To evaluate the bonanza of apps, games, and websites that claim to have educational value, Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization best known for rating commercial media for age-level appropriateness, has developed a new rating system called Graphite.
The site provides ratings of products in three categories: pedagogy, engagement, and support. Pedagogy is the highest weighted category, and is based on the depth and quality of content and how well it’s integrated into the mechanics of the reviewed game or website. The highest rated games require players to think critically about how to progress, and help build skills that are transferable. The engagement category measures how well the game grabs and keeps players’ attention, and the support category refers to the quality of tools the product offers to help learners when they get stuck. Support also includes tools for parents or teachers so they can help a learner and gets higher marks if it offers content in a variety of ways, catering to different types of learners. Some examples might be clear tutorials or content offered with both visuals and text.
Each review includes two ratings, one by Common Sense Media editorial staff using a fixed rubric and editorial discretion, and another generated by teachers themselves. Some of those teachers are certified early on by Common Sense Media and given special training in the rating measures. Other educators can offer their own rating, along with field notes on what they like and don’t like about the tool. They can offer tips about how they used it and whether they’d recommend it.
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The reviews also include which standards the game or website meets (not necessarily what the developer claims), and a list of the learning skills it supports, including social and emotional learning. It offers suggestions for how the tool might best be used, technical notes and whether it has an effective teacher dashboard. There is also a short written description of the tool written by the editorial team.
“It recognizes that each learner is different and that each teaching situation is different,” said Seeta Pai, head of the Research and Digital Content team at Common Sense Media. “It’s really in the combination of the child, context and content.” Every teacher and student is operating within a particular learning ecology and no two students will use it in exactly the same way. Graphite tries to give an unbiased assessment of the learning potential of each tool so that a teacher can decide whether it fits her specific needs.
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To assess softer skills like critical thinking, Pai says reviewers are looking to see if learning is “baked in” to the tool, an integral part of it and not just an add-on. They’re also looking to see whether the student has to create something, construct knowledge, and apply it to more complex concepts beyond the initial experience. The ability to communicate that learning is also evaluated.
The site has reviewed more than 300 products, with a goal of reviewing 1,000 by the end of the year. The company receives 150 requests for review per week and Pai’s team has to research each product before deciding whether it will be reviewed. Once it goes through the review-mill, it will go up on the site, even if it didn’t fare well.
As the product expands, Pai hopes to add a pin-board type feature that would allow educators to collate favorite tools and share them with others, helping to create the learning communities that have become so important in modern education. The site also has a small number of professional development tutorials, to help educators brainstorm ideas for how to integrate a tool once they’ve discovered it. That part of the site is still nascent, but Pai says now the site is live they’ll be building out that feature.
“The best stuff is tested,” Pai said. “If you don’t test it, you won’t know how it’s going to work.” She’d like to see the whole industry move more towards accountability in order to win credibility with teachers. Pai points out that there’s a firewall between the ed-tech industry and the editorial reviewers: As a non-profit organization, Common Sense media doesn’t take advertising from any ed-tech companies and the company has experience applying a strict rating system to media.