The release of the latest iPad has me once again thinking about its role in childrens’ media consumption. (I wrote last year that my kids weren’t getting one. Uhhhh, yeah. I’ll just pretend that we haven’t basically monopolized the Amsterdam studio iPad for the past three months.)
Recently, Henning and I did a research project on an iPod Touch pilot program at the International School of The Hague, where my children attend. We were curious and wanted to explore what is proving to be a divisive topic: the continuous use of consumer electronic devices among children.
As a parent, I am concerned about the amount of time my kids spend in front of screens. The 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation Report didn’t make me feel much better about it. The resulting statistics apparently shocked the researchers themselves: children 8 to 18 years of age spend an average — an average! — of 7.5 hours a day consuming electronic media. If you count multi-tasking, the figure hits nearly 11 hours. The New York Times had it right: their article about the report was titled “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online.”
School used to be a respite from this screen media assault. With the release of the iPod Touch, and now with iPads, personal devices are entering learning environments. “So what?” you might say, “Computers have been in school for years.” The interesting aspect of these devices is that they are truly personal tech – and, unlike computers, can, more or less, be used anywhere. Like it or not, ubiquitous computing is here, and readily available for our youngest members of society. We wanted to find out whether giving kids their own screens in class would become part of the problem or part of the solution.
The pilot program at the International School is being conducted in Year 6, with about 60 students aged 10 to 11 years. Each child has his or her own iPod Touch, which are docked in the classroom at the beginning and end of the day; the students do not, at the moment, take them home.
We observed the use of the devices in the classroom and interviewed teachers, administrators and students. Some of our observations surprised us, others seemed obvious. We also identified opportunities and made recommendations about their continued use.
Students obey the usage rules.
This one was fairly surprising to me, as well as reassuring. Like any parent with electronics in the house, I’ve put fierce rules in place to prevent the ‘wake and bake’ game-playing on the DS/iPad/iPhone/laptop. (Yes, I am making that analogy.) This addictive type of usage simply wasn’t happening in the classroom: when teachers asked the kids to put them down, they put them down. Once the novelty of using them in a classroom setting has dissipated, the students don’t go out of their way to be on the devices, which leads to the next point.
Kids choose the best tool for the job.
One of the things I like best about working at Adaptive Path is how much we work out ideas on whiteboards and paper. (Where would I be without my Moleskine?) At the school, each table looked a lot like my desk: markers, pencils, erasers, rulers, and a stack of desktop whiteboards with dry erase markers.
When kids had math exercises in which they had the choice of using the devices, some would work out the problems on the desktop whiteboards, or on a sheet of paper with pencils, while others would be doing calculations on the iPods. Students didn’t seem motivated to use the devices just for the sake of using the devices.
Marginal student engagement.
The kids that seem to benefit the most in the classes we observed were 1) the children who had been least exposed to English (English as an Additional Language students), and 2) the students who were least engaged with traditional methods and materials. As this is an international school, the language issue counts for a lot: students speak more than 60 different languages at home, and fewer than 25 percent of the students are native English language speakers (there were only one or two in all the classes we observed). EAL students help each other, and use translation tools on the devices.
One teacher told me a story about a less-than-engaged student. He noticed that when typed into a computer, the boy’s writing actually changed as opposed to when he was writing on paper: on the computer, his thoughts were more sophisticated and developed. This same child is also more engaged in the device usage. Another teacher mentioned increased engagement among similar students who would previously be drifting in class. As a result, some exercises, such as building a flowchart on the devices, take far less time than they did on paper – for the whole class.
Opportunities and recommendations
A curated package of apps for teachers.
There is a ‘paradox of choice’ situation in the App Store. There are now around 350,000 applications available for the iPhone, and there aren’t many easy ways to figure out what’s good. Teachers weren’t sure whether they were using the right software, or whether there were loads of better apps out there that they didn’t know about. They would love if someone who had an idea of their school and curriculum could curate a package of apps based on their needs.
Balancing a controlled app environment.
The students’ treatment of the iPod as a work tool was informed by 1) the devices being kept at school, and 2) teachers’ control of the apps. Students could not install their own apps. The benefit of this is that it keeps the apps limited to educationally relevant ones.
One thing that could be improved is student involvement in app selection. The teachers are already great about taking cues from the kids: when students suggest interesting apps or uses, the teachers listen and check it out. A student panel for app selection is a possibility; it would allow students to evaluate and think critically about apps. I think this would be even more interesting and empowering than just straight up allowing kids to install their own apps. This is a topic that will only become more critical as schools move to iPads, a device that seems more likely to be taken home than to be docked at school.
A tool for creative thinking.
I am constantly trying to find ways for my own kids to engage in non-prescriptive, open-ended play. Think of a huge tub of random Lego pieces rather than a Lego Star Wars X-Wing Fighter kit where if you lose two pieces, you’re toast. Or, even better, the crazy stuff kids do with the giant boxes that electronics or appliances come shipped in. Now *that’s* open-ended play.
In school, personal devices and tablets could have good potential for this type of non-prescriptive exploration. The school probably doesn’t want to hear that I would love kids to take apart their devices and hack them. Short of that, it would be interesting to create ways for kids really test the parameters of the device: maybe projects in which the brief is to find a brand new way to use the devices. Or combining them with Arduino to create physical interactions. Or a project in which students design — and maybe even build — their own apps.
So where does this leave schools, where school-issued devices could further contribute to the time spent online? The key is finding balance; helping kids make the distinction between productive time online and wasteful time online. As schools switch to more comprehensive personal devices such as iPads and other tablets, responsibility will also shift to parents when it comes to monitoring usage time on school-provided devices. Given many parents’ track records when it comes to this issue (that Kaiser report again!) this arrangement could be problematic.
Finally, we need to prepare students for device planned obsolescence. In an essay about education that appeared in The New York Times, Kevin Kelly said, “Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.” As interfaces change and shift at increasing speeds, raising kids who can adapt to these changes is critical.
In the meantime, kids can use open-ended projects to wrap their heads around the way these devices work. In the end, innovative and inventive thought comes from designing the game, not just playing it.