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Why Educational Apps Alone Do Not Help Kids Learn


Like any parent,I enjoy my kid’s engaging with an educational app assuming that it is useful and that it helps my kid comprehend a new concept. Although I see great benefits in the child’s engagement with an educational app, I have a conviction that the app alone won’t help the child understand concepts or prevent the child from developing “misconceptions”. The child needs a more competent person to guide and explain concepts guarding the child from incorporating misconceptions by observing nuances in the child’s behavior during his play that the app won’t recognize. Of course, if the educational app is well designed based on pedagogical models that work, the app would incorporate a tutor and/or tutee. that would take into account all misconceptions that children might develop.  However, if one looks at all the educational apps, only few are designed and developed based on proven pedagogical models.

First, to explain my point, let me tell you about on instance with my child that prompted a parent’s attention to rectify a possible misconception. We have proudly downloaded a Math application for kids that we thought it was “WOW” because of the graphic, the human-screen interactivity, and the feedback for the kid’s responses. This particular app helps the child in counting to 10 using his fingers. The child would typically press and hold a finger or more  and the app will display visually and auditory the  number of fingers held on screen.

At first our child scarcely knew how to use the application and what it did. Eventually, after a few tries, he gave up. Later that night however, when he felt he was alone, he picked up his iPad and started playing with the Math app. First, he watched an embedded video demo on how to use the app and after 4 views he started to get the idea behind it. Then, delighted that he figured it out, he started pressing and holding his fingers enjoying the audio and visual display on the number of fingers that are in contact with the screen. I was delighted at first, observing him from behind. I however, observed, as he went along with his play, that he pressed his thumb to get a “1” feedback then he took his thumb off and pressed and held his index finger expecting a no. “2” but got a “1” feedback instead. Then, he pressed his middle finger, expecting a “3” feedback but again got a “1” instead. He was ambivalent on how if he pressed two his thumb he would get a “1” and then, with the thumb pressed on the screen, he would use his index too and would get a “2”, but won’t get a “2” if the index is pressed alone. He started looking at his index finger as if it were a no. “2” alone and at his middle finger as if it were no. “3” alone.

I had to intervene at this point to explain to him the concept and  how to think about numbers and fingers. Only then he understood the relationship between numbers and counting on fingers.

These subtleties can never be detected by apps, at least those that are not designed based on learning theories, and the child needs a more knowledgeable “person” to help the child to reach his “zone of proximal development”. Parents should also go beyond the “WOW” factor of the app and explore whether it does help their child understand a concept. Most importantly parents should be present with their child noting observable learning or mislearning and rectify errors in a timely manner.

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