App-makers should focus on confidence building

As kids turn to app-based learning, new research suggests that promoting independence, life skills and self-trust tops parental priorities.
April 27, 2020

With schools closed and kids doing classwork remotely, parents are looking for resources to support home-based learning. But it isn’t all about academics—according to research from ViacomCBS’s global consumer insights team, parents are actually looking for a different kind of education.

Instead of looking to apps to continue the learning kids are doing in school, parents are on the hunt for activities that build confidence, develop social-emotional skills and foster independence, says Christian Kurz, SVP of global consumer insights for ViacomCBS.

This research came from conversations with 120 parents of kids ages six months to eight¬†years. The parents were from seven regions—Australia, Brazil, Mexico, China, Germany, Spain and the UK—and participated in 90-minute focus groups to provide information and discuss what they look for in learning apps. These focus groups took place before schools around the world closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many learning apps are designed to help kids improve skills like reading or writing, parents actually care less about supplementing what teachers are covering and more about games or activities that will build confidence. This could mean traditional learning apps that show evidence of progress through visual cues and sound effects (think gold stars, trophies or applause), or it could be an adventure game that, while it includes educational elements, focuses more on empowering kids to make decisions and explore new ideas.

Learning apps should not, however, use a ranking system that compares the progress of different children. In fact, the research found parents don’t believe in a credible, standardized global benchmark that could asses kids’ knowledge and abilities. What’s more, they worry that apps that asses their children could cause anxiety.

“Parents do not want to compare their kids to others,” says Kurz. “It’s important to parents that apps make learning a positive experience so that kids want to continue.”

When it comes to fostering independence, meanwhile, parents are looking for apps that will focus on the mastery of life skills, organizational habits, self-discipline and learning without adult supervision. To do this, Kurz says apps must encourage independent exploration, allowing kids to set their own pace and maintain their own motivation.

This could mean, for example, that kids are able to explore different topics depending on what they are interested in on a given day, rather than following a strict schedule or set path through an app. A sense of independence can also be achieved through apps that are self-serving.

“The app shouldn’t need a lot of preparation on the part of the parents,” Kurz explains. “There should be minimal prep [before kids can take over].”

According to parents, the biggest opportunity for app-makers lies in the three- to five-year-old category because apps for this group rarely feel age-appropriate. The younger set needs app that focus on entertainment and exploring new things, while apps for kids ages six to eight can be much more involved and start to introduce complicated subjects like coding. Parents also agreed that kids differ more by age than geography, meaning learning apps have the potential to be relevant anywhere so long as they accurately address the needs of a specific age group.

While  the research was conducted while kids around the world were still in school, Kurz believes the information is more relevant than ever now that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing kids to continue their education at home.

“There’s actual school learning, but you also need something for your kid to do when they’re not with their teachers and you’re still trying to work from home,” he says. “These learning apps are really coming in strong with this, especially as the minimal prep time for parents becomes really important and the breadth of content within those apps becomes really important.”

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