“Apps as Learning Tools: A Systematic Review”1 is a timely look, from a developmental and educational perspective, at the mobile device apps that even young children are using today. This review is as important to us in observing what we do not know as what we do.
In a year when we are celebrating 50 years of Sesame Street as an iconic, genre-defining educational television program, we need to be reminded of just how revolutionary it was and continues to be (and how it has set the gold standard for educational media). Sesame Street dramatically changed early childhood education not only because it made preschool learning available to everyone who had a television but also because it used the unique access and attraction of television to teach in theoretically based, research-proven ways. The genius of Sesame Street is simple: education scholars conducted formative research to design programming that was pedagogically sound, and once the shows were made and shown, they conducted summative research to evaluate how effectively the programming met intended goals.2 The success of Sesame Street drew imitators, some of which were good, but most of which simply aimed to cash in on the fact that parents would encourage their children to watch a television program that was labeled educational, whether there was any research supporting that claim or not. Although there is still no requirement that educational claims made about children’s media be backed by research, concerned consumers supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics motivated a reality check in 2009, forcing a recall and refund of Baby Einstein videos.3,4
Not only did the introduction of Apple’s iPhone in 2007 and iPad in 2010 (and other companies’ smartphones and tablets that followed) make screen-media content available to virtually everyone but their small size and easily navigated interfaces created a new market for educational content, or, to be more cynical, for content that parents would not feel guilty about providing to their young children because it was labeled educational. The rush to be “first to market” created a glut of apps aimed at young children. Searching key literature databases that included studies in child development for “mobile devices” and “learning” and “young children” initially yielded 1447 unique reports. After the authors screened these reports for relevance, age <6 years, and rigor of study, 34 articles on 35 study results remained.1 Notably, there were no studies of any apps that were done by app producers before introducing them to the market as educational.
Mirroring what has been found with computer-based educational software with older children, the best educational outcomes were found with math and language-acquisition apps, with the largest effect sizes found in school-based uses of the apps. This is consistent with research revealing that “skills and drills” learning is best supported by interactive software and is most effective in school settings, where educators and fellow students can scaffold and support active and repetitive practice of skills.5 Although there were suggestions that similar learning could occur in science and even executive functioning, there were not enough studies to confirm this.
Perhaps most surprisingly, this review challenges the conventional wisdom that screen apps are helpful in building social communication skills among children with autism spectrum disorder. Although these children became more accomplished with the apps, they had difficulty transferring the skills to the real world. Finally, the authors of this review found mixed results when comparing interactive with receptive learning from screens; in some, repeated tasks improved performance, whereas in others, interactivity may have overwhelmed children’s attentional and working memory resources. Sustained and usable learning from apps may have been best with math and language-acquisition simply because these types of learning, compared with others, can be self-directed and self-paced, practiced over and over again, and objectively measured.
Most importantly, this thoughtful review of educational apps reminds us that we do not yet have a gold standard like Sesame Street in the world of educational apps. Moreover, as consumers, we have not yet demanded that these apps be based in or evaluated by rigorous research in which they are tested in the home environment, self-directed and unsupervised by educators, as they are most commonly used. The authors of this excellent review point out the types of apps and the contexts in which they are used that are most effective but, correctly, question the value of many apps as they are currently being used, particularly when one considers the educational value of what they may be displacing, such as free play, creativity, experiencing nature, or interacting with parents, siblings, and friends. It is too easy to believe unsupported claims of educational value and use mobile devices as guilt-free electronic babysitters. As we move into the second half-century of educational screen media, let us seek Sesame Street quality from our interactive apps.
Opinions expressed in these commentaries are those of the author and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics or its Committees.
FUNDING: No external funding.
COMPANION PAPER: A companion to this article can be found online at www.pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2019-1579.
POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The author has indicated he has no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.
FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: The author has indicated he has no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.