The Common Sense Education team is constantly searching for the best tools for digital teaching and learning. Our experts have rated and reviewed more than 3,000 (and counting!) apps, websites, and games for their learning potential. Through all this, we consistently come across new tools that are unlike anything we've seen before. The innovation happening in the edtech world is a big part of our inspiration and motivation to keep reviewing.
But our main motivation is keeping you -- teachers -- informed about the latest tools for digital learning. Brand-new products come onto the market all the time, but they aren't all created equal -- some are clearly more "finished" than others. Of course, some developers release early versions of their products to get feedback from new users. While many of these digital tools are just fine for classroom use, others may be unfinished, unpolished, or simply not appropriate for kids' learning.
So, from alpha to beta and beyond, what are the key traits we look for in a quality edtech product? Here are 12 questions our education editors ask that can help you identify classroom-ready digital tools.
1. Have teachers' and students' actual needs been taken into account?
Can the tool be used in a variety of classroom settings or scenarios? Have teachers' practical considerations (time, funding, logistics) been considered? Does it seem like actual teachers were involved in the product's design and development? PocketLab meets teachers' needs by making devices that are portable enough to take anywhere and more affordable than traditional equipment.
2. Does the tool support active, experiential learning?
Are kids immersed in the learning experience? What can they do to connect learning to other areas in their lives? Will they stay motivated to continue learning and exploring? A tool like Minecraft: Education Edition does a great job of reeling kids in and empowering them to learn.
3. Can students get constructive feedback, advice, and helpful hints?
Look for tools that offer students the right amount of help without muddling or complicating the experience. For example, Khan Academy makes it easy for kids to access help and hints in multiple ways and formats.
4. As a teacher, can you get clear, actionable data on student performance?
A dashboard is key, but look for one that doesn't overwhelm with too much information. The data you get should offer a clear pathway toward student improvement. For example, LightSail offers robust data that's still easy to use in personalizing students' learning.
5. Does the product support a diverse range of learners?
Will kids with different cultural or linguistic backgrounds or learning styles have access to the content? Does the product have built-in tools to help struggling readers, English-language learners, special education students, or kids with learning differences? A site like Newsela reaches all learners by providing high-interest, nonfiction texts that can be adjusted to individual students' reading levels.
6. Is enough learning content covered -- without sacrificing depth?
Will students learn a little bit about a lot of things? Often, this approach can make learning a mile wide and an inch deep. Make sure that kids can address the learning topics in a deep way. Usually, this involves critical and conceptual thinking. DragonBox models this well, with a deep dive into a specific topic that also supports conceptual learning.
7. Does the product encourage kids' collaborative and collective learning?
Can kids' interactions build greater or more meaningful understanding? Goosechase EDU is a great example of a resource where students can work in teams to solve digital scavenger hunts. An important note, though: If a product includes social features, make sure the developers have taken kids' online privacy and safety into account.
8. Does it offer assessment data while also balancing the need for kids' privacy and safety?
9. Does the product help you meet different kids at their levels?
Do the content and design match the tool's target age group? Will kindergartners be able to read the directions? Will the graphics feel condescending to high school students? Can the learning content be adjusted or differentiated to maximize individual learning? Woot Math is a good example of a product that adapts as kids progress.
10. Is diversity (gender, race, and culture) presented without bias or stereotype?
Will students see a spectrum of backgrounds represented? Are the representations as responsible and unbiased as possible? Are there opportunities for different kinds of kids to identify with different kinds of characters? You can see a wide range of ideas and people on websites such as StoryCorps.
11. Does it promote distraction-free learning for kids?
Do advertisements, links for teachers and other adults, or sales and subscription information pull kids away from learning? Does the design keep kids' attention focused on the right task? Zearn is a resource where students come first and information for adults is tucked away out of sight.
12. Last, is the product both innovative and essential to your teaching?
Does the product fill a critical need in education today? The best edtech products don't merely substitute for an existing classroom tool; they change and redefine what great teaching and learning look like.