by Elizabeth Carolan and Susan Rvachew
The market for educational apps and e-books is exploding, with no controls for quality or assurances of effectiveness. How are parents and educators to find apps to suit the needs of their children among the tens of thousands of apps available in this “Digital Wild West”? The Joan Ganz Cooney Center examined apps in order to gain insight on what information is available to parents and educators as they pan for technological gold in this new frontier. Specifically, the researchers analyzed a sample of 170 apps from lists like “Top 50 Paid”, “Top 50 Free”, and “Awarded” from various marketplaces, such as Google Play and the Apple App Store. They looked at the app descriptions and content to find out what is available for children and to develop recommendations for parents, teachers and industry. Their report coupled with our own research from the Digital Media Project for Children have inspired this post on what makes a quality app.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center report identified many characteristics of a quality app but two in particular overlap with our own research so we highlight them here. First, they stress the importance of “purposeful design” which requires that the design team include experts and that the design process be guided by theory and research. The authors report that less than half of the apps in their sample describe the development team in their marketplace description; only 2% of the sample note research that has been conducted on the learning outcomes of the app.
Other quality indicators follow directly from the first because theory and research should guide the choice of curriculum content and app features. For example, research clearly supports joint media engagement as an important factor in children’s learning. Therefore app designers should build co-use into their apps, such as multiplayer games or opportunities to hand the device back and forth between adult and child. However, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center researchers (Vaala et al. 2015) found that only two apps in their sample were designed for co-use. Based on our research as well as recent studies and meta-analyses, we believe these features to be key for a quality, educational app. Below, we talk about how these concepts apply to an app we helped develop, the iRead With books.
In partnership with Tribal Nova, Inc., we have developed a series of interactive e-books, bringing ‘Caillou’ and ‘Curious George’ into the digital age. In a process involving repeated cycles of design-research-redesign, we integrated features that promote acquisition of important emergent literacy skills in a shared reading context. Unique features include living words and prompt bars for parents. Living words appear in the text that, when tapped, elicit an animation in the illustration to support text comprehension. The parent prompt bars suggest comments or questions that parents might use to deepen their child’s emergent literacy or narrative skills. We have previously described how these ebooks (in comparison to paper versions of the same stories) promoted emergent literacy skills in kindergarten aged children. Here we focus on how the books changed the interaction between the child and the adult reader, thus accounting for those outcomes.
Our research team went to two English schools in the Montreal region and implemented a within-student design to compare language and literacy outcomes of print books versus the iRead With e-books. The participating children were read two ‘Caillou’ stories over two weeks, one story in paper book format and the other in interactive e-book format; the books were presented in counterbalanced order. The stories were read three times over the course of the week (one book per week) by a volunteer reader from the school community. We analyzed the transcripts for child and adult behaviors during reading and for the quality of the interaction between reader and child. One analysis coded the content of the adult speech (disregarding read text) as follows:
- Rapport & Behavior (e.g., “Have you ever read an iPad before?” “So let’s start reading.” “Good job, you’re paying attention.”)
- Book mechanics (e.g., “Turn the page now.” “Press this one.” “Use your finger, not your fingernail.”)
- Story related (e.g., “Who is this?” “Where are the children?” “Do you remember what happens next?” “The end.”)
- Word meanings (e.g., “What is that?” “Oh, it’s a duck!” “Do you know what specific means?” “We need a certain one. We can’t just use any costume.”)
- Print or word structure (e.g., “This is the word mommy.” “We read this line, there’s three more lines to read.” “This is the word nose. Do you know what rhymes with the word nose?”)
Below is a chart showing the frequency of these behaviors while reading paper books compared to the iRead With e-books.
When using ebook, the adults spent much more time instructing the children about book mechanics. There were also more comments about behavior, but the difference is not statistically significant. Most importantly, there were statistically significant increases in comments and questions about word meanings and about print or word structure. Adult readers actually made five times more comments about print and word structure while reading the e-book compared to the paper book! We believe that these differences in parent comments account for the differences in child learning that we observed in this study. Specifically, we found no disadvantage to the iRead With e-book for story retell or story comprehension scores. We found a significant advantage to iRead With for emergent literacy test scores. In particular word recognition and phonological awareness scores were better after iRead With book exposure. This was especially true for children who started out with relatively poor letter knowledge skills.
In sum, we believe a quality app is comprised of thoughtful content creation and testing to ensure that the app is fulfilling its purpose. Our job as developers and researchers is to collaborate with the overall aim of producing content that is educational, choosing interactive features and integrating design principles such as joint media engagement to support the learning goal. We also believe it is essential to have feedback from educators and parents regarding marketing and presentation, content, and usability of the apps. Please feel free to leave comments below if you have any thoughts on this subject, we would love to hear from you!
In this blog, we focused on e-books and apps with narrative content in regards to early literacy. For tips on what to keep in mind when choosing early literacy apps with aural input, check out this blog by Barbara Culatta, Kendra Hall-Kenyon, and Gary Bingham from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.
Shamir, A., & Korat, O. (2015). Educational Electronic Books for Supporting Emergent Literacy of Kindergarteners At-Risk for Reading Difficulties–What Do We Know So Far?, Computers in the Schools, 32:2, 105-211.
Takacs, Z., Swart, E., & Bus, A. (2015). Benefits and Pitfalls of Multimedia and Interactive Features in Technology-Enhanced Storybooks: A Meta-Analysis, Review of Educational Research, 85:4, 698-739.