By Stephanie Gottwald, Ph.D.
The research on the advantages and disadvantages of exposing children to digital technology has been a mixed picture. Our work is an effort to bring clarity to this field and to identify strategies for increasing the efficacy of this approach.
This article shares preliminary results of a literacy intervention using mobile devices for children who either do not have access to school or attend a vastly under-resourced school (Breazeal et al., 2016). The effort, led by the nonprofit Curious Learning, began as a research collaboration between MIT, Tufts University, and Georgia State University. Curious Learning works with local deployment partners and distributes tablets pre-loaded with bundles of apps curated according to theoretical models of reading acquisition. The project reaches over 1000 children in Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, India, and the rural United States. A crucial element of the project involved the development of an android-based platform that monitors the use of any app on the system and collects data on the literacy skill development of the children.
We Need to Identify Global Solutions for Illiteracy
The motivation behind this approach is the global need to identify solutions for the 770 million adults in the world who are not literate and to prevent another 170 million children from joining their ranks. However, giving tablets to young children can be controversial. Too often, technology has been employed in education settings with the assumption that the device itself is a valuable educational tool. Aside from the inevitable ubiquity of mobile devices, they have inherent design characteristics that may revolutionize some aspects of instruction, especially for young children.
The motivation behind this approach is the global need to identify solutions for the 770 million adults in the world who are not literate and to prevent another 170 million children from joining their ranks.
First, the touchscreen is intuitive and easy to use for small children, even those with little initiation in modern technology. Our on-the-ground experience tells us that all children learn to interact with a tablet within a very short time. Second, the action of touching the screen as an interactive tool allows children to feel that they have control over the characters or objects on the screen. This design element translates into features in the apps that are just not possible for laptops or desktop computers where knowledge of the alphabet is necessary for most input. Finally, mobile devices are portable and inexpensive, so each child can have his or her own device. Therefore, children can use the devices in a variety of settings individually or in small groups and are not restricted to sitting in a chair in a computer lab.
Can Mobile Devices Improve Literacy Outcomes?
But do those design features translate into higher literacy outcomes?
There is little evidence-based research on the effects of using mobile devices for learning to read. However, the few extant studies that have been done reveal that apps for learning to read and designed for mobile devices show great promise for providing high quality and personalized intervention for particular populations.
…the few extant studies that have been done reveal that apps for learning to read and designed for mobile devices show great promise for providing high quality and personalized intervention for particular populations.
As any parent or teacher who has spent time searching for reading apps knows, the quality of apps currently available is poor. Yet, to give each child the instruction he or she requires to become a fully fluent reader, a large corpus of content is needed that is both engaging and rooted in what we know about high-quality reading instruction. Unfortunately, very few apps of the thousands we reviewed for teaching literacy qualify for inclusion on the platform either because the information provided is inaccurate or because the app requires an Internet connection, which is not always available in our environments. We were able to gather only approximately 25 high-quality apps that taught children various aspects of the English language and/or writing system. In the future, we will partner with app developers and universities to design apps that address aspects of learning to read not currently addressed by commercially available apps.
In addition, since many of the children are in environments where their education must be largely self-guided, we seek to understand how an app can be designed that is engaging for long periods of time. In order for the content to be learned, a well-designed app must be engaging enough to keep children in the game for a sufficient period of time in a single session. Ideally, the app should be interesting enough to keep the children returning repeatedly over many days.
Curious Learning Platform Collects Usage Patterns Data
To probe the notion of what children like or do not like in apps, the Curious Learning platform collects data on the usage patterns of the children and observes the behavior of the children in the apps. Every time the child touches the screen, the system stores that information. Touching behavior can indicate curiosity or confusion or random guessing. Usage behavior reveals interesting patterns of exploration and developing focus.
During the first few weeks with the tablets, the children tend to open many apps and spend very little time interacting with any particular app. Within two to three weeks, the usage patterns evolve, with fewer apps being opened and more time being spent with each individual app. The data makes it clear that most apps hold the children’s attention for a longer period over a few days and then are dropped from use. Alternatively, we also see the pattern of very short visits over many weeks. This pattern of use is consistent across many different sites, in Uganda and Ethiopia as well as in the presumably more tech-savvy US populations.
In order for the content to be learned, a well-designed app must be engaging enough to keep children in the game for a sufficient period of time in a single session.
One implication of these patterns is the need to have a collection of apps that covers very similar or overlapping content. In other words, just providing children with a single letter-learning app would be fine for children who are likely to learn to read easily. Such children receive the required dosage of content before they get bored with the interaction. However, groups of children who struggle to learn to read require more exposures and more time to learn the content of reading and no one app is likely to hold their attention long enough to promote better learning outcomes.
Immediate Interactivity Is Vital
The unique Curious Learning data collection platform also reveals at least two more interesting insights regarding the design of the apps.
First, apps that include interactive elements are likely to be revisited more often. Interactive elements are defined as any aspect of the app that responds to the touch of the user. Sometimes interactive elements are additive, but not a crucial feature of an app. For example, many interactive e-books include characters that wiggle or an object that moves when touched, but the app would continue to function if the child did not touch it. In contrast, most games require interaction for the content to continue. In all of our sites, interactivity is a key attraction for repeated app visits. Children are significantly less interested in apps that do not provide interactive features. This conclusion may seem obvious, but many commercially available apps, e-books especially, are passive vehicles of entertainment and do not promote interactivity.
….groups of children who struggle to learn to read require more exposures and more time to learn the content of reading and no one app is likely to hold their attention long enough to promote better learning outcomes.
Second, we have found that an app has a very small window of time to keep a young user interested. Our children decide within the first ten to thirty seconds if they want to play with any app. If the app does not offer something interesting for them to do besides listening in that tiny window of time, they move on to a new app. The combination of these features means that small children want to be interacting within an app almost immediately upon opening it. Any delay in the opportunity to interact means a loss of interest, and a loss of interest means children will not have the opportunity to learn the information contained in the app.
We Have Seen Substantial Literacy Growth
In terms of literacy outcomes, we have seen substantial growth in a short period of time. We collect literacy data using adaptations of standardized measures of phonemic awareness, letter knowledge, vocabulary, and decoding.
In Ethiopia, our learners experienced significant growth in English vocabulary skills. Most participants also learned the names and sounds of the English letters. In South Africa, students using the tablets just three times a week for one hour at a time learned their letters 15% faster than children who did not have access to the tablets. In rural Alabama, pre-school aged children with access to the tablets on a daily basis were more likely to enter Kindergarten meeting Kindergarten readiness benchmarks than children who were in preschool but did not have access to the tablets.
While we have a great deal more work to do, we anticipate being able to conduct studies with improved designs and a larger variety of literacy content. However, these results give us ample justification to believe that interacting with apps on a mobile device on a regular basis can facilitate higher learning outcomes.
So far this project allows us to arrive at several conclusions:
- A mobile device itself may have certain advantages for young populations of learners, but a deep consideration of the content offered on the device is crucial if the intent of technology use is to improve learning outcomes.
- Apps must be judged on both their learning content and their design features. As reading researchers become more interested in the potential of mobile devices to reach children who historically have been unreachable and to personalize learning experiences for children who struggle, we will have more evidence on what works and what does not.
The Curious Learning platform offers a unique opportunity to quickly advance research around intervention and assessment using mobile devices to make literacy possible for all children.
Breazeal, C., Morris, R., Gottwald, S., Galyean, T., & Wolf, M. (2016). Mobile devices for early literacy intervention and research with global reach. Conference paper to be published in Proceedings of the Third ACM Conference on Learning at Scale, Edinburgh, Scotland.
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Stephanie Gottwald, Ph.D. is the Assistant Director at the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and the Director of Content at the nonprofit Curious Learning.
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