Future Tense

Future Tense Event Recap: What Do Kids Really Learn From Education Tech?

It seems every educational app promises the most engaging and effective way to teach children, and cash-strapped school districts have embraced iPads, iPods, and Smart Boards as solutions to the challenges they face. But with all the time and resources invested in educational technology, how much do we really know about learning from these popular new devices?

The good news is the field of research is growing, but it’s got a long way to go. Presenting on Tuesday at Future Tense’s portion of the Education Innovation Summit 2013 in Scottsdale, Ariz., Lisa Guernsey cautioned that we can’t simply expect young children to learn from an iPad app on their own. Guernsey, who directs the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative, said that in many cases, children don’t understand the nature of the technology they’re using. (Disclosure: Arizona State University, a co-host of the Education Innovation Summit, is a partner in Future Tense along with Slate and the New America Foundation.)

Guernsey highlighted research from the University of Virginia suggesting babies can’t often distinguish between images and objects. When shown pictures on a piece of paper, babies in the study tried to pick up the objects on the page. In one case, a baby held a picture of a shoe up to its own foot, as if trying to wear it. This misunderstanding of screens and images continues as children age, and is perhaps most evident when kids ask how people got inside their TVs. For that reason, Guernsey, author of Screen Time, says parents and teachers should become media mentors to children, guiding them toward age-appropriate apps and TV shows and teaching them how the technology works.

To discuss the challenges facing educational technology, Guernsey sat down with Katherine Mangu-Ward, managing editor at Reason magazine and a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at New America, for a conversation moderated by Future Tense editor Torie Bosch. Mangu-Ward agreed that too much technology is adopted in classrooms before figuring out how it teaches kids, but at the same time, many children don’t have anyone who can be an effective media mentor. With bad instructors, limited school resources, and parents who don’t understand technology, she said, we should be able to count on technology to teach kids when the people around them cannot.

Even if the perfect piece of educational technology were created, however, there would still be significant hurdles to getting it in the classroom. Mangu-Ward cautioned ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors, who made up much of the Education Innovation Summit’s audience, that teachers unions and seat-time requirements keep schools from adopting many new technologies.

Guernsey brought up one case of iPads in the classroom that’s notable for engaging students and teachers alike. The Zurich International School, which Guernsey wrote about for Future Tense earlier this week, gives students iPads to create content, rather than consume it. The students take videos, write blog posts, and build portfolios to explain concepts and show what they’ve learned. The approach appears to be successful, and it has a great deal to do with how the teachers guide students using the technology.

The worst idea, Guernsey and Mangu-Ward agreed, is for schools to pour money into new technology and expect it to improve students’ performance instantly, without any thought to how the tech should be used. Until educators understand how technologies work, and how they teach students, those purchases will look more like wasted money than good investments.