Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dragons and the Curse of the 99₵ App

As I sift through hundreds of apps for our iPad in the classroom podcast I am occasionally surprised by quality apps. In our TechEDGE conference yesterday Rob McEntarffer from Lincoln Public Schools showed me DragonBox. In this brilliant app (see geek Dad review) students learn algebra in a way that "sneaks up" on them. It teaches them algebra principles through a true game environment (bringing Gee's vision to life) . Such brilliant apps are rare because they are brilliant. But in effect most of the educational apps have limited learning value. Most have limited content and focus on drill in ways that leave the educator in me cringing and hoping for more.

The problem though may be that the app store set the income margin too low. Right now an app for 5.99 is expensive and gives purchasers pause. The dominant modes are free and 99 cent apps. I just wonder if developers can create and maintain quality educational apps at these prices. I have gone through more than a thousand educational apps in the last year and I can answer with a "not yet". There are some great apps but most fail even my basic criteria to be useful.

I believe that mobile devices with an emphasis on tablets are going to be dominant in education in the next decade maybe even longer. Apps are an important part of this ecosystem but to be useful we need a bigger pool of great apps that serve students need to learn.

The lesson from the print news industry is that new pricing models connected with technology seem to create changes that are irreversible. Some companies are trying to buck this trend by creating educational subscriptions e.g. Footsteps 2 Brilliance and BrainPop.
This is an interesting direction that I hope can be successful but here I want to identify here other possible solutions.

As we discuss flipping classroom I would like to suggest flipping the curriculum and professional development equation. That is, providing the materials for free (or for a nominal sum say 99¢) and charging for backend services such as professional development and data services. This is a concept I have written about before and I think can potentially be viable. The Dynamic Indicators of Basics Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) seem to have successfully followed this model providing the assessment for free but charging for training, data services and optional assessment materials. While it is a not-for-profit organization it still proves the concept.

An effort like this may benefit from a partnership with a university combining the entrepreneurship of start-ups and the educational know-how of university faculty. This combination can make excellent products for the educational market that mesh gaming concepts and excellent content that lead kids to learn.

Finally, states and districts can choose to partner with universities and invest in creating digital materials to replace the commercial curricula altogether. Such efforts would require upfront costs but may actually reduce the dependence on commercial products and save districts significant amounts of money that can then be invested in professional development and emerging learning technologies.

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