App basics 101
Author: Richard Singleton

I still remember the surreal experience of buying my first computer. It was in the early 90s when it was extremely rare to plop down two grand for electronics. In fact, the Super Nintendo had just arrived on the market and was challenging for many to buy at under $200…or as we like to call it these days, gas money. There must have been a huge need for shelling out the dough, right?

I had been trying to get away with my first year of undergrad work at UTA without even a word processor. If memory serves, I borrowed my roommate’s glorified typewriter for the first few papers. It quickly became apparent to the both of us that the lender/borrow arrangement wasn’t going to work for long. If I would have read my Hamlet homework, I might have known. With both of us hunting and pecking and with a growing backlog of papers, the air was thick with much more than the archaic must of our 1950s dorm room and mandatory pile of dirty clothes. A purchase was imminent; so was a J-O-B!

Buying a computer in those days was such an important purchase that I had my parents drive all the way to Arlington to help me scour the local electronics store for just the right machine (yes, machine was the appropriate term in those days). After hours of shopping, paperwork and an avalanche of buyer’s remorse, I owned my first PC – with accompanying dot matrix printer, of course! And for that $2,000 investment, I could do two things: write papers and print papers. No Internet. No email. No Google. Nothing. It was awesome!

Gone are the days of word processing and dot-matrix printers being enough technological prep for college. That won’t even cut it for preschool. We have – ahem – blissfully arrived in the app age. With phones that have as much horsepower as laptops, tablets that open the web up to a hand-held global experience and access to hundreds of thousands of educational apps, the doors to educational resources have been flung open. Sorting through the mountain of options on the other side of the doors can become overwhelming.

Because app stores have 40,000-plus educational apps, I can’t properly offer a tidy list of the best ones (especially after using so much space on my nostalgic trip down memory lane). Only you know what educational context you or your child is in and what you are looking to accomplish. The real key in app selection is applying a few basic principles that will help you safely navigate the rising, rapid currents of the Apple App Store, Google Play Store, Windows Store, etc.

It’s not a popularity contest…or is it? One of the first things I look for in an app is to see if it is popular. But, like the crowded lunch table at middle school or the bustling student section at the big game, popularity isn’t always your best guide for success. You’ll only need to drag out your old yearbook and your current Facebook updates to figure that one out. The best educational apps will likely be popular, but not all popular educational apps are great.Do your homework.

Free is sometimes easy, but easy isn’t always free. This second principle is somewhat analogous to the first. There’s a flood of free educational apps. Many of them are good, even great. But, just like your dad used to bark: “not everything in life is free.” Even if you do have to shell out some dough for an educational app for you or your child, the likelihood is that it’s not going to be much, likely less than lunch money. Apps are relatively cheap. But, caveat emptor, popular and pricey doesn’t mean it’s going to make high-level math easier or that it’s going to transform your all-night Greek pyrotechnics into an early morning Latin class success.

Buying first and asking questions later will almost always end in buying again. If you are going to rob your ramen noodle fund for an app, take the time to ensure that others have been able to use it on your device. Not all apps work to their maximum potential on every tablet or phone. Take the time to read some of the comments and reviews. It might be hard to wade through the massively overhyped five-star shout-outs and the Eeyore-defying one-star naysayers, but somewhere in the middle you typically can find a level-headed, well-stated review or two.

The old school is sometimes the best school. Do you ever wonder how in the world the world existed before phones and tablets? It’s stunning that humanity learned how to traverse the world, eradicate smallpox and soar to the moon without an iPhone. Yes, I’m thankful that Hammurabi’s code, the abacus and the slide rule have been replaced. I love technology, but the basics are the basics for a reason. Sometimes you just need to hold a book in your hand or grab a pencil and scrawl some notes on a piece of paper. Many of us are used to the ubiquitous TI-81 (and siblings). Well, there’s an app for that. But, honestly, you can’t replace the TI-series with an app. If for no other reason, the teacher ¬– at least for a few more years – is going to be better equipped to help you or your student with math homework using the tried and true old school calculator. That might change, but for now it’s still the reality.

And, with that, I bid you a fantastic finish to the first semester and first half of your school year. Enjoy it. So many of us who’ve long since stopped darkening the doors of schools and universities have great nostalgic feelings about our educational experiences. Great apps or not, I hope you’ll have the same blessing!

Richard Singleton, MACE, MAMFC, LPC, is the executive director at STARRY in Round Rock.

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