Closing the App Gap Grant Project: An Interview with Deborah Stevenson, Kate McDowell, and Cass Mabbott

Interview by Anna Shustitzky, CCB Outreach Coordinator

“That is part of library science, that when it comes to information and media, it is our role to experiment, question, explore what it can do for people and for us, especially young people.”

Since November of 2013, researchers at GSLIS have been investigating a particular facet of the digital divide: the growing disparity between kids with and without access to apps at home, at school, and in the library. In collaboration with the Douglass Branch of the Champaign Public Library, researchers Deborah Stevenson, Kate McDowell, and Cass Mabbott recently completed the Closing the App Gap project, a yearlong planning grant to learn more about the current app situation among today’s youth. We were pleased to sit down with all three of the project’s leaders to discuss the process and potential next steps.


Skip to a Question: 

Could you provide a brief overview of Closing the App Gap for those unfamiliar with the project?
What was the inspiration for getting this project started?
There are tons of educational apps available now. How did you decide which ones to study?
What was the process like for testing the apps?
I understand that you took everything and started working with the Douglass Branch of CPL. How did that collaboration get started, and how did it go?
To clarify a little bit, what was the interaction that happened when you were at Douglass?
Did anything particularly surprising come out of your research?
Do you have any suggestions for educators and librarians trying to integrate apps into their programming?
What’s the next step for this project?


Could you provide a brief overview of Closing the App Gap for those unfamiliar with the project?

DS: It was a planning grant. It [was] a yearlong process, and it involved researching the current state of practice with kids and apps, including the current state of scholarship, what’s going on in reviewing apps, looking through review sources for apps, [and] identifying places that are likely to be particularly useful to us and to scholars and practitioners. From there, we selected the apps that we were going to focus on, and then identified some for use in our actual pilot project. In the summer we had a pilot project to culminate all our work and to do our first toes-in-the-pool work with kids and apps. Therefore as a whole package throughout that year, we could draw some conclusions that would allow us to move on to a larger multi-site project, so that’s why it’s a planning grant that also included a pilot study. We got lots of information for moving on to something bigger.

Top


What was the inspiration for getting this project started?

“There’s a lot we don’t understand about kids and apps right now.”

KM: That would be me; we’ll start there. I have several friends in town who have three small children [who] I call “the nephews.” I was playing with one of the nephews one day when he was about three years old, and we’d been playing with my iPhone and apps for a long time—this is kind of a treat when Auntie Kate comes over. And suddenly, I was doing the Monster At The End of This Book app, which is Grover in a very classic Sesame Street Golden Book thing, just translated into app form, and I looked at him and I said, “Is this a book or a game,” because I noticed he had been using the two different words, and he said, “This is a game.” And I thought wow, because I thought this was a book. I really did. You have to understand, this app functions like a book—you turn the pages very much like a book, they’re trying to simulate a book. For him to say that that was a game, I thought, “Wow, there’s a lot we don’t understand about kids and apps right now.” I think the rest of the team has more to say for inspiration, but that was the first thing that made me think, “there’s more we could investigate here.” For each of us in various ways, [we have] experiences and knowledge of public libraries as a place where it’s important that kids have access to information resources. It also can be daunting to make that happen, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, especially with expensive technology, so we’re up against a challenge.

DS: I think it’s fair to say also that we were really interested in becoming part of what’s a really strong and lively ongoing conversation. A lot of this is being figured out in general, so while this particular yearlong planning grant had its specific slice and focus, we’re interested broadly in that subject. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff going on.

CM: I was a public librarian for about 15 years, a children’s librarian, so [I was interested in] the research aspect of the challenges of actually working in a public library, what you can and cannot do very easily.

Top


There are tons of educational apps available now. How did you decide which ones to study?

CM: Did we decide which of the apps to study, or did we decide the interaction to study? I don’t think we necessarily chose the apps to study per se as much we selected them to curate and see what kids did with them.

DS: I think it was more practice-based. The process was that our app techs, the CCB GAs, trawled through the review literature to identify what we would consider approximately 200 of the most promising apps or app-type e-books for children. We had for IRB reasons decided to focus primarily on kids 8 and up, so that shaped some of our choices. We also were thinking about what would work in a library setting, but in general, when you got down to it, [we were] looking for well-reviewed apps that were still available for kids in that age group. There were fewer than we had envisioned; we did not have any problem limiting that first run to 200. So then from those 200, that’s where our app techs had possibly their favorite part of the job, which was to test them.

Top


What was the process like for testing the apps?

CM: They had a pretty set schedule; they would go through consistently certain known app review sources and that’s how they eventually found what looked interesting based on [our criteria], and then from that criteria, they would experience the app and play with the app, and then take notes on what the experience was like.

Top


I understand that you took everything and started working with the Douglass Branch of CPL. How did that collaboration get started, and how did it go?

“We were asking questions about technology access for historically underserved populations in lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods, and that is core to the mission of the Douglass Branch.”

KM: The Douglass Branch was the obvious location because we were asking questions about technology access for historically underserved populations in lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods, and that is core to the mission of the Douglass Branch. It’s located in the neighborhood that has lower incomes, [and] we knew from our review of various kinds of literatures that there were places in the Chicago suburbs where iPads were circulating like hotcakes and coming right back, [and] people weren’t worried about that all, but this was not happening in lower income libraries. We needed someplace nearby that had that set of features, and in addition to that, we have a long standing strong history of relationships with [all of] the local public libraries. [Children’s librarian] Amanda Raklovits was someone I knew having supervised practicums, from the practical end of things for years, and so it wasn’t hard to get that started. Also, the Douglass Branch library [is] historically an experiment that came out of this school many years ago. That library was founded to try to serve this neighborhood, and it was a cooperative between the two public libraries, but initially [there was] lots of staff infusion from volunteer practice librarians who were doing practicum-like things in that space. It has evolved to be part of Champaign Public Library, and to be a branch of their work, and the ground was very much tilled for us to bring these seeds, to take that metaphor all the way.

CM: I was not sure what to expect, [but] it was clear that they were really collaborating with people. I think it helped that we were from public library backgrounds, so we knew kind of what to do and not to do kind of thing. It was just really nice.

DS: They were actually a partner from the get-go; they were part of the planning process, so they were included when we wrote the grant. We were very specific that we were working with Douglass, [which] did speak directly to one of our ongoing concerns, essentially a new version of the digital divide. We have data about the likelihood that kids in underserved populations would have access to apps, and what a problem it is now that they’re becoming such a regular thing in the classroom: you have some kids for whom that’s like breathing air at home and some kids who occasionally get to play with it at their aunt’s.

KM: If you look at the community informatics literature, an interesting thing that’s happening in the scholarship right now are some moves away from the digital divide as a concept. Part of what we were asking is are we actually seeing things that are more kinds of divides, and is this a place, in particular tablet-based technology, is this a place where there’s a new divide? I would say by the success of the programs, yes. It was appealing enough just to be able to touch and hold and play with an iPad. I don’t want to necessarily say the idea of the digital divide will never go away, I certainly hope that it will, but I think the scholarship and the way it has moved may be missing some of the nuances of the way that technology moves or doesn’t move through the actual space of human use.

DS: I think that’s a really good point, too, in that [for those of us] who have a lot of the technology, the different ways we deal with our different kinds of technologies tend to be transparent to us. Libraries have traditionally been the community locus for redressing those kinds of things; libraries are where you have these resources. One of the things we’re really interested in is, what role could the public library play in this situation? What exactly are the challenges kids are facing who do not have access to this at home or as regularly as they might, because some kids have more than one home anyway? What can a library do, what kinds of things are appealing or successful?

Top


To clarify a little bit, what was the interaction that happened when you were at Douglass?

CM: I went with a team of student volunteers, and [the program] was an hour long, for 10 weeks, 3 days a week. For fifteen minutes I was going to teach [an app], and then for 45 minutes we were going to see the kids interact with it. Within like 2.5 seconds, I changed it up because I was immediately surrounded by kids who were just like, “let’s go.” There are 29 apps on the iPads, and the kids wanted to try as many as they could, and I just kind of went with it to see what it was like. Usually we had either one or two or three kids that we were basically writing down everything that they said, did, very particular about what in the app was appealing, what wasn’t…. I would ask clarifying questions about, “Hey, how come you pressed on the basket here,” they’re like “Oh, because I think there’s going to be something that’s going to pop up.” We took very detailed notes on all of that, but they really wanted me to be playing the game with them, so I would be a participant as well. I got very good at some of them. While they loved playing the games, [their] ultimate goal was to take pictures with the iPad camera.

DS: We turned off the Internet because we knew that was going to happen.

CM: I would limit that for the last 2 minutes, and only if they reminded me. And we did have a dance party at the end.

DS: She’s a natural at programming.

Top


Did anything particularly surprising come out of your research?

DS: I think there was a lot of learning curve for us. Cass has addressed the contrast between her description and what we actually did, [which] I think is a big hint [that] kids in summer don’t want to sit around for an hour and be told stuff. They get up and go, why should they stay?

CM: To me, it felt like a very natural kid thing, very respectful; it was just honest, “can we just play?” I just couldn’t resist. What’s going to happen in this one session that’s going to go wrong?

DS: We had written that into our plan, we allowed ourselves to do that: we were creating as we went on and were learning from the process.

“It was very collaborative, very friendly.”

CM: A lot of children’s librarians say that [they] don’t want technology in my programming because when they do everyone’s in a silo, they’re just interacting with their own iPad, and that is not what happened at all. I was constantly asked to participate with them, or they wanted to show me what they just did: “Wasn’t that cool, did you see that, let me show you again,” kind of teaching me. Also what I loved seeing was a group of six boys and girls playing the same one thing or the other and then they would look up and [say that] to each other. People who didn’t even know each other would say, “Hey look, look what I just did,” and the other person was like, “Wow what’s that, cool, yay,” and eventually you’d see them switch over to play that. It was very collaborative, very friendly. It was almost like how people say how great it is when people play board games.

KM: I was surprised because we thought we were going to address this, how not diverse the apps were in their representation of young people. I say it was a surprise because we had diversity as a criteria in our selection, we actually were looking for that, and so part of this came up when we saw the kids gravitating toward apps that had kids that looked like them. We were looking at, “What are they choosing to play, what do they seem to be responding to?” We hear lots of people saying we need diverse books, [and] the kids were looking for apps that reflect themselves like books that reflect themselves. That growing process of wanting to see themselves in the world as a way of knowing that they can be in the world… I say that was a surprise because it had been a criterion for us, but of course in another way it’s not a surprise because that is the world that we’re in, but I would say that particular acknowledgment was part of what made us think, “Ok, where can we take this further?”

DS: Another thing that relates to what we were saying about the organization: we had actually hoped to get some quantitative information about what the apps did for kids as far as reading and stuff like that, and that didn’t happen, because again—kids in summer had no interest in taking tests at all. Not for sticker packs, not for nothing.

CM: It’s kind of the traditional issue is public libraries: you can’t control who comes in, nor should you. At this branch you can be 8 years old or older and be there by yourself, so they were. I might be able to hand them a handout and say, “Take this to your guardian, tell me if they sign it you can do a pre- and post-test which will be fun and here are the stickers that you get”—they were like, “Wow! Stickers!” That surprised me, that people liked the stickers. And they just wouldn’t remember, or something went wrong in that.

“I might reframe some of this from what was a surprise to what was a learning curve.”

DS: Actually related to that, we held a community meeting for interested parents, and we didn’t get anybody. I think I might reframe some of this from what was a surprise to what was a learning curve. I think that ultimately it’s because what we were doing wasn’t that big a splash—nobody was like, “I need to know more than that, I’m concerned about kids playing with tablets in the library,” rather, “That sounds cool to me, I’m not coming in for that.” I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing, but I think that we would take a different tack with a bigger project if we really wanted to get some parental input. Again, that was just our learning curve, and now we know. We also don’t know is if interested people saw the signs and tear-offs, that even offering to have the meeting might have been something that parents appreciated. I think it had some merit even if people did not come in.

KM: I feel that way about community. Especially when you’re coming, even though we all have experience with young people in libraries and reading and all kinds of things….

CM: …You’re coming from the university into somebody else’s space.  To be able to say, “As we did that, we thought we should introduce ourselves first before we just stomped in.” I do believe there’s merit in that even if it doesn’t lead to what we imagined would be possible in terms of connections.

Top


Do you have any suggestions for educators and librarians trying to integrate apps into their programming?

“Know your purpose in doing this.”

CM: I would say one suggestion is know your purpose in doing this. What we found, I would venture to say, is that kids had different things they were looking for from these various apps. Some kids were really just looking to play with the technology, and that was a bigger motivator than we expected, and that satisfied a lot of needs. Some kids got familiar enough with what we were doing that they dug into something they were trying to accomplish. So I think teachers and librarians thinking about using apps should think about who’s their audience and what is their audience looking for from this experience of apps. Is it an enhancement to reading? You’re looking for things that are book-like apps. Is it an enhancement to spelling? You want that Chicktionary app, hands down. Is it an enhancement to narrative thinking? Actually, the Little Red Riding Hood app is a pretty good one to think about. Do you want to just teach kids that learning can be fun? Word Girl was amazing for that. So the apps really do have a range of purposes and there aren’t enough of them yet. We need even more and more diverse ones.

KM: As a practitioner, you need to know what your goals are for that session and manage expectations so that if you have someone that wanted to be more one on one with the app but you’re actually presenting it in a storytime, you’re not necessarily going to have interaction. So plan ahead for that, know that kids are going to have different needs and be concerned about and focused on “why can’t I do this right now?” If you can have multimodal types of interactions, that would be great.

“Don’t let the whizz-bang seduce you on the apps; you still need to employ your usual critical faculties and consider what it is you’re doing and if it’s going to work.”

DS: We had kind of organically created sub-programming streams where ordinarily you’d just have programming. The tablets we used became the property of the Douglass Library, so they are doing things with the tablets. Additionally, when we talked about the social component, there are a lot of things you can do with multi users on an iPad. You can put them on a multi-jack if you don’t want noise in the library space, so you can emphasize that social aspect of the apps and do a lot of group programs, which is a really neat thing. I think there are different opportunities depending on what age group you’re talking about. We focused on the 8-12, and I think that there’s a lot of stuff about teen programming and also really younger, like storytimes, [with] iPads and screens and things like that, but for the age group we were working with, there are multiple opportunities. I think while we were ok with the freeform, I think most librarians are going to want to pick from those opportunities for specific things, and that’s why something like the classic librarian: “Let’s not reinvent the wheel, let’s share what we’re doing” is great. [The website] Little E-Lit is great; it’s been a really good sharing space for what people are doing. We didn’t have programming, and it was still fine, so if you do programming, it’s still better. Do read the reviews. We do hear about people using certain apps in ways that make me go, “What, have you looked at that?” So don’t let the whizz-bang seduce you on the apps; you still need to employ your usual critical faculties and consider what it is you’re doing and if it’s going to work.

CM: I loved it because I love kids and they always blow my mind. There are certain apps where I was like, “No way is this going to be popular,” and then it was like the most popular thing. I just love how I can always learn from kids. [With the app] Bobo [Explores Light], I’m like, “Uh uh, I don’t want this,” and it was the thing that they did forever.

KM: Like with Little Red Riding Hood, I can’t believe it, how popular that was with boys and girls.

DS: I think we found less gender predictability than expected. But I also think that with Bobo and Little Red Riding Hood, those are really good apps. That’s not an accident; they’re really well designed. They’re good to look at, they’re processes to go through, they’re really rewarding.

CM: Well, Peter Rabbit, too. I think it was age, almost, for Little Red Riding Hood and Peter Rabbit, I was thinking, “really?” You take eight year old boys, and I’m stereotyping here, but [they loved] making the leaves fall…

KM: …Yeah, and catching them with the basket! I do think that with Little Red Riding Hood in particular, I overthought why that appeals, but I do think that there’s something about taking a conventional narrative and adding in an interactive piece that doesn’t derail the narrative, that you’re expecting, but instead lets you have—it’s not quite window dressing, but you can do the costumes for the show.

CM: One of my favorite memories is the little boy that I worked with, he loved that app, and at the end when the wolf grandma, he jumps and looks at me and starts laughing really hard, and he said “I know the story, I knew that was going to happen, but I just can’t believe that it happened!”

DS: Well, I really like Kate’s point. That’s going to what novelists have been working on for a long time, that there is something freeing about working with a familiar narrative, that it’s like re-watching something and picking up new stuff. When you’re not having the foreground conveying the story to the kid, they already know that, they can get into the window dressing and the little self-insert stuff much more. In that sense, there’s a special place for apps that aren’t introducing a new narrative but are allowing them to build on an existing and familiar narrative.

KM: That’s a great way to say it, Deborah, that’s it. There is this undervaluing of kids, especially older kids, getting re-exposed to narratives. The thing is, if you have mastery over something and you got it fairly recently, it’s just so cool to do it again.

DS: Well that’s the basis of early humor, you know, you know it, and then you tweak it, and it’s hysterical! And that, I think, goes back a little to what Cass is saying on the grown up and kid thing, on the one hand, absolutely use your critical assessments, but also draw on your knowledge of kids. Putting my reviewer hat on, it can be tempting as a reviewer to overvalue novelty, because you’ve read a hundred of these, and thank god this doesn’t have the same plot, but you know what? The nine-year-old hasn’t read a hundred of these, so let’s be fair to what they’re expecting. To go, “We have a million Little Red Riding Hood books” yeah, but they don’t have this experience, and it works really well.

Top


What’s the next step for this project?

KM: We have already put forward another grant proposal in miniature form, a small proposal called App Authors. The idea behind the next project would be to take the questions around diversity and representation, and the prospect of the engagement we saw with kids, and move that into a place where older kids would author apps for younger kids, and in so doing, we hope, would reflect themselves more, help diversify the world of apps, and give us a platform to bring creativity to computational thinking and learning. We have some partners for this: we have a library on the east coast, a library on the west coast, and a school district here, Champaign School District, all of whom are interested in being involved in the development of the larger proposal. This is sort of a pre-proposal, a short version that Deborah and I both worked on, so that’s the concrete aspect of what’s next.

“We’re going to carry the flag! There’s a specific destination where we think we’re going to carry it, but if it’s not going there we’ll find someplace else to go.”

DS: I think we have ongoing interest in what’s happening in the app vs. kid world; [there are] a lot of different directions that people are going. While we’re looking at slightly older kids as the makers here, I think also in looking around at who’s doing research—this happens with books—there’s a lot of focus on the really young end, a lot of focus on teens, and there’s less likely to be focus on that middle grades area. We want to keep our hand in on that because that’s a really interesting age, plus they’re really fun, but there’s a lot that can happen in that stage, there’s a lot of development happening, and I think they’re currently under-studied. One of the things that happened when we were going to conferences and talking to people and others who are leading in this area, and there are a lot of practitioners who are really interested, and they’re looking for research to back up what they’re doing. So that’s something overall that we’re really committed to, we want to continue the work to give some grounding for practitioners to develop their work and, frankly, argue for the funds to develop their work; that’s always going to be a big part. We’re going to carry the flag! There’s a specific destination where we think we’re going to carry it, but if it’s not going there we’ll find someplace else to go.

KM: We have specific tasks, targets for what we think might be next, but we also have conceptual goals for how we’d like to keep the conversation going and make sure we’re in on it, participating in various different kinds of conversations around media and youth, in a way like we always have been and in a way that we’ve never done before, kind of both.

DS: That we couldn’t have done before, so now’s the time! That is part of library science, that when it comes to information and media, it is our role to experiment, question, explore what it can do for people and for us, especially young people. That is a library role in the world that people are always going to be wanting guidance as to how to use books, digital media, whatever, with their kids, and the library is the logical place to turn. We hope we can play a role in keeping people informed and solidifying that role, so they can help the public and give people as much access and useful information and value as possible.

Top


For a detailed look at the Closing the App Gap project, along with a full list of the 29 apps and advice about using apps in library programming, check out the full App Gap writeup here.