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Will Our Use of Touch-Screen Technology Be Led by Toddlers?

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iPads, tablets, smartphones and a proliferation of programs and apps have captured the attention of parents and of a growing market.  Parents and grandparents are proudly showing pictures in which babies are using touch-screen technology.  A recent report entitled Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America, 2013,  published by Common Sense Media, indicated that  "38% of all children under 2 have used a smartphone, tablet, or similar device for playing games, watching videos, or engaging in related activities; two years ago, 10% had done so" (p.23). By the time children come to school, eighty percent of them have used mobile devices (p. 20).

There is a new generation of parents for whom the television is no longer the question. It is touch screens and apps. The reports reveals that among parents of 0-8 year olds, the percentage who know what an app is rose from 64% in 2011 to 80% in 2013.  The percentage who have downloaded apps for their children rose from 29% in 2011 to 58% in 2013. The percentage who downloaded educational apps for their children rose from what they reported as NA+ in 2011 to 53% in 2013 (p.21).

Is this changing kindergarten classrooms and elementary schools?  Should it?  Pediatricians and early childhood educators are mixed about how this screen use affects developing brains and behaviors.  Hanna Rosin reported in her excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly on the touch-screen generation, "Every new medium has, within a short time of its introduction been condemned as a threat to young people."  Isn't this reminiscent of the concern about Sesame Street's affect upon youngsters?  Questions arose, opinions abounded that this medium, for children, was damaging, dangerous, and would create a generation of passive learners.  However, in his October 2012 blog post in the Scientific American, Jason G. Goldman reported on Daniel R. Anderson's published results of his longitudinal study called "The Recontact Study"

They found, among other things, that children age 3 to 5 who watched Sesame Street had larger vocabularies in high school than those who watched other television programming, or even no television at all. The effect could not be explained by gender, family size, or parents' education. Preschoolers from lower income neighborhoods, in particular, who watched Sesame Street were more prepared for school than their peers who did not watch Sesame Street. Kids who watched Sesame Street had higher grades in science and English, had higher total GPA, read more books, placed more value on achievement, and were rated as more creative, compared with their peers. Boys who watched Sesame Street in preschool were rated as less aggressive in high school; girls were more likely to participate in extracurricular art classes.

Going back much further, German printer Johannes Gutenberg improved movable type mechanical printing technology in the 1400's, which allowed books to be published and become accessible to the masses.  Information was communicated through printed words.  The brain had to have processed that information differently than words that were shared from human to human by talking and listening.  Since then, formal education developed a system in which we require children, as young as five, to recognize, decode, and understand symbols to have meaning. Stories that had been told could be read.  

Jim Taylor wrote in his article in Psychology Today "What is clear is that, as with advances throughout history, the technology that is available determines how our brains develop."  Now we have a new technology to challenge our engrained practices and, perhaps, change our brains and brain development...touch screen technology.  It seems that we are at the same time innovators and resistors. We quest for change and then resist it when it forces a change in our practice.  What is it about this technology that is so engaging and what about it is of such concern?

There is an accelerating urgency for educators to get ahead of this tidal wave. We hope to lead with this technology rather than be led by it.  If our preschoolers are exposed to touch screen technology at earlier ages and with increasing rates, we must place ourselves on the cutting edge.  What will be different about our learners as they come to us having years of experience learning from touch screen technology?  How will their learning behaviors, and yes, how will their brains be different?  In the next five years the number of students entering kindergarten having learned in this medium will have exploded.  Have we begun to prepare? There are still schools and districts that have policies preventing smartphones and other handheld technologies. There are movements that cannot be resisted. This is one.

We suggest a simple approach for beginning understanding.  What about this medium is so engaging?  We are focusing on only two basic features - feedback and independence as an introduction for consideration. Yes, it can be colorful, it can be movie-like, it can show and tell a story differently than simply offering words, it can be accompanied by music, it can teach.  All of that is true.  However, the most basic learning features of touch-screen technology, we suggest, are immediacy of feedback and learner independence.

As educators, immediate feedback has always been a concern.  It takes a teacher to provide feedback.  If the student is incorrect, the gap from the time the work is produced and the time the misunderstanding is corrected is time lost.  Certainly, at the higher grade levels, once papers are collected and returned, sometimes days can go by.  Learning time is lost.  Touch-screen software that can teach and provide immediate feedback. It can give our youngsters additional opportunities to obtain, develop, synthesize, and apply new information confident that their understanding is correct. During this process learning is reinforced as the successes mount. Not intended to replace the experience of learning in a classroom with their peers, guided by a teacher, as they develop their initial or foundational understanding - this technology can provide opportunity in such activities as practice, homework and extended learning experiences.  Immediate feedback in an engaging and reinforcing medium becomes the teacher's partner in the learning journey for his or her students.

Don't we all love our independence?  How liberating it is to learn and compete against ourselves. Touch-screen technology allows us to be corrected without the judgment of another person.  In other words, when working to solve a problem, if we are not correct, most software, games, apps, offer additional opportunities to learn what we have misunderstood...and it is offered immediately; thus shortening the lifespan of our misunderstanding. This independent learning opportunity shifts the concept from right (feels good) and wrong (feels bad) to a learning path in which there are stumbles and corrections on the way to success. This experience remains between the learner and the device. Reinforcement and moving forward becomes an empowering experience for the learner.

This technology is not going away.  The access to technology is becoming greater every year. Two years ago, a total of half (52%) of all children ages 8 and under lived in a home where they had access to any type of new mobile media device such as a smartphone or tablet; today, three-quarters (75%) do (p. 20).

The engaging nature of the medium is unquestionable. The use of this technology has reached our youngest learners.  These are the tools of our century.  As leaders, teachers and consumers of these technologies, we cannot ignore their presence. We have an obligation to understand them and maximize their use to benefit our learners.  Digital learning and learning in gaming are not familiar territory for many of us.  But there are those among us who are less fearful and have stepped into the arena.  Things are changing too quickly for us to remain comfortable as "digital immigrants." In order to remain leaders in the education of our students, whose brains may very well be changing as we speak, we best be following the toddlers into the future.

Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America, 2013

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