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Best apps for schools: what do teachers want?

Natalia Kucirkova

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Natalia Kucirkova is currently working for The Open University and Booktrust as a Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate. Her research concerns innovative ways of supporting shared book reading and the role of personalisation in early years. She is particularly interested in fostering children’s trans-media experiences and identity growth. Natalia’s research inspired the development of the Our Story tablet/smartphone app and has been published in a variety of outlets . She has been commended for her engagement with teachers and parents at a national and international level.

As part of our ongoing work to develop criteria for assessing the quality of children’s digital books and apps, we ran a number of workshops with teachers in local schools and asked them about what they think a good digital book or app should look like and contain. Some of these teachers had never used iPads in their classrooms, others use digital books on a daily basis in the school or with their own children at home.  We showed the teachers a selection of popular digital books from the App store and asked them to tell us what they thought of them, what applications they currently use and what they would like to see developers focus more on in the future.  In terms of the apps teachers would like to see more of, there was a clear consensus on four main points.

Open-ended apps

Teachers told us that they often use software not necessarily designed for classroom use or for young children’s engagement. For example, they use Google documents for collaborative writing in the classroom and other shared writing activities between home and school. Teachers who have Apple technology in their classroom love using iMovie to support children’s work for science projects and inquiry. In both cases, teachers appreciate the fact that the technology is easy to use and access (there is no need to set up an email account or pay for a download) and can be effortlessly re-purposed to suit the teachers’ needs.

Teachers also liked the fact that they could link the use of the technology to the development of children’s current and future skills. Google documents is a tool children can ‘grow up with’ as they can use the tool with incremental levels of difficulty for different tasks. Not only can children iteratively share their skills with peers but also, for example, parents at home. Teachers agreed that they would like to use more of native apps- notably those that allow them to scaffold children’s activities in this way.

Apps which support group work

Teachers commented that most children’s apps are typically designed for individual engagement. For use in class, they need more apps which would have embedded features for supporting collaboration, for example exchange of ideas with others, problems which can be solved through jointly devised solutions etc. Developers should therefore consider embedding features which require authentic audience engagement to verify children’s understandings and offer feedback (rather than relying on embedded feedback mechanisms). Story-sharing apps and apps which come with the option of sharing the work online with other users are particularly favoured by teachers, but only if they have clear security measures in place.

Apps which have no hidden costs

All teachers agreed that apps which offer free ‘lite’ versions and in-app purchases pose significant challenges with respect to use in schools. Teachers would much rather have apps where they pay up-front rather than through additional small sums later. They also prefer to see the full potential of an app from the outset, so that they can plan how various layers of interactivity would work for different children and how they would incrementally expand or enrich the activity.

Apps with guidance and suggested activities of use

Teachers expressed the wish for more package solution apps rather than stand-alone apps, that is to say apps which come with accompanying websites with suggested activities or offer other activity-extension within the app, eg some worksheets to print out and do in the class. In other words, in addition to open-ended apps, teachers also like apps which come with some pre-designed activities.

As we listened to the teachers, we found that many of their ideas are not reflected in the newest app development trends. As such, they reinforce the message that developers and teachers need to work together if we want to see innovation happening in schools and in the app stores.

 

 

 

 



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