Monday, October 5, 2015

Mapping Apps: Looking for Playful Literacy Learning in the App Store

   photo: Luis Villa del Campo cc2.0                                                    
This week, Lisa Guensey and Michael Levine exposed the "confusion and disarray in the educational aisle of the App Stores", noting that "among free apps, more than 50 percent focused on teaching children to recognize the letters and sounds of the alphabet. Less than 10 percent of free apps focused on reading comprehension, and even rarer were skills like reading fluency (the ability to read without stumbling over certain words) and self-expression."  However, they also point out that the best-selling apps that parents buy tend to focus on simplistic reading rather than the creative literacy that educators most value. So what's going on here? 

In a forthcoming article, fellow literacy researcher Jennifer Rowsell and I look critically at apps to examine their underlying assumptions about learning. We found that rather than an educational definition of literacy based on reading research, an oversimplified and commonplace notion of reading is  operating here-- for both parent consumers and app developers. And oddly, it seems based on 20th century learning models of drill and memorization in flashy flashcards, ignoring the rich potential of 21st century literacies in touchscreen animation and digital media production.

Guernsey and Levine call for clear criteria to ensure educational apps truly promote learning that has relevance beyond the screen, such as literacy learning that is meaningful, authentic, and social. Toward that end, Jennifer Rowsell and I have developed a rubric and mapping tool to compare educational apps on key aspects of digital literacies, that move well beyond word and letter recognition. Importantly, these rating tools are grounded in our ethnographic research in which we closely observed children with a range of apps to see if and how deeply they engaged in literacy. The most engaging (and popular) literacy apps earned high ratings in all dimensions:  multiplayer activity that allowed children to play together but also to design their own content using image, sound, movement, and animation in open-ended play. Good apps, like good books, also engaged a learner's passion for learning more and could be shared on digital networks.

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