Interactive media — an educational publisher’s perspective

08/21/2013  |  By ERIN KINARD
Early Childhood

The role of interactive media in education — particularly early childhood education — is a matter of ongoing scrutiny and debate. Many educators champion the transformative potential of the digital frontier. They see new opportunities for personalized learning and individualized, student-centered approaches. While others sound alarms against the loss of real-world, hands-on learning experiences that they fear are being replaced with passive “screen time” and the virtual in place of the real.

As a former early childhood teacher, I am a firm believer in the power of the “hands-on” experience. We all learn by doing. To learn to ride a bike, you have to get on a bike. To learn to tie your shoes, you have to struggle with shoelaces. To learn to paint, build, sing, hammer nails, dance, make a new friend, tell someone who is bothering you to go away — in order to learn all these things and more — you need the opportunity to practice them in a real-world context.

There is no virtual substitute. But in our ever-evolving digital world, much of what many of us actually do everyday is in a digital context. Learning to use a keyboard and mouse, or how to locate information on the Internet requires the same kind of hands-on learning experience as planting a seed and watching it grow. You just use different tools to accomplish different learning outcomes.

The position statement “Technology and Interactive Media as Tools In Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8,” jointly adopted in January 2012 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, takes a balanced approach to the issue of using technology and interactive media as tools in early childhood education. The authors begin by acknowledging, “technology and interactive media are here to stay. Young children live in a world of interactive media. They are growing up at ease with digital devices that are rapidly becoming the tools of the culture at home, at school, at work, and in the community.”

There is no denying the importance of digital literacy to the future success of young children today. As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure that children are capable users of the digital tools required to participate fully in school, work and social life. But the issue of interactive technology in education extends beyond the basic need to ensure that students are digitally literate.

Educators have an opportunity to explore new ways of teaching and learning via the new systems of interaction and content delivery that innovations in technology can provide. This application must be done thoughtfully, for “with guidance, these various technology tools can be harnessed for learning and development; without guidance, usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development.”

As publishers of educational materials, our mission is to develop learning tools that are appropriate for the intended learning outcomes. Unfortunately, much of the digital educational content developed in the past few decades has not always adhered to this principle. There is too much “technology for technology’s sake.” Replications of print material in digital form — digital worksheets, textbooks, and static eBooks — don’t offer a more valuable learning experience than their low-tech print versions. These digital forms of print content may be more portable, but there is no significant advantage in terms of the learning experience. The true challenge is to harness the potential of digital media to actually transform the experience of the learner into something deeper, more engaging, and more powerful.

This is not a simple task. It requires a shift in thinking about educational content as collections of static pages that present information in the most efficient way for the intended audience. Developing content for new media requires a deep understanding of the interactive, personalized, nonlinear and dynamic potential of multiple technologies, including interactive whiteboards, multi-touch devices, tablets and other mobile devices, personal computers, and the systems that connect them.

It also requires knowledge of how students and teachers use technology in their home and social lives — something that evolves almost daily. Content developers must couple expertise in technology and instructional design with their understanding of developmentally appropriate practice, content area knowledge and learning theories in order to design quality interactive educational tools. The learning curve here is steep, and without an end in sight. But if we want our educational tools to be relevant and compelling to today’s students and teachers, we must evolve. We must build a new set of best practices for developing educational technology that drive us toward transformation.

The opportunities are obvious. A personal “a-ha” moment occurred for me several years ago as my three-year-old daughter was playing Fish School, an iPAD application designed to introduce the letters of the alphabet. The approach is graphically engaging but very straightforward: schools of fish form the letters of the alphabet, synced to the tune of the familiar ABCs song. I was amazed by my daughter’s sustained engagement, “playing” the application alongside me as I did my own work for nearly an hour. She would sing along with the ABCs song as the fish formed each letter, pausing the game whenever her sing-along didn’t match correctly. When she and the technology diverged from her internal expectations about their performance, she would back up, start over, and try again. She was completely in control of her learning experience, moving at her own pace, self-monitoring, self-correcting. By the time she was done, she had mastered the song.

I drew an immediate comparison, likening her experience with the iPAD to my own experience learning the alphabet while watching Sesame Street. As a child, I was engaged, entertained, and educated by Sesame Street. But I was not in control of the pace, delivery, frequency, skill level or timing of the experience. What my daughter was able to accomplish in one hour of self-actualized learning would have taken countless repeated episodes of Sesame Street. I realized at that moment that her expectations for learning vary greatly from mine at her age. She is growing up in a time of extraordinary potential for powerful, active learning experiences.

The challenge to educational publishers today is to design tools for use in school that are as engaging and powerful as the games children and adults choose to play outside of school. The gaming industry has much to teach us in terms of developing an engaging user experience, putting the learner/user in control of the pace of instruction, assessing behind the scenes, and adapting the experience/instruction based on user performance. Many principles of good game design map directly onto principles of good instruction. As part of “Kindervention” — a recently developed reading intervention program for kindergarten, we created a series of online games related to phonemic awareness, letter recognition, letter-sound correspondence, and high-frequency word recognition. We purposely incorporated principles of game design into the online program. As children play the games, the system tracks their input and records their progress in reports immediately available to the teacher. There is no separate assessment. The games are the assessment. Likewise, the system records which letters, sounds, and words children struggle with and selects those specific skills for increased practice and review — adapted and personalized for each student.

More and more digital content in education harnesses the emerging potential of interactive technology. We have only scratched the surface of what is possible. As we keep pushing the boundaries in order to discover new possibilities, we must remain balanced between the digital and the non-digital. There will always be a need for the “hands-on” experience. The virtual cannot replace the educative power of the real — real student/teacher and student/student interactions. “

The most logical conclusion to be drawn from the existing scholarly literature is that it is the educational content that matters — not the format in which it is presented. And in my personal opinion, a really good children’s book — printed, bound and grasped in eager hands — is still the greatest form of art.

Erin Kinard is EVP/Publisher of Abrams Learning Trends.
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