What makes an app an educational app?

By Monica McDonnell
On January 26, 2018

What makes an app an educational app?

Although I haven’t looked at the most recent statistics (too scary to contemplate) – I think it is safe to assume that we are bordering on 100 000 educational apps being available for sale or download across multiple platforms. Having looked through some of them, it is clear that the educational value differs quite considerably between individual apps.

Unfortunately nobody seems to publish an easy index for educational apps that rate their educational properties. However, at the start of the Duck on the Run (DOTR) development cycle, I was pointed in the direction of an academic paper that investigated the educational attributes of an app. This paper has guided the design of DOTR – which I hope has the effect of building deep learning into an entertaining game that children want to play. The paper, by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek et al, identified four “pillars” of learning which truly educational apps should have designed in – and these must be coupled with a learning goal. Below I have listed the four pillars, and how DOTR has incorporated these features in the app’s design.

Pillar 1:  Active learning

What this means: The app should not just require tapping or swiping, but consist of activities that require thinking.
DOTR interpretation: In the main game the only way you can move the main character (Duck) is to answer mathematical challenges. Incorrect answers, or excessive delays, cause Duck to lose lives. Mini games take the time pressure off, but the basic principle remains the same – maths challenges have to be answered correctly to enable the characters to complete their missions.

Pillar 2: Engagement in the learning process

What this means: Avoid distractions (pop-up ads are an extreme case, but also other effects that are available on screen) that would distract from the learning goal.
DOTR interpretation: This is a tough one to implement, and retain key elements of an entertaining game (sound effects, animations, etc). DOTR has been designed to minimize distractions. One primary design feature is a commitment to no adverts – ever. Whilst animations are employed, they are primarily correlated to feedback – success or failure in finishing a specific task. Motivation and feedback are also key to engaged learning. DOTR attempts to motivate all children by a number of methods:

  • The ability to advance through levels, and receive harder challenges as your maths skills develop
  • Challenge mode to see how long you can keep Duck away from Pig within a specific level
  • Allowing parents and children to collaborate on rewards for achievements.

Pillar 3:  Meaningful learning

What this means: For the learning in the app to be meaningful, it must connect to existing knowledge. That is – the app should build on what we already know, integrate into daily life, and ideally provide an integrated purpose within the app itself.
DOTR interpretation: The app is designed to practice and build confidence in the basic maths operations children will be learning at school. Integration into daily life is enabled through the Reward Centre, allow parents to provide in-game rewards for homework done, or physical rewards for in game achievements. Internal integration has been achieved by ensuring the mini-games are linked to the primary purpose of keeping Duck away from Pig. Each mini game completed will earn the player a deterrent, which gives Duck and extra life in case Pig gets a bit close for comfort.

Pillar 4: Social interaction

What this means: We can’t expect our children to learn anything by just giving them an app. From the moment we are born, social stimuli (faces, eye contact, gestures and actions) dramatically enhances learning. So, an app should integrate a social element to encourage learning.
DOTR interpretation: DOTR has enabled parental engagement and encouragement through the Reward Centre. Wider engagement can be achieved if parents choose to set up a fan club for each player, allowing them to share in-app achievements with selected people via text or email. In addition, The Teach Red Hen mini game also allows a level of social interaction within the game. Red Hen will respond to their instructions as players build visual representations of maths operations in an attempt to teach Red Hen some basic maths. Teach Red Hen also allows children to gain a deep understanding of the mechanisms of maths operations as they are required to explain these to the character.

Learning Goal
Along with these four pillars, an app which enables deep learning must have a supported learning goal. For me, the goal of Duck on the Run has always been clear – to develop confidence in and speed of basic maths calculations. That is, for children to be able to “know” their times tables, and simple calculations such as 7+8 = 15 without having to work it out manually each time. The mini games contribute to this by allowing players to practice their maths skills by removing the time pressure. Success in mini games should bring success in the main game, as they earn extra lives for Duck.

Of course it begs the question, why with so many educational apps out there, would I launch a new one? I have two drivers for this – firstly, I didn’t think that many of the other maths apps looked like much fun. Of course this is personal preference. Secondly, and most importantly – I can’t help but think about how much data is being wasted. Duck on the Run has been designed as an app that enables learning, is entertaining to play and gives back to society through data being made available to researchers.

Ultimately we will all benefit from a better understanding of how people learn, as new discoveries in the academic world eventually will change educational curricula. But the joy of an app is that new understandings about learning can be built into an app far quicker than into any one country’s primary school curriculum. By creating a link between learners, and those who understand the mechanisms of learning, Duck on the Run aims has the ambition of being a truly educational app that adapts itself – not only to individual player’s abilities, but also along with new understanding of learning.

If all else fails, at least I have an app that my children and I like playing. (My husband would have preferred a swimming pool).

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Access to the Cognitive Research PlatformLeveraging the Duck on the Run App to collect specific data points for a studyOther advisory services around digitizing studies