In 2016 the Common Sense Education editorial staff evaluated close to 170 apps, games, and websites for learning potential and classroom implementation. This year (as in years past) there are some very innovative tools on this list. What's particularly unique about this best-of cohort, though, is that many of the tools tackle familiar genres and concepts -- they just do so really, really well. It's a heartening trend; the best edtech developers are taking the lessons (both good and bad) of the last few years to heart and delivering products at a higher level of quality than we've seen in the past. If you look at how thoughtfully designed the tools on this list are, there's no question that a big part of this success has been listening to -- and incorporating -- teacher and student feedback.
Arts and SEL:
Price: $19.99; Platform: Linux, Mac, Windows; Grades: 9–12
If you're searching for a unique way to explore storytelling and build SEL skills, look no further. Gone Home is a narrative-driven exploration game that embraces a nontraditional model of storytelling where players explore a house and piece together a story. Players will react differently and, as a result, have meaningful discussions. Students will step into another's shoes, and many will find the characters' themes and struggles mirror their daily lives; it's an incredibly powerful empathy builder.
Price: Free; Platform: Web; Grades: 1–6
This might just be the ultimate museum website for kids. The site's tagline is "Made for, with, and by kids," and its resources deliver. This is a fun, approachable introduction for kids (and adults!) to the extraordinary riches that the Met has to offer.
Price: Free; Platform: Web; Grades: 5–12
Perfect for English language learners and struggling readers, CommonLit is a free digital library of ready-to-print leveled texts -- news articles, poems, short stories, and historical documents. You can filter through collections by grade level, Lexile level, theme, genre, literary device, and even Common Core State Standards addressed.
Price: $1.99; Platform: Android, iOS; Grades: Pre-K–3
HangArt: Play Hangman, Draw Pictures, Tell Stories gives kids practice with 200 sight words through three types of activities. Each of the app's elements was clearly well thought out, from the special easy-reading font to the grown-up's guide to the drawings. The combination of guided games and open-ended activities gives kids a great opportunity for digging deep into words.
Price: $7.99; Platform: iOS, Android; Grades: 1–4
DragonBox Big Numbers, the follow-up to last year's Best Apps of 2015 winner DragonBox Numbers, is a game that helps students practice their addition and subtraction skills with large numbers. There's hours of engaging, varied gameplay that gets students exploring, collecting, and exchanging resources and building houses for the Nooms, all the while learning how to manipulate the big numbers through addition, subtraction, and regrouping.
Price: Free; Platform: iPad; Grades: Pre-K–K
Gracie & Friends Lemonade Stand is part of a suite of apps and supplemental materials for preschoolers that teach very specific early math concepts. This app, like the three others, focuses on dividing multiple items or a single item equally. While it can be used alone, Gracie & Friends Lemonade Stand really steps up to the next level when used as part of its larger curriculum.
Price: Paid; contact for pricing; Platform: Web; Grades: K–7
Redbird Advanced Learning Mathematics is a digital curriculum platform for in-class or blended-learning use that incorporates robust, research-based adaptive technology. The adaptive content is pretty impressive; in testing, most math concepts stayed right in the neighborhood of just-challenging-enough, seldom becoming overwhelming or too easy.
Price: Free, with upgraded paid options available; Platform: Web; Grades: K–5
Zearn has two big strengths that set it apart from other elementary digital math curricula. The first is excellent scaffolding. Zearn is an online math curriculum for grades 1 through 5, with supplemental skills-practice activities for kindergartners. The second is its reliance on live instruction to provide differentiation.
Price: 45-day free trial, then $14.99 annually; Platform: Android, iOS; Grades: 6–12
Lab4Physics uses the accelerometer, camera, and microphone already built into smartphones (and tablets) to gather data for physics experiments. Equipping a physics lab with sensor tools and software can cost districts over $5,000. This app accomplishes many of the same things using the smartphones that students already have in their pockets.
Price: Free; Platform: Website; Grades: 6–12
NASA Global Climate Change - Vital Signs of the Planet is a comprehensive collection of climate change information, including answers, images, videos, blog posts, articles, infographics, and so much more. The content on this reference site is extremely thorough and comes from the premier experts on climate change, so it's probably the most valid and reliable science on this subject that's also accessible for kids as young as 12.
Price: The app is free, but the sensor is $118 or $980 for 10; Platform: Android, iOS, Chrome, Windows Phone; Grades: 6–12
PocketLab is the latest in a series of efforts to make sensors affordable for classroom use. Other apps such as Science Journal and Lab4Physics are free, but all data is gathered directly from students' smartphones. PocketLab stands out because the sensor is separate and can be placed anywhere, from inside a soccer ball to the top of a ceiling fan while it spins.
Price: One playlist is free; $9.99 for full access; Platform: iPad; Grades: 6–12
Most history teachers are familiar with Burns' documentaries, and many will have watched them in their entirety to find the perfect clip to share with students. While fascinating, there just isn't enough time to sift through or show all the films. That's where the Ken Burns App comes in, which has pared down hundreds of hours of documentary footage into clips organized into six playlists.
Price: Free; Platform: Website; Grades: 4–12
The Smithsonian Learning Lab brings the beauty, scholarship, and depth of over 1 million museum artifacts into your classroom. The ability to search, annotate, share, and remix resources opens the door for creative use in almost every classroom. The annotation tools are easy to use, and collections are completely customizable.
Price: Free trial, then $40 annually or $8 monthly; Platform: Chrome, iOS, Android; Grades: 6–12
DocentEDU is a Chrome extension (with companion iOS and Android apps) that lets teachers easily turn any site into an interactive online lesson. Literacy in all disciplines is a top priority for teachers, and with DocentEDU teachers of all disciplines can help students think more critically about what they read.
Price: Free; Platform: Web; Grades: 6–12
Pathbrite is a web-based tool that makes it easy for students to create digital portfolios and for teachers to manage and assess learning. The drag-and-drop tools make the program especially accessible for a wide range of abilities and levels of tech fluency. The teacher features are particularly strong, allowing teachers to deliver content, create interactive prompts and assignments, and assess student work with custom rubrics.
Price: Free; Platform: Web; Grades: 6–12
Autodesk Design Academy is a large and growing library of engineering and design projects tailored for use with Autodesk's catalog of digital design tools, all of which are free for educational users. The curriculum is deliciously high-quality, with compelling projects, exceptionally clear how-to guides, beautiful graphics, and approachable challenges. It's an exciting and easy way to get into professional-grade software.
Price: Free-to-try courses, but full access is $29 monthly or $19 annually; Platform: Web; Grades: 9–12
Code School's videos are excellent and well paced, with visuals and examples that give students immediate familiarity with the concepts. The real strength of the experience lies in the practice challenges -- there's really no better way to learn programming than with hands-on tasks, which here are broken down into sensible pieces that reflect what each chunk of code is intended to accomplish.
Price: $2.99; Platform: iOS; Grades: 2–5
The Infinite Arcade is a game design app that's a powerful learning tool. Students define problems, develop possible solutions, test their game, and then come back to make improvements. As they create their games, students learn decision-making skills and are empowered by a large variety of choice as they build and manage their own collection of games.
Price: $14.99/month; Platform: iPad, PC; Grades: K–12
Lifeliqe uses visual, and to an extent kinesthetic, learning by putting over 1,000 educational models in front of students via VR and AR technology so that students can manipulate and interact with the models. The models that include the deep-zoom feature allow students to learn about the topic as a whole and in more detail, sometimes all the way down to the cellular level. Using these 3D models can help with higher recall, improved test scores, increased attention, and better communication.
Price: The app is free, but the kit is $199.95; Platform: Android, iOS; Grades: 2–8
littleBits Invent is great at connecting digital technology with actual physical inventions. So many electronics sets become parent or teacher projects, requiring extensive adult support. littleBits is different because the circuit pieces just snap together using magnets.