The Dangerous Allure of Apps

Why are students and teachers attracted to those learning apps?

Isn’t it obvious?

Just watch how engaged students are when using an online learning game or one of the many fun learning apps available almost for free!

Should we question more deeply the value of many of our online learning tools?

A recent conversation gave me the impetus I needed to look further into this challenge. A school principal expressed to me his concern that students were spending valuable teaching time on less than valuable learning apps. Then I got a chance to look at some digital learning games available on one of the country’s most popular reading curriculums and was appalled. I could see no learning value in what was being offered, yet I completely understood the appeal.

I dug in…to the research that is. I decided someone needed to provide some guidelines for the general use of digital learning.

What a mess…again, the research that is!

Large amounts of research exists on the effectiveness of educational computer games. However, most of it has focused on how well digital learning engages learners.

“Over the past 20 years, scientists have conducted nine major reviews of research on the effectiveness of educational computer and video games. Overall, they’ve found that the research on games is highly diverse, disorganized and unfocused, with a significant number of methodologically flawed studies.”

What they’ve learned is “…how to design a game to promote effective learning remains unclear.”

Here’s a summary of their findings: a lot of the commercial learning games work harder at promoting engagement than on promoting learning. They work off a false premise that improved “flow” as it is called, improves retention and learning.

“Learning for players is often an incidental consequence.”

In one of the most current summaries of studies, by SRI Education, the conclusion was “…that the entertainment value of the simulations and games did not significantly affect learning outcomes.”

Or as Graesser, a leader in another meta-analysis of recent studies found, learning was evident in computer-assisted learning games only when, “…every component of the game was backed by one or more principles of learning. That’s different from a lot of commercial games that often try to optimize motivation but not learning.”


So which principles of learning matter most?

 How can we evaluate a digital learning tool?

Before I give you my full response to those question, I want to acknowledge that you already know the answers. The simplest approach for measuring the learning value of an app or any computer assisted instruction, is to ask yourself, If I did all the things this program does with my students, without the same level of fun/engagement, would they learn? 

Here’s my longer answer.

A 2013 report titled What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory summarizes key studies that have explored what strategies most likely lead to long-term learning. I’ve combined their findings with the work done on transfer of learning by the late Grant Wiggins, a visionary educational reformer and author of Understanding by Design.

Drastically shrinking down all we understand about which strategies are most likely to lead to long-term learning and transference of that learning, we can come up with 4 key principles of learning:

  1. Practice testing. This is where students have to generate an answer to a question. It can include past papers, multiple choice questions or doing practice essay answers. It’s a technique that has been extensively researched and is consistently found to be one of the most effective ways to improve learning. From What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory.

Or as Wiggins puts it: Constantly “test” (without necessarily grading them and/or entering the grade in the grade-book) student ability to self-cue. Examples: Give them unfamiliar looking items, writing prompts, problems, etc. – with no mention of which knowledge is being tapped and which strategies and tools they should use. See what they do on their own, then go over the assessment carefully in class soon after – debrief like a coach.

  1. Distributed practice. Sometimes referred to as “spacing”, distributed practice involves doing little bits of work often instead of a lot all at once (ie cramming). Essentially, students remember more if they spread out their learning; for instance, one hour a day for eight days rather than eight hours in one day…. found to be effective because it allows time for students to forget and relearn the material, which cements it into their long-term memory. From What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory.

Or as Wiggins puts it: Change the set-up so that students realize that a possible use of prior learning comes in many guises…. work on a Gradual Release of Responsibility sequence… [provide a] Model, Guided Practice, Independent Practice, Independent use of all Strategies.

  1. Elaborative interrogation. Asking “why is this true?” or “why might this be the case?” helps students think about the material and make connections to previously learned information.” From What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory.

Or as Wiggins puts it: Provide many examples of ‘think-alouds’ in transfer situations: Talk out, demonstrate, model the kind of pro-active thinking that needs to take place in one’s head if transfer goals are to be achieved. Require students to constantly re-word/re-phrase/re-present what they learn.

  1. Interleaved practice.Interleaving is where students mix up either the types of problem or different subjects, so as to avoid “blocking” their time on just one type of question. This helps keep things fresh and makes it easier for students to identify similarities and differences between the materials they are studying.” From  What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory.

Or as Wiggins puts it: The research on transfer stresses that students need to be given tasks in which the setting/format/context/mode/language is sufficiently varied over time that students learn they have to think more flexibly in tapping their knowledge. 

Shrinking it down further, if you want to know if a digital learning platform is of value and not just using up precious teaching time, look to see if it includes any of these 4 key techniques:

  1. Low stakes test practice/review
  2. Activities that allow for spaced practice
  3. Opportunities for elaboration
  4. Opportunities to approach the learning from different perspectives or contexts

Engagement alone is not the silver bullet it appears to be!

I welcome your comments and ideas. Please go to my Google Community, Word Lab and join the conversation.

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