In a number of places lately in education and educational technology circles we’ve noticed that the notion of “app life” keeps cropping up. “App life” refers to the length of time that a child gets use out of an app and the general conclusion of teachers and parents appears to be that longer use is better. This especially seems to be the case with paid apps.

We don’t agree that it’s this simple. Here’s why:

Long Term Use is a Poor Indicator of EdApp QualityWhen we’re talking about a game or even a creativity/productivity app, we do agree that app life is a consideration. With these kinds of apps you’d like to know that your child will use them for a while. Particularly in the case of creativity/productivity apps you would like to know that the capabilities of the app will allow your child to use it for at least a school year, perhaps more than one.

Instructional apps, however, are a different story and we need to look at the purpose of each app individually. The purpose of an instructional app is to teach a learner a skill or set of skills. The best instructional apps are mastery-based, only allowing a learner to complete an app once the skills being taught are mastered. Some apps are focused on teaching a single skill (e.g., telling time); other apps are focused on teaching a range of concepts (e.g., number sense).

Now think about an app that focuses on a single skill in the context of “app life.” Think of an app that focuses on teaching a child to tell time. Once “telling time” is mastered, the child shouldn’t be using that app anymore. And if the app effectively and efficiently teaches the child to tell time, so much the better! The only reason a child would be using a single-skill app for an extended period of time is if the app is failing to teach.

Here’s a story from an app developer we know: He sells an early childhood math app that has adaptive instruction and is mastery-based. This means that the the program adjusts its level of difficulty based on student performance and that the learner must master the current level of difficulty before moving on to the next. We aligned this app to nine Common Core State Standards for math and it scored very well according to our criteria. But here’s the point: this developer heard from a parent who used the app with her child. She was upset because her child “only” got 15 hours of use from the app before everything had been mastered. The child enjoyed using the app, even asking to use it to do more math, and had mastered all of the skills within three weeks. And yet the parent was unhappy because she didn’t think the child got enough use out of the app.

The parent paid $9.99 for the app. Admittedly, it’s on the higher end of the price spectrum for many instructional apps. But is this a net loss because the child didn’t use the app for several months? Imagine the scenario: the child is asking to do math, spends about five hours per week for three weeks doing that math, and then, after a total of 15 hours, has mastered multiple skills. Now that child can move on to another app that targets higher level skills. Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that money well spent if our child has mastered a number of math skills? And if the answer to either of these questions is “no,” then aren’t we valuing the wrong things? Shouldn’t we be valuing “progress made” over “time spent?”

Let us know your thoughts!


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