Finding Ways to Put the “Education” Back in Educational Apps

The holiday season is behind us and with it came a flood of newly wrapped gifts, trendy clothes that fit (or did not), and a host of stimulating digital toys and games intricately designed to build our brains for the new world order.

As parents, we are overwhelmed—dare we say flummoxed—by the sheer volume of so-called “educational” material that we can now buy for our children. Indeed, in the latest batch of holiday offerings we even saw the 2-in-1 iPotty from CTA Digital that provided “a comfortable and fun place to learn” for toddlers in the throes of potty training. Oh my. Hard to believe that the iPad, which is now so ubiquitous, was only introduced in 2010. Already a third of us own the device. By May of last year, over 775,000 apps had been developed for the iPad and over 20,000 of them were considered “educational.”

No wonder we are overwhelmed. How could we possibly sift through all of those apps to know which might or might not be good for our kids? Luckily, a mountain of evidence from the newly amalgamated interdisciplinary field called the science of learning can give us some guideposts.

Let’s start with a helpful tweet in just 65 characters: Humans learn best in active, engaged, meaningful, and interactive contexts.

Whether the platform is digital or traditional, electronic or paper, the ways we learn best remain the same. Indeed, our own lab research illustrates these principles in the context of playful learning and digital media. It also provides a way for parents and designers to evaluate and design new learning platforms for children.

Children learn best in active environments. Our experiments with preschool geometry illustrate this principle. Spatial skills like shape learning are important for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and are part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. With Kelly Fisher from Johns Hopkins University and Nora Newcombe from Temple University, we compared learning about shapes like triangles through play with more passive, didactic instruction. In the active case, children had to discover that all triangles—big and small, fat and thin, upright and slanted—have three sides and three angles. In the passive case, we told the children that triangles had three sides and three angles. Then we asked all to find the real triangles. When the point was at the top and it was a clearly an isosceles triangle, both groups did well. But the active, discover-it-yourself children outperformed the others when that triangle was not as typical. They also did better with the lesser-known shapes like hexagons.

Whether the platform is digital or traditional, electronic or paper, the ways we learn best remain the same.

Children learn best when they are engaged. Recent findings suggest that when engagement is disrupted (a common problem in television and in digital books), children learn less. With Julia Parish-Morris from the University of Pennsylvania, we asked parents to read traditional or electronic books with their children. What did we find? When the books are riddled with distracting games that don’t advance the storyline, children don’t get as much from the book they are reading. No surprise there. Only 2 percent of us can effectively multitask. (I know we all think we fit in that group.) When we take our mind off the storyline, we don’t fully process the plot. Similarly, other research has found that when the music does not “go with” the story in a television show, children learn less. Likewise, when readers spend more time with pop-up books than attending to the plot.

Children also thrive in meaningful contexts. In our experiments with language learning tasks, conducted with David Dickinson from Vanderbilt University, 5-year-olds played with story-relevant figurines after they heard a book read aloud. Turns out that children learn the words better when in guided play than when they hear those same words while seeing flashcards. Play reinforces the story. With Brian Verdine from the University of Delaware, we investigated the advances in mathematics that can come from rotating and copying block designs. Yep—those meaningful, playful exchanges in early childhood build real learning capital. They are educational at their core.

Finally, children learn best in social contexts. In one experiment led by Sarah Roseberry from the University of Washington, we compared less social television learning with more interactive Skype exchanges and live learning, where a key ingredient was the back-and-forth conversation that was contingent on what the child said. Again, children learn words best in social and interactive contexts, not in more passive ones. The results from the skype and live conditions were indistinguishable! The importance of interaction has been found repeatedly in the scientific literature.

The bottom line is that we know what to do to create high-quality educational materials for young children. We simply need to weed the proliferating garden of digital choices. We need to use the science of learning as we adopt evidence-based guidelines on what counts as educational. It’s not educational just because we say so or because we put an upright triangle in a digital sorting task. It’s educational if it really helps children learn.

The potential of digital media for learning is enormous if we do it right. And we can do it right if we design and look for apps that are “active, engaging, meaningful, and interactive.”

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