The Digital Wild West of Apps Is an Opportunity for Librarians

Being able to accurately size up language and literacy apps for young children isn't easy in today's online environment. Yet it is a crucial service, one that librarians are uniquely suited to provide.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America has surveyed the language and literacy apps targeted to children, preschool to age eight, and available through the Apple, Google Play, and Amazon app stores. The resulting study, "Getting a Read on the App Stores: A Market Scan and Analysis of Literacy Apps," analyzed the descriptions of the apps as well as their content. The report’s findings include:
  • The choice of apps for preschool age children is truly vast. Anyone trying to choose within this particular category faces a “digital wild west.” Jessica Ralli, early literacy programs coordinator at Brooklyn (NY) Public Library, agrees. “Thousands of apps….created for young children are out there, but very few ways to access curated, trustworthy information about what is age appropriate and high quality, and how to engage in this media with young children for optimal learning.”
  • Most of these apps are not targeted to the most pressing educational needs in the language and literacy arena, such as complex vocabulary or comprehension skills.
  • Very few mention whether any kind of educational efficacy, or even usability, research was conducted. “The study 'scientifically confirms what librarians…have anecdotally experienced,' ” confirms Cindy Wall, children's librarian at Southington Library and Museum (CT) and coauthor of The Maker Cookbook (Libraries Unlimited, 2014). “We must use multiple sources to find quality app titles and quality app reviews to ensure that the app meets or exceeds the developer description, is developmentally appropriate for the target audience, and fulfills the goals of the program,” continues Wall.
The study “presents a great opportunity for librarians to become a trusted resource for families,” says Ralli. Indeed, in 2015, the Association for Library Service to Children released a white paper urging librarians to become “media mentors” to families who want guidance on children’s digital media use. Below, from Sarah Vaala, PhD, a coauthor of the study and research fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, are key takeaways based on the report, which could aid librarians striving to serve as media mentors.
  1. Recommend high-quality apps
If librarians come across a high-quality children’s app, they should find ways to share the discovery. This could be through formal channels, such as blogs or curated lists, or by talking with families more informally. Librarians could also crowdsource the curation by seeking feedback on apps from the families in their communities. Parents would likely make use of information gained from their peers’ experiences, and a library-hosted site would be a trustworthy way to receive recommendations. Ralli recommends Beanstack app reviews. “They categorize by age, subject, and even provide a learning tip,” she explains.
  1. Know what to look for when choosing apps for young children
“We found that app descriptions often omit specific target ages, instead using broad terms like ‘for kids’ or ‘ages 3 and up,’ ” reports Vaala, “though we did find that most literacy-focused apps did mention at least one specific skill targeted by the app, such as phoneme awareness or reading comprehension.” Therefore, tip sheets that list specific skills children should be mastering at certain ages could help parents identify appropriate apps when age ranges are absent from descriptions. A rubric for app selection, such as the one Claudia Haines, youth services librarian at Homer (AK) Public Library,  uses and shares with colleagues, may be helpful.
  1. Be ready with resources to help patrons choose apps
Many may not know about expert-review sources such as Common Sense Media or Children’s Technology Review. At the same time, librarians can encourage families to look carefully at the information they are consulting. Some app review sites require producers to pay for reviews. Similarly, it may be wise to look beyond the “top” educational apps promoted in app stores. “App stores do not make their algorithms for ranking publicly known, but from what we can tell, they aren’t based on any particular testing of the apps,” shares Vaala. There may be many hidden gems that don’t receive much promotion, especially among apps for older youth. “The apps we found among the top 50 lists in app stores were disproportionately targeted to the preschool and kindergarten age range,” says Vaala. But the hunt is well worth it. “High-quality digital media offers another format for families to connect and learn with each other. I love helping to make that happen,” says Haines.
  1. Encourage participation
“If libraries ignore the fact that parents and caregivers are using digital media with children, we miss an opportunity to show them how to do it in a developmentally appropriate and enriching way,” notes Ralli. Much like the benefits of reading a print book together, using an app with a parent or a more competent sibling makes the experience even richer for a young child. A more skilled partner can support the experience by explaining challenging app mechanics or content to a child. Additionally, parents can watch their child in action to determine whether the app is actually a good fit. “We found that most of the apps that are promoted in stores or given awards by expert review sites are not explicitly designed to promote or require co-use,” shares Vaala. “Librarians could teach strategies to parents for getting involved in app play and enriching and extending their learning.” One such idea from Ralli: connecting an app to a real-life experience; for example, pairing a farm or garden themed app with a visit to an actual farm or botanic garden. Another tip from the trenches: “An app shared with a group should be educational, but it must also provide enjoyment for the children, caregivers, and, yes, even the librarians. An educational app that meets curriculum standards but is devoid of humor or wonder is like cod liver oil. It’s good for you, but no one really wants to take it,” adds Wall.

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