Family and Parenting·Media

Children using tablets for learning at home and in the classroom

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April 27, 2017

Wendee Rosborough sits across the room from her son as he listens to her read a story through his tablet. Storytime for this family looks a little different, but Roman is learning the words and stories all the same.

Roman follows along with the video she records of herself reading the book and turning the pages, then he goes to their bookshelf to find the book. Before the tablet, he wouldn’t let his parents read to him and was delayed in speech.

“I finally clued in that maybe if I recorded myself reading the book on the tablet as a video that maybe he would be more interested in it,” Wendee Rosborough shared.

They found that if their son discovered the videos on his own, he would become interested and memorize the stories coming from his mom’s voice, through the tablet. He will now pick up books he recognizes from his tablet and try to read.

“Today he let me read a book to him without the tablet, so I feel like it’s transitioning us to reading together, so for me that’s been the bonus,” Wendee Rosborough said.

The Rosboroughs and their four-year-old son are part of a growing trend of families and schools that are adopting tablets for learning. With the rise of technology in homes across America, children are becoming more exposed, and more dependent, on interactive devices like iPads and tablets. Parents and educators are faced with the challenge of managing the use of these devices.

New technology changing habits

In a report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Stanford University on media multitasking, Claudia Wallis shared, “New technology sometimes brings change that is so swift and sweeping, that the implications are hard to grasp.”

Much of the media research is outdated, based on traditional media habits that saw kids being dependent on TV for their entertainment. In tablet-owning homes, seven out of ten children under age 12 now use the devices for their entertainment and learning.

According to Pew Research, “among parents with minor children living at home, tablet ownership rose from 26% in April 2012 to 50% in May 2013.”

An Ofcom report on media use shared that “younger children who go online at home, in particular, are five times more likely than in 2012 to mostly use a tablet computer. One in eight 3- 4 year-olds use a tablet computer to go online.”

Research generally focuses on the risks, but attention is now turning to benefits that can come from the use of interactive devices. According to Common Sense Media, 1 in 5 children have learning difficulties. The wide variety of apps and simplicity of use in tablets make the devices valuable to these children’s learning.

Learning at home

Tablet ownership is growing among parents, so downloading educational games for their kids is inexpensive and easy. Kids are becoming “digital natives” because they are born into the digital culture and quickly learn how to utilize devices.

Roman started playing with his dad’s device when he was one. He quickly learned how to turn it on and off and navigate through different apps.

“It’s helped us to function because if we need to go to a restaurant or on a long trip, it keeps him in his seat quiet,” Wendee Rosborough said. “It’s a great distraction.”

What started out as a tool to help keep him entertained turned into an essential tool for Roman’s learning. His parents started to download educational games in hopes it would help him with his speech and communication.

“I really do think the tablet has helped him with the speech, pronunciation, words, vocabulary,” Gian Rosborough shared. “For a long time he would never say any words until about 8 months ago…now he’ll do two or three word sentences.”

The variety of apps available allows each family to choose what is most beneficial to their child. For Roman, the tablet has taught him important concepts such as “try again” when he does something wrong, or learning praise words for doing a good job. The games reward him with complementary words like superior, fantastic, and wonderful which his parents now use to reinforce other things in real life.

“Now we’re trying to potty train, and when I use those words he knows that they’re praise, that it’s a good thing,” Wendee Rosborough shared. “He loves to tell himself ‘terrific’ or ‘wonderful’.”

It has also been beneficial in introducing activities outside the iPad that he can share with his family. He generally resists new activities that his parents try to show him, so they have found that certain games have opened that door.

“Because he saw skiball on here, when we went to Provo Beach, we played together when he usually wouldn’t give it his attention. He learned what a basketball was on a tablet, and now he’ll play basketball with me.” Gian Rosborough said.

''He learned what a basketball was on a tablet, and now he’ll play basketball with me.''-- Gian Rosborough

Roman’s parents aren’t naïve to the fact that iPads don’t necessarily help with social skills like making eye contact and talking to others, but they think that the knowledge he’s gaining will help learn how to make those connections.

“I know the general consensus especially with the older generation, is to worry about the electronics,” Wendee Rosborough said. “Everyone tells me ‘oh it’s delayed his communication because he should be talking with people’ but he doesn’t talk with people, so in our situation it’s saved us.”

The parents make sure to set “cue words” that he knows when it’s time to put it away. ‘All done tablet’ or ‘goodbye tablet’ lets him know that it’s time to put it away, and he’ll go find something else to do.

Finding a happy medium

While technology can be beneficial for learning, parents are challenged with managing its use and finding the right balance for their family.

Allison Cox is a mother of three who home-schools her children. They use the iPad in to reinforce concepts while she is working with another child. They also earn play time by helping out throughout the day and doing their school work.

“I do feel like if you do your homework as a parent, you can find some really great learning resources for them and in that case technology can be quite a blessing,” Cox said.

While Cox is grateful for the convenience of the technology, she emphasizes that it is a double-edge sword that relies on careful monitoring by parents.

“Technology can be quite convenient as a parent and there are definitely times that I am so thankful we have our iPhones or iPads to occupy them and keep them happy,” Cox said.

Cox shared while she is grateful to have it, she sometimes feels like children are missing out when they become dependent on the devices.

“I think it is critical to find that happy medium for your kids and your family,” Cox said.

iPads in the Classroom

Many schools are also adopting tablets as an educational tool, seeing the benefits it has for children with learning difficulties. Clear Horizons Academy, a school for autistic children in Provo, Utah, provides iPads for each of their 45 students in order to help with communication and learning.

“We know that it really helps children with autism to learn with iPads or other digital devices, so they are very essential for us to have,” said Carol Walker, public relations director for Clear Horizons Academy.

The school got the iPads last year from grants, private donors, and corporations. They had to stress to donors that the iPads would be used for learning. The devices allow the teachers to personalize how they are used for each student, and the endless variety of apps opens up possibilities for learning that they previously may not have had.

“We as a development team thought it was really vital that we get them for the school and wrote the grant so that they understand what we’re really using them for. They’re not for games or playtime, and people were very receptive to that,” Walker said.

“We have these devices and they can be great learning tools and very helpful, but they can also be very detrimental to them…we know that with all children, disabilities or not,” Walker said.

Clear Horizons has seen great improvements with communication and attention span. The student’s attention will last longer with the iPad, so that helps them get more practice. Many of the children who are nonverbal carry them with them at all times to help them communicate with those around them. Apps like Sonoflex have icons that allow the children to create sentences such as “I want a drink,” and verbalize the sentence for them, so they can in turn try to verbalize their thoughts.

“It supports communication, which reduces the frustration, which then allows them to be happy in their environment and learn and participate,” said Holly Child, teacher at Clear Horizons.

One teacher at Clear Horizons did a simulation game for history class with students playing colonists, the King in England, and the governor. With the use of the iPad one of her nonverbal students made the final say as the governor. The device made it easier for him to participate, and he was able to contribute to the outcome.

Childs shared that most of the children use the similar devices at home to play games as a detox and relaxation tool. She says it’s important that the parents set time limits to keep structure.

“Because of the habits that are formed in their free time at home, it’s hard for them to come and use them at school, so if anything we teach them how to use it appropriately at school and when it’s okay,” Childs said.

Guidelines for media monitoring

New research is clear on one thing; children are getting access to technology at an increasing rate and at a younger age. The effects of how this will continue to impact children in the future are unclear at this point.

Dr Dimitri A. Christakis is a Seattle pediatrician who studies the effect of media on children. He co-authored the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines in 2011 that discouraged media use for kids younger than two. With the rise of these interactive devices, however, he “now says that kids younger than 2 may actually benefit from 30 minutes to 60 minutes a day of screen time — as long as it’s interactive, not passive,” NBC News reported.

Jordy Kaufman, director of the BabyLab at Swinburne University in Melbourne, is currently exploring the impact of the use of technology on children aged two to five.

“When scientists and pediatrician advocacy groups have talked about the danger of screen time for kids, they are lumping together all types of screen use. But most of the research is on TV. It seems misguided to assume that iPad apps are going to have the same effect. It all depends what you are using it for,” Kaufman shared with The Guardian.

Many people fear the danger that comes with increasing accessibility to technology by children. Children may become dependent on the devices and can be exposed to inappropriate content.

Sarah Coyne, a BYU professor who researches children and media, says that although there isn’t much research regarding tablets, traditional media monitoring rules apply.

The first step for parents is restrictive monitoring, which is about setting rules for your kids. The next step is active monitoring or having media discussions with your kids.

“We’re definitely not going to protect our kids from everything, so instead of saying ‘if you see pornography’ you talk about ‘when you see pornography’…to help kids be critical viewers of media,” Coyne said.

The last step is co-viewing, which Coyne admits is more difficult with the mobility of the tablet. She recommends that parents become knowledgeable and don’t let technology become the default.

“I just recommend just being aware. Know every single app on there and what it does. If your kid’s on Instagram then you get on Instagram, if your kid’s on Twitter, then you get on Twitter,” Coyne said. “You just have to be really involved and informed as a parent in this new media generation.”

Chelsea is graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in communications. Her emphasis is digital and print journalism. This is her capstone project for Multimedia Journalism.

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