Trends in Edu-Apps

If you browse a tablet store for educational software, it's strange. Some strangeness is easily explained: young children can now use tablets. They can have a thick rubber case, even a padded back and lid, and are relatively child-proof. Educational Apps are almost all more expensive. But that's because every other kind of App is pay-as-you-go. We don't want that with children. Some have a strange-seeming monthly subscription, but they're massive video libraries, which you rent like a streaming service.

A strange thing about the entire space is how anything can call itself educational. A game with names of trees, flying among the planets, or something set during the Revolutionary War - all could be in the education section. But we're been doing that for a long time. Mineral Cave, in the 80's, was a text-based game where you fought goblins, and collected and identified rocks. The old Oregon Trail was basically a game with an historic theme slapped on. Anything which mainly exposes kids to any real-world concept, sure, it's educational.

That leaves just a few truly strange things. Some Apps require you to be in a school system. Otherwise they don't want your money. Many have crazily complex web-based menus, statistics and customization. And you'll see quite a few which are grafted onto a non-educational children's game - not even like Math blaster. More like you alternate.

The new school market explains those first two. In the past, all Apps ran on a stand-alone PC, owned by a school or a parent. Today schools are networked, have computer labs and tablets, and use electronic grading. They want full-service Apps. These should read an entire class list, push out assignments to those kids, usable from any school or home device, with progress tracked on a web page with parent and teacher logins. Ideally they cover every grade, and are customizable for local Common Core changes.

When you see these Apps in the store, they assume your school district has bought it, your child has been enrolled at school, and wants to finish some assignments using their own tablet. As for the massive web-based control panels. Some are merely the teacher view of an entire class, or the options for setting up a class. As for the rest ... a secret is that 95% of teachers never change settings and only check whether students are caught up on homework. But everyone thinks they might want to know every statistic.

Since these Apps are school-wide, the superintendent will be choosing them. They're mostly concerned whether the mechanics work - correct formats, good uptime, and so forth. They can't possibly check or evaluate the content. This is why those Apps display the control panels so prominently - they know it's what the buyers want to see. It might be the main thing that differentiates them.

The last, most strangest bit of weirdness is the tacked-on game. Let's back up a bit. One sort of children's game, which you may recognize, looks like this: you're in home base - a house or something. An animated friend welcomes you, loudly and slowly. The door goes to a world map, with various spots unlocked and marked. Traveling to one puts you on a windy 8-node path though a garden. Your friend walks you up to one, and you do something repetitive for a minute. Then you earn some coins and some puzzle parts. You may have unlocked the next spot, or may need to repeat this one a few more times. If you get enough coins, or puzzle pieces of the correct type, you can buy a hat, or a treehouse to walk around in.

Quite a few education Apps borrow that. The put standard worksheets as the thing you do inside each node. There's a line of thought here. Worksheets are a safe choice. Everyone understands them, Your grandfather used them, and he did just fine. But they're boring, and we've lost control of children. They always find a way to use computers for entertainment. By embedding our worksheets in a game, we can make them the most entertaining thing. Of course, that means we need to gives lots of breaks and play time.

It should play out like this: our child has tablet time. They pick up Brand B educational App, play it for 5 minutes, then get bored. Meanwhile, in our App they're close to winning new gloves, completing the farm area, and getting a pet tiger. They play it for 2 hours, spending 45 full minutes on worksheets. Which is 40 more minutes than any other way we'd try.

So if you see an educational App with cartoons, and graphs, but you can't tell what's in it - it's worksheets. Proudly sugar-coated worksheets.