“It’s really not that we’re any smarter as educators, or that the children are any smarter than they were a generation ago—but we have tools that make sense, if we can make sense of them—and that’s the challenge,” Lovely said.

Educators must look at technology tools beyond the excitement of having the tools themselves, and make sure that tools are used to their full potential to enhance teaching and learning for young students, rather than as novelty items that excite students but that do little or nothing to add to their learning.

Prekindergarten through second grade educators have to think about developmentally-appropriate tablet content and tablet implementation goals. Language is a big part of this, Lovely said. Instructions that are too advanced or that are printed but do not have a read-aloud option present challenges for young students who can’t yet read, who are struggling readers, or whose native language is not English.

Educational considerations for early learning and young students include:

  • Teaching or practicing curriculum or skills of value when using apps. Teachers should be able to find apps that are in line with what they want to teach, instead of being forced to fit their curriculum to a preexisting app that isn’t exactly what teachers need.
  • Apps should create evidence of young students’ knowledge of skills. Apps don’t have to track student progress, but they should provide a basis for the student to explain their thought process or demonstrate that they are absorbing lessons.

Implementation criteria:

  • App developers tend to develop more for homes than schools, Lovely said, but schools have special requirements when it comes to using apps for learning. Teachers should be aware of those requirements.
  • Does the app have an appropriate learning curve? How long does it take to master some of the skills, at least enough to keep young students engaged?
  • Can the app “play well” with other files and apps? This is critical, Lovely said. For instance, an app that keeps students’ work contained within its own system or on its own site has less appeal than an app that lets students export their work or creations to their tablet’s camera, to YouTube, Evernote or Dropbox, etc.
  • Does the app support multiple users? One-to-one environments aren’t always realistic for school districts, which means that young students share tablets.

(Next page: A list of some useful tablet apps)