Karen L. Mahon - App Trends and Reviews

I met Karen years ago at a wedding and we recently reconnected through Richard Gill. She's doing amazing work with app developers and providing a science-based, objective and unbiased source of educational app reviews. I love that she says "my goal is not just to help consumers of apps; my goal is to help those diligent and hardworking developers who are doing it right to get noticed in the market." She also talks trends, favorite apps and offers advice. 


What was your history leading up to Balefire Labs?

I’m an Educational Psychologist and Instructional Designer by training. I’ve spent the last 15 years working in educational technology, from software to hardware to mobile.  My passion is helping kids learn and helping teachers help kids learn.

How did Balefire Labs come about?

For a long time I was really bothered by the poor quality of educational apps in the app stores and the frequently meaningless marketing claims that described those apps. I found that I kept complaining about it in my blog and in conversations that I was having. I kept asking, “Why doesn’t somebody create a review service based on what we know works in education?” Then one day I woke up and thought, “Hmm, I guess I’m somebody!” So I decided that I should make the effort to do the thing that I thought was missing, instead of just complaining about it.

What is the Balefire Labs service and what is your business model?

In short, we provide a science-based, objective and unbiased source of educational app reviews. Our review criteria are based on scientific research about learning. The criteria that are in our rubric are based on results of empirical, published research from the past 50 years. We have combed the research to identify the instructional design and usability design features that positively impact learning outcomes. We make those criteria completely transparent to our customers and to developers, so that they understand the precise rationale behind the ratings of the apps on our site. Our reviews are objective in that we evaluate all of the apps according to that same set of criteria, thus apps can be compared and contrasted directly with one another. The service is free, with registration, to all users. In the next 3-6 months we plan on adding advertising opportunities to our website to generate revenue. In addition, we offer instructional design consulting services to app developers and customized Professional Development services to schools and districts.

What kinds of apps do you evaluate?

We evaluate any app that is in the education or educational game category, as well as any app (from other categories) that includes academic content or draws on problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. And of course all of the apps that we review must be kid-friendly.

How do you distinguish between ‘educational apps’ and ‘gaming apps’?

For us, those terms are just organizational constructs. Whether or not an app is educational is really about whether or not a student learns something from it…whether that is how to do multiplication problems or how to assemble clues to solve a mystery isn’t important. There are plenty of apps that are not labeled “educational,” and yet they provide better opportunities for learning than many that are actually in the education category. So we focus more on what the objective of the app is, not what it’s called. We find, in fact, that many of the so-called “gaming” apps include more features of effective instruction than do their counterparts in the education category. Traditional “educational” app developers can learn a lot from game developers.

What are the current trends you’re seeing in education and educational game apps?

The biggest trends we’re seeing right now are explosions of Serious Games and what we’re calling “Puzzler” Games being used for educational purposes. Serious games are games that address ‘real-world’ problems and the skills people need to address them. “Puzzler” games are those that require solving a challenge, mystery, riddle or similar…for kids this means they need to apply critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as take different perspectives and weigh arguments or evidence.

What are your personal favorite apps right now?

I have two sets of favorite apps right now. First, I really like the Logtera apps for early elementary kids. They’re targeting Common Core-aligned reading and math skills and integrating some great gaming principles in their approach…adapting levels of difficulty, mastery-based learning and strong performance feedback. And my favorite Puzzler apps are the hidden object games from Big Fish Games. It’s great fun to run around inside of the game, collecting hidden objects and clues to solve a mystery. And some of them are really challenging, even for an adult!

What was your favorite game as a child?

My favorite game as a child was the board game Clue. Even then I loved the games where I had to solve mysteries.

What advice do you have for aspiring educational app developers?

I think my first piece of advice would be to decide what you expect a student to learn from an app and what she should be able to do by the time she is done using the app. Then decide what is considered acceptable evidence of mastery of those skills and how you’re going to capture that performance in the app. A backward-design approach is really helpful so that you end up with an app that actually teaches what kids need to know and be able to do.

Best day so far at Balefire Labs?

My best days are when teachers write to me and tell me what a difference our service makes for them and their students. I hear from teachers who were overwhelmed and frustrated trying to find effective educational apps to use in their classrooms. Now that they use our service they can pick off of our recommended list, save time vetting apps, and focus on integrating apps into their curriculum. When teachers write and say “thank you” to me for really helping them and their kids, that makes it all worthwhile.

What inspires you?

Naturally, I’m inspired by teachers and kids. But I’m also really inspired by app developers who are putting all of their blood, sweat and tears into making really effective learning apps. It takes so much more time, money and effort to make an app that actually teaches kids, as opposed to just throwing something together that happens to have educational content. My goal is not just to help consumers of apps; my goal is to help those diligent and hardworking developers who are doing it right to get noticed in the market.

As an entrepreneur, how do you find balance in your life?

Balance? What’s that? Balance as an entrepreneur is really difficult, as any entrepreneur would probably agree. Even when I’m not working, my brain is still spinning about work. I try to have planned breaks. I get out and walk my dogs twice a day and don’t take my phone with me. I try to stop working by 8 p.m. every evening and I read a novel for about a half hour when I go to bed at night to get my brain to slow down. I cook dinner most nights and try not to work as many hours on Sundays. But when I’m on a deadline, all bets are off!

Where do you hope Balefire Labs will be within the next 5 years?

Within the next 5 years my goals are to expand our service to include creativity and productivity apps for the classroom, as well as to support the Spanish language market. We’ve been surprised and gratified by how many international teachers and parents are using our service. We’d love to be able to better serve them in their local languages. Spanish would be our first step in that direction.


Thanks, Karen, for a terrific interview!