8 questions to ask about online learning platforms for kids
As a new school year begins that’s virtual for many students, parents are juggling an unprecedented number of concerns and challenges. And when it comes to their children’s learning, chief among those worries are that their kids will fall behind academically.
Online learning platforms and software companies are seeking to rise to that challenge, touting claims that kids will stay on track through playing their educational games and activities.
For frazzled parents of early elementary and preschool-aged children, the options may sound appealing, especially for those tasked with not only guiding their child’s distance learning, but also keeping them entertained while they work remotely. The choices can seem endless, from well-known names like ABC Mouse and PBS Kids, to YouTube Kids or the "kids games" offerings in the App Store or Google Play store.
But before they download that app, parents should give these online platforms a second look. “There are so many choices in the App Store and Google Play store,” said Christine Elgersma, senior editor of social media and learning resources for Common Sense Media, which evaluates educational apps. “Many of them are labeled as educational, but maybe don’t offer the best educational experience.”
Here are eight questions parents should ask when evaluating online learning platforms or educational games aimed at kids, especially those ages 3-10.
1. Does it have ads or in-app purchases?
That free math app might look especially attractive, but the company that created it needs to pay the bills, and often that’s through advertising or in-app purchases. Some of those advertisements may not be kid-friendly, Elgersma cautions. In-app purchases, especially when they're required for a child to progress in a game or app, can be costly and take the emphasis off learning.
“If there’s a huge list of in-app purchases, that can be a red flag and you definitely want to make sure your kids can’t just click through,” Elgersma said.
2. Is your child learning actively or passively with the app?
We all engage in the passive use of technology. “Sometimes tech in that format, especially a movie, is our best friend,” said Ingrid Anderson, assistant professor of practice at Portland State University, who specializes in early childhood learning.
But when we want our kids to learn, they need to be engaged in original thinking and an active participant in the experience, Anderson said. Educational games and apps should encourage that.
“I always ask myself a question when thinking about educational platforms, ‘When a child is engaging with this work, who is responsible for the original act of creation — is it the developer or the child?’” she said. “The biggest learning happens with the original developer of the idea.”
When working with young children, Anderson likes to use tools that aren’t necessarily designed for kids such as whiteboard programs or Adobe Suites where children can take their own content and manipulate it.
3. Does the on-screen experience offer something the off-screen experience can’t?
Some early-learning apps let kids put together a puzzle or trace letters — activities that kids can do without a screen. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it doesn’t offer an experience that requires a screen unless you’re traveling and you can’t give your kid a puzzle,” Elgersma said. That substitution may make even less sense when remote learning is already increasing your child's total screen time.
Instead, look for a platform that takes advantage of the digital capabilities of the device your child is using. Metamorphabet helps kids identify letters. But rather than simply identifying words that start with that letter, when kids tap the P, for example, it morphs into a colorful pinwheel of Ps. “It makes the screen-based part of it make more sense,” Elgersma said. Common Sense Media curates a list of top learning apps for kids.
4. Does the platform meet a child’s unique needs?
Some kids are visual learners. Others are kinesthetic learners and need to touch and move to learn. Parents should take into account how their child learns when determining what platform might work best for them. “Sometimes platforms only serve one type of learner,” Anderson said. “Or they use particular sequencing that might be difficult developmentally for a child.”
5. Does it lead kids to off-screen activities?
Kids can run through math drills on a computer, but, for young children, learning requires a whole-body experience. Playing with blocks helps kids absorb math facts. Molding an A out of clay can help them better understand its shape. The platform should encourage a child to continue learning offline.
“You may do different letters or numbers on the screen, but what you’re really trying to do is get that information to leap off the screen into real-world applications,” Anderson said.
6. Is it gamified?
Some educational apps emphasize rewards, not learning. Instead of being motivated to master a math concept, a child is focused on achieving a higher level to access a reward. “It’s not about learning, it’s 'how can I get to the next level?'” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “It takes away the motivation of learning.”
Golin said platforms like Outschool, which offer live instructor-led virtual classes, are preferable to gamified platforms. In-app purchase requirements can be a red-flag for an over-reliance on gamification, suggesting your child will be steered toward leveling up rather than understanding concepts.
7. Does the marketing make huge promises?
Plenty of educational apps make big promises about how they’ll help your child learn, but those claims should raise red flags for parents unless they are supported by peer-reviewed, scientific research. Most don’t have it, Golin said.
“Every one that I’ve seen has been aimed at a very particular type of learning, which is memorization, which is trying to get facts right,” he said. “It’s not really aimed at the way that young children learn.”
There's also no technological substitute for engaged parents supporting their children's learning. An educational app or game might be fun and keep your kids occupied – which is certainly a win under the circumstances – but it can only ever take them so far.
8. Do you really need it?
Life is tough right now, but Golin counseled parents to focus more on cultivating an excitement for learning in their kids and not so much on academic benchmarks. Help them use technology to dive into their own interests — whether that’s trains, snails or zebras.
“It’s not like 'don’t use the screen at all,'” he said. “Watch videos about zebras, draw a zebra. There are ways to use technology creatively, but usually when the technology is selling itself as the standalone solution, then that is probably not going to be ideal.”
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