Discussing the Cinekid Applab with Jessica Piotrowski and Paulien Dresscher

The Cinekid AppLab is an online curated app in which the best apps for kids are being reviewed and categorized monthly. Paulien Dresscher (Head New Media, Cinekid, left) and Jessica Taylor Piotrowski (Associate Professor, UvA, right) talk about the relevance and findings of this great initiative.

1. Who are you and what do you do?

I am Paulien Dresscher, Head of New Media of Cinekid. I am also the curator of the Cinekid MediaLab and I have initiated the Cinekid AppLab, an online curating app in which the best apps for kids are being reviewed and categorized monthly, in order to guide adults to find the best apps. The Cinekid AppLab is developed in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam with whom we worked together on several papers in order to answer the question of “what makes a good app”. See also http://www.cinekid.nl/projects/research. Throughout the year I am mostly doing research on new media developments and young audiences, writing applications and articles and looking for new partnerships and collaborations.

My name is Jessica Taylor Piotrowski. I am an Associate Professor at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) as well as the Director of the Center for research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media (CcaM; www.ccam-ascor.nl) at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research at the UvA. The goal of CcaM is to better understand the role of media in children’s and adolescent’s lives. My own research focuses on the educational and prosocial opportunities of media for young children. Through primarily quantitative research (e.g., experiments, surveys, longitudinal studies), I am trying to best understand how media can play a healthy role in children’s lives. My work allows me to collaborate with a range of initiatives both within and outside the academy. In recent years, I have been collaborating with Cinekid to help them develop and assess the Cinekid MediaLab.
2.   What is the AppLab? And why did you start this initiative?  

Paulien Dresscher: Since the rise of the tablet, adults and children are being overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of new apps for kids. Daily more and more apps are released on the market and it is hard to keep track: what are the good ones, what are they good for exactly and what is the target age? Generally speaking one can argue that due to the speed and force of the industry, research is lacking behind on topics such as quality, beneficiary and developmental issues. So what is lacking right now is proper research that is well communicated to parents and adults, and a trustworthy gate-keeper who helps in the proces of selection and interpretation. 
Cinekid approached the UvA in the person of Jessica Piotrowski in order to collaborate on these issues. While working together with the department of Youth & Media Entertainment since 2012, several research papers have been written over the years. Additionally, master students of this faculty are researching new apps for Cinekid AppLab, addressing new research questions and conducting research during the festival in the MiniAppLab, a physical space filled with tablets and dedicated to apps in the Cinekid MediaLab,. Here they can observe, interview and get in touch with parents and educators.
Jessica Taylor Piotrowski; Several years ago, Cinekid approached me with the idea of developing the AppLab – a digital app developed to help parents make informed decisions about the apps they select for their children. Today’s app market is enormous, and parents are faced with an over-whelming set of options when it comes to selecting apps for their children. Given the number of parents that frequently ask me for tips in selecting apps for their children, I thought the development of this app was an excellent initiative.

3.   What are your biggest findings yet?
Jessica Taylor Piotrowski: Given the size and scope of the AppLab, we (my very talented Master student and I) have only tested one aspect for now (i.e., age categorization feature of the app) – but plan to test more in the future. The results of this first experiment indicate that the age-categorization that the Cinekid AppLab uses for app recommendations works as intended. In other words, when an app is categorized as an app for older children, we see that older children engage with these apps long and find these apps more appealing when compared to apps that are categorized for young children. These results are quite promising and suggest that the AppLab is a valuable tool for parents and caregivers.
Paulien Dresscher: The biggest finding for us this year was that the UvA research showed that the age-categorizaion as being implemented in the app actually does work: kids preferred playing with age-appropriate apps more than with random apps. The other important thing we found out with the Cinekid AppLab at large, is that parents, teachers and other professionals are actually really “hungry” for the kind of information provided by the app. They love to get more detailed background information, without being forced in the role of investigative journalist or half-baked new media expert. 

4.   Overall in ‘App-land’ what are the biggest industry challenges, trends and thoughts on the future?
Paulien Dresscher: The most important thing we are learning right now is that apps position themselves more and more as being part of the real world. Apps and the way they teach us to play or learn do not replace real world experiences but rather function as introduction or encouragement for real play or real learning. Also they can provide complementary functions or even can inspire us to whole new ways of learning and playing. Considering the apps available right now: after the many learning, storytelling, tinkering and discovering apps, what I’d like to see more are apps that are focused on emotional skills such as communication, feelings and personal developments. Especially for the younger age groups there is a lot to discover.
Jessica Taylor Piotrowski: From the perspective of a researcher, we really know so little about the opportunities and consequences of children’s apps. There is nearly no research on parental expectations for apps, nor is there much (if any) work that incorporates the voice of the developer. We are only beginning to scratch the surface in terms of what children can (and cannot) get out of apps (e.g., entertainment, cognitive skills, socio-emotional skills), and we are still novices at understanding best practices in app design. Over the next few years, one of my doctoral students will be working with me to answer many of these questions. At present, we are surveying nearly 600 parents across the Netherlands to learn more about their expectations from apps and app preference. In doing so, we hope to provide developers with information to support the development of high-quality apps for youth.
5.   Why is the collaboration between Cinekid and the UvA of important? Where do you complement each other?
Jessica Taylor Piotrowski: As a researcher, the best way for me to ensure that my work matters is via collaboration. All too often, relevant scientific findings are buried in costly academic journals that few industry members can easily access. Through collaboration with Cinekid, I am able to apply a scientific lens to a practical problem – and in doing so – help ensure that my work receives traction beyond its journal home. The collaboration also helps me stay fresh and on top of the newest media initiatives. And the benefits are not one-sided. Just as I am able to translate my work to practice through this collaboration, Cinekid is able to receive scientifically-rigorous unbiased research that they can rely on and trust as they continue to develop new products for youth today. It’s a win-win!
Paulien Dresscher: For Cinekid the collaboration is crucial, because the UvA research is able to validate the ideas and notions as being experienced by us. Also their knowledge on the general academic discourse of education and play is much more profound than what we are able to offer. The collaboration is also valuable because together we can define new research questions, partly based on the academic body of thought and partly on a more practice based experience. Besides that, for the UvA we can provide a lab-environment where they can test things and conduct research but also reach parents, teachers and developers.

6.   Where do you see the AppLab in 5 years?
Jessica Taylor Piotrowski: The app world is changing so fast that it is hard to say, but I imagine it will grow in both its breadth of features (i.e., coding apps on a greater amount of content) as well as its depth of content (i.e., including a greater number of apps). I would also love to see the app grow for different audiences (e.g, teachers, parents) and provide opportunities for parent and teacher feedback.
Paulien Dresscher: I see the AppLab in 5 years as a vivid and growing community with a realistic business model. More and more apps are begin reviewed and I would love to develop a “back-end” for developers, teachers and parents where they can exchange information, hold surveys and monitor progress. At the same time, I would like to publish on regular basis about our findings in academic and non-academic magazines on national and international level.

7.   What is your favourite App?
Jessica Taylor Piotrowski:That’s a tough question – there are so many excellent apps these days! But, if I had to choose right now, it would probably be Toca Pet Doctor. I find the play pattern, opportunity for social-emotional practice, simplistic animation, varied repetition, and general usability to perfectly fit the play experience of young children today.
Paulien Dresscher: Bounden off course! the winner of the Cinekid Lion for the Best New Media Production in 2014. And of course, many many more, so please download our app and find out for yourselves.