Smart Gadgets, Smarter Kids
Does learning to read on e-readers and tablets make for smarter children?
Reading is undergoing yet another transformation as learning transitions from printed material to digital. Children, even at very young ages, are increasingly consuming content on smartphones, tablets and e-readers, so much so that researchers are trying to determine the impact the trend is having on literacy, reading habits and overall learning.
The idea is no longer a theoretical debate; kids are facile with smartphone games and activities as this clip of a one-year-old demonstrates. In everyday life, as in the video, kids naturally "swipe" and "pinch" interactive tablet screens, skills which render navigating a glossy magazine, for example, difficult and uninteresting.
What is the effect of tablets and e-readers on learning -- are they a harbinger for greater educational experiences, or do they curtail vocabulary and spelling, limit emotional response and basically undermine the traditional learning experience as many adults know it?
Not a Lot of Research Out There
The short answer is "not really," or at least "not yet," because while initial research is coming in, there is a dearth of available data to confidently draw conclusions, especially for children in the 2-8 year-old range.
This past May, a series of "quick studies" from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop focused on the dynamics of parent-child reading and the report by Cynthia Chiong and Lori Takeuchi, titled "Print Books vs. E-Books," lays some interesting groundwork.
The study observed 32 pairs of parents and their three- to six-year-old children reading both basic e-books, which are essentially print books put into a digital format with minimal features like highlighting text and audio narration, and enhanced e-books, which feature more interactive multimedia options like games, videos and interactive animations.
Each pair read a print book and either an enhanced or basic e-book while researchers videotaped their interactions, took observational notes, and interviewed the parents following the tasks. The study found both the print and basic e-book elicited similar levels of content-related actions like labeling, pointing, and verbal elaboration of story features, but the parent-child pairs with the enhanced e-book story engaged less with the content of the story than when reading the print book.
Regarding the comprehension of the books, the researchers concluded children who read enhanced e-books recalled fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story. They surmised that some of the features of the enhanced e-book may have affected children's story recall because both parents and children focused their attention on non-content, more than story related, issues.
So in overall enjoyment, e-books and print books were equally enjoyed by the parent-child reading teams with negligible difference between the paper and digital format, but the interaction with enhanced e-books was higher than both.
Still, while the enjoyment was higher with the enhanced tablet content, that doesn't necessarily translate into better learning. The study found this digital delivery method may have generated more enthusiasm, but it promoted less comprehension. If that is the case, what role is best for what digital methods of reading and learning?
Cooney Center researchers hope to continue the research while at the same time develop recommendations on the conditions under which technology-enabled reading is most effective for preschool and primary age learners.
For example, designers can take the survey and consider how too much extraneous interactivity can detract from readers' focus on story elements, parents can select basic e-books to read with their children if they want to focus more strictly on literacy, and more enhanced reading materials might be better suited to children with a mastery of basic reading skills who want to build on that with storytelling experiences.
And, more research on what is gained and what might be lost in transitioning very young learners from print to digital learning will be forthcoming. Other areas of exploration include how this trend can translate into more purposeful literacy activities, target conceptual learning, and how it could affect learners with English as a second language, children with learning disabilities, and those with other special needs.
Tablets have proven successful in other studies for older children and concentrating on subjects beyond reading. For example, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt tested an interactive, digital version of an Algebra 1 textbook for Apple's iPad in California's Riverside Unified School District. Students who used the iPad version scored 20 percent higher on standardized tests versus students who learned with traditional textbooks.
The program, which replaced worn textbooks with interactive, digital versions with video, graphics and built-in quizzes that invited students to participate and give instant feedback, spurred positive comments that these students felt "more motivated, attentive, and engaged" than those with the paper algebra books.
This pilot program reveals a finding similar to the preschool reading program -- enhanced digital material can be more engaging to young learners. And, the California data suggests for older children studying math concepts, the enhanced version can yield higher test results.
Forging a Digital Future in Public Schools
In addition to the determining the effectiveness and best use of digital learning tools, there may be hidden financial hurdles thwarting universal adoption. This spring, the federal government, book publishers and the technology industry discussed these as part of a large-scale effort to push tablets into public schools.
The often promised savings of the digital devices make headlines, considering that according to the FCC, the U.S. spends about $7 billion per year on textbooks, and many of them are seven to ten years out of date. Advocates believe using tablets instead will save money and improve learning, but some of the initial savings may be eroded by other costs.
For example, last year, the New York City public schools banned new iPads and other mobile devices from using schools' Wi-Fi when officials discovered widespread iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone and Android phone use maxed out IT departments' Exchange servers.
New York City spent more than $1 million on iPads for teachers, possibly taking on more technology than its infrastructure was ready to handle. Even if public school systems can offset the cost of mobile devices with federal grants and other programs, they will still need dollars for network improvements to accommodate them.
Tablets are here and will come to classrooms, either through parents who can afford them or by school districts who take the plunge. A joint report by McKinsey and the GSMA predict the m-education market could be worth $70 billion globally by 2020 and predicts demand for m-education devices, like smartphones and tablets, may be worth another $32 billion by the same time frame.
Still, amidst the push for a digital classroom, there will continue to be research on the best ways to use the technology as well as a scramble for resources to support these evolving systems. Learning isn't a "one size fits all" proposition -- and that is true no matter if the tools are a stick on the sand, pencil on paper, or a stylus on a tablet. ♦