Can educational apps be as beneficial as offline learning, or are they just platforms for ads? Andrea Mara, helped by willing young researchers, put 10 apps to the test
“I’VE been waiting to hear this my whole life — that’s my kind of job!”
That was the response from my eight-year-old when I asked her recently if she would test some educational apps for me — and her siblings, aged six and 10, were quick to jump in line. Or online, so to speak. Indeed, any excuse to get access to apps generates excitement in our house, because I’m the ‘mean mom’ who generally doesn’t give them time on devices.
I don’t have my head (completely) in the sand. I know that technology is everywhere and they’ll grow up using it, but while they’re young, I’m in no rush. And I tend to assume that most educational apps are just platforms for ads and of little benefit. But am I being a bit of a dinosaur?
When I ask that question of Emma Magee, educational psychologist with the Insight Centre, she laughs. “A lot of parents say they don’t let their kids have any screen time, but there are some really useful apps out there.”
Can educational apps ever be as beneficial as offline learning?
“Apps can be great to complement learning; as an add-on to what the teacher is doing in the classroom, though not as a substitute,” she says.
Magee, who has experience working with children who have dyslexia, gives an example. “One of the programmes I recommend is Toe by Toe. It’s great, however, it can be boring for children; it’s one big red book, with no pictures, no colours, and often kids hate it. But it’s evidence-based and does show results. So I always say to parents, ‘Do five minutes of that, then five minutes of an app, then go back to the book,’ so the kids are not tuning out.”
One minefield is finding the right apps. Magee has some tips: “It’s a red flag if the app is very expensive; if they’re cheap or free, it won’t hurt to try it out. Ads can be distracting but there are many good free apps worth trying, and a lot of them have add-ons that will eliminate ads and give you more features.”
She warns that if an app claims to fix something, users should be wary. “Brain training apps that claim to improve memory, for example — your working memory is your working memory.
“The apps improve your ability in that particular area, so you’re scoring higher and higher and getting good at memorising the list of words they’re giving you, but that doesn’t generalise to everyday life.”
Another tip is to do your research before handing over the tablet.
“Check who developed the app and if they consulted with anyone in the field — is it paired up with the curriculum?
“If the app corresponds with what they’re doing in school, it can be really useful, though watch out for apps that are teaching the same thing but in a different manner.” For example, if they are learning long division at school following a particular method, it may be confusing if the app takes a different approach.
So back to the testing job that had my eight-year-old so excited.
Having taken recommendations from a number of reputable sites and resources, including PDST.ie, WebWise.ie, and iTopChart for free educational apps, we tried some out and narrowed it down to 10:
1 Math Training for Kids
This app offers simple multiple choice maths questions; it’s colourful and easy to use, and there are no ads. (Android).
On IOS, try Jelly Math Quiz — not quite as straightforward but it does something similar.
Multiple choice quiz games for all age groups. I registered as a six-year-old and got to the top of the scoreboard — hardly surprising. (IOS, Android)
3 Endless Wordplay
This is a favourite in our house. The app calls out simple words, and the user slides the letters across the screen to make the word. (IOS, Android)
Stepping away from maths and reading for a moment, this app identifies leaves and plants through image recognition technology. My kids enjoyed browsing it and taking photos of leaves. They hadn’t seen anything like it before, so it was a novelty. (IOS) On Android, try PlantNet Plant.
This is suitable for younger preschool children and includes nursery rhymes, songs, and phonics, combining education and entertainment. It can be used offline, and the basic version is free. (IOS, Android)
6 Cúla Caint
This lovely Irish language app sounds out or displays words in Irish when the user touches any given image. Cúla Caint 2 and 3 are also available, with an extended vocabulary. (IOS, Android)
7 Jolly Phonics Lessons
Using the familiar Jolly Phonics sound groups, the app has an action, sound audio, and formation section for each sound, followed by word bank and questions. A really good way to complement Jolly Phonics being taught in Junior Infants, and it’s free. (IOS, Android)
This is great. Users have to match synonyms, rhyming words, and prefixes by swiping them into boxes. It’s challenging in a good way. My eight-year-old loved it. (IOS)
9 IXL Learning
This US app has dozens of questions linked to the Irish primary school curriculum. You can pass it to your nearest Second Class child to try some of the questions. This is less colourful and fun than other apps and feels a bit more like actual school. There is a certain amount of free use daily and beyond that, you have to sign up and pay. (IOS)
I’m late to the Duolingo party; I’d heard of the language-learning app but didn’t realise how good it is. The basic package with a certain amount of daily use is free, and after that you have to pay or wait until the next day.
Who says language learning can't be as fun as your favorite @netflix show? Try out Duolingo Stories – binge-worthy tales for Spanish, Portuguese, French and German learners. https://t.co/HLpgan4CV4 pic.twitter.com/nwYAajQj2q— Duolingo (@duolingo) January 11, 2018
This was my kids’ favourite of all the apps they tested, and between them they learned some basic Spanish, German, French, and Chinese. From a parent’s perspective, this was the one app I felt fostered a genuine interest in learning something new. (IOS, Android)