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By Sarah Guckert • July 17, 2013

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Apps: Understanding Student Engagement in iPad Education

With the thousands of iPad educational apps on the market, the device itself seems like a goldmine for improving academic standards in the classroom. But schools and parents are faced with a huge setback: sorting through the gargantuan number of apps out there and finding a selection that will engage, is aligned to state standards, and is at the appropriate level of difficulty for the student. “In short, iPads were not designed to be a productivity or education tool, and as a result there are problems caused for management, deployment, tech support, and limited productivity,” says teacher Matthew Gudenius. So, how can a school district, teacher, or parent look past this seemingly major roadblock in iPad education? Outlined below is our solution, developed to promote engaging, academically rigorous, and Common Core State Standard-aligned iPad curriculum.

Our Process:

1) Analysis

Finding the right apps for students is essential, but doing this takes time - time that we all know educators do not have. At eSpark, we focus on curating a curriculum filled with iPad education apps that are both academically rigorous and fun. Our Learning Design team, composed of six former full-time teachers, is committed to finding the best apps out there. They analyze apps based on six criteria:

  1. Alignment to Common Core State Standards
  2. Authenticity to task
  3. Scaffolding of learning
  4. Intuitiveness
  5. Student engagement
  6. Good bang for the buck

eSpark is dedicated to finding apps that are not only tightly aligned to the standard the student is learning, but are also fun and engaging. This makes the number of iPad education apps shrink from the over 100,000 offered by Apple to an elite selection that are the absolute best for teaching students a specific standard.

2) Iteration

eSpark’s constant iteration of app sourcing makes our curriculum unique. We use an automated tool that continuously scrapes the app store in order to stay on top of what has been recently added. This allows us to be agile and ever-evolving with new content. Unlike printed textbooks, eSpark can change and adapt with innovations and app creations as they appear.

3) Measuring of Student Engagement

To gage our eSpark student engagement, we use a thumb-up and a thumb-down rating of each app and video in our curriculum. By calculating the number of thumb-up ratings an app receives divided by the total number of votes, we get a measure of the app’s student engagement level. Sounds simple, right? But eSpark takes this measure one step further. We tag the apps and videos that we use in our curriculum with certain characteristics- 92 to be exact. This allows us to take the qualitative characteristics of an app, such as sound effects, and turn it into qualitative data that helps us figure out how this characteristic affects engagement as compared to a similar app without sound effects. 

4) Results

So after meticulously and methodically sourcing through thousands of iPad education apps, what have we found so far? Here are 5 results from our data analysis:

  1. Sound effects lead to high engagement.
  2. Music matters, even if it’s not very good.
  3. Students love earning badges.
  4. Multiple activities confuse students.
  5. Students find real world examples especially engaging.

Here is an example of an app we’ve pinned as highly engaging AND academically appropriate: 

Ansel & Clair's Adventures in Africa is an iPad education app with sound effects, background music, and an earning badges feature - three of the five main attributes we’ve found to be highly engaging for students. It is fun for students while also helping them to work on their reading comprehension, as they recount key details and support main ideas from what they have learned in the app. Thus, it fulfills a 3rd Grade Reading: Informational Text Common Core State Standard.

Although our data analysis results might not come as a surprise to many, when curriculum is made up specifically of apps with these characteristics in conjunction with an appropriate difficulty level, students end up with a truly engaging and rigorous learning experience. And teachers can breathe easy knowing that problems of “management, deployment, tech support, and limited productivity” on the iPad can, in fact, be resolved.


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