Classroom Technology What the Research Says

How Teachers Choose Apps for Their Classrooms

By Lauraine Langreo — April 07, 2023 3 min read
PC tablet with cloud of application icons floating from off the screen.
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When selecting an educational app, which qualities do educators value more—buzzwords or educational benchmarks?

A study conducted by researchers from McGill University in Canada found that pre-service and in-service elementary educators are more likely to select apps that have educational benchmarks over ones that feature buzzwords, such as “personalized,” “interactive,” or “hands-on.”

Educators consider some benchmarks much more important than others, the study found. They value apps that feature a development team that includes child-development experts, educational consultants, and subject-specific experts. They also value apps that provide scaffolding by reinforcing skills or concepts taught in class and align with curriculum standards rather than those based on a learning theory (for example, an app that says it’s based on discovery and experimentation) or those that provide feedback that guides students toward the right answers.

Carla Jefferson, who was the instructional technology coordinator for the Darlington County school district in South Carolina and is now the principal of the district’s virtual academy, said this has been her experience when teachers have requested apps.

“The conversations behind which apps are to be used have definitely shifted,” Jefferson said in an email interview. “As we move forward with digital access being more available for all, I can agree that educators are not as excited about the latest, greatest tool just because it is fun.”

“Education in general is shifting towards how technology can enhance teaching and learning and through that shift is the importance of receiving data that can be useful to engage and support learners,” she added.

Jeff Carpenter, a professor of education and the director of the Teaching Fellows Program for Elon University, agreed that the study suggests that “even pre-service educators may be relatively savvy at evaluating education apps.”

This is “a somewhat more optimistic finding regarding educators being critical consumers of ed-tech content” than has been found in other research, Carpenter said.

Now that the emergency [online] learning is over, it is important that we become even more intentional about how technology is used in learning spaces. The only way that happens is through ongoing, relevant professional development.

Researchers asked 57 pre-service and current elementary educators to view and evaluate app store pages for 10 mock apps, while an eye tracker collected their “gaze” data (which tracks what part of the screen they’re looking at). Then, participants were asked how willing they were to download the apps, how much they would pay, and how they would rate or rank the apps.

The researchers recommended that pre-service and current teachers have training programs about educational apps so they can make informed decisions while selecting and integrating them into their practice. They also said these training programs would be beneficial for curriculum directors, principals, and other administrators who might preselect apps for schools.

It’s also necessary to have a clear standard for what a school system considers a quality app, researchers said, to ensure that they are picked based on a research-based framework.

Jefferson agreed with researchers that there’s a need for more training about educational apps, especially because sometimes classroom teachers don’t consider the data, security, and privacy aspects of choosing an app.

“Those components haven’t been fully shared with classroom teachers,” she said. “Now that the emergency [online] learning is over, it is important that we become even more intentional about how technology is used in learning spaces. The only way that happens is through ongoing, relevant professional development.”

See Also

Students attend a coding class at Hampton Street School in Mineola, N.Y., March 13, 2023.
Students participate in a computer coding class at the pre-K-2 Hampton Street School in Mineola, N.Y., on March 13, 2023.
Mostafa Bassim for Education Week

Carpenter, however, said, “It also begs the question of whether it should be a responsibility of individual educators to evaluate apps.”

“Given how much teachers already have on their plates, it may benefit teachers to be able to collaboratively, rather than individually, evaluate apps, or to be able to pull from district- or professional-association-curated lists of recommended apps,” he added.

In Darlington schools, the district creates heterogeneous groups of district and school level administrators, teachers, and additional school level support staff (such as media specialists and instructional coaches). The district has a form that school administrators complete when evaluating new apps or tools that might be used in the classroom.

Many district leaders and principals—who often make the final call on what apps teachers can use in their classrooms—are looking for tools that meet the following criteria, according to Jefferson:

  • Clear guidelines around data, security, and privacy;
  • The ability to be set and controlled from a district technology office;
  • No comparable tool already in place;
  • Strong instructional need for the tool;
  • Data from the app that can be quickly accessed to improve teaching and learning.

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