Late last month, the Madison Metropolitan School District adopted a five-year, $27.7 million technology plan calling for all district students, including those in the primary grades, to have significantly increased access to their very own tablet or notebook computer by 2019. Some parents, as well as education professionals, questioned whether elementary-aged kids, especially kindergarteners who aren't even able to read or write yet, will gain much benefit from introducing yet another screen into their lives.
But according to new research being conducted by Heather Kirkorian, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology, personal computing devices may be excellent learning tools for even younger kids, including toddlers younger than 2-1/2.
"I've always been interested in how kids learn and feel there is definite educational potential in both television and technology," says Kirkorian, who directs the campus' Cognitive Development and Media Learning Lab. "Whether it be television, videogames or touch-screen apps, our lab wants to be part of making the options as educational as possible."
Kirkorian says most experts agree that all those Baby Einstein DVDs for infants can be thrown away. "Research shows that while infants and toddlers may pay attention to information that's presented to them on TV, there's just not that much they can learn from it. We call this the video deficit."
But recent research coming out of Kirkorian's lab is discovering that when kids are asked to interact with a screen in a very specific way -- for example, to touch a tablet in a specified place to learn the meaning of new word -- they learn faster and make fewer mistakes.
"This doesn't necessarily mean kids who use tablets are going to become the little Einsteins," says Kirkorian. "But the technology is definitely helping them get a little more information."
This all comes as welcome news to busy moms like Jessica Robbins, a radiologist with UW Hospitals. She's never really felt comfortable with the idea of her 2-year-old son Quinn watching TV, but as a dual laptop, tablet and smartphone family, she acknowledges, "Screens play a really big part in our lives."
Robbins says she regularly lets Quinn "borrow" her iPad to look at photos of family and friends, especially when she needs a few quiet minutes to feed his newborn brother Logan. "Quinn's already figured out how to swipe and unlock it; he'd probably be on all day if I let him."
Robbins claims that current research pointing toward the potential educational benefits of interactive media usage definitely makes her feel less guilty about giving in to his demand for more tablet time. "You have to have something they love to do that keeps them busy," she says with a sigh. "The days are long and his naps are getting short."
Kirkorian is the first to admit that her research, while gaining national attention in such publications as the National Journal, The Atlantic and Time, is very preliminary. Although early indications are that the video deficit can be overcome when interactive video is supplied in its place, she feels more research is needed.
"We'd love to find out things like if there is any evidence for long-term benefits from tablets and smartphones in terms of school readiness or increased enthusiasm for learning," says Kirkorian.
She'd also be interested in learning if interactive media devices can hold unique potential for children with special needs like autism and ADHD.
Kirkorian hopes the projects her lab is working on will lead media producers and web developers to create better age-appropriate apps and programming that will maximize learning.
"Right now," says Kirkorian, "there are no policies dictating what constitutes an educational app for young children. We know, for slightly older kids, that Sesame Street and Blue's Clues are the educational gold standard for television. I hope that someday, with continued research, we will know what a gold-standard app for a toddler looks like."
In the meantime, organizations like Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to providing trustworthy, independent information on media targeted to kids, has developed a set of ratings intended to gauge the quality of child-friendly apps. The organization's website has a number of recommendations, with some of the preschool favorites being "AlphaTots," which helps little ones learn the alphabet, and "Tozzle," an app featuring jigsaw-puzzle-shaped drag-and-drop shapes that assist in the development of problem-solving skills.
It makes Kirkorian happy that her current work can help parents of young children make informed decisions about how and how much to use technology in the home.
"Moms and dads should always strive to use media intentionally," she says. "They should try to sit with their kids whenever possible and talk with them while they are engaging with the screen."
But Kirkorian knows from experience (she's the stepmother to a West High freshman) that always hanging out with your child while he or she is playing around with the iPhone isn't that realistic.
"There is no need at all to worry," she says, "about sitting your child in front of a video for 15 minutes while you grab a shower, turn over the laundry or take a phone call.
"I've never really agreed when I've heard people say media is bad," she adds. "I don't think that's fair. It's kind of like saying food is bad. There are always choices to be made. I just hope my lab is helping parents to make the right choices."