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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The State of Educational Geography Apps and Games

I was pointed by USA Today to a website  called Common Sense Media. It indexes and reviews educational materials for a variety of platforms including apps, games, books, TV shows and more. I keyed in a search for geography and up came six pages of results, some 100 products. I especially enjoyed the summaries from reviewers:
  • "Great educational content; slightly dry gameplay."
  • "Find-the-country geography app with detailed statistics."
  • "Stunning interactive geography and animal science game."
  • "Great way to learn states and capitals by region."
  • "Advanced quiz questions target true geography buffs."
These comments suggest to me just what I feared: most of the digital offerings are of the "learn the locations of counties and the capitols of states" variety. Why are these types of resources? They are what developers think parents and educators want. And, they may well be correct on that.

The website gives each product a suggested age target (best for age 10, for example), a star rating (how good, aka fun/engaging is it) and an intriguing measure of "learning potential of a title in terms of whether it's BEST, GOOD, or FAIR for learning -- or not for learning." The criteria for that score:
Sample Criteria
Is it engaging, fun, absorbing?
Learning approach
Is the learning central and not secondary to the experience? Is it relevant and transferable to real life? Does it build concepts and deep understanding? Do kids get exposure to a diversity of people and situations?
Do kids get feedback about their performance? Does their experience (e.g., game play) adjust based on what and how they do?
Support and extensions
Are there opportunities and resources to support, strengthen, and extend learning? Is the title accessible to a variety of audiences?
I think that's a pretty good list for evaluating potential for learning. Sadly, few offerings get the top rating, Best for Learning, symbolized by three books. The grading system is in beta (it launched in April, press release), so only a small fraction of the content is rated. Which of my results rate Best for Learning?
  • HowStuffWorks for iPad rates three books, but it's certainly not geography specific or even geography focused.
  • National Geographic Challenge has the highest rating in potential for learning among the real geography offerings, but gets just two books, not three. The review may indicate why: "Game show/board game is a blast -- but questions are tough!" Digging deeper you find: "Learning social studies facts is wild fun with this competitive game show." Oh boy, another game to learn facts! Hooray!

This is just one website, one with a limited number of learning products, but I fear it reflects the state of geography apps in 2012. Most seem to attack the need to learn the facts about and locations of the countries and cities of the world. I continue to look forward to the next generation of geography games that teach the underlying principles and skills of geography. I point those interested in this opportunity the shiny new volume of national geography standards, the second edition of Geography for Life.