In Education Technology, ‘Creation or Content’ is the Wrong Question


In education technology circles, and particularly as it relates to use of iPads and apps, I’ve sure heard a lot of discussion about creation versus content. I’ve been thinking about it and wanted to chime in from a learning sciences perspective.

In case you haven’t read much about it, creation apps are tools that are open ended and aren’t aiming to “teach” a particular skill or skill set. These apps are used by students to make new things…be they books or videos or presentations. With these tools, it is up to the teachers and students to decide what the learning goals are and what the product should be. A couple of examples of this type of app include Explain Everything and Toontastic.

This image originally appeared at http://www.schooltechnology.org and has been made available under Creative Commons licensing.

Alternatively, content apps focus on an academic subject or topic. Typically there is an outcome student performance that is described and the purpose of using the app is to get the student doing whatever that thing is. It’s more structured that a creation app and, unlike a creation app, there are very particular things that the student is expected to do. In many cases the app is built in a way that those targeted skills are the only things the kids can do with the app. Some examples include DragonBox Algebra and Handwriting without Tears (Wet, Dry, Try).

So a debate around the relative merits of each of these categories of apps seems to have really taken off. I get asked about it all the time. And somehow, the prevailing wisdom in online blogs seems to be that creation apps are intrinsically “better” for kids than are the content apps.

I’m not sure where that view first came from or why it’s become popular. If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you know that I view “quality” as a pretty complex concept, not neatly determined by something as basic as “content” vs. “creation.”

But some of my edtech colleagues have a different perspective. Take, for example, this post by Justin Reich, a well-known edtech personality. Justin suggests that “all the good apps fit on one screen,” and advocates for all of those apps to be creation apps. His reasons? “Most apps that are designed to teach specific content are terrible, ” and, that if teachers do this then they “don’t need to review and master the hundreds of education apps that come out every year.”

Or this article, published on the MindShift blog, that refers to content apps as those that “accomplish what were already goals in an earlier era (emphasis mine): mastering concepts, learning arithmetical operations, identifying geographical locations or historical figures or key biological or chemical or physical processes,” implying that somehow we don’t still have these types goals in the current era of education. The article goes on to advocate for…you got it…creation apps.

What’s frustrating for me is not that folks like creation apps. I like them too and agree that they often target higher level skills and levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy than do many of the content apps. And I couldn’t agree more that there are many truly awful content apps out there. But there seems to be a disconnect here. When choosing an app, it shouldn’t be about what type of app it is…it should be about picking the best solution for the problem you’re trying to solve. If the goal is for a student to write a story, then clearly a creation app is the way to go. But if a student is working on computation skills, there are many appropriate and high quality content apps for that purpose. Why dismiss a whole range of possible solutions just because they’re not creation tools? I don’t get it.

I see content and creation apps as falling along a continuum and oftentimes the skills taught in content apps enhance and enable the use of creation apps. Take, for example, the storytelling app Toonia Storymaker (you can read a review of it here by David Kapuler). It’s a creation app in which kids make a story using animations, images and text. Writing text for a story involves a whole bunch of other skills….like spelling and grammar, to name two. Why not consider the high quality content apps to help kids learn those component skills?

As the title says, I think that creation or content isn’t a useful question to be asking in education technology. Instead, we should be focusing on the question “what is the goal?” and let that be our guide. Ultimately, the question of quality boils down to this: does a given app solve the particular problem you have? There’s no reason to try to fit a square peg into a round hole. So teachers, if you need more than one screen of apps to help the kids in your classroom, feel empowered to take however many you need.

What kinds of apps are you using in your classroom? Content, creation, or a combination?

A version of this post originally appeared on January 30, 2014 on the Balefire Labs website.

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.
This entry was posted in Academics, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In Education Technology, ‘Creation or Content’ is the Wrong Question

  1. Great post Karen – thank you! Such an important question!

    We run a program called MAD-learn (www.mad-learn.com) and while we’re inherently a creation tool (kids make their own apps), we are constantly trying to blur the lines between creation and content, but not just at the app level – at the class level! You’ll see the “core content” classes and the “extras” at nearly every single school and typically the creation is happening in the “extra” classes. They key, we believe, is having the creation happen in and with your core content classes to have truly relevant and engaging learning experiences for students.

    – Alefiya Bhatia

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks, Alefiya! I love the idea of kids making their own apps…and I love the idea of those apps being content apps! We know that one of the best ways for kids to show what they know is to teach it to their peers…what better way to do that than through an app? Very cool!

  2. Brett DiNovi says:

    great stuff Mountaineer

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