Junky Educational Apps and the People Who Make Them.

integrity, doing what is right even when it is difficult

This image originally appeared on the Mary Shadd Public School website.

The other day I had another reminder of just how naive I really am.  You’d think by now I would be a bit wilier.  But no.

So here’s the story. You all know that I review a LOT of educational apps. And you also know, from your own experience, that there’s a super ton of junky apps out there. And I’ve been looking at these apps thinking, “Wow, I could really help a lot of these developers to improve these apps!”  Because the majority of those apps could be much better just by making some pretty simple changes.

Yeah, so I was thinking that the majority of the educational apps that are out there are crap because the people who develop them don’t know any better.

I know, I know. Naive. Well, last week I had a rude awakening.

I was at an event where I had the opportunity to present what I’m doing with my new business. After the presentations were done, a man from the audience approached me. He asked why it was that I hadn’t decided to go into educational app development, instead of ed app review. I gave him my list of reasons: the space is crowded, the development cycle is long, it’s very expensive to create the type of apps I would want to do, and the volume of sales necessary to cover the development expenses would be very high. Pretty much my usual list.

He looked at me like I was crazy. “How much do you think it costs to create an app?” he asked.   I said, “Well, for the kind of app that I would want to make, with adaptive learning paths, sophisticated underlying decision-making algorithms, and signal detection error analysis, it would probably cost between $40 and $50K,” I said. He shook his head in disbelief.

“No, no, no,” he said, “I make educational apps.  All you do is throw in a couple of activities that seem educational and some animation and you’re done. You don’t need all of that other stuff you described.  It’s a couple thousand dollars and then you put it in the iTunes store and sell it.  And people will buy it!”


I said, “Yeah, but that’s not the kind of app I would want to make. I would want to make apps that actually help kids learn and produce performance data showing that the app really works.”

He kind of smirked at me and chuckled. “But you don’t need to do that and you can still sell it and make money.”

So now I’m very depressed. Because I’ve clearly been thinking about this all wrong. This can’t be the only app developer who is fully aware that he is making apps that stink and don’t actually teach kids.  And he seemed very amused by my whole pitch that I wanted to help parents and teachers find the best apps that actually teach their kids. Why would I go to all that trouble when there is quick money to be made by developing junky apps that people will still buy?

Am I the only idealist who thinks we can do better than this?


About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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19 Responses to Junky Educational Apps and the People Who Make Them.

  1. Chris Wondra says:

    I love you.

    You have hit on exactly my frustration with what is happening in education today. And no, it’s not just the man you talked to. Everyone wants a piece of the pie. This is huge. Testing companies, corporations, lobbyists pushing policies at our capitols. Districts are now FORCED by law to spend tons of $$ on crappy stuff: “assessments,” apps, hardware, curriculum documentation software, the list goes on and on . . . All a huge waste that has nothing–NOTHING–to do with good teaching and learning. All in the name of holding schools and teachers accountable. It’s a cash cow! They only “care” in their marketing messages.

    As a teacher, I’ve dealt with these faceless companies. Talked to them. Tried to work with them. And they don’t care about teaching and learning!!! All they care about is the $$. Thank you so much for posting this. I feel as if I’ve just found another soul in universe that gets it–or at least is beginning to get it.

    • karen mahon says:

      Whew! Glad I’m not the only one, Chris. I guess I’m not quite as naive as I let on in the post. I once worked for a company that sold ed tech products and their position basically was that the bottom line was their #1 priority and that if kids learned then that was a “bonus.” That always seemed backwards to me. I know that companies need to make money to stay in business, but I have always believed that we can still do well by doing good.

      As for “edubusiness” and the politics of education, I guess it’s like any other industry. Money talks and lots of people don’t want to be “confused by the facts” that can be demonstrated with data-based evidence. (Things like global warming and mountaintop removal mining come to mind…) And marketing? You’re exactly right. Everyone makes the same claims and as long as it will hold up in court (as one very highly placed marketing executive once told me) they will say it. It’s disgusting.

  2. Byron Canfield says:

    As a fellow ex-Headsprout refugee, I have felt that same frustration — working at Headsprout set the bar pretty high.

  3. Paul Olean says:

    Ah, but what you are doing will hopefully bring him and others to the altar of doing good for the good of the kids kicking and screaming. Because parents and teachers will know the difference between the good and the bad and will not buy the bad. An informed buyer is an armed buyer. Keep going and change the world.

  4. Tricia-Lee (@behaviouratplay) says:

    Ugh, doesn’t that just feel cheap and sleezy? I feel the same way about some of the ABA apps out there. While I embrace technology and integrate in my practice we’re still a human, social service which means getting in there as well. Thanks for being a dose of integrity!

  5. Malena says:

    Thanks for a great post! (Again!) I’m new to the edutech-business, and I’m learning so much from your posts. At the moment I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time on my real job, then I could improve even more in this area. You are one of the people on the internet who give me great ideas, unfortunately I can only act on some if them right now. Maybe more in the future! 🙂

  6. Malena says:

    Also, there is a Swedish site that reviews edapps from the point of view of how they fit in with regard to the central curriculum (My translation, I hope that makes sense to you.) So not exactly the same way as I have understood that you want to do it, but maybe worth having a quick look at? I know it’s in Swedish but I think it’s not more text than could be translated with help of internet tools. Or maybe you are already in touch with the people who make the site? At least they should be reallly interested in your work! http://www.skolappar.nu is their website.

  7. Karen, thanks for this post. Behind the scenes of app development, there are small, indie developers who have the same ideals you do – to create quality apps for our kids. Many, like myself, are moms. Many are teachers, are retired educators, who see a need in the marketplace. None of us are getting rich. Here’s a post I did for The Digital Media Diet about the struggles of making quality, educational apps: http://digitalmediadiet.com/?p=2209

    • karen mahon says:

      Julie, you are absolutely right, and it is the small indie developers who are doing a great job who I hope to highlight with my new service. My goal is to direct as much traffic as possible to people like you! Tell us all what apps you have made….I’d love to check them out! Also, thanks for the article…looking forward to reading it!

      • Thanks for the kind words. I have two kids, 10 and 12, so I wrote an interactive book app for tweens called Brush of Truth to get kids reading through technology. It’s a full-length book about two kids who find an enchanted paintbrush, and the reader chooses what happens next at critical points in the story. There are 65 decision points and 20 possible endings. Brush of Truth has been recognized for its appeal to reluctant readers, and I have free Common Core-aligned lesson plans on my website, http://www.storybayou.com/teachers. It’s $1.99, and is eligible for half-price volume discounts. Please check it out at http://www.storybayou.com.

    • karen mahon says:

      Oh, Julie, I’ve read your Digital Media Diet post before! Didn’t realize it until I went and reread it just now. It’s really true that this is all a labor of love! Keep on truckin’!!

    • karen mahon says:

      Julie, just posted your link on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BalefireLabs and tweeted it out as well.

  8. Pingback: Creating Effective (and Successful) Educational Apps! | disrupt learning!

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