Apps, or applications, are small pieces of software which are downloaded from the internet, have specific and limited functionality (as opposed to the general functionality of a web browser), often make good use of the features of mobile devices, may run with or without internet access, and are typically inexpensive or even free.
Mobile devices are dominated worldwide by two major operating systems, Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Apps designed for Android devices are available from Google Play (formerly the Android Market), while apps designed for Apple’s iOS devices such as the iPhone or iPad are available from the iTunes Store. Apps are also available for less common devices and operating systems; for example, apps for BlackBerry devices are available from BlackBerry World (formerly BlackBerry App World) and those for Microsoft’s Windows devices are available from the Microsoft Store (formerly Windows Phone Marketplace). Some web apps, usually created with HTML5, are cross-platform and can be used on a variety of operating systems on a variety of devices. With the rise of responsive design websites, more and more regular webpages can also automatically reformat themselves for viewing on mobile and other devices.
The vast majority of users’ time on smart devices is spent on apps rather than accessing the web through general-purpose web browsers (like Google’s Chrome or Apple’s Safari). Some educators are concerned that many apps are tightly controlled and template-driven, and may limit end users’ control over their creations and communications far more than is usually the case on the broader web 2.0. On the other hand, one of the reasons that tablets which run mobile operating systems are so frequently used with young learners nowadays is precisely because apps limit students’ choices and keep them away from the wider internet. It may be important for older students to have access to more generative devices like laptop or desktop computers – whether instead of or, more commonly, in addition to mobile devices – in order to create and communicate more freely and effectively online.
There are many thousands of educational apps, designed to cover all subject areas and all levels. Most are web 1.0 in orientation. Their value lies in their convenience and accessibility, but most are pedagogically very traditional: they primarily involve information transmission and/or repetitive, behaviourist style drills, quizzes and puzzles. Many e-books and e-textbooks fit into this category. Teachers can of course create their own mobile quizzes using a variety of polling and survey services; students can also be asked to create mobile revision quizzes for their peers, thus shifting their learning in a more constructivist direction.
There is a smaller number of apps which are more web 2.0 in orientation. Typically, these are generic apps (that is, apps which are not subject-specific but can be used across many subjects) and most are not dedicated to education (that is, they are general-purpose apps which can be repurposed for education). These include creative apps like GarageBand and iMovie, which can be used, for example, to produce digital stories or videos. They also include communication apps like Instagram or Facebook, which can be used for social sharing or social networking. Of course, many of these apps support collaborative learning to various degrees. Note that many of these generic apps are mobile versions of what were originally desktop services.
Beyond educational apps, and generic creative and communicative apps, there are also organisational apps which are not used for teaching and learning per se, but which may be helpful in staying organised. These include note-taking and multimedia storage apps, timetabling and scheduling apps, and even class management apps.
Nowadays we are seeing the advent of app-building software, which allows teachers and students to create their own apps. The easiest services to use are template-driven and require little coding knowledge, but these are likely to have more limited content and formatting options. Some coding knowledge may be useful for the more sophisticated app builders, which means they can also be used to help support the development of students’ coding skills. Examples of app builders include Appery.io, AppMakr, Apps Bar, Appy Pie, GoodBarber, iBuildApp, Magmito, MIT App Inventor and ShoutEm. Web apps accessible on a wide range of devices can be created at LearningApps. E-books in the open e-pub format can be created using a variety of software, including Apple’s Pages, while e-books can also be created in a proprietary variant of the e-pub format for use on Apple devices with iBooks Author.
For suggestions on useful educational, organisational and other apps, see:
- 50 Resources for Teaching with iPads (Te@chThought, 2014)
- EdTech Teacher Tutorials [app] (Paul Hamilton, 2014)
- If Your Kid Loves Temple Run … (Common Sense Media, 2014)
- 12 Apps that Every Student Should Have (Business Insider, 2016)
- 40 of the Best Learning Apps for Elementary Students (Teach Thought, 2016)
- Apps and Websites for Improving Parent-Teacher Communication (Common Sense Education, 2016)
- Best Apps and Websites for the Flipped Classroom (Common Sense Education, 2016)
- Best Apps for Students: How to Survive Higher Education (Trusted Reviews, 2016)
- Best Apps for Teaching & Learning 2016 (AASL, 2016)
- The Best Educational Apps and Games to Jumpstart the School Year (Macworld, 2016)
- Get Smart: The 25 Best Educational Apps for iPhone and Android (Digital Trends, 2016)
- Most Helpful Apps for Students (Top Universities, 2016)
- 10 Best Android Learning Apps (Android Authority, 2017)
- 21 Free Educational Apps for Kids (Family Education, 2017)
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