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Use this 5-step process to confidently choose the right apps

By Julie K. Marsh and Kerrigan Mahoney
February 10, 2016
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It’s easy to get confused when you set out to find apps that will best drive student learning. There are, after all, thousands of educational apps available in the iTunes and Google Play stores, and the number is growing weekly.

Like many educators, we also felt overwhelmed by the choices. But over the years we developed a process that allows us to sharply define what we need and then find the tools that help us meet our needs.

Here’s how it works:

1. Start by defining the problem of practice.

The first thing we do is decide what specific problem we are trying to solve. For example, one of our problems of practice boiled down to this: How can we ensure each of our students is successful while also using our own time effectively and efficiently? What areas are our students struggling with?  

2. Next, address the how of learning.

We focus on the how of learning before the what so we can expand the number of solutions. The how of learning relates to the activities and discussion that students engage in every day in the classroom. That is, the experiences where the learning happens.  

For example, going back to our problem of practice, we use Socratic seminars, fishbowl discussions and collaborative stations, all of which are designed to support students in developing and sharing their voices. But we’ve found there are some students who are much less confident in sharing their ideas in class. That was the problem we wanted to focus on. So we set out to find apps that would help these particular students communicate better.   

3. Narrow down the type of tools.

We knew we wanted our students to become better at communication, so we looked for apps that support multiple means of communication. We weren’t looking for apps that address one specific content area, but those that provide a frame in which students can manipulate, create and explore any content.

4. Look for sound advice.

Once we identified the problem we wanted to address, the learning experience we wanted to support, and the general category of tools we were looking for, we were in a much better position to look for specific tools. We started by reading reviews and talking to other educators. Check in with your professional learning network on social media or peruse educator sites. Twitter, Mindshift, Free Technology for Teachers and the EdTekHub are some of our go-to places to connect with other educators.

5. Evaluate the tools.

After we narrowed down our search to a handful of tools, we were ready to compare and analyze. First and foremost, ask yourself, will the suggested apps allow your students to engage in the type of learning experience that will address your identified problem?
For example, Poll Everywhere is a survey platform, but we could use it to make sure every student’s voice is heard in the class. Alternatively, Google Hangout is usually associated with meetings, but students may feel more comfortable sharing their ideas virtually rather than in-person.  Finally, we usually think of Evernote as a note-taking app for individual users, but it also allows users to take collaborative notes, chat in real time, and record and share audio and video. The flexible features of all these tools allow students to build their confidence in communicating, which directly addresses our problem of practice.

So, we’ve found a few tools that seem pretty great.  It’s time to start planning the lesson, right? Not so fast! Before we plan any part of the lesson, we need to consider a few more things.  

Access. We want to make sure we can easily access the app before committing to using it in the classroom. Some apps lend themselves easily to the classroom while others may have embedded obstacles to overcome that outweigh their benefits. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Is there a cost associated with the app? If so, can my school or school district pay for it? Free is always the best, so we consider free apps before we consider spending money.
  • Does the app include advertisements? If so, are the ads appropriate? Will they distract my students?
  • Can students use the app offline or will they need access to the internet?
  • Is there a mobile version or will students need to download a desktop version that hogs memory?

Privacy. We want to make sure our students can access the app safely within the technology guidelines of our school and have a positive learning experience. Some of the questions to ask yourself when previewing an app for monitoring capabilities and privacy concerns are:

  • Are there concerns about student data privacy or the app’s terms of service?
  • Can the teacher monitor progress?
  • Can the teacher monitor which student does what (individual user tracking)?
  • Is there tech support?
  • Is all content accurate and referenced?
  • Does the app have privacy settings that are appropriate for my students and fit the school guidelines for appropriate use?

Ease of use. One of the most important aspects of any app is the students’ user experience. Although we expect a learning curve with any new app or tool, the last thing you want to do is spend class time teaching students how to use an overly complicated app.

Consider if your students are going to be able to troubleshoot basic features and use the app independently. Sometimes a more complicated app is worth the time commitment, other times it is not. Either way, having the answers to these key questions will go a long way to choosing an appropriate app for your students:  

  • Does it auto-save work?
  • Does it save previous versions?
  • Do you need to be able to save to a particular format (PDF, Word, JPEG, MP3, etc.) and does the program support that?
  • Are there user-friendly help features the students can use independently if they get stuck.

Then, and only then, is it time to plan the lesson!

At this point, you may have two or three good apps you think may work well for your classroom. Follow these steps to choose the perfect app for your lesson and be ready to implement with confidence.

Julie K. Marsh and Kerrigan Mahoney are doctoral candidates in the School of Education at The College of William and Mary in the Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership program with a focus in Curriculum and Educational Technology. Julie is a former middle school English teacher, whose current research interests include MOOCs, creativity in the classroom, open source cultures, design thinking and participatory culture. Kerrigan is a former high school English teacher, whose current research interests include new literacies, reading and collaboration in digital spaces, engaging students in authentic, choice-driven activities, Universal Design for Learning, and teacher education.

Looking for resources with digital learning experiences aligned to the ISTE Standards? Check out resources that have earned the ISTE Seal of Alignment.