When it comes to educational apps for kids, interactivity can either help or hinder learning, according to new research.
“Our experiments are a reminder that just because touchscreens allow for physical interaction, it doesn’t mean that it’s always beneficial,” said Dr. Colleen Russo-Johnson, lead author of the study, who completed this work as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.
Smartphones and tablets have become so pervasive that 90 percent of American children have used a touchscreen by the age of two, according to the researcher. She notes that 80 percent of educational apps in the iTunes store are designed for children, especially toddlers and preschoolers.
But recent research has shown that sometimes all those chimes and animations hinder learning, prompting the question: How well do we understand what it takes to make a truly beneficial learning app?
“Children interact with touchscreens and the embedded media content in vastly different ways and this impacts their ability to learn from the content,” said Russo-Johnson. “Our experiment focused on how children interacted with touchscreen devices — on a more basic level — by stripping away fancy design features that vary from app to app and that are not always beneficial.”
Using a custom-made, streamlined learning app, Russo-Johnson and her colleagues showed that children as young as two could use the app to learn new words, such as the fictional names of a variety of newly introduced toys (designed specifically for the study).
Unsurprisingly, slightly older children (age four to five) were able to learn more than the younger ones (age two to three) and they were also able to follow directions better, such as only tapping when instructed to do so, the researchers noted.
The researchers went on to show that the excessive tapping by younger children seemed to go hand-in-hand with lower scores of a trait called self-regulation. Self-regulation is commonly measured by seeing how long children can keep themselves from eating a cracker that is placed in front of them, after they’ve been told to wait until they hear a signal that it’s ok to eat the cracker.
To complement this first study, which included 77 children, the research team designed a second app to see which interactions — tapping, dragging, or simply watching — were better for learning new words.
The second study, which involved 170 children between two and four years old, found that no single type of interaction proved to consistently be the best.
But there were differences depending on age, gender, and the extent of prior exposure to touchscreens at home, the researchers noted. Boys appeared to benefit more from watching, while dragging seemed best for girls and children with the most touchscreen experience.
“I hope that this research will inform academics and app developers alike,” said Russo-Johnson. “Educational app developers should be mindful of utilizing interactivity in meaningful ways that don’t distract from the intended educational benefits and, when possible, allow for customization so parents and educators can determine the best settings for their children.”
The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Source: Frontiers in Psychology