Apps in Education

iphone-37856_640I’ve often toyed with the idea of incorporating apps in some of my classes. After all, the presence of smartphones and tablet PCs has become all but ubiquitous even in the classroom. There are literally thousands of apps that purport to do everything from teach you Spanish to improve your math skills, and all topics in between. It’s no secret that some post-secondary institutions are including Apple iPads as part of their tuition fees, giving them out to all new students at the beginning of the school year.

While not insurmountable, this new technology presents unique challenges to both instructors and students alike, and I would venture to say that it’s far more common for more problems to be generated than resolved. While staunch defenders of technology will be quick to point to the things that this type of resource does well, I’m somewhat more concerned about what it does poorly. There is of course the obvious issue of universality where you would literally have to be in an environment that requires students to have and bring the same kind of device to class. The instructor would really need to be teaching where all students have an iPad or all students have an Android tablet… As soon as some students do not have the required hardware and software, (or being students, forget to bring it to class, or lose it, or get it stolen), there are bound to be problems. This again is not my biggest concern. I am more interested in exploring those things that apps do well and those that they don’t, and whether the sacrifice is worthwhile in the end.

What apps do well

I’ve personally used a number of different educational apps on my iPhone and I must say that there are some pretty slick ones out there that make learning very engaging. Apps like Anki and other SRS (spaced repetition system) utilities can take some of the tediousness out of rote learning and memorization. This is often the case in language learning, for instance in Japanese where there is really no other way to learn kanji (Chinese characters) than to simply memorize them. While there are different methods and philosophies in the technique for memorizing them, it is still a simple recall task. Whether you are trying to learn new vocabulary in Spanish or the names of all the bones in the human wrist, such tasks are well-suited to flashcard apps, and similar memorization aids.

Another area where educational apps tend to shine is with organizational tasks. Note-taking, highlighting passages in texts, quickly scanning and searching through digitized textbooks, copying and pasting passages (properly referenced, of course), are all pretty handy. When I was working on my MBA, it was far cheaper for one of my courses to order the digital textbook edition than it was to order a paper copy. I was skeptical at first, and in some ways there is nothing quite like being able to hold an actual book in your hands, but I quickly realized that when it came to writing my essays, I could use imperfect recall to find passages quickly using a search facility. “I know there was something about value propositions in here somewhere…” So I could just type in “value proposition” into the search bar, and almost instantly I’d be taken to all the places in the book that discussed that concept.

On the topic of digitized textbooks, this is one area that is only going to grow in scope and popularity over time, and rightfully so. Doing my undergraduate degree, I would have ridiculously large and heavy tomes to lug around campus, and expensive too. Not just science students like me, but art students know all too well that page after page of full-color photos of paintings from various art museums tends to make for a very bulky book indeed. Apple’s app store offers a $3.99 Louvre app that allows users to browse through some of the masterpieces that are displayed in Paris’s most famous art museum. A complete, unabridged collection of the works of Shakespeare? No problem. Interactive anatomy textbook? Absolutely. Virtual rat dissection for biology class? You bet! Not to mention the karma points you score with those who are concerned about animal rights for not using real animals.

What apps don’t do well

A careful examination of the type of learning going on with app-based (or app-assisted) education reveals that it is very compartmentalized. Concentrating mainly on lower levels of learning (if we consider Bloom’s taxonomy), only certain abilities are represented. Select, label, list, name, identify, locate, define, describe, recite, state, recognize, memorize… Absolutely possible using apps. Judge, consider, critique, recommend, compare, appraise, relate, support, criticize… Not so much. The first list represents the “knowledge” rung of Bloom’s system, which is on the lowest rung of the levels of learning, whereas the latter list is on the top rung of “evaluation.” The rungs in between (like comprehension, application, analysis, and synthesis) can be assisted by (or learned through) apps to varying degrees, but I would argue that the higher one goes, the more necessary it becomes to break the reliance on technology-based or technology-assisted education. Once we start getting to applying knowledge, producing meaningful output, and constructing hypotheses, it is far more important to interact with peers, instructors, and experts in the field in order to advance beyond the simple recollection-type tasks that apps are so good ad presenting.

A good instructor will go far beyond asking the students, “Do you understand?” For even if they are honest when they say they do, understanding doesn’t necessarily mean that the information has been internalized, processed, and synthesized in a meaningful way that can then be applied to produce new and unique content. Simple regurgitation (not just of facts, but teachers’ opinions) are only the first step in a much longer process — and it is in this process that technology can bring us only so far. Whether we are looking at academic knowledge or practical, hands-on knowledge at the workplace, the entire spectrum of the learning process is important. Moving entirely away from academic education, it’s easy to see how complete learning is important even in a corporate setting. For instance, when a worker is taught the precise sequence of movements necessary to process the widgets going by on an assembly line, very few modern companies actually want mindless automatons. Organizations that use kaizen methodology (or processes based in this concept like Six Sigma or TQM) engage everyone from the very top level of management down to even the cleaning staff, and no one is exempt from analyzing situations in order to achieve improvement. For this to occur, more than just memorized, mindless recall is necessary.


In my own teaching, apps have not played any major role. One big reason for this, is that I am not in an environment where all students are required to have a device like an iPad for their learning. I cannot simply say, “Okay, go ahead and download/install so we can start using it in class on Monday.” But even if this changed, it would be necessary to realize and understand the nature of learning that can and cannot take place. Nothing can replace a class discussion about the merits and validity of a politician’s speech. An app cannot challenge what a student believes to be true about a moral viewpoint in a business ethics class. As much as education has become an “online” activity where just about any college degree can be obtained mostly or entirely over the Internet, class discussions and interactions are still a major part of any good curriculum, and remain necessary to achieve complete, well-balanced learning as opposed to simply being able to recall and rehash facts.

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