Category Archives: Education

Common Elements of “Educational” Apps: The Tired & the Exceptional, by Carissa Christner

In an app market flooded with apps for kids, all of which claim to be “educational,” how can you tell which apps are truly worth your and your child’s time? First of all, ask yourself if the “game” that the app presents is any better than a set of flashcards. If not, you likely wouldn’t use actual flashcards with your preschooler, so why would you use an app version of the same thing? Here are some other common app activities that many, many app developers are using to make their products seem “educational”:

Coloring Pages: First of all, read this excellent argument against using coloring books at all. Then realize that if the app fills in whole blocks of color with one touch, it even takes away the pleasure (nay, the very option!) of scribbling. Instead, if you want an art app, try Musical Paint Pro which allows users to create art on a blank canvas, determining the size of brush, the opacity and intensity of the paint, and the color. Each color, when painted onto the canvas, creates a different musical tone, the notes changing depending on which part of the canvas is being painted. Users can record and replay their creation to listen to the music they created and watch their art appear as it plays.

Memory Match: So many apps use this game! Most are simply matching exact pictures, but some at least ask users to match related pictures like an animal matched with the first letter of its name. I have found one shining exception to this dullness in Fiete: Match. First of all, this game is only a matching game and they’ve developed it very well. Secondly, the app includes Fiete himself playing against you. This one feature (an opponent) sets this matching game app miles apart from the rest. I also like that it includes lots of options of types of matches (anything from exact picture matches to numbers and sums).

Puzzles: A picture is broken into parts (squares or classic interlocking puzzle-shaped pieces) and the user must put it back together; in and of this self, this isn’t necessarily a strong digital game, especially if the image on the puzzle has no context or meaning for the child playing it. An exceptional example of a puzzle app, however, is Phlip by Curious Hat in which the user takes a photo (which becomes the image for the puzzle) and then chooses how many squares (4-25) it will be broken into, then the squares are shuffled. Users tilt the screen to rotate the squares and when they’re in the proper alignment, tap on the square to lock it in place as you tilt to align the rest.

Shape / Color / Number / Letter Identification Games: Just because an app includes a game that drills users on basic preschool identification skills doesn’t mean it’s high quality, or even educational. Take time to really examine how the app is teaching these skills—is it unique to the app format? Is it engaging for young children? Is it truly better than flashcards?

Unless the developers have employed these activities in a way that you find fresh or especially intriguing, they are not, on their own, reason to download the app. And if these are the only activities included in the app, it’s likely not worth your time.


Carissa Christner is a librarian with Madison Public Library.


Hour of Code, by Stephen Tafoya

This week is Computer Science Education Week (CSED), and since 2009, numerous tech groups have been involved in pushing the need for Computer Programming in education through the Hour of Code initiative.

The goal of Hour of Code is to get 10 million people to participate in one hour of Computer Science programming to see if it may be of interest to them as a career/education choice; it is also to help advocate for Computer Science classes to be taught in schools as part of the core curriculum. The majority of this campaign is focused on getting kids and teens to visit the website and try one of several hour-long courses in computer programming. The courses range from simple tasks like helping the angry bird move over a field to catch those rascally pigs, to more complex measures like developing your first mobile app. Participants can learn on their computer or mobile device, and there is even an offline version that teaches the core concepts of how a computer thinks. Whichever course a participant chooses, they are likely to have FUN since most of the courses have a user-friendly interface and engaging teaching content.

To get started, check with your local school or library to see if they are hosting an Hour of Code event, or visit if there are no local offerings in your community. At our library, for example, we are promoting the Hour of Code by showing the 5-minute promo video (below) during our Wig Out Wednesday program. Then, on Friday the kids can stop by to participate in any programming lesson of their choice, utilizing the library’s laptops and iPads that are provided for this event. To sweeten the deal, we are rewarding those participants with a bonus half-hour of internet time if they complete their programming course. Afterwards, the kids and teens are encouraged to go beyond that initial lesson and try out the other courses.

So far there has been tremendous support from prominent public figures (Mark Zuckerberg, President Obama) to hundreds of teachers and parents who see the need for this skill to be taught in our education system. Oh, and you don’t need to be a child or teen to participate. If you, my dear adult reader, are curious about code, try it out for yourself! And don’t think your six-year-old is too young, either. They have programs for “ages 6 to 106” (though you still may need to read the instructions to them). Code is the new literacy skill that powers our daily tech lives and one that needs to be taught to all students to give them a new core skill set that will contribute to their growth and successes in the world of tomorrow.

Stephen Tafoya works as a Technology Trainer for a library district, and he partners with Youth Services Coordinators to engage kids and teens with technology in library programming.

How I Use Apps in a Classroom Setting, by Courtney Rodgers

Choosing apps that will support your teaching objective is a time consuming task for sure, however managing multiple iPad devices in a primary elementary classroom can quickly get out of hand, especially if you have not practiced with the device yourself. Therefore, my first suggestion is to work with an iPad and learn the basics of navigation–I like this video, iPad Basic Navigation. Be sure to learn from your network administrator how to download, delete, and organize apps. Each school will have a different system, however all will be linked to something called an Apple ID. Educate yourself about your school’s system so that you can troubleshoot in the moment and not become stalled when (not should) you encounter a glitch. Secondly, actually play the apps you wish to use with the students. Third, preload names of students, levels of difficulty, and other various settings when applicable. If you are sharing iPads with another classroom or grade level, make labels for the cases with the student names–numerical tags are great for the network administrator, but you will need names and so will the students in order to facilitate easy distribution and return. Other things to consider might be headphones, hand-washing routines, and rotation schedules. Breathe…you are almost ready to witness the marriage ceremony of inspired learning and fun.

Most students will be incredibly motivated to get their hands on an iPad. In our community, many students have iPads at home and even more students have parents with an iPhone–many apps are designed for both. Students know how to use these devices, even if we teachers don’t. When teachers first get their hands on iPads, they tend to use them in small groups as a center activity in which the child practices a skill that has already been taught. For example, many classrooms have math centers for an hour or so once a week or once a month wherein parents, teachers, and paraprofessionals if available, manage students as they rotate (in homo or heterogeneous groups) through various stations and activities. Many teachers I know use stations that include Marcy Cook tiles, an online station utilizing IXL, a Mountain Math station, and finally a reteach or preteach station. For a beginning integrator, simply replacing one of these stations with an iPad app game is the most widespread use of iPads in the classroom that I have witnessed to date. However, this minor enhancement will not yield the deeper learning that we as teachers seek, although it will definitely engage and excite your students. Strive for more.

image by Anthony Armstrong

image by Anthony Armstrong

After an initial substitution phase of iPad integration, teachers could begin using iPads to allow the children to create media–a more transformative use of technology in the classroom. Last school year I taught three reading enrichment groups. I worked with one small group from each grade K, 1, and 2, in which we created, rather than consumed, utilizing the iPad. Students read and researched their topics digitally and from paper books. Next, each student in grades 1 and 2 created their own iBook using Red Jumper Studio’s Book Creator App ($4.99). The students documented their findings and thoughtfully organized the pages with images, captions, and paragraphs. This app was so simple to teach and to use that my 1st grade students were typing up text, coloring backgrounds, recording their voices as narrators, importing images from Dropbox, and lastly sharing their self published books with family and friends within just a few weeks. The Kindergarten students wrote first person personification poems about insects and then performed them using the app Puppet Pals HD Director’s Chair from Polished Play, LLC. Students learned quickly how to manipulate the insect puppets, but the challenge was speaking and manipulating the characters at the same time. This advanced task was well situated within these students’ zone of proximal development. I’m always looking for ways to push high achieving students to say, “Woah, this is hard.” Check out an example here, Puppet Pals Earthworm Personification Poem.

In my opinion, technology is too often used simply to make a final product–i.e., typing up an essay or creating a culminating Keynote about the CA Missions. However, apps provide a way to utilize technology at the beginning of your lesson for the anticipatory set as well as mid-lesson for your guided practice and independent practice. Think about how students can publish their smart thinking and with whom they can share. Many teachers have students create illustrations to enhance poems they’ve written and then display them on the classroom bulletin board. Now students have the power to write or dictate their poem, drop in a photo of original art or draw in Procreate ($4.99), add a narrated student recording of poem, and then publish for the student’s family and friends far and near.

An iPad is a tool. It’s powerful. It’s universal. It’s empowerment for students. Designing and formatting their own words and ideas on the iPad inspires creativity. My ultimate takeaway is that students stay with a more challenging assignment longer when technology is a component. They persevere simply because they are internally motivated to do quality work, especially if the audience has been expanded to include those without a bird’s eye view of the bulletin board. Tekkie and non-tekkie teachers alike can appreciate how difficult it is to inspire intrinsic motivation in their students. So here it is, one vetted way to motivate from within:start leading your students through projects in which they can create their own media on an iPad.

See Courtney’s first post on choosing apps for classroom use here.

Courtney Rodgers works full time as a reading specialist in a public school in Marin County, CA, and last year she also served as the school’s Director of Educational Technology. She has spent 12 years as a teacher, all of which were spent focusing on reading acquisition/intervention as well as technology integration. She loves all kinds of literacy – digital and analog. It’s all for fun and all for learning. After working all day, Courtney loves to come home to her 3.5 year old, 1.5 year old, and stay-at-home daddy/husband to check out what has been read that day.

Thoughts on a Conversation with Dimitri Christakis, by Claudia Haines

Over the past year I have been researching the use of digital media with kids, and in particular interactive media. I wanted to know more about integrating interactive or new media into library programs with kids, particularly those under the age 8. As my research intensified over the last couple of months and I began to experiment with apps and other digital media in storytime and other programs, one name appeared over and over again; that of Dimitri Christakis, self-labeled “pediatrician, researcher, and parent,”* director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and a professor at the University of Washington, School of Medicine.

Dimitri’s research and comments popped up in a variety of articles, books, and websites about early childhood development, kids, and digital media. I don’t often contact researchers I discover in my research, so what made me contact him? Some of his quotes were used to suggest that the interactive media found in many apps can provide quality experiences for young kids and that content, and not just quantity of time using digital devices, is an important factor. Dimitri’s quotes were also found in popular articles with conflicting claims that digital media is bad for kids. Period.

As a prominent researcher in the field of early childhood development and someone who has spent a lot of time looking at the environmental factors that affect development, Dimitri seemed like the person who could help me better understand the research, however little there is, and hopefully guide my work with new media in storytime at my library.

A few weeks ago I had a chance to speak with Dimitri. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:

Research on Interactive Media

Dimitri confirmed what I had found in my search. There are no big studies that have specifically looked into interactive media at this point. Research can’t keep up with the technological developments that have come about in the past couple of years. He did suggest that there is some past research we can use to thoughtfully predict the impact of interactive media. Research using computer models (games and activities) with kids can apply to the apps and digital media on the market today. (Dimitri referenced research by Georgetown University’s Children’s Digital Media Center, which can be found in the journal article “Contingent computer interactions for young children’s object retrieval success.”) Unfortunately, this research is not often cited in the arguments against use of apps and other digital media. The research investigating only the effects of television is.

Librarians, educators, and caregivers will be happy to hear that Dimitri and other researchers are, however, undertaking studies involving interactive media (like apps) with babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and older kids.

Interactive vs. Passive Media

Dimitri and I both agreed that apps, and interactive media, are different than some television and other passive media, the focus of much of the research related to young kids and media. Based on previous research and what is known about early childhood development, Dimitri felt that interactive media most likely does not have the negative effects associated with most passive media.

Apps With Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers

From what is known specifically about brain development and generally about early childhood development in babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and older kids, Dimitri felt strongly about not using passive media with infants. His own research, “The effects of infant media usage: what do we know and what should we learn?” has supported this. Interactive media, again, is different and will have different effects on children at different stages of development. It may be harmless for babies–the subject of his current research–but Dimitri couldn’t say it was beneficial.

For older children, the story is different. Apps and interactive media can be positive, especially when content is strongly considered along with the quantity of time a child spends with digital media. Quality content and the age appropriate amount of time using a device equals a healthy media diet. As Dimitri said, “Carrots are good for you, but too many can be bad for you.”

Librarians and New Media:

Dimitri and I then talked about one of my biggest questions: With more than a million apps on the market (900,000 in the Apple Store), many of which are targeted as educational apps for kids, how does a parent, educator, or librarian know what app is developmentally appropriate and what has good content?

After our discussion about research, Dimitri and I talked about the reality of helping families navigate the world of interactive media, the role of librarians, and the work being done at While I don’t think Dimitri has much considered the role of librarians in the new media conversation, he is a library fan. We both agreed that librarians have credibility with families and caregivers in the world of information. Using their professional experience, librarians already sift through media selecting the high quality books, audiobooks, movies, and more that are appropriate for their library’s community. When it comes to apps and other digital content, librarians can again have a role. Librarians can offer help with digital literacy; not just helping families learn how to use the Internet or a device, but also helping kids and caregivers select high quality content and how to do that on their own. Modeling how to use media, regardless of whether it is paper or digital, and “appvisory” are important in helping families with digital literacy in the changing information landscape.

In grad school I played a small part in a multi-year, early literacy research project which involved children’s librarians from a collection of public libraries. It made me think more about the reciprocal relationship that is possible between public libraries and researchers. Research is relevant to the day-to-day work in public libraries as children’s librarians put into action the findings about child development, early literacy, and literacy of all kinds. What may not be as obvious is the opportunity public libraries (and children’s librarians) offer for researchers to see how something like interactive media works with families in action, in real life, in storytime. Talking with Dimitri about interactive media and the newly evolving research brought me back to the idea of using libraries for research labs and I hope researchers consider not just schools, but also public libraries for more of their future endeavors.

For now, I look forward to navigating the world of interactive media with kids of all ages and their families; critically searching for quality content, confidently encouraging joint media engagement and a healthy media diet, and enthusiastically teaching families how to choose the media that is right for them.

* “TEDxRainier – Dimitri Christakis – Media and Children,”

How I Choose Apps for the Classroom, by Courtney Rodgers

Our K-8 public school purchased 40+ iPad 2’s for our site to pilot during the 2012-13 school year. Most devices were designated for special ed., however a set of 12, sometimes 13 were available for check out to the general ed. teachers. Building off a list created by a fellow teacher, I bought and played dozens of apps from a variety of content areas. Better yet, though, I was able to observe students ages 5-13 on a daily basis interacting with the iPad and its little boxes of opportunities. These field tests provided me a student perspective and feedback which I find to be an essential part of the conversation, which could be titled, “Apps for the Classroom.”

fishtankI found that students wanted apps with choice of games and player customization options, like the the popular Word Bingo by ($.99), and reward activities or down time between focused exercises, like the fish tank (at right) in the also popular Freefall Spelling by Merge Mobile ($1.99). As a teacher I liked Word Bingo (and Math Bingo) because I could use it with multiple students and track progress on the scoreboard/report card, plus the games were only accessible after winning bingo. As for Freefall Spelling, I liked that I could use their word lists, make my own, or have the student build one and record themselves reading the word after they typed it. I’ve including the developers’ names here because so many apps cannot be found in the iTunes store by the App name alone. Why, you wonder? I’m not sure, but this flaw did waste a lot of my time.

magicpenny1To begin, I focused on apps that would help support my struggling readers – students in K-1 that had difficulty with phonemic awareness (PA), the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words, since lack of PA is a direct indicator of future reading difficulties. I absolutely loved Magic Penny 1 for exactly this focus! Parents, this app would also work well for preschool-age children with a demonstrated interest in letters and letter sounds. I could also add multiple students and adjust the difficulty levels (see image) individually depending on student skill deficit. The app moves slowly and methodically with easy-to-understand demonstrations before each exercise, as well as second chances for the correct answer. The app has a “funky monkey” puppet, as my students called it, that cries, “Yum, yum, yum” while devouring the bananas at the top of the screen that are used to mark progress for each question answered correctly. There is a Magic Penny 2 as well. Now, for the bad news, this App used to be $4.99, however the price sky-rocked over this past summer to $19.99 because the company is packaging the app within bundled early literacy services for school sites and districts. Per the Executive Director, they weren’t making any money selling the app as stand alone. Magic Penny 2 cost rose from $4.99 to $49.99!

mathzoompinpopTo support the general education teachers, I tested out apps beyond my reading scope as well. In doing so I found Motion Math. If you haven’t yet heard of Motion Math Apps, check them out. Because many math apps are simply skill practice, I really liked that Hungry Guppy, Hungry Fish, and Math Zoom require focused thinking and decision making–this makes it appealing to me as a teacher. In both the Hungry games, students must manipulate numbers in fact families to create a sum or difference their fish will eat. Students love this app because it’s very kinesthetic, plus they can earn customizable fins for their fish or guppy. Each school year in math typically begins with place value review, which is essentially number sense or understanding the conceptual difference between 40 and 40,000. Is 49 closer to 50 or 40? What comes right before 600? Math Zoom speaks to just this concept. Students use expand and retract finger commands to zoom in and out on a number line that changes in intervals from fractional values up through 1’s, 10’s, 100’s up to 10,000’s and back down again. This requires students to decide if the number presented has a smaller or larger value than their current number line location. Again, this app has difficulty level settings and added challenges like the pin popping bubble (see image).

Choosing apps that will both engage and challenge students takes a bit of prep time, however the most amount of thought should be dedicated to how you will manage classroom usage. How many iPads do you have at your disposal? Is it necessary to pre-load student names and levels? Will you use whole group or small group? More tips and suggestions for a smooth in class implementation will be found in my follow-up post.

Courtney Rodgers works full time as a reading specialist in a public school in Marin County, CA, and last year she also served as the school’s Director of Educational Technology. She has spent 12 years as a teacher, all of which were spent focusing on reading acquisition/intervention as well as technology integration. She loves all kinds of literacy – digital and analog. It’s all for fun and all for learning. After working all day, Courtney loves to come home to her 3.5 year old, 1.5 year old, and stay-at-home daddy/husband to check out what has been read that day.

Computer Classes for Kids, by Gretchen Caserotti

Are you looking to offer computer classes for kids at your library? In the interest of helping make your program development simpler, here are some tips and resources that I’ve compiled from my own experience.

When I was teaching our preschool (collaborative) computer class at Darien Library, I put together a website with the lesson plans and resources. It is older now (technology changes so fast!), but it may be useful to your program and goals. They are still teaching the Little Clickers class at Darien Library, though the lesson plans have changed as other librarians teach the class now.

Things I found that worked:

  • smaller class size, co-engagement with parent/caregiver (not a drop-off storytime)
  • starting program in circle away from computers, conceptualize first, then to the screens
  • keeping it parallel to storytimes in length and structure (30 min with time to play after class)

Last summer I organized a CoderDojo (computer programming club) for older kids (9-12) which was super fun to do! We had a teen who helped teach the classes, and there are tons of resources online for teaching kids to code. I put all the links for sites I used in research or in class on my diigo page.

I have found with older kids that a formal classroom environment is more difficult because they’re in school all day and want to be done with being taught!  In my experience, the more playful the program is in a public library, the better.

If you don’t have a computer lab available, programs can certainly still be done using laptops or tablets. If you create a regular program and call it something generic, you can change the tool you play with each time. Pick a new website/app to explore and just have fun with it. I do caution you to make sure to try and test out the tool well first. That way there are no surprises. Kerpoof is a good website to start with because it offers so many different types of guided activities. I also would suggest starting with Scratch, and there are HUNDREDS of resources online with lessons/tutorials.

I would love to hear how other libraries teach computer classes. Chime in in the comments!

Gretchen Caserotti is the Library Director at Meridian Library District. This post is repurposed, with the author’s permission, from a response to an alsc-l thread about computer classes for kids in the library.

The IMLS Growing Young Minds report, by Claudia Haines

In its recent call to action, Growing Young Minds : How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners, the IMLS identifies ten key ways libraries and museums can use their valuable roles to further community efforts in early literacy. As cornerstones or their communities large and small and trustworthy resources, libraries and museums are in a unique position to invigorate and foster new ways to boost literacy. The report recognizes this and includes examples of dynamic ways both kinds of organizations are making it happen.

If you’re wondering how new media is reflected in the report, check out #6 in the ten ways museums and libraries support community efforts. What’s missing? How public librarians can positively influence the use of digital media in literacy, along with their school counterparts.

Claudia Haines, Little eLit Curation Coordinator
Youth Services Coordinator
Homer Public Library

Early Literacy Skills and Digital Media

I’m going to be doing a parent education program with one of the fabulous children’s librarians at my library and I’ve started to put together some thoughts about what it is that makes good quality apps for young children. When it comes to selecting ANY kind of educational material or programming for children, children’s librarians often look to the 6 Early Literacy Skills.  When we present storytimes, we try to include books, songs, rhymes or games that specifically target one or more of these skills, and often point out what we’re doing to the parents to offer them tidbits of advice on how to help their child build on those skills at home.  Here’s what to look for when selecting eBooks to share with your children:

Phonological Awareness
Phonological Awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the smaller sounds in words.

Look for:
Rhyme: Correspondence of sound between words or the endings of words (cat/hat, grow/throw)
Alliteration: The occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words. (Peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers)
Onomatopoeia: The formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named (boom, slither)
Non-word vocables: Moo! Baa! La la la!

Print Awareness
Print Awareness includes learning that writing in English follows basic rules such as flowing from top-to-bottom and left-to-right, and that the print on the page is what is being read by someone who knows how to read.

Look for:
Prominent text: Sometimes the words get overshadowed by interactive elements. Look for big words in an easy-to-read font.
Highlighted text: Do the words light up when the narrator says them?
Interactive text: Is there any kind of interaction with the text? Does the narrator say the word out loud when the printed word is tapped?

Print Motivation
Print Motivation is a child’s interest in and enjoyment of books.

Look for:
Engaging material: Is the eBook/App engaging enough to engage both your and your child’s imaginations?
Subject matter: Does the content appeal to your young child?
Repeated reading: Does the child ask to read it again?

Narrative Skills
Narrative skills include being able to understand and tell stories, and to describe things, events or people.

Look for:
Logical storyline: Does the story make sense?
Sequence of events: Do the actions in the story follow a linear path?
Not too much interactivity: Sometimes there are so many bells and whistles that the storyline gets lost.

Vocabulary is knowing the names of things.

Look for:
Wide vocabulary: Does the author use words a child might not normally encounter in spoken language?
Synonyms/antonyms: Are there a number of different words used to refer to the same thing? Opposites?
Age appropriateness: Are there enough “big” words, but not too many? Are the words used relevant to the child’s life experience?

Letter Knowledge
Letter Knowledge includes learning that letters have names and are different from each other, and that specific sounds go with specific letters.

Look for:
Text: Written words or letters.
Highlighted text: Are letters highlighted, either on their own or as part of a word?
Interaction: Can the child trace the letter? Tap on a letter or word and hear it pronounced?

Research on iPads in Kindergarden

I’m starting to see research studies pop up that support the use of electronic media (usually iPads) with young children.  One that caught my eye recently was the Advantage 2014 program in Auburn, Maine.  This program began in September 2011 and gave each child an iPad for instructional use in the classroom.  Half of the kindergarden classrooms received their iPads in September, and half received traditional teaching methods until they received their iPads in December.  When you look at the research summary, the results are not startling, but they are consistent. There are naysayers who attribute the increased performance in the experimental group to the shinyness of a new toy, and they speculate that these kind of results will normalize over time.  Maybe so.  I can’t wait to see what other research comes out in the next few years.  One thing that really rang my bell was that the largest gain in this study was in phonemic awareness.  So cool!

They also include a Rubric for evaluating apps for children which is going to be very useful for me as I stomp off into the brave new world of App/eBook collection development.


Reading Rainbow App!

LeVar Burton is developing a Reading Rainbow App!  There is no definitive timeline yet, or any indication of what the app might entail, but we’ll keep an eye out for it. Burton’s  original PBS program was taken off the air in 2009 due to lack of funding. The shift in pedagogical theory from ‘learning to read by reading’ to Hooked on Phonics-style education may have contributed to the demise of this TV show. I’m interested to see how they’ll revive it- let’s hope they can preserve the show’s original enthusiasm for reading.

Follow on Twitter: @ReadingRainbow

Read about it at the Digital Shift and Mashable Entertainment. There’s also an article from SLJ about the show ending.