Blended Learning

Parents and teachers meet the ‘Wild West’ when they try to find quality education technology

Many programs and apps claim they can improve literacy skills. How can parents and teachers find what works best?

Kindergarten teacher Patty Lee helps a student with a math game on an iPad.

Parents and teachers who tap into apps find a virtual smorgasbord of “educational” programs that promise to radically improve literacy skills.

How can adults be sure they are making the right choices?

A new book, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, offers research-based advice, explaining how early reading and writing development intersects with our current technology-rich world. And it comes at the right moment. The American Academy of Pediatrics is preparing an update to its advice about the acceptable amount of screen time for young children.

The Hechinger Report spoke with the book’s co-authors, Lisa Guernsey, director of New America’s early education initiative and of its learning technologies project, and Michael H. Levine, founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit literacy and digital media research organization based at Sesame Workshop. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

Levine: It’s about really learning what to do about technology, number one. Number two, we are really worried about the issue. There is a gap in how low- income families and higher-income families have access to these technologies.

Guernsey: Absolutely. Then, just to add a statistic that really charges up this conversation: Two-thirds of children in the United States are not reading at grade level when they are 8 and 9 years old. And it has huge implications for our country, for the way these kids will be able to succeed in life. We have not seen those numbers change much. Over a decade, maybe once in a while you will see little uptick, but basically we have flat-lined.

Q: I often hear parents ask, “How do I know digital media, or media in general is high quality and educational.” Do you hear that question, too?

Levine: Occasionally, we do.

Guernsey: He is joking. We hear it all the time. That is a really key and complicated question. One of the foundational principles we’re working from is that the research is showing that you have to have the 3 C’s in place to be able to use media in a way that will help children: context, content and your child. The [final] C is the individual child, because we have to recognize what that one child needs, developmentally, at that one moment in time. So what we know, backed up by a lot of research, is that we have to have those three pieces in place to have a quality experience using media of all kinds — including books, honestly.

Then, there are a lot of questions about the product marketplace. People may be assuming that by just downloading an app they are going to be able to cover all the basis in terms of their kids learning, and our research is showing that’s really not the case. That the app store is not set up to really help parents.

Levine: And I would just add that the fourth C, for me, is the community. We found that the community of developers is probably not doing all that they could do to provide high-quality early literacy app experiences. The number that are focused on early childhood and reading has actually increased in the last couple of years, according to our analysis, but the quality, the intentionality, the transparency of the actual expertise that goes into big literacy apps is not what it should be. There are unsubstantiated claims or no claims at all about what kind of impact that these sorts of apps could have. Our book sort of digs into this digital Wild West.

Guernsey: There are some designers out there, some developers who are really trying to apply early childhood science to the way they present materials to kids. Speakaboos is a company that develops e-books and they are really focused on what they are learning from the narrative. There is a very small company called Mother Goose On The Loose that is creating materials for librarians and parents and caregivers to help build stories, both online and offline, with young children using felt boards, both online felt boards and offline.

What does personalized learning look like for the younger ages?

Levine: We touch on this throughout the book, but there is a chapter that digs into the different kinds of assistive technologies, or voice recognition software, or the big artificial intelligence supercomputing movement of Watson, for example. I think a bunch of [Silicon] Valley dudes haven’t produced much yet, but there are some things that are worth keeping an eye on.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is a reporter and the blended learning fellow. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift,… See Archive