The number of blog posts discussing educational apps has exploded in the last few weeks.  I suspect some of this increased activity is due to the back to school season, but it seems to be part of a larger trend: educators are beginning to take mobile technology seriously as an educational tool.

The number of boisterous “It’s ridiculous to think that apps are educationally useful,” critics seems to have shrunk as well. But in place of these critics and educational app agnostics a much more serious threat has cropped up: rubrics for grading apps.

bored kid

I bet this looks familiar (courtesy of

Hear me out.

There are well-meaning, forward-looking teachers making an honest effort to incorporate apps into the classroom environment.  And many of them are doing it very well. But increasingly, articles like this one from Tony Vincent’s website, Learning in Hand, are attempting to graft the central problems of our current education system – rigidity and a teacher focused classroom – onto an educational resource with tremendous potential.

Consider your own educational experiences. How often were you able to pursue your passion in class?  To pick a problem and explore it because you were genuinely interested? How did you teacher act when you ventured outside the lines?

Think of a student, like someone you know, who is incredibly talented but didn’t do well in school.  They were often bored, tended to misbehave, but also, had an innate curiosity about them.  When they had to do a book report they asked for special permission to build a stage and perform a play about it.

We all understand that not every student will be academically successful, and we seem to accept this fact.  But I’d like to pose a different question: why is academic achievement as it’s currently conceived, the measure of educational success?

I used to work at Outward Bound, an experiential education organization who’s founder, Kurt Hahn, has achieved a near mythical stature within the organization. As such, I’ve encountered more than a few Kurt Hahn quotes. Some went in one ear and out the other but one has always stuck with me because it succinctly states what I believe to be the goal of education.

“I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities; an enterprising curiosity; an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial and above all, compassion.”

The world of mobile apps promises to marshall in a meaningful period of disruption in education.  For years we’ve talked about computers transforming the way people learn, but they were too big and expensive for every child to have one. Mobile technology has changed that. Now every student can have the opportunity to explore his or her interests – whether it’s physics through apps like Dummy Defense and Sprinkle, or music through apps like KBC Kids.

Kids and Tablets

When was the last time you saw this level of focus in an elementary classroom? (image courtesy of

Apps are powerful educational tools because they are highly engaging  and provide access to enriching content areas that are prohibitively expensive for schools and parents to provide.

Now, I understand the need for apps that effectively address standards – we’ve reviewed quite a few of them and think they’re fantastic.  It’s easy to imagine assigning a spelling app for homework, or assigning reading on a tablet.

But, we have to be careful about demanding apps from developers that are homogenous and too closely mirror the status quo. Instead, we should encourage innovation and experimentation, and stop trying to shoehorn the application of technologies into an educational mold that hasn’t changed substantially in 150 years. This awesome animated video does a great job of explaining why this is such a serious problem.

If nothing else, the mobile tech revolution provides us with a second chance to fix some of the things we got wrong the first time.  So instead of using rubrics to select apps that merely digitalize the existing classroom experience, we should keep our minds open to the potential of mobile technology to supplement what’s already occurring in the classroom.

We can and should use mobile tech to provide children a portal to a universe full of information.   Our job as parents and educators is to teach children how to make sense of what their naturally curious, tenacious minds encounter for themselves.  If we’re not up to that task, the very least we can do is make sure we don’t squeeze all the fun out of this educational resource too. 

A native of Scranton, PA, Matt holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Colgate University, an MBA from the College of Charleston, and is currently a JD candidate at the University of Texas School of Law.  With a varied past as an Outward Bound sailing instructor, elementary school teacher and non-profit administrator, Matt does a little bit of everything at Famigo. Follow Matt on Twitter @mmmcdonnell



Matt McDonnell (40 Posts)

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