Developing Agency: Vetting Applications for  “Educational” Value and Learner Agency

by Liz Kolb

How do you know if an educational application is truly “educational”? Believe it or not, there is no vetting process for these tools in the Google Play or Apple App stores.  Any app can be labeled “educational,” even when it may not actually lead to student learning. This lack of screening has worried many educators, especially those of us in the education technology field. 

For an application to actually have the potential to promote student agency (voice and choice) in learning, it should include the essential pedagogical elements of how students learn best. Therefore, if educators want students to become agents of their own learning, educators need to develop their own agency by understanding how to vet the tools they are bringing into the classroom and identify elements that support best practices in how students learn. 

While there are many resources to help educators evaluate, pilot and review educational tools, these resources are spread out in many different spaces, making it difficult for busy educators to find and use them. To address this challenge, I developed the Triple E Framework for Education Application Evaluation. This framework brings together many expert online resources for evaluating applications into one place. The Triple E Framework is free and open to all educators. Below, I highlight some of the crucial elements from the Triple E Framework that should be considered when evaluating applications for potential student agency in their learning.  

Before diving into an application, educators should find out if there is any valid and reliable research associated with the tool.  While the tool’s website may share research, often that research is paid for and/or supported by the developer, meaning it could be biased. Educators can search for independent studies at the What Works Clearinghouse, which is supported by the US Department of Education,  a neutral entity that looks at studies on curriculum and technology tools for validity and reliability.  

Legal Issues
Student data privacy must always be considered when evaluating an application. In the United States, applications aimed at users 13 and over are not required to protect student educational data; as a result, the onus is on the school or teacher to make sure these protections exist. When exploring a new tool, educators should check to see if it has been certified for FERPA and/or COPPA.  Two places that educators can check is the iKeepsafe website and the Student Data Privacy Pledge site to see if the tool has been certified safe for student data privacy. If not, educators need to review the tool’s privacy policy to see what kind of data is being kept by the website and make sure that student data is being safely encrypted and de-identified.  

Educators should consider how well a tool is engaging students in learning the content.  Engagement is about students being focused on the learning goal and students being able to be social in their learning. Educators should review the tool for true engagement by asking the following questions,

  1. Does the tool help students focus on the learning goal?  Is the learning goal clear and easy to understand?  
  2. Does the tool include distracting features that may take away from the learning such as music, sound effects, or rewards (including rewards of games to play that are unrelated to the learning goals)?
  3. Is the tool designed to promote conversation about academic learning such as student-to-student conversation or student-to-teacher conversation? 
  4. Does the tool have appropriate pacing including built-in breaks, signaling  to students that it is time to pause the app and reflect on what they have learned or are doing (compared to apps that have a continuous flow of activities or information)?

Educators should also consider how well an application supports elements of enhancing the learning experience for students. Are students using higher cognitive thinking, and does the application include supports and scaffolds to make the learning easier to understand?

  1. Does the tool provide developmentally appropriate guidance, such as differentiated feedback that is explicit to the learner?
  2. Does the tool provide multiple ways to represent or demonstrate an idea or concept (such as various types of verbal and visual representation)? 
  3. Does the tool help to support students using their higher-level thinking skills (not just drill and practice)?

Finally, using technology should help to extend students’ learning to their everyday lives.  Educators should ask questions regarding how well an application is supporting real world experiences that reflect or mirror students’ own lives.  

  1. How well does the tool transfer student learning to their everyday lives and the communities around them and build on their prior knowledge?
  2. Are the characters/visuals/languages in the tool representative of the students in your school/classroom? Are there any potential biases or Discriminatory Design that would impact your population of students by not being relatable and/or representative of the diversity of your student body and community?
  3. Are the concepts easily transferable from the tool to the students’ real world (e.g., using real images, real places, people, things, and ideas relevant to students’ lives rather than using clip art)?

While there is always going to be some subjectivity when evaluating applications for learning, by reviewing the tools for valid/reliable research, student data privacy, engagement, enhancement and extension of the learning, educators develop agency in knowing what is offered in a tool and what is lacking. Knowing these elements will allow educators to better understand if a tool can really offer the potential for students to become agents of their own learning or if it is just another app being labeled “educational” when it doesn’t actually offer the pedagogical structures of best practices in learning. 

Liz KolbLiz Kolb is a clinical associate professor of education technologies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She teaches courses in education technology for the undergraduate elementary, undergraduate secondary, and Masters and Certification programs. She authored five books on teaching with technology including; Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education Cell Phones in the Classroom and Learning First, Technology Second. Liz can be found on twitter at @lkolb 

Liz will be presenting a break-out session on Learner Agency at the 2022 Summer Convening: The Power of Human Connection on June 21, 2022. For more information on the convening, visit the website.