and centralized management of the iPads, be an amazing tool to enhance learning and teaching.

    The problem is that the management tools being available and the IT involvement with teachers. I am in a fortunate position to be deploying to a small school, and have, as an IT person, a close relationship with both the teachers and students. I am giving them the available tools so that “worrying about pornography” isn’t even a thought, because it’s not even possible with our web filtering tools

    The facts are also that with any technology deployment, especially new deployment, at least 35% of your budget should be focused on professional development. Period. You can’t just put an iPad cart into a teacher’s classroom and say “USE IT.” You have to show them how to use it. You have to show them that it can be a tool to create, a tool to enhance how they see the world, and a tool to communicate.

    It’s meant to enhance learning, not replace teachers. Students can be more engaged with iPads with their teachers. They’re not going to babysit. If you’re teaching right, you’re using it to just engage in a different way.

    • http://spindlewidget.com Gin Ferrara

      I agree — the biggest challenge I have seen over the years is when a school makes a huge technology investment, but does not back it up with professional development or curriculum support.

  • KC

    I try to restrict my four year old’s access to computer and TV. I am not a big fan of these educational apps although my school district seems to be pushing them for the older kids. In fact, just watching kids’ on the street glued to their phones is enough to convince me that technology and education don’t mix. When I was a kid, it was the video games and television — I used to play 8 hours of console-game a day. With my younger siblings, it was the social networks and online games. With my kid it will probably be apps or whatever is next. I see a lot of flow of information but little creativity in what these kids are doing. My own view is that educational apps are just a gateway to these less desirable activities and should be discouraged, at least until they are old enough to know how to handle the excess information, say high school. Not that I am technophobe — I do programming for a living — I just think technology is unnecessary evil in the education process.

    What I have learned from my son is that all he needs are easy access to play-things at anytime plus other persons (adults or kids) to play with. He can play with practically anything. It is my role to give structure and meaning to his seemingly chaotic play in order to teach him different lessons that hopefully he will remember. For example, just think about how you would teach a little kid the letter A. Trust me, sit them in front of a TV or book and repeat ‘A is for apple’ is not going to get very far. Sing along and story-time works a lot better but still not enough. However, if you allow him to discover the letter A, say by surrounding him with objects that starts with the letter A and let him discover it, then it is a completely different experience for him and it can be a lot of fun. This is why my school sends notices to parent on what lessons they will be focusing on each week so that I can coordinate mine with theirs. I believe similar methodology can be adopted to older kids with more mature lessons. For example, how do you teach elementary school kids arithmetic? Just take them to shop at supermarket and blur the lesson with physical activity; Market is the birthplace of arithmetic after all.

    So start paying teachers and stop wasting money on technology!

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