Plugged In

At the intersection of academics and technology.

The world is experiencing a major shift in education and learning. The jobs for which we need to prepare kids are different from what they were in the past. And just what the jobs of the future will be is uncertain. Cathy N. Davidson, co-author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (MIT Press), writes, “Sixty-five percent of today’s gradeschool kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.” At the same time, the tools (technology) that kids have at their disposal to play, learn, and work are already significantly different than the pencil and paper that many of us used as kids.

Having said that, as an educator, I find it to be one of the most exciting times in academics. Technology finally enables children to learn in the ways that researchers have found kids best understand.

When used to aid with academics, technology can:

  • make difficult, abstract concepts visual and concrete.
  • allow for pausing and repetition.
  • provide consistent feedback.
  • modify content for varying developmental needs.
  • personalize content.
  • allow for practice and failure without the feeling of
  • disappointing a teacher or parent.
  • make various subjects more engaging and appealing.
  • assist educators in assessing student progress.

Using technology to learn, children can become immersed in what feels like play but is in fact a powerful and often personalized educational experience. Consider a well-designed, digital story for preschoolers. A handheld tablet can take the tale beyond static images and words on a page. Text highlighting, animation, and narrative prompts help bring stories to life in ways that are impossible with print books.

My philosophy for developing high-quality, educational content for children is that the only way to know what kids like, understand, find challenging, as well as how they learn is to ask them. This has been a fundamental part of my research process in developing Blue’s Clues, Super WHY!, and now Speakaboos, which promotes literacy through digital storytelling. We can take a similar approach when considering the benefits and drawbacks of learning from technology by asking students and teachers.

Many schools, including the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, are doing just that. Fifth graders in the district were asked to share their thoughts about using iPads in the classroom. Their careful reflections on how the technology is improving their learning clearly echoed the specific advantages listed above. Most importantly, these students shared that they are excited to learn with and from technology. As Matthew Lynch describes in a recent issue of Education Week, “Higher engagement from k-12 students who use mobile technology is a direct result of a feeling of ownership on the part of the student.”

The children’s excitement is palpable to teachers, too. Teachers now have a plethora of technological tools, including hardware-like tablets, SMART Boards, computers, and software such as apps and digital curricula, at their disposal. With knowledge being accessible to all through technology, teachers can shift their focus to that of a coach, collaborator, and mentor and be a guide rather than a sage on the stage. Teachers are even finding ways to take games that kids love, like Angry Birds, and make them educational.

However, a word of caution to parents and teachers: Simply handing a child an iPad or the latest kids’ tablet does not guarantee he will immediately reap the learning benefits. Learning still needs to be directed and reinforced by educators and caregivers to have a meaningful impact. Finding content can be overwhelming and challenging for young learners, and creating a balance of use with other educational tools is essential and requires guidance.

We should consider that the biggest impact of technology on children can occur after the iPad is turned off, when they begin to experiment with what they’ve learned. Creative, realworld application of technology as part of classroom learning supports a richer, more profound educational experience.

Technology is an essential tool in today’s rapidly changing world. As we all learn more together about the use of technology at home and in schools, we must continue to engage in conversations to hear multiple perspectives, provide each other with ideas for use in different contexts, and keep playing. And most importantly, never leave the kids who are using the technology out of the conversation!