The 9 Best Educational Apps of 2020

Discover the best digital learning tools

Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our review process here. We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.

Our Top Picks

Best Overall: Khan Academy

"Khan Academy’s YouTube videos cover most subjects at a range of levels: math, science and engineering, arts, and humanities."

Best for Young Children: PBS KIDS Games

"Kids will love the games built around their favorite PBS characters and shows, like Daniel Tiger, Elmo, Curious George, and Wild Kratts."

Best for Kids K-8: BrainPOP

"Like Khan Academy, BrainPOP has Spanish- and French-language versions, and it’s used by many school districts to supplement learning."

Best for High School: Quizlet

"The Quizlet Learn feature provides different modes of testing, such as true and false questions and multiple choice."

Best for College: Evernote

"It has a minimalist interface that helps students who tend to get distracted to stay on task, and has editing tools like color-coding."

Best for Adults: edX

"Courses range from practical offerings like Japanese Business Management to enrichment classes like Intro to Italian Opera."

Best for Reading: Newsela

"One of the reasons Newsela is such a great app is that along with facilitating literacy, it provides media literacy about current events."

Best for Foreign Languages: Duolingo

"Duolingo offers instruction in 30 languages for native English speakers."

Best for Math: DragonBox

"The special thing about Algebra 5+, one of the more popular apps, is that no prior knowledge of algebra is needed."

Our Top Picks

Best Overall: Khan Academy

Khan Academy

Khan Academy

From preschoolers to high schoolers, there are few educational apps that can measure up to Khan Academy when it comes to the wide range of courses it offers to students of all ages. And, best of all: It’s free.

Khan Academy’s YouTube videos cover most subjects at a range of levels: math, science and engineering, arts, humanities (which includes history and social studies), economics, AP courses, and test prep.

English language arts (ELA) seems to be one notable weakness of Khan Academy classes, though it has some beta (work-in-progress) offerings for second to ninth-grade students. There are also no foreign language courses, though Khan Academy instruction is available in dozens of dialects, with varying numbers of offerings.

Khan Academy is popular among students, parents, and educators because its videos are engaging and targeted at visual learners, using photos, maps, and other illustrations, and because it allows students to work at their own pace.

The courses include quizzes to test students’ comprehension. Khan Academy has also shifted toward developing materials in conjunction with the Common Core. Another advantage is that it’s a versatile program that can be used on a desktop/laptop or mobile device.

A junior version, Khan Academy Kids, targets young learners from two to seven years old. It’s a mobile device app that covers math, ELA, logic, and social-emotional learning by using books, games, songs, and videos. 

Looking for more online learning resources for kids? Check out our round-up of some fun and free education websites.

Best for Young Children: PBS KIDS Games

PBS KIDS Games

PBS KIDS Games

PBS KIDS Games is a free app and a great supplement to PBS’s legendary, kids TV programming and original series.

Young kids will love the games built around their favorite PBS characters and shows: Daniel Tiger, Elmo, Curious George, Wild Kratts, The Cat in the Hat, and Dinosaur Train.

Parents can feel secure that their preschoolers are getting fun, educational content with no ads. The educational components include letter and word recognition, naming objects, math shapes, and solving puzzles.

While the app is designed for kids ages two to eight, it’s really best for little ones under five. It's particularly ideal for those who haven't yet started Kindergarten, since older kids are likely to find the app too childish.

Best for Kids K-8: BrainPOP

BrainPOP

BrainPOP

Like Khan Academy, BrainPOP is a one-stop-shop educational app: It has hundreds of animated educational videos, accompanied by interactive quizzes, activities, and games.

The topics covered by the app are science, social studies, math, English, arts and music, health and social-emotional learning, and engineering and tech. The main difference between BrainPOP and Khan Academy is that the latter is better for high schoolers, while BrainPOP focuses on upper-elementary and middle schoolers.

BrainPOP Jr. is designed for kids in Kindergarten through third grade, and BrainPOP ELL is for English-language learners. Like Khan Academy, BrainPOP has Spanish- and French-language versions, and—because it’s aligned to the Common Core and state standards—it’s used by many school districts to supplement learning.  

BrainPOP’s price tag is one thing that may give families some pause: It’s around $25 per month for a home subscription. However, many kids may be able to gain access through their school or teacher’s license. And, it’s a particularly good option for homeschooled kids.

Luckily, there are also some free apps affiliated with BrainPOP that are available on mobile devices: BrainPOP’s Featured Movie (also available in Spanish and French versions), BrainPOP Jr.’s Movie of the Week, and BrainPOP ELL.

Best for High School: Quizlet

Quizlet

Quizlet

Self-directed study is an important skill for high schoolers, and Quizlet is one of the most effective educational apps for material that a student will be tested on.

Teachers and students can create study sets and flashcards on many topics—from the periodic table to U.S. presidents to vocabulary words. The Quizlet Learn feature provides different modes of testing, such as true and false questions and multiple-choice. And, based on the user’s performance, it increases in difficulty over time. Quizlet is particularly good for foreign language study.

Quizlet has 350 million study sets already created by existing users and archived, so new users can search to see if materials had already been created that match up with their needs.

That said, like Wikipedia, the study sets aren’t fact-checked, so users need to be aware that they may contain errors. However, it’s a free and cheap resource (the Quizlet Go membership that gives users access to all features is only around $2 a year), so users should weigh the benefits with the drawbacks.

Best for College: Evernote

Evernote

Evernote

Evernote is a free note-taking and organizational app that’s used widely in the business world. It’s particularly helpful for managing projects and improving executive functioning skills, which is why it has filtered down to the student population.

It allows students to make notes and lists, to collect images and links, and to share and sync them easily across platforms and devices. Users can make separate notebooks (like folders) for each subject area, and tag notes for easy access.

It also has a minimalist interface that helps students who tend to get distracted to stay on task, and has editing tools like color-coding and highlighting. The microphone feature is especially useful for students who have difficulty with verbal memory.

Although Evernote’s Basic plan is free, it doesn’t give people access to all the app’s organization and sharing features. For example, users can only work with two different devices on the Basic plan, and it has a limited, monthly upload limit. The Premium version costs about $8 per month and may be a good investment for students who find themselves using the app daily.

Best for Adults: edX

edX

edX

Founded by Harvard and MIT, edX is one of the top Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) platforms. It allows anyone free access to university courses from the country’s top universities and professors and, unlike its competitors (like Coursera), edX is a non-profit organization.

Although courses are free, if users want official course credit, they will have to pay: Fees range from approximately $50 to $200. Still, the app offers thousands of courses in a wide range of subjects from universities like Harvard, UC Berkeley, MIT, Michigan, NYU, and many international universities. Sessions range from practical offerings like Japanese Business Management to enrichment classes like Intro to Italian Opera.

edX courses are available in a range of languages, though there are many more options in English. Courses vary in length—some are six weeks long, others last 11 weeks—and most involve a commitment of three to six hours a week. Video lectures are followed by short quizzes, and for more hands-on courses like computer programming, there are interactive labs and features.

In addition to one-off courses, edX offers professional certificate programs, such as the MicroMasters Program, to help working adults beef up their resumes and professional development.

Best for Reading: Newsela

Newsela

Newsela

Newsela is an app that allows students from grades two to 12 to access news articles written for their specific reading level. It takes articles written by respected media outlets and rewrites them for five different grade levels.

It then tests students’ comprehension through quizzes that follow each news article. One of the reasons Newsela is such a great app is that along with facilitating reading comprehension, it provides media literacy and knowledge about current events to students. In the era of fake news, media literacy is particularly important, given the evidence that many students can’t tell the difference between news and ads. 

All Newsela articles are Common Core-aligned, which makes it a popular tool among educators. The app also includes a lot of content in Spanish, which is great for dual-language immersion schools and English-language learners.

While certain features of the app are free, full access is only through a paid license, although students can access it through their school’s license. Unfortunately, Newsela doesn’t list the cost of the expanded version publicly, which would be helpful for transparency.

Best for Foreign Languages: Duolingo

Duolingo

Duolingo

Duolingo is by far the most popular app for learning a language, in part because it’s free. It’s a game-based, language-learning tool that can be used by a wide range of ages, from middle schoolers to adults.

Users are guided through instructional activities that cover all four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. They get immediate feedback about errors and an explanation.

Duolingo offers education in 30 languages for native English speakers. The instruction is much more comprehensive and varied in widely-spoken languages like Spanish, than it is for more rare dialects.

Duolingo is particularly appealing to teens, as the app has a reward system for users who meet their daily threshold. There’s also an in-app, social network component that encourages younger users to invite their friends and compete with them to see who can advance the quickest.

Of course, with all foreign languages, cultural immersion is the only thing that can truly result in fluency, but as far as language-learning apps go, Duolingo is the gold standard. 

Best for Math: DragonBox

DragonBox

DragonBox

While Khan Academy does a great job with math, the various DragonBox apps specialize in math learning, using games to make it fun. Some reviews even call the app “addictive.” 

DragonBox Algebra 5+ and DragonBox Numbers are designed for younger learners, from four to eight years old. The special thing about Algebra 5+, one of the more popular apps, is that no prior knowledge of algebra is needed, since it's simply learning a type of puzzle game. The Numbers app introduces young learners to addition and subtraction. 

DragonBox Big Numbers is designed for six- to nine-year-olds and builds on Numbers, by giving kids more complex problems with carrying and borrowing. DragonBox Algebra 12+ is the most advanced app, covering algebraic equations.

None of the DragonBox apps are free, although you can buy them for a one-time fee instead of a monthly payment, making it well worth the money. Algebra 5+ costs around $5, and the others are approximately $8.

How We Chose the Best Educational Apps

We consulted dozens of editorial reviews by relevant publications—like The New York Times product review publication Wirecutter, Lifewire, and parenting magazines—as well as reviews by non-profit organizations like Common Sense Media, the American Association of School Librarians, and the Fordham Institute.

We aimed to provide app recommendations for a wide range of learning groups, from preschoolers to adult learners, and to target a few, subject-specific apps that are particularly effective. In addition, we tested out some of the apps to become familiar with their features. 

How Effective Are Apps at Providing Educational Instruction?

While most of these apps have been around for several years, and are valued as learning tools, they aren’t a substitute for person-to-person instruction. In general, there’s data suggesting that math apps are somewhat effective at raising test scores, but the same hasn’t been found for reading apps. 

How Should I Use Educational Apps With My Younger Children?

The use of apps should be limited to younger children, in particular, in line with the recommendations suggested by pediatricians. Children younger than 24 months generally shouldn’t have screen time at all, and those from two to five years old should be limited to one hour a day. In addition, pediatricians recommend that parents engage with these apps along with their young children. 

The best educational apps have features that allow children to be actively engaged, not get distracted, and connect the app content to their existing knowledge. Finally, open-ended, choose-your-own-adventure-style apps are more likely to be educational than linear ones, because they are child-led instead of app-led.

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