A New App Aims to Reduce the Education Gap

PHOTO: A new app aimed at getting low-income English-learners ready for school features Pocoyo, a popular animated television character.Pocoyo/Facebook
A new app aimed at getting low-income English-learners ready for school features Pocoyo, a popular animated television character.

Two media companies are partnering to launch a series of iPad and iPhone apps aimed at preparing low-income, Spanish-speaking three- and four-year-olds for school. The apps feature Pocoyo, a popular character from an animated Spanish children's show, and are partially funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The apps are intended to teach preschool children everything from English to math skills, and they are designed specifically to reduce the education gap between higher- and lower-income Latino youngsters. A producer showed how the apps prompt children to select from a handful of games that range from puzzles to read-along stories during the product launch on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The games also have different levels so that children can start with simple tasks and work up to more difficult ones.

The Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, a noncommercial, Spanish-language media company that focuses on educational programming, and Zinkia Entertainment, the Spanish media company that created Pocoyo, are the two companies behind the apps, which they're calling playsets. The grant from the U.S. Department of Education is part of Ready to Learn, a program that funds initiatives aimed at increasing and improving early childhood education.

Pocoyo, the character featured in the apps, is a young boy who goes on adventures with his friends, mostly a collection of colorful animals. His developers have a little girl to thank for his unusual name. The daughter of one of the developers was praying one night, and instead of correctly saying "como yo" for one of the lines, she said "poco yo." Thus was born Pocoyo, the animated star of a television series that has now racked up more than 1.6 billion YouTube hits.

The playsets aren't available to the general public yet but may be available on iTunes by the fall. They will likely cost about $3. Right now, they're being introduced in 25 to 30 areas in New York, Alabama, Maine, Florida, California and Washington, D.C.

Two of the 23 planned playsets are currently downloadable as iPhone and iPad apps, but they're not yet available for Android users. Android-compatible apps are in the works, however.

The playsets use word games, puzzles and songs to help kids learn basic vocabulary words, shapes and basic math concepts. They also present instructions and phrases in both English and Spanish, but are geared toward helping youngsters, especially kids who have lived the first years of their lives in Spanish-only households, learn English.

According to Barbara Bowman, founder of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development in Chicago, low-income, English-language learners develop "typically" but still become "candidates for failure" at school. Part of the reason is that, while they're every bit as intelligent as other kids, they often don't have the same opportunities to learn. They've had less exposure to a nightly bedtime story in English, for instance, and can flounder in an English-language kindergarten. The playsets, Bowman said at the launch, will encourage kids to develop basic math skills and larger vocabularies, two areas they lag behind in when it comes to being ready for school.

Bowman explains that the apps are really just a medium. What kids need, she said, and have always needed, are materials to interact with and manipulate, which give kids the chance to make choices--like "Do you want to play with the blue ball or red ball?"--and gain a feeling of empowerment. Free play, she said, is especially important for allowing kids to show parents and educators what they know, and allowing free play on the apps can be a good way to facilitate that.

Proponents of the playsets say they will help close the education gap between upper- and lower-income students. But while educators at the launch event were generally positive about the apps' potential to shrink the education gap, some questioned how to get the playsets into the hands of the children they are designed to serve: low-income, English-learners.

According to a recent Pew Hispanic Center survey, just 49 percent of Hispanic adults say they own a smartphone, and far fewer have tablets. However, about three-quarters of Hispanic adults access the Internet on a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device at least occasionally. That's higher than for whites or blacks, and that number is going up. So the potential is there, but especially for those living in poverty, the idea that everyone has access to an iPad is simply not yet realistic.

Roberto Rodriguez, a special assistant to President Obama on education, acknowledged that a digital divide exists. But he said getting digital tools and media like the Pocoyo playsets into the hands of low-income kids can help "unlock learning" and bridge some of the achievement gap that begins as early as age three and persists for years.

He said the administration is focused heavily on making sure all families in the country have access to preschool for their children.

"We have a real opportunity, a real moment here, to move forward," he said.

Yolanda Garcia, director of the Excellence in Early Education Institute, WestEd, which serves low-income, mostly Spanish-speaking children in Silicon Valley, said at the launch that even in an area renowned for technological innovation, the digital divide persists.

"Many kids don't have access to digital technology," she said, "especially kids in poverty."

But that doesn't mean new products aimed at those children should avoid taking a digital form. Today, kids need to have some familiarity with digital media by the time they enter kindergarten, Garcia said, or they're already behind.

"It's as important as using crayons and pencils," she said.

Parents who have smartphones also need to be educated about how to use them as an educational tool for their children, Garcia said. HITN and Zinkia have said that will be a priority.

The first step for the Pocoyo playsets is to get them into schools. After that, the idea is to expand into people's homes.

The pilot phase is important because the app developers will be tracking analytics. They'll be able to look at which games within each playset kids choose to play, how long they play them, whether they gravitate toward one or bounce around and other tendencies. That data will then be used to improve existing playsets and design new ones. The apps are designed to match the standards of Head Start, a federal program aimed at preparing low-income babies and youngsters for school.

The app creators, however, say that the apps are not designed to replace other instruction; they're designed to reinforce lessons and to facilitate free play.

"We're not doing computer 101 here," Maryann Marrapodi, chief operating officer of HITN Early Learning Collaborative and project director said at the launch. "This is to be in support of the work you want to do."