Special Report: Teaching with digital apps

Users can search for reviews of resources by subject, grade level, cost (free, “freemium,” or paid), and type (app, game, or website). An option at the top of the page, called “Top Picks,” reveals the best-reviewed resources on the site.

When you click on a review, it tells you the price, the grade levels the app is most appropriate for, setup time, platforms (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android, Kindle Fire, or Nook HD), and subject areas—with a link to specific standards the app meets. There’s also a list of skills the app meets, too (such as “memorization, thinking critically”…), and the review indicates whether the resource includes a teacher dashboard and who the maker is.

For each review, users will see a “Graphite Rating” and a “Teacher Rating,” each based on a five-point scale. These ratings use a rubric with three dimensions: Engagement, Pedagogy, and Support. The maximum score within each dimension is five points as well.

With learning apps being released at an exponential pace, Common Sense Media is focusing its reviews on which apps are most popular within the Apple and Google app stores, as well as apps that are submitted directly to the organization for review.

Graphite launched in beta version at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in June with about 1,500 reviewed apps, and within three years, its database “will easily grow to 5,000 apps,” said Common Sense Media’s Mike Lorion. A full rollout is planned for the fall, and it will include a space for teachers to collect and share reviews of their favorite apps.

Braden, the Bella Vista teacher, is one of the Graphite Educators who has submitted reviews for the project. One of the websites he reviewed is Mission U.S., a resource from the public television station WNET in New York that immerses players in U.S. history content through free, interactive games.

“It’s like a ‘choose your own adventure’ story—students can make choices and then see how these would have affected history,” he says. And, it offers support lessons for teachers, “so it’s really rich.”

Braden has used Graphite himself to find specific resources for his students. For instance, some of his fourth graders were interested in creating their own computer games. Through Graphite, he found a free website called Gamestar Mechanic that walks students through the process of creating a game.

All of the site’s reviews include information about how the resource can be used in the classroom—and “that context is really important,” Braden says. “Apple throws all of these apps at schools but doesn’t say, ‘Here’s how to use them.’ I think you have to have a purpose first, and then find a tool that meets this purpose.”

Hodgson, too, is a Graphite Educator. He says the site has tremendous value, because it provides information about “the positives, but also the shortcomings” of apps and websites.

“Unfortunately, with a lot of the gaming sites aimed at schools, the quality varies,” he asserts—and some offer more entertainment than education. He adds: “Although I want my students engaged, I also want them learning.”

Dennis Pierce

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