An interview with Karen Mahon, Ed.D. CEO and founder of Balefire Labs, scientifically rigorous Ed app reviewers.
Dr. Don asks: What is the difference between the best and the average educational apps?
Karen Mahon: We see many apps that say that they are “educational” but it seems like they just have educational content without any deliberate instructional design in the apps. Just packing an app with a bunch of ABCs and 123s doesn’t make it a good app. The best apps use methods that have been proven effective by scientific research, including adapting levels of difficulty and a mastery-based approach. Another feature that separates the average apps from the best apps is that the best apps include performance reports that are sufficiently detailed such that teachers can tell what a student has or has not learned by using the app and can even determine which skills need additional intervention. We call these “actionable” data.
Dr. Don asks: Why do you think schools need help picking the best apps?
Karen Mahon: The biggest reason schools need help is time. There are tens of thousands of learning apps and games in the app stores. Not only do teachers not have time to comb through the available apps, but they often don’t have time to preview an individual app long enough to see the full range of what the app teaches and how its curriculum progresses. Saving money is a secondary consideration. Our teachers like to know that an app is worthwhile before spending money on it, but they tell us that their bigger issue is time. By us giving teachers and schools the “short list” of the best apps to use in the classroom, they can focus on what really requires their attention: integrating apps into their curriculum.
Dr. Don asks: How does Balefire Labs evaluate educational apps?
Karen Mahon: We have a rubric of 12 research-based criteria that describe the best practices of instructional design and usability design. These criteria delineate the features and functions that have been shown to make instruction effective and easy to use. Because we have an objective set of criteria, we can evaluate each and every app in the same way. This allows teachers and parents to compare apps with each other directly, selecting the strongest ones for their kids. Our teachers and parents find that our approach is more objective and transparent than other app review services on the market today.
Karen Mahon: Put simply, the two Rocket Math apps were among the 16 highest rated apps of the year, according to our rubric. We reviewed more than 1,200 learning games and apps in 2015. Oftentimes when awards are given it’s kind of a mystery how they were decided. In our case there’s no mystery. The 16 apps that received awards were the ones that met the most of our criteria and scored the highest ratings.