The human touch

Learning from apps and objects
MarcoPomella, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
MarcoPomella, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

When I worked in an Apple store, I noticed that many adults would handle mobile devices with trepidation. “I don’t want to do something wrong,” they said. I tried to tell them that there is no wrong way to use an iPhone, to no avail. By contrast, children seemed to have no such fears. They ran straight to the nearest device and started pressing buttons, easily experimenting. And they quickly mastered the tool as their parents watched in awe.

Tablets and smartphones permeate children’s lives. In the education realm, apps are often geared towards young children: 72 of the 100 top-selling apps in 2011 targeted preschool or elementary aged children. Yet educational apps are not necessarily built on the principles of learning and parents might reasonably wonder whether their children are learning while engrossed with their mobile devices. In other words, although children easily learn to use digital devices, what do they actually learn from those devices?

On a spectrum from passive media viewing to active object use, engaging with apps falls somewhere in the middle, depending on an app’s features. App users often actively manipulate virtual material, but the objects are pixel representations rather than solid parts. Researchers are just beginning to understand how digital experiences compare to experiences with physical objects.

How does learning from an educational app compare to learning from a physical material?

Curious about the difference between learning from an app and learning from a physical material, my graduate advisor, Angeline Lillard, and I invited 5- and 6-year-old children into the laboratory to learn about the states of Australia from either a physical puzzle of Australia or an educational app. Since this research took place in the United States, we expected that children would have no prior knowledge about Australia. The physical puzzle and an accompanying lesson were adopted from a school curriculum and the app was designed to match the puzzle and lesson.

For children exposed to the puzzle, an experimenter guided them through the lesson about Australia’s states using the puzzle and then children played with the puzzle alone. For children exposed to the app, an experimenter briefly explained how the app worked and then children played with the app alone. Children frequently use apps without adult guidance, presumably because it is assumed that apps can teach children independently. My goal here was to contrast traditional teaching, in which an adult directs learning, to a modern form of teaching where the app is the guide.

“Researchers are just beginning to understand how digital experiences compare to experiences with physical objects.”

I found that children who received a lesson with a physical puzzle learned more of Australia’s state names than children who interacted with an app alone. In the second study, children took home either the puzzle or the app (on an iPad) for one week and were tested afterwards. Although children who used the puzzle initially learned more than children who used the app, both groups had learned the same amount after a week. Children who brought home the app used it more than those who brought home the puzzle. This suggests that learning from the puzzle was more time-efficient.

In addition, for the puzzle users, the amount of time spent engaging with the puzzle predicted how much they learned: Those who played more with the puzzle learned more Australian states. For the app users, the amount of time spent was irrelevant to their learning.

The role of social interaction

The materials were not the only difference between the puzzle and app conditions. Children in the puzzle condition were taught about Australia by another person, one who could respond to their actions. This led me to a second question: Do mobile devices substitute for the social component of learning, or might digital learning benefit from a social partner?

To answer this, I designed a “social app” condition, in which children used the app along with an experimenter in a structured lesson adapted from the puzzle condition. Children who used the app with an experimenter learned as many Australian states as children who used the puzzle with an experimenter, and more than children who used the app alone. This suggests that social interaction was a crucial component of learning in this study. When an adult engaged with a child using an app as fully as an adult engaged with a child using a physical puzzle, learning from the two sources became equivalent.

“Do mobile devices substitute for the social component of learning, or might digital learning benefit from a social partner?”

Other research has also demonstrated the importance of adults and children using mobile devices together. For example, toddlers fail to learn how to put together a puzzle on a touchscreen when the puzzle pieces move across the screen on their own, but when an experimenter moves the pieces on the touchscreen, children’s performance greatly improves.

In their media guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that parents co-use mobile devices with their children, particularly when they are young. This reflects a growing understanding that not all screen time is equal and that parents can play an active role in their children’s engagement with mobile devices.

“Not all screen time is equal, and parents can play an active role in their children’s engagement with mobile devices.”

I understand why parents are concerned about their children’s digital screen time. Mobile devices can certainly be addictive, and scientists do not yet understand the long-term impact of such use. But I view them as tools like any other. They can be used for ill, like when apps trick children into making purchases of which their parents would not approve. Yet they can also be used for good, as an opportunity to connect parents with children to share in their (digital) world. Under those conditions, it appears that children learn not just about the devices, but also can learn useful information about the world from them.

Eisen, S. & Lillard, A. S. (under review): “Learning from apps and objects: The human touch.”

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