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Children’s Learning With Tablet Technology is Often Too Passive

Learning can come easier with technology like tablets. 

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Can tablets teach children basic math and reading skills? As a professor who studies technology integration in K-12 schools, I can say the answer is yes but with some critical caveats.

Computers running instructional software have been used to teach basic mathematics and reading since the 1960s. This software shows the student content on a certain topic. The student practices by answering one or more questions, and the computer evaluates the answer and provides feedback. Then the process is repeated with a new topic.

Present-day instructional software uses more sophisticated data analytics and algorithms to adapt the instructional content to each student.

Many children find learning through instructional software difficult because they work alone and passively receive information. Students sit, read, listen, watch, answer questions and receive feedback. Some students just click randomly through each informational screen until the bell rings (which really messes with predictive analytics).

Research has shown these passive uses of tablets are about as effective as a teacher’s lecture. Innovative, progressive teaching with tablet technology requires more creative solutions.

Children’s learning with technology becomes more meaningful and engaging when they tackle intellectually challenging, complex content problems that have roots in their interests or lives. Students can use their tablets and their access to software, hardware or content to examine, explore, design and construct new knowledge.

For example, in mathematics, students can use simulations of the stock market or owning a pizzeria to apply mathematical skills while also understanding its role in day-to-day life. Web-based virtual manipulatives allow learners to understand abstract mathematical concepts more concretely and increase the variety of student solutions. Data collection hardware, spreadsheets and visualization tools allow exploration of number concepts, operations, and patterns and mathematical problem-solving using data that children collect themselves. In a math-science unit, first-grade students use tablets to observe, describe, count and graph characteristics of animals living in captivity and wild habitats around the world via live webcam video.

In English language arts, e-books provide wider access to free reading materials as well as built-in comprehension supports such as audible reading, definitions, illustrations and animations. Students can video-conference with book authors or experts for perspectives beyond the classroom. Students have written and created multimedia content and published and distributed digital books or magazines on the web. Becoming a protagonist and avatar in an educational video game taught students persuasive writing by collecting evidence within the world and writing letters to convince in-game characters of their position on specific issues.

In learning activities such as these, children learn basic skills and apply these skills to meaningful problems. Their learning endures over time and is more transferable to other learning problems in the future.

All children should have opportunities for such high intellectual engagement technology uses, but they don’t.

Research shows that some groups of learners (students of color, those from low-income families, or who who are low-achieving) primarily use technology in school to passively receive information; other groups (students living in affluent areas or those in gifted and talented / advanced courses) use technology to do active, creative and social learning activities.

We can address this inequity. School communities should identify whether a divide exists by examining how technology is used for learning within courses and by groups of learners. Teachers should use passive computer-based instruction selectively for specific learning challenges, such as self-paced reviews of content gaps or for advanced, independent learning, rather than as a comprehensive technology-based curriculum. Schools should provide technological and curricular support for teachers to develop and teach with technology in ways that put the technology in the students’ hands for intellectually rigorous learning.

The available technologies, if applied with innovation and creativity, can make learning more hands-on, stimulating and effective. That is the future of education with technology.

Joan E. Hughes is an associate professor of learning technologies in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Her most recent book on technology and education is “Integrating Educational Technology in Teaching: Transforming Learning Across Disciplines,” co-authored with M.D. Roblyer (Pearson Education, January 2018).

A verison of this op-ed in Dallas Morning News.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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