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How to Choose an Educational App

by Rachel Ralph

Google Classroom? PuppetPals? Duolingo? Toca Life? Skitch? Paw Patrol? Kahoot? Starfall? And over 80,000 more! Choosing an app can be a difficult decision for busy teachers. As digital devices continue to infiltrate classrooms, teachers have to make this difficult decision more often: what educational app do I choose? In BC, districts such as West Vancouver claim that 90% of their elementary students use iPads in every classroom (Bains, 2014). iPads are predominating the education market at 75% worldwide and 90% of the Canadian education market (Karsenti, 2013). With over 250 million iPads sold, offering over 475,000 apps and in particular over 300,000 for children and over 80,000 for education (Alper, 2013; Apple, 2015; Hendela, 2014), choosing the right apps for students can be overwhelming. Mobile device use in classrooms has prompted a shift in the pedagogical approach to media and technology. As apps are continuously developed it can be difficult to suggest what is best. This article isn’t a list of the best apps, as that will continue to change and is dependent on the context; instead, this article will suggest how to make a pedagogical choice when selecting educational apps for students.

Open and Closed

One way of choosing apps is to consider two categories: open and closed (Flewitt, Messer, & Kucirkova, 2014). Open-ended apps encourage children to participate as creators or designers, constructing activities often in a no-fail environment (Lynch & Redpath, 2014; Neuman & Neuman, 2014). These differ from closed apps, which play explicit roles in teaching traditional print literacy and numeracy skills (Flewitt et al., 2014; Lynch & Redpath, 2014). The open-ended apps allow children to make something which is more personalized (Lynch & Redpath, 2014). The closed apps tend to have simple touch or tap responses that do not allow for creativity or thinking beyond the closed designed system. It is essential to select technologies that “allow children opportunities to discover make choices…to explore, imagine and problem-solve” (Beschorner & Hutchison, 2013, p. 17).


A more complex model of app selection can help guide teachers towards a pedagogical choice. How to choose appropriate apps can be difficult and time consuming, but this selection can be supported by using the four pillar model of Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2015) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2015) Four pillar model

Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2015) describe how humans learn best when they are actively involved (“minds-on”), engaged with the learning materials and undistracted by peripheral elements, have meaningful experiences that relate to their lives, and socially interact with others in high-quality ways around new material, within a context that provides a clear learning goal. (p. 7).

Active Learning

Active learning is not a new concept in education. Educational philosophers like Dewey, Montessori, Piaget and Vygotsky explored active learning and play for decades. Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2015) expand on Piaget and Vygotsky’s active learning and play in the context of media and technology and call it “minds on” in which mental effort is required. The app should not promote “minds off” in which mindless tapping or swiping occurs; rather effort and learning should be purposeful. Playing with the app cannot just be stimulus-related responses. For example, when playing LEGO®DUPLO®Train app, children don’t just tap to get the train moving; they need to load cargo, build bridges and participate in problem solving activities.

Engaged Learning

Engaged learning is grounded in Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris’ (2004) three kinds of engagement: behavioural, emotional and cognitive. Behavioural engagement consists of conditional learning through effort and participation in following rules. In other words, children are engaged in activities because they were rewarded or praised for their focused behaviours, like receiving a sticker or prize. Emotional engagement is demonstrated by affective reactions. This is often associated with children’s focus or lack of focus from things that are interesting or boring. Cognitive engagement is the investment in learning and ability to problem solve. In other words, the difference between rote learning and what is often called deeper learning. The understanding of behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement can impact the creation of apps. In particular, the use of iPads is often described as an activity used to distract a child from certain circumstances (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015), for example, giving a child an iPad to play with when she finishes her assignment while waiting for other students to finish their work. However, as a distractor, many apps are not engaging. Children are predisposed to distractors, therefore, teachers need to be aware of the levels of engagement and avoid apps with distractors like extraneous animations or sound effects that do not add to the primary understanding of content. For example, the Doodlebuddy drawing app has a sound effect for every item used, which may reduce the actual drawing, as children are more concerned with making a funny noise. Skitch may be a better choice, as there are no sound distractors.

Meaningful Learning

Meaningful learning includes “learning with a purpose, learning new material that is personally relevant, and linking learning to pre-existing knowledge” (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). Meaningful learning is using apps beyond rote memorization and making material personally relevant to the learner. For example, Sid the Science Kid, based on the PBS kids show, teaches children about friction and sliding using stories and games. Children investigate and experiment applying their understandings to real-life scenarios.

Socially Interactive Learning

Socially interactive activities can have a direct impact on learning. In particular, socially interactive learning can impact language learning and understanding in school (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). The design of most apps typically allows for response, but some are not fully interactive or adaptive. However, app design can incorporate social interaction with face-to-face interactions (e.g., collaborating on a project or game), mediated interactions (e.g., FaceTime or Draw Together or Minecraft), and support social relations with on-screen character (e.g., characters responding to children’s speech (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015), as seen in My Talking Angela.

With over 300,000 apps for children and over 80,000 apps for education and digital devices increasingly being used in classrooms, teachers needs to take a pedagogical approach when choosing what apps to use in the classroom. By understanding the difference between closed and open apps, teachers can make better decisions. Moreover, teachers can rely on the four-pillar model of Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2015) and choose apps that encourage a “minds on” choice by selecting apps that encourage active, engaged, meaningful and socially interactive learning.


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Lynch, J., & Redpath, T. (2014). ‘Smart’ technologies in early years literacy education: A metanarrative of paradigmatic tensions in iPad use in an Australian preparatory classroom. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 14(2), 147-174.

Neuman, M., & Neuman, D. (2014). Touch screen tablets and emergent literacy. Early Childhood Education Journal, 42(4), 231-239.




Rachel Ralph

Rachel Ralph was a middle school teacher for over 8 years and has recently completed her PhD in Curriculum and Pedagogy. She specializes on the integration of media and technology. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria. She continues to find new and innovative ways to integrate media and technology pedagogically into the classroom.

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