Research lacks evidence on device use, apps for young children

Mobile media devices are quickly becoming the preferred choice for use in children’s learning because of their screen size, portability, ability to stream content, interactive capabilities, and decreased cost. But little research is known about their effectiveness in both the general education and special education populations, said Sharon Judge, professor of special education at Old Dominion University.

Judge recently spoke during the Center on Technology and Disability‘s conference on Technology Solutions for Early Childhood in Washington, where she discussed past and current studies and publications, including Assistive Technology for Young Children with Disabilities: A Guide to Family-Centered Services and Using Mobile Media Devices.

The studies are conclusive about the rise of devices and apps for learning and general-use purposes, she said.

Illustrating this point is a recent cross-sectional study of 350 young children from urban, low-income minority communities, which showed that 75 percent of the children under the age of 5 had their own mobile device and nearly all of them started using the devices before age 1, she noted.

This pattern, which is seen to some extent in other populations as well, suggests that early adaptation, frequent and independent use, and universal exposure to mobile devices is the norm, she explained. “We need to face that this is part of our reality,” Judge said.

“Mobile phones and tablets offer tremendous potential in reaching young learners with learning disabilities, including facilitating conversations between adults and other learners, encouraging motor skills, and providing that joint interaction that we know is really meaningful for young children,” she said.

Screen time, however, is still being debated. The concerns that using digital media prevents children from getting the proper amount of physical exercise as well as the likelihood that children may be distracted by mobile devices are also weighing on decisions to integrate such tools in early childhood educational settings, she noted.

Educational value

Judge also said parents and educators find it difficult to monitor student access to and sharing of inappropriate content, and many continue to question the educational value of mobile devices and apps.

Caregivers and educators have reason to be wary, Judge said. With more than 80,000 apps labeled as educational in a popular app store, little research validates their quality, she said.

“Some apps are developed with all the bells and whistles but they aren’t mindful of the content, and it tries to keep children engaged by constantly changing [content on] the screen,” Judge said.

Only a handful of apps are found in studies to be designed with children’s learning processes in mind, she added.

Based on the current body of research, Judge said apps that offer “user-driven, intrinsically-motivating experiences are known to be deeply engaging for children.”

Apps bearing qualities that offer “meaningful learning” opportunities — in which children can activate prior knowledge in a subject — and require children to solve problems and demonstrate proficiency in a content area going beyond rote memorization are also shown as useful for learning, she explained.

When critically examining apps for young children with disabilities, however, existing research suggests that it’s important to examine apps first for accessibility, she said.

“As we know, young children with disabilities sometimes have disadvantages of accessing not only the mobile media devices, but also the content,” she said, adding that developers and early childhood professionals need to examine accessibility of apps “through the lens of universal design for learning framework and the seven principles of UDL.”

Additionally, all apps should be developmentally appropriate and be integrated into learning environments based on the child’s interest and educational needs, while also being challenging enough to help the child “continue to grow,” she said.

Dearth of research

“We have a lot of apps out there, but not much research has been done on them,” Judge said in concluding remarks. “Researchers need to conduct empirical studies of the design, content and use factors that optimize the educational value of children’s apps.”

Indeed, parents and educators could benefit from more detailed information about app content and their development and how apps end up on top educational lists, Judge said.

Tamara Kaldor, assistant director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erikson Institute, said a recent study they conducted found that technology use was almost universal for children under 6, and in looking at existing studies, the most troubling finding was that most studies are being done in labs and not in homes, schools, libraries, or museums.

Only 8-10 percent of studies involved populations of special needs children, ELs, or low socioeconomic status. Plus, only .02 percent of studies coded were longitudinal in nature, she said.

Visit http://www.fetc.org/ to learn about the new Early Learning session track at LRP’s National Future of Education Technology Conference, to be held Jan. 24-27 at the Orange County (Fla.) Convention Center.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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