Navigating the Digital Wild West of Educational Apps -- With Millions of Apps to Choose From, How do Parents and Educators Find Apps That Pass the Test?

As American parents, we've come to expect -- and to appreciate -- the heavy regulation of products and content being sold in the child consumer market. No self-respecting parent would ever buy a car-seat that didn't meet rigorous child safety standards. We would never say "yes" to a movie for a three year old that wasn't G-rated. We even scrutinize the fine print on cereal boxes to make sure the ingredients are healthy for our little ones.

So why aren't we asking more questions about which educational apps are "good" for kids in a world where screen time and learning time are increasingly blurred?

Kids love technology, and their use of iPads and tablets has skyrocketed in recent years, with 75 percent of children between the ages of two and eight using a tablet or mobile device on a daily basis. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans that own a tablet computer has risen tenfold since 2010, with 45 percent of U.S. adults owning a tablet today and half (50 percent) of parents with minor children living at home owning a tablet. In 2013, eight million iPads had been sold to schools. In 2014, that number jumped to 13 million where they are showing significant promise in instruction, often with profound results.

Just as the number of tablets and computers in schools is increasing, so is the number of hours children are spending with screens each day. In their report on Children and Media, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the average child is in front of some sort of screen for seven hours a day. The AAP recently revised their 2016 recommendations to suggest limiting screen time to two hours a day, and added that time should be spent with high-quality content.

So how do parents determine what is "high quality?"

With more than a million apps available today and 100,000+ of those labeled "educational," how can parents and educators sort through the clutter and find the best ones? Which apps are truly educational versus entertaining? Which have been tried, tested, reviewed and proven to help children? In one report by The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit literacy and digital media research organization, recently called the world of educational apps the "Digital Wild West." We couldn't agree more.

As parents, educators and developers of digital learning apps ourselves, we often counsel parents that their best bet is to try and find apps have been tested for efficacy and have been reviewed by well-established education experts or review sites, such as Common Sense Media, Children's Technology Review or Appolicious. Also, recognize that there is big difference between what's trending as #1 in the app store education category, which changes all the time and is often based on popularity, and what has been truly tested for its effectiveness.

Learn With Homer, the #1 Learn-to-Read app that we created to scale high-quality literacy instruction across the globe, is one of the few apps in the consumer market that has undergone a randomized double-blind study to determine its efficacy in teaching children to read. The study, conducted by Susan B. Neuman, former U.S. assistant secretary of Education and professor of Early Childhood & Literacy Education at New York University, found that children who used Learn with Homer over a six week period showed significant growth in the following areas: print knowledge, phonological awareness, and letter sounds. These results indicated that Learn with Homer increased early literacy scores by 74 percent over the six week period when compared with the control group.

Apps can have very meaningful impact on student learning. It's just not always that easy to figure out which ones really work. Having lived through what it takes to create an app with real learning value, we have a few suggestions and tips for parents as they are thinking about getting the most out of their children's limited screen time:

  • While limiting screen time is important, total screen time isn't the only metric parents should use when evaluating their family's technology values.

  • Focus on quality of the content being consumed in addition to minutes of screen time. Even 15 minutes spent with a useless game that calls itself "educational" is probably too much.
  • Watch your child's interaction with tech tools and games and ask questions about what they are learning. Are the "games" asking them to use their thinking skills?
  • Can children guide themselves through a learning sequence on the app or does the parent have to be there to re-direct the child away from "fun" that can distract from learning? Parents playing alongside their children can provide great support in achieving learning goals, but children should be able to easily access learning content as they navigate an app themselves.
  • As parents and educators, do your homework: read reviews, try different apps yourself, and see what works best for your family.
  • Offer feedback to your favorite app developers by emailing their support team. Companies that really care about your child's learning are usually hungry for feedback on how they can improve their products.
  • As you near back-to-school season and are looking for apps to keep your child learning outside of school, we hope you'll find these tips useful and fun.