How much “education” goes into an “educational app”?

Do you remember how you felt when you learned that the juice you were drinking actually contained only 10% “real juice”?

I know I was taken aback – and perhaps a bit horrified. For starters, I had always taken it for granted that the apple juice I was drinking was made of apples, and so it was disappointing to know I was 90% wrong. Second, the “10% real juice” claim ended with an exclamation point – as if the company making it was emphasizing that 10% was generous (and suggesting that other juices maybe contain even less). Finally – and this is the most disturbing part – it left me with a question…

If beverages labeled “juice” are only 10% actual juice, what is the other 90%?

By reading the nutritional labels on other foods I quickly learned why 10% was considered high. It turns out that many of the foods we eat – including many that are heavily marketed to our kids – contain surprisingly little of the ingredient or ingredients featured most prominently on the product labels (from “juice” to “whole grains” to the “beef” used in school lunches and so on…). Such products aren’t necessarily good for our kids’ bodies, but there’s a reason the food industry keeps making them.

It’s called junk food – and it sells. 

The food industry learned long ago that food sells better under junk formulations than healthy ones – and so for decades it has maximized its profits at the expense of our health – and the health of our kids.

But what about the “education” industry?

Recently my kids watched a television show that was identified as educational and later played an iPad app I found in the Education category in the app store – both of which claim to teach early math concepts. The show was produced by a highly respected player in the educational products industry, and the app was created by a highly popular entertainment network crossing over into the iPad medium. Both the show and the app seemed very engaging on the surface, but as a parent I wanted to know more about the educational substance underneath.

Since there are no “Nutrition Labels” on educational products, I couldn’t literally see what educational value the products contain. But thanks to the Credits, I could get an idea for who was behind them.

Here is what I found in the credits for each product, listed in their order of appearance:

Educational Show – Credits (Title and number of each)

Executive Producer (1), Producers (2), Editors (1), Writer (1), Songs (2), Character Design (2), Prop Design (2), Background Design (1), Model Cleanup (1), Color Design (1), Color Backgrounds (1), Storyboard Artists (6), Storyboard Revisions (1), Track Reading (1), Sheet Direction (1), Voice Recording Director (1), Casting (1), Cast (5), Production Services (1), Audio Services (1), Dialogue Mixer (2), Dialogue Editor (1), Sound Design (1), Recording Mixer (1), Special Thanks (3), More executive Producers (2), Marketing (2), Public Relations (3), Packaging (1), Legal (4), DVD Production (1), More Producers (3), Art Director (1), Audio Director (1), Marketing (2), Legal (5), Intellectual Property (5), Curriculum Advisors (2)

Total Credited: 73, of which two are educational advisors (listed last)

Educational App – Credits (Title and number of each)

Executive Producer (1), Producer (1), Lead Programmer (1), Lead Artist (1), Programmers (4), Artists (4), Sound (3), QA (1), Creative Director (1), Director Games (1), Producer Games (1), Content Manager (1), Interactive Designer (1), Voice Actors (3), Voice Director (1), Audio Production (2), VP Research (1), Director (1), Analyst (1), Curriculum Consultant (1), Usability (1)

Total Credited: 32, of which one is an educational advisor (listed second to last)

What can we learn from the credits?

The credits for an educational show or app only give us a glimpse into the process of getting such products to market, of course, but there are some interesting points to note. There are clearly a lot of people involved in developing these products, for example, and producing one surely requires significant investments of time and money. And based on the fact that the iPad app is a top-seller in its category, it seems clear that at least in that case the investment has paid off handsomely for the publishers.

But how much of the investment in educational apps is “educational”?

What bothers me is this: if the purpose of the app is to educate children (or help them learn something) then why is there only one person in the credits focused on this goal? Why is this person listed last – and why is their title “consultant”? Is their educational role not important enough to merit a permanent place on the team responsible for creating apps that are supposed to help our kids learn? How much influence could they possibly have had over the direction of the product if they were listed last? And most importantly, …

If “education” was an afterthought in the design of the app, why is it a top seller in the Education category?

The iPad has the potential to transform the way our kids learn. But that isn’t likely to happen until we, as parents and caretakers, demand that app publishers move instructional and learning design from the very bottom of their priority list to the very top.