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App Overload: Learning to Adapt, not just Add Apps for Online Teaching

Educational apps are the new gold rush, but are teachers digging in the right places? Find out how you can avail their opportunities, and mitigate the risks of app overload, as you navigate the new era of online education. 

Schools have a new address; an IP address at that! Teachers are being expected to make quantum leaps in their teaching practices to adjust to the ‘new normal’ of online teaching. Schools are going digital, but make no mistake, the online aspects of teaching and learning will continue to play a crucial role in education long after the lockdown lifts and students are once again seated in brick and mortar classrooms. 

To prepare for this new status quo – to adapt – teachers have been raising their hands and asking the right questions on our #TeacherTalk posts. The three most pertinent ones are:

  1. How do I organise my teaching and learning activities more efficiently using technology?
  2. How do we engage students despite the internet being filled with countless distractions and misinformation? 
  3. How do we protect learning and promote high quality education in this new paradigm?

For many teachers, part of the answer thus far, has been the increased use of educational apps.

What are Educational Apps 

Apps help you with everything from paying your bills to getting back in shape. Easily accessible and light on your wallet, they have become so popular, that in 2019 the world managed 200 billion downloads. That’s twice the number of planets in our galaxy! Yet, educational apps are not limited to the type you get on the App Store. The industry is diverse, encompassing every online or downloadable site, software and application that specialises in improving the processes of teaching and learning. They are part of a growing brand of professional “tech tools” that are both intuitive and innovative. So is this cause for celebration?

The Good: Aid and Opportunity!

Many industries seem to think so. Like teachers, they look at apps as solutions. Companies credit apps for increasing efficiency and effectiveness leading to higher profits. Educational softwares have become intuitive, services offered are diverse, they have proven to be a great aid to the teaching process. For example, formal video conferencing apps, like Zoom, facilitate online classes, whereas quizzing and assessment apps, like Kahoot, offer teachers the opportunity to review conceptual understanding, during these online classes, where they cannot observe or gain immediate feedback from students. In fact, over the last four years before the lockdown, India, despite only having 32% of teachers formally trained in ICT, has seen a 217% increase in the use of educational apps.

The Bad: Confusion and Unproductivity

However, recent studies, several from the Harvard Business Review, have identified a serious side effect of app mania, called “app overload.” The short story is that people are just using too many apps. The long story includes studies that estimate that thousands of hours spent switching between different apps has spread confusion and frustration amongst employees, resulting in an average of one hour of productivity lost from each person, every day, costing the companies millions.

In education, more than money is at stake. Upon reviewing the feedback from our #TeacherTalk forums, we see app overload taking place in the recent digitisation of classrooms during quarantine. Students are being expected to juggle too many apps on multiple devices. When asked, one student could name 6 online resource and activity sites he is compelled to use for just one subject. By sowing this sort of confusion and overprocessing, reducing productivity, app overload can be detrimental to a student’s learning during a time where student understanding and productivity are particularly difficult to instill and monitor, not that it was particularly easy before! 

The Solution: How to Adapt

Yet the same student, and others like him, swear by some of the educational apps they use. Another student says “they make my life easier, since I can just get small doubts answered quickly instead of interrupting an entire Zoom class every time.” Their teachers join them in singing the praises of certain sites. The fact is, we cannot ignore the ability of apps to increase student-teacher cohesion, incite engagement, and benefit learning. Nor can we ignore the risks of a good thing consumed without moderation. Though we cannot answer the questions at the start with a cliché like “all things in moderation”, so to adapt effectively to the use of apps and other EdTech, we must consider the following:

  • Choose the apps that serve your pedagogy

Your choice of tech tools should help you achieve your learning objectives in that lesson, or for that entire unit.  For example, if you want students to independently do some research on World War I, and then share their findings with the rest of the class, you can use a noticeboard app like Padlet. If promoting independent student inquiry is a part of your wider pedagogy, then choosing apps like Padlet would work well. Teachers should work backwards to select apps that supplement pedagogy, helping maintain a balance between fun and serious learning. 

  • Use the same apps consistently 

You will often find that the same app can be used to achieve various learning objectives and outcomes. For example, you can use Google Classroom to post homework and to give feedback. Additionally, you can also use it’s ‘Question’ function when you want to ask leading questions before you begin a lesson to pique student interest.  Using fewer apps, but using them to their full potential and more consistently, will ensure your students don’t feel overwhelmed. You will also be able to track student participation and involvement better if fewer apps are in use. 

  • Take student feedback seriously. 

Feedback comes in several forms, like measuring the impact of new apps on academic performance. However, purely quantitative data is far too limited. Better insight can be gained into an app’s merits and shortcomings through opening a dialogue. Encourage student responses to questions about the app after both their initial and sustained use of it.For instance, do they have technical problems with it? How is it impacting their learning experience? You might need to consider equity, and whether all students are able to use the app to the same extent regardless of socio-economic differences. The answers to these questions will help you decide whether to replace, introduce or remove an app from your pedagogy.

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