There are plenty of websites and services that can help you locate some of the best iOS apps for the classroom (Edutecher, Edudemic and Education Apps on Pinterest). However, there comes a point where a teacher, a school or a school district will need to ultimately make the final decision on selecting the best and most appropriate apps for their students. This is easier said than done if you are not sure what to look for when selecting an app.
The TPACK model of integrating technology in education would tell us that along with the need to assess the pedagogical and content demands of a course and classroom there is also a need to assess the technological aspects of a given technology. So before you settle on that iOS application for your classroom or school set of iPads, spend some time putting the app through a technical diagnostic. Assuming that all is good on the pedagogical and content front, the question remains “what do we look for when we are evaluating the technical merits of an app?”. Below is a list of “look fors” grouped into 4 main areas that I have found to be helpful when testing out a potential app for the classroom.
1. In-app purchases and other hidden costs
One of the first things we look at when sizing up an app is the price. But whether looking at free or paid applications it is important to consider some of the other costs that can come attached with the use of an application.
Scaling Cost for a Classroom or School
Even low-priced apps can present a substantial cost when purchasing them in bulk through Apple’s Volume Purchase Program. A $1.99 application installed across a classroom set of 30 iPads can add up quickly. Even with educational volume pricing (where the price of the app drops by 50% when purchasing 20 or more copies) a $1.99 app balloons to a $30 purchase for 30 iPads. With that said, not all apps offer this special volume pricing.
Some apps subtly ratchet up their price point with in-app purchases that go on to unlock new features, content or tools within the app. Apps that start out as a free download may later prompt users to pay a small fee in order to unlock a key feature within the app. In this case it really does pay to test the app and run it through its paces. I have run across several free apps that look as though they offer certain features and tools only to be presented with a prompt for an in-app purchase that would allow me access that feature.
Advertisements: The price of “free”
Although not a direct cost, the display of ads within an app is another way that developers can generate revenue from an app that is offered for free to consumers. As an educator, my concern around the use of ads within applications is their potential to distract from the learning task at hand. Students may quickly quickly find themselves removed from the context of the intended application with the simple touch (whether deliberate or accidental) of a posted ad within an app. With some apps, it is also difficult to determine and regulate the types of ads that appear within the app itself.
2. User interface and navigation
Intuitive interface and navigation
Since apps do not come with instruction manuals, the user must rely on the tutorials and hints embedded within the app itself. However if an app is designed with gestures and navigation that are intuitive and easy to discover, users may quickly orient themselves within an app with simple tips and interactive instructions. This is something to look for when assessing apps for use with students. Ultimately, is the app inherently designed to quickly orient students and get them using the tools and features quickly? If so, what ages or grade levels would be able to us this app? Are the tutorials helpful and easy to read or view for younger students?
(Snapseed is an example of an application that maximizes the touch gestures of the iOS device. Edits to a photo are done by simply touch gestures (ex.pinch to zoom, tap and drag, etc.) on the screen and specifically manipulating areas of the photo that you wish to edit.).
Buttons and menus
If we specifically look at the layout of buttons and menus that we find when navigating an application, we can begin to assess if the application is at a level that is appropriate for our learners. Applications that present a lot of onscreen menus or provide a navigation bar covered with many buttons and icons may ultimately be too confusing or overwhelming for inexperienced users. Even onscreen buttons that are relatively small in size may be challenging for younger, less dexterous hands.
An application’s onscreen layout and navigation may also determine if the app can be used while simultaneously carrying the tablet or if the device needs to be placed on a surface in order to properly operate the application. If the intent is to have this app support a learning activity where students are constantly moving with the iPad or iPod (ex. physical education class) will the interface allow them to navigate the application easily without the need to prop or rest the device on a surface?
3. Exporting content from the app
Depending on the nature of an app and how it is supporting learning in the classroom, it may be necessary to investigate how students can share and move their work beyond the app itself. In certain situations, a teacher may wish to have their students submit their work or creations from the iPad to another application or into some sort of cloud storage.
If there is an export feature it is typically indicated by a fairly common icon. This icon is drawn out as a box with an arrow or pointer coming out of it. Selecting it will usually reveal your options for exporting content and projects from the app. Apps may offer the ability to export out to Photos, email, Airdrop, iCloud Drive as well as any number of 3rd party applications such as Google Drive, DropBox, Evernote, Twitter and Tumblr to name just a few. Regardless of the export pathway that best suits your classroom needs, be sure to thoroughly test the export feature to ensure that it works and provides the results that you are looking for.
4. Importing content and media into the app
Media stored in your local iOS Photos folder or captured directly from the camera as well as content stored in other applications can help extend the use of an application, providing the app can access them. This is what what we ultimately need to find out when reviewing an application.
Can the app import photos and videos locally stored in your Photos folder?
This feature will most likely appear as a simple button or icon on your screen. This is an important feature to look for as this will allow the user to bring in media created in other applications.
Does the app allow for the recording of photos, audio and video directly into the app?
These features usually appear as camera and microphone icons. This feature allows the user to capture and bring in new media without having to leave the app.
Can you bring in other files from other applications?
When creating a new file or project can you also bring in media and content stored in other applications? Cloud storage services is a common example here. Exploring this feature may also require us to look at other critical applications that we currently use. For example, if your class uses Google Drive, you will want to see if this Google app will allow you to open one its files in the app you are reviewing.
Some other things to check out
Explore the app settings
While you are within the prospective app, be sure to check out its’ settings menu. This is often accessed by selecting a gear or menu icon.
Explore additional app settings within the SETTINGS menu of iOS
You may also discover additional settings listed within your iOS SETTINGS menu. Select the SETTINGS icon and scroll down the list of menu items until you come across the settings for individual apps that are currently installed on your device. Select the app in question and see if there are other additional settings that may be of importance to you and your classroom.
How much space does the app take up on your device?
If storage space is limited on your iOS device, it may be worth seeing how much storage space is eaten up with the app and the files that it creates. The app store does list the initial download size of the app under its description. However as you begin to use the app you can see how much space is dedicated to the app and its associated project files by going to the SETTINGS menu, selecting USAGE and then looking under MANAGE STORAGE.
Exploring these 4 areas during your technical assessment of an application is a great starting point as the features you find (or unable to find) may lead to more questions and areas of exploration. You may find that a promising app lacks a critical feature or perhaps requires the installation of other supporting apps. You may find better alternatives to apps that you are currently using in the classroom. Exploring these apps may also make you aware of some features that you may wish to limit or lock down through restriction settings. Ultimately taking the time to carefully assess and evaluate applications helps us to realize their potential in the classroom.
What else do you look for when sizing up an application?
– K. Takahashi