Our children are growing up in a world filled with technology. Many of them learn to use a touchscreen before they learn how to walk! The digital world contains endless possibilities for creating things and accumulating knowledge, so it’s not surprising that teachers are excited to introduce digital teaching tools into classrooms. Look around and you’ll find apps for everything from telling time to learning to code - but are they actually useful, or just a needless distraction?
Besides the fact that children are usually motivated to use them, there are definite advantages to educational apps. They can encourage individualised learning, allowing pupils to work at their own pace; digital tools can be invaluable to pupils with special educational needs or disabilities, who might struggle with traditional lessons; they often contain built-in tools allowing teachers to measure progress; and, of course, they save on endless printing!
Be careful, however, to make sure you’re using the right app for the job. A few years ago fidget spinners were cleverly marketed as a way of satisfying sensory cravings for neurodiverse children. Instead, they proved to be a big distraction for most children, who diligently took them to classes to ‘improve their concentration’! If not used correctly, educational apps are little more than virtual fidget spinners. Many of them are deliberately designed to grab and keep children’s attention and lead to overstimulation. Similarly, while individualised learning can be great, it’s important not to let pupils get so absorbed in their apps that they lose out on those all-important social interactions.
How do you decide if an educational tool is useful?
The market is saturated with educational apps and tools, so how do you separate the genuinely useful ones from the virtual fidget spinners? Here are a few easy questions that are worth asking:
Is it really educational? Is the child engaging with the app in an active, meaningful way? Or are they simply being absorbed by flashing lights and noises?
Is the digital tool really better than an ‘analogue’ one? Using laptops to look up history facts online makes sense, but is there any point in giving a child an iPad to work out simple maths problems when there are strategies they can learn to work out the sums on their own?
Will it be a regular fixture in the classroom? There’s no point in investing in something if it’s only going to get used once or twice over the course of a school year!
As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, the important thing is finding a balance
in the way we use our screens, and ensuring that we focus on active rather than passive screen time. That’s why we created our ‘Balance It’ lessons to make pupils more mindful of their screen time, and why we included a timer function so teachers can limit how long pupils spend on the platform. We want pupils to see their time on Natterhub (and their screen time in general) as just one part of their day, instead of something that consumes it.
Ultimately, any digital tool is simply that - a tool. What makes a tool effective is the context in which it’s used, and educational apps are at their most effective when they’re coupled with discussion that generates understanding. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced educators to adopt digital tools as well as create systems to make home learning as effective as possible. As it appears many schools will continue to use a blended approach for a long time to come, keeping that system intact will be crucial when the new term begins in September.