Can Children Learn on Digital Devices? That’s the Wrong Question.
One of the issues that troubles parents and educators alike is the question of whether children can learn to read on digital devices, or if they need to read good old-fashioned books in order to become literate. Many people have strong views on both sides of this issue, but the relevant research is inconclusive.
Along comes an expert who says that the people who worry about this are asking the wrong question. “It’s a stale conversation,” says Michael Levine, founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, the people who brought us Sesame Street. “Screen time is not the issue.”
Levine spoke earlier this month at the AAP PreK-12 Learning Group’s Content in Context conference held in Philadelphia. His talk shed a lot of light on the screen-time question -- and it passed the common-sense test as well.
First, let’s lay the groundwork for Levine’s thesis. Learning to read, he says, is not like learning to talk or sing; it’s a skill that requires instruction. Reading instruction requires a two-pronged approach: children must learn to decode (i.e., recognize the sounds that letters make and meld those sounds into words), and then they have to be able to understand what the words they decode mean.
Today’s children, Levine notes, grow up in a totally different media environment from today’s adults. They are bombarded with messages from an early age and are likely to be comfortable and competent with digital devices -- mobile in particular -- by the time they are exposed to formal reading instruction when they get to school.
So, he says, literacy is not unidimensional; rather, children need to master a variety of literacies (plural) in order to succeed in the modern media world.
Levine also notes that children don’t learn by passively consuming media; they have to actively engage with media. And, critically, they learn by interacting with media in collaboration with other people -- usually, their caregivers and/or siblings.
An electronic toy that speaks when a child pushes a button does not help her learn, he says, nor does an interactive book with a butterfly that flits off the page when the child touches it. An ebook that pronounces a word that the child touches provides a better experience, but the more important question is whether the reading material -- be it print or electronic -- is designed to facilitate interaction between the child and the adult who is reading it with him, or among several children and adults.
With this in mind, Levine despairs at the quality of the thousands upon thousands of “educational” apps.
His quibbles? Generally, he says, there is no information about who developed the apps and little evidence that language and literacy experts were involved. Many are “drill-and-kill” products that fail to engage children or capture their imaginations, and fail to facilitate interactions between children and adults.
Levine and his research team found that fewer than a quarter of the apps they evaluated mentioned any kind of underlying curriculum in their product descriptions, and there was little evidence that the apps had been tested in any way. Only 21% described any testing of usability or appeal, and only 2% mentioned efficacy testing (i.e., testing that evaluated the apps’ impact on learning outcomes).
Of the 50 most popular apps, he said, few had won awards by respected evaluators or organizations. In contrast, he said, the vast majority of award-winning apps are designed for “co-use functionality” -- i.e., for kids to interact with Mom and Dad as they use them.
With this in mind, Levine has some advice for app developers that also should be of interest to publishers who have licensable content (or who might want to develop their own apps), educators who use apps in their classrooms, and parents who buy them for their kids.
- Be transparent. Let educators and parents know who did the work, what age or developmental stage the apps are designed for, and whether they were tested (and if so, how).
- Recognize that in order to learn, children need more than flash-card repetitions of ABCs.
- Develop story lines and characters that reflect the diversity of today’s families.
- Work with educators and researchers to ensure that the apps are pedagogically sound.
In other words, adhering to sound principles of instructional design will ensure that literacy products meet their educational goals -- and that goes for print books as well as digital products.