Common Sense Media: Making Sense of the Learning App Explosion

Common Sense Media aims to provide “trustworthy information to parents and teens about technology and media.” Founder and CEO Jim Styer has been working on this mission for 20 years. He’s the author of a new book, Talking Back to Facebook: A Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age , a look at how digital media affects the development of young children.
We asked Linda Burch, Chief Education and Strategy Officer, about the explosion in sales of mobile apps targeting young children. “Common Sense Media research shows that even our youngest children are interacting with mobile devices and apps on a regular basis. There’s definitely been an explosion in the last two years driven by the ease in putting together a mobile app with learning-like content and they way these apps tap into some level of need by parents who are anxious about getting a leg up or step ahead.”
On the risk of digital babysitting shifting from TV to tablets Linda said, “There’s no question that developmentally speaking zero to five is the time in a child’s life when they should be interacting foremost with adults and peers for both cognitive development as well as social-emotional learning.” She added, “No media can take the place of face-to-face interaction with a parent or caregiver.”
“We look at mobile apps as another tool in the parent’s toolbox or a kids play chest,” said Burch. “A really well-crafted mobile app that allows a child to explore in an open ended way, allows parents to get involved, takes kids on and off screen, does not replace/displace time in face-to-face interaction and physical interaction (with motor skills) can work really well. It’s a bridge to all sorts of things.” Burch emphasized however that context matters, “Apps with the right children, right content at the right age can be really, really helpful.”
So how do parents make good choices? With the ocean of apps, it is hard for parents to know what to buy. “That’s where Common Sense comes into play. Our website helps parents find games, apps and websites that are both engaging and have learning potential.” In April, Common Sense launched its new learning ratings initiative. Apps are tagged for age, subject, skills and platform and recommended lists curate the best products.
Common Sense reviews are based on the assessment of 25 specially-trained raters and an expert editorial team. The system, built with support from Chicago philanthropist Susan Crown and her social investment fund SCE, considers learning design, engagement, supports–about a dozen dimensions in all, with a goal to convert a portion of the more than six hours per day that young people spend with digital media from leisure to learning.
A few early childhood apps that with pretty good ratings include:

“Susan Crown and SCE align with Common Sense Media’s mission to help parents find and make the best media choices for their kids. They challenged us to expand our ratings to include learning potential and — based on the feedback we are getting from parents — we are thrilled to deliver on this vision,” said Burch.
The biggest challenge for app developers is discoverability. Bruch sees the rating system as a great solution to this problem–at least for good apps. “It’s our goal to stimulate market demand and high quality supply–to lift all boats and create a win-win for everyone.”
“Our point of view is that media is happening everywhere. There’s the explosion of learning potential,” Burch summarized. “There’s some real gems out there, as well as things that aren’t so great, and there should be an easy way to discover quality and there should be a stimulus on the supply side to create much better learning. That’s why we’re in it to help the whole ecosystem evolve.”
For more see:

This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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