March 29, 2012

License to Swipe

A new study asserts the educational value of tablets and carefully designed apps

The tablet is the new computer. You don’t have to take our word for it. According to the NY Times, in 2010 there were twenty PCs sold for every iPad. By 2011, the ratio of computers to tablets was down to 6 to 1. With the release of new touchscreen tablets like the Samsung Galaxy and Kindle Fire, this trend will only accelerate. Sales of tablet devices will soon outpace those of laptops and PCs.

Just as parents had to adjust to a whole new world of kids using computers, the rise of the tablet presents a new set of questions. Do kids interact differently with tablets? Does tablet use come more naturally to youngsters or are new skills required? What is the right age to introduce kids to tablets? And perhaps most importantly, can the iPad and other tablets create a significant new learning environment or are they merely electronic babysitters that can divert your progeny with movies and games?

A new study funded by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the Ready To Learn program delivers some good news vis-à-vis the iPad and by extension, other tablet devices. According to the team led by researcher Michael Cohen, today’s touch screen technology does give children—including those as young as two years old—the chance to play productively. In other words, anxious parents can rest assured that kids using touch screen tablets are learning and exploring in new and exciting ways.

Touching and Swiping
The researchers confirmed something that parents with iPads already know—kids find the touch screen fascinating and immediately engaging. The pointing, pinching, and swiping motions used on tablet screens come naturally to kids. The interactive, tactile nature of the screen encourages kids to use increasingly sophisticated motor skills beginning with holding and tilting and progressing to more specific and differentiated motions.

However, the researchers found that, as with computers, the real success of the device depended on the quality of the software or in this case, the app. For the purposes of the study they divided iPad apps into three major categories: gaming, creating, and ebooks. Regarding gaming apps, we’re not talking Angry Birds, but apps that use a game framework in which the child faces a series of challenges or levels with mounting difficulty. Skills developed in early challenges are applied to new, more advanced challenges as the game progresses.

Among young children in the study, gaming apps and those that allowed for creativity were the most popular, but only if the interface was properly engineered to sustain engagement. Which is to say, kids have to be able to master each new level of the activity to prevent frustration. They also need to progress to new levels to prevent boredom. Creative apps are popular because they offer children a no-fail environment in which to experiment and express themselves. Here too, a successful app makes it easy for a novice to use tools, while offering possibilities for more complex and challenging creations.

The main takeaway for parents is that using an iPad or a tablet can be a constructive activity, even for very young kids, provided the apps are well designed. Since the purpose of the study was to give guidance to educational app developers, we can only assume they're listening and that new, engaging apps for kids will be coming into the marketplace soon.

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