Lending App Developers a Helping Hand

Lending App Developers a Helping Hand

Daniel Donahoo's BetterApps tool aims to push educational apps to a higher level

By Tony Wan     Oct 3, 2012

Lending App Developers a Helping Hand

For better or worse, the floodgates for education apps have opened, thanks largely to marketplaces like iTunes. At last count, there are now over 70,000 “educational apps” in the iTunes store alone--not to mention ones for Android. In such a dense, competitive space, how one app distinguishes itself is no small feat. Sure, one can go by the simplest measure--the star rating--but all the stars in the world can’t guide one’s way if the destination is unclear.

Now there’s an emerging system that aims to help developers assess how well their edtech app delivers content. Called BetterApps, it asks developers 55 yes/no questions about the features and functionalities of their app. The goal, according to creator Daniel Donahoo, is to help developers design better educational apps (but not to rate the education value of those programs).

Defining and assessing edtech app quality has been a high priority for many. Startups such as KinderTown and YogiPlay have recently taken a shot at this daunting task. Common Sense Media, a big nonprofit, also reviews products according to its own criteria. All these players are trying to convey to parents, teachers, and even children (the end users) the measures by which certain apps earn their stars.

But developers need some guidance, too. “As more people look for quality in the discovery space through the likes of YogiPlay, iEAR, and KinderTown, this service helps developers be well prepared to meet their assessments,” declares Australian researcher Daniel Donahoo, who this week debuted the beta.

A prolific blogger and author on technology, childhood learning and development, Donahoo, based in Melbourne, has encountered his fair share of educational apps. He is a frequent contributor for Wired Geekdad, New Media Consortium, and the Huffington Post and has received as many as 60 app review requests in a given week. He’s also penned two books on child development.

The origins of BetterApps trace back to an earlier project, App Advice, which began in late 2010 to provide consultancy services to help developers assess and improve apps. His experiences here helped crystallize his ideas about what constituted a quality app. In November 2011, he co-wrote the Children’s App Manifesto, a "call to action and a template" to help developers, consumers, and investors "strike a balance between [their] respective interests and what's best for the long-term viability of the market."

Some of Better Apps’ 55 questions may require developers know some education history and lingo. (Consider taking “the Audrey test” as a pre-requisite!) Donahoo admits that a few early users found certain questions a little bit too nuanced. “It’s not supposed to be an easy test,” he points out. “It’s a push for all of us to learn a little bit more about education and pedagogy.” Donahoo devised the questions and the scoring algorithm around the PAC21 Method, a methodology he devised from his own experiences as an app reviewer and which borrows from the works of Robert Gagne, Michael Levine, and Sir Ken Robinson, among others.

After the assessment, the system tallies the responses and provides developers a report that scores the app in three categories: process (app design and direction), creativity, and 21st century skills (critical thinking, media and network literacy). To be clear, the service is about the design of an app, not its quality or educational value of its content.

Even if the service won’t critique educational content, it is highly tailored to education startups. Questions such as “Does the app prompt further discovery and engage the user to learn more either within or outside the confines of the app?” and “Does the app allow the user to solve different kinds of problems in more than one way?” aim to tease how the app teaches rather than what content it offers.

Developers will see how their apps stack up against others within the same category and age group. But Donahoo only plans to share a “Top 5” list for each of the six subject categories and four age groups to be a benchmark for other developers--not all the rankings.

“We are not a discovery tool but a tool to support improved quality in educational apps,” says Donahoo. He wants to help developers and hopes that by doing so, parents, teachers, and kids will benefit indirectly.

Assessments start at $24.95; premium services, such as direct consulting with developers to address reported weaknesses in their apps, are in the works. So far 25 developers have used the tool and over 130 apps have been assessed. Given that the beta just launched Monday, he expects the number to grow quickly.

Donahoo’s ultimate goal is to ensure that developers realize the full educational potential of apps beyond flashcards and shoot-the-right-answer games. He’s got a resounding endorsement from at least one developer: Andy Russell of Launchpad Toys, who co-authored the Children’s Manifesto with Donahoo: “It pushes developers towards a constructionist approach to app development...There will always be a market for electronic flashcards and drill-and-kill apps, but it seems like such a shame to not push these powerful devices further. Dan's framework pushes us all as developers to think long and hard about building intelligent and creative tools for kids instead of the digital pacifiers that have ruled the toy and game aisles for the past decade.”

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