Developers: Stop Making Educational Apps
Or find a better way to do it.
I remember it well.
It was a cold February day in 2015 and I was staring at my laptop screen as I sat behind my desk at Appency, an app marketing agency I had been running for the last six years. The smell of baked goods filled the office, a fortunate (or unfortunate depending on the status of your current diet restrictions) byproduct of having an office that was directly above the popular gluten-free bakery Pushkin's in Sacramento.
As my potential client walked in the door and sat across from me, I could see the pain and frustration in her face. Like all first meetings with app developers, I started off the conversation with a simple question:
“Tell me what you are trying to accomplish with your app”.
Every app developer has a story, and understanding that story is the first part of trying to help them succeed. In many ways asking a developer that question is akin to a therapist prompting their patient with “How are you feeling today?”. It inevitably launches into a long conversation about a developers goals and dreams, from the economic factors of the business that they hope to create from their app, to the social good that many are trying to accomplish.
As an educational app developer, my client’s story was one that I had heard before. There is a drive that educational app developers have that is unique to their space — their mission is almost always less about the money, and more about their heartfelt belief that their product can increase educational outcomes in children around the world, leading to a better educated society. And it is true — numerous studies have shown the benefit of properly utilized educational technology in the classroom.
So why, after launching into her story of why she had gone into the educational app space and what she was trying to do, was my client tearing up? What had started out as a discussion of optimistic social good had quickly encountered the cold hard realities of the educational app development space.
The educational app development space is broken.
For an educational app company to survive, like any other business, they must have revenue. This is a simple statement, but in the world of mobile apps where around 94% of apps are free to download, revenue generation is easier said than done.
Most apps these days make their apps through the “freemium” mechanism. An app is free to download, but the developer makes their money through other activities such as advertising, or in-app-purchase (IAP). Unfortunately, for educational app developers — their ability to make money in the freemium model is severely limited which has led to the education category in the iTunes app store being one of the few where pay-to-download apps outnumber free apps.
Why is this?
Advertising towards children is rightly limited by strict rules and regulations such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the advertising industries own self regulation through the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU). In addition, parental sentiment of not wanting their children to view advertising will cause many parents to avoid downloading or using any app that has advertising within it.
In-app-purchase driven revenue is also difficult. When an educational app is in a classroom setting, students using these products by necessity do not have the authority or financial means to purchase items or features in an app. Even when the app is being used for education at home, very few children will bring their math app to mom begging her to unlock the latest paid update.
Developers are left with charging for their apps up front, being part of the few paid apps in a sea of free, and the results are as to be expected. Even on high quality educational apps, downloads can be abysmal, not driving enough revenue to prompt a developer to continue to support the product.
This is a loss to all of us. As a society, it is in our best interest to bring the highest quality educational materials to market, and make it possible for them to survive so that they can better educate our children. To do that, we must separate the wheat from the chaff, so that teachers and parents can better understand which apps are of the highest quality and have the best educational outcomes. Armed with that knowledge, a $2.99 app seems like a bargain when compared with the cost of many other educational tools.
So how do we do this?
The best evaluators of the educational value of an app, are the professionals who spend each and every day in the classroom — our teachers. Unfortunately, we limit their ability to find educational apps by grouping them altogether in one “Education” section of the App Store. Because the majority of these apps are paid, teachers are often unwilling to pay out of their own pocket to download and evaluate these apps, saving their money for pencils, paper, and other base necessities that we are sadly often failing to provide them as well. Even when great apps are discovered, little training is given to help implement these products in a classroom setting.
There are two options. Either we give up, and tell educational app developers to stop making apps, giving up on the educational benefits that this technology can afford our children, or we fix the system.
Thankfully… these are all addressable problems.
As a shameless plug, the Appency team along with others in the education and development community is tackling the problem head on, with the development of a new company and program designed to benefit both the educational app developer community, and the teachers we are asking to use these products. Tap2Teach will eliminate the roadblocks teachers have to downloading, evaluating and implementing technology in the classroom setting by increasing a teachers ability to find the right app for the materials they wish to teach, eliminating cost for app evaluation, and providing training to these teachers on implementation in the form of app focused lesson plans.
In return, active use of an app by a teacher will lead to app developers being supported as educational institutions take those teacher recommendations and turn them into bulk educational purchases. Parents will be able to look at reviews of an app that come solely from trusted and verified teachers and make purchase decisions based on the educational value of an app and how well it will fill a child's learning needs.
If you are interested in learning more about how we plan to accomplish this, or if you are a teacher or app developer that want’s to be a part of this unique program, raise your hand and let us know on our pre-launch site at www.tap2teach.com . In the next few months we will be bringing more educators on board and start to load in the educational content for discovery and sharing. We look forward to seeing you and building the bridge between edtech and the classroom.