Just last week, a widely publicized study came out showing that more than one-third of children under
the age of 1 have used a device like a smartphone or tablet and that most children have used mobile devices by age 2. With this increased usage has come an explosion in educational apps for young children. But how can parents and developers decide what an truly educational app looks like?
In a new study in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University and colleagues offer a way to evaluate current and future educational apps. Building on decades of work on the “Science of Learning” about how children learn best, they identify four pillars that make for an educational app: “Apps designed to promote active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning,” the researchers write, “within the context of a supported learning goal are considered educational.”
CNS spoke with one of the co-authors, neuroscientist Jordy Kaufman of Swinburne University of Technology, about the study, how it may help app developers and parents, and its roots in neuroscience.
CNS: How did you become involved in this research?
Kaufman: Recently, my children have guided my research questions as much as anything else. So, when they first began showing interest in mobile devices, like many parents I wondered about the extent to which this is a good medium for learning. My lab conducted a few experiments on children’s learning from touchscreen devices and subsequent transfer of knowledge to play with objects. After presenting this work at the Society for Research in Child Development meeting in 2013, my co-authors asked if I would be interested in joining to write an article on apps for Psychological Science in the Public Interest. It has been a great experience since then with each of us bringing a different perspective on this important issue.
CNS: The paper draws on the Science of Learning, to see how children learn best. What are the top lessons of the Science of Learning, particularly from the neuroscience perspective?
Kaufman: Our work took inspiration from the Science article: “Foundations of a New Science of Learning” by Meltzoff, Kuhl, Movellan and Sejnowski. From this, we tried to capture key areas relevant to children’s learning from apps. Specifically, we argue that the learning value of an app is most enhanced when then it is engaging, meaningful, requires active thinking, and builds on social interaction. These ideas are consistent with a great deal of cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience research. For example, our argument for apps that require “active” thinking rather than “passive” viewing is well-established in the neuroscience literature, which shows both increased learning and increased neural activity in motor and sensorimotor brain areas (including fusiform and precentral gyrus) after children actively manipulated objects compared with watching others do so.
Similarly, we argue that apps should engage children through intrinsic motivation to learn – by giving children new information – rather than through external rewards, such as giving out virtual “stickers.” This again is backed up by behavioral evidence, as well as by cognitive neuroscience studies of neural reward pathways suggesting that learning new information and developing insights leads to physiological pleasure responses.
CNS: Why did you look at babies to 8-year-olds and no older?
Kaufman: The main reason for our focus on younger children is that there already exists a substantial literature on older children learning from traditional computing devices. The growing popularity of touchscreen app use is relevant for people of all ages, but the change is particularly radical for younger children who until very recently were unlikely to use any computing devices due to their physical and cognitive demands. These demands (like controlling a mouse or typing words) have largely evaporated in the realm of touchscreen gaming, leading to massive marketing and playing of “educational” touchscreen games by children as young as 2 years of age. We wanted to examine younger ages to address this new trend.
CNS: What do you think about the trend of schools using tablets and electronic devices for learning?
Kaufman: An underlying message in our article is that the educational value of a touchscreen activity depends on two factors: One factor is the extent to which the specific app is designed in a manner consistent with key principles of learning. The other is whether the activity has an explicit learning goal, provided either by the app itself or externally by a teacher or parent. So, when we are asked about “tablets in the classroom,” the answer is always going to be “it depends.” The tablet itself is just a medium or a tool. Its learning potential in the classroom depends entirely on the specific apps used and the manner in which teachers incorporate it into the classroom activities. Unfortunately, this point is often overlooked as people divide into pro- and anti-technology camps regarding classrooms.
CNS: Do you let your own children use any apps?
Kaufman: I do have children and I do let them use apps. I try to evaluate the apps before adding them to our devices and, when I am on top of things, I try to evaluate whether my children have learnt anything from the apps. I feel it is best to think of each app as a specific activity and make decisions about the learning or entertainment value of each activity.
CNS: How can this work help app designers make products that help children learn?
Kaufman: As we write in the article, most app developers in education space appear to have excellent intentions and often seem to have reasonable ideas about how children learn. That being said, most educational apps are not designed by those who have a deep knowledge of the science of learning, and this was clear in our informal app evaluations. From my conversations with app developers, I believe that most really do want children to benefit from their apps and will be receptive to our article.
For example, from our article, they should be able to take the message that adding all sorts of crazy animations, sticker-like rewards, and other bells and whistles really does not do anything to foster learning – and can easily interfere with learning. Conversely, simply translating rote learning tasks to a tablet interface fails to take advantage of the affordances of the technology to keep children engaged and actively thinking.
Developers can use our paper as a guide to incorporate features that are known to promote learning. A simple example is having an app that offers problems that are consistent with the child’s ability level. Apps can easily keep track of performance, so there is little need to bore children with problems that are too easy or discourage them with ones that will not be solvable.
CNS: How can this work help parents evaluate apps for their kids?
Kaufman: For parents we recommend becoming familiar with the “four pillars” discussed in our article. Parents are the best judge of whether the app is leading their child to think actively, whether their child is engaged, whether the app is meaningful to the child, and whether the app encourages learning through social interaction.
CNS: Do apps offer an opportunity for learning not available through other mediums that capitalizes on how children learn best?
Kaufman: Ideally they might, but at the present time the vast majority of educational apps appear to simply transfer existing games and puzzles to this new modality. With a science of learning approach, apps will certainly provide learning opportunities unavailable in today’s apps. But whether apps can provide entirely new opportunities compared to what can be provided by an excellent teacher is still a lofty goal.
CNS: What is next for this work for you?
Kaufman: All of us continue to work in this space. Speaking for myself, I am engaged in a number of research projects including: assessing how tablet use affects executive functioning; determining how well children transfer learning achieved on a tablet to the physical world; and assessing the extent to which today’s apps include features that are known to promote or interfere with learning.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz