Category Archives: Technology

Books or laptops, a new study about choosing the right tools in education

Earlier this week there was the often shared article in Scientific American that discussed the use of laptops in (higher) education. This new study looks further than the effect on learning, but also looks at the possibilities and the cost.

What did they find – in short?

  • Accessing and producing reading resources are increasingly shifting from print to digital options that can be viewed on electronic devices, such as computers. In education in particular, research studies have shown that providing digital content on computers has lower marginal costs but higher fixed costs in comparison to textbooks for schools.
  • Information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as computers and laptops, provide users with computational tools, information storage and communication opportunities. However, these devices may also pose as distractors that tamper with the learning process.
  • Using a randomized controlled trial in elementary schools in Honduras, we show that at the end of one school year, we fail to reject the hypothesis that the substitution of laptops for textbooks did not make a significant difference in student learning for mathematics and Spanish and in non-academic outcomes related to coding and verbal fluency.

It’s a bit complicated to understand this last point. Do laptops have a good, a bad or no effect on learning? Luckily the conclusion in the article is much more clear and the answer is: no effect:

We found textbook replacement with laptops did not affect student learning after one school year using a randomized controlled trial with 271 schools and 9,600 students. We also implemented a cost-effectiveness analysis to compare expected results of this replacement of textbooks using laptops. Laptops have a higher initial fixed cost than books and impose variable costs, such as electricity, Internet and maintenance. However, the marginal cost of providing additional content decreases.

Our research highlights limitations relevant for future work. First, our results correspond to one year of program exposure. The impact of the program during a longer exposure may enhance our understanding of how technology affects student learning. In particular, it would be interesting to explore the effects of laptops after four years of working life. Second, some literature points to adaptability of software as a determinant to learning efficiency. We only explore how format provision changed student learning. Future work may test how specific software features affect its role in providing content information. Third, our cost-effectiveness results are sensitive to assumptions on student’s benefits derived from Internet access, communication technologies and digital literacy. However, we do not have good causal estimates of the returns on these computer features (net potential harmful effects). More information on how students benefit from computer use in the long run would provide useful information to inform policy regarding laptop provision. Fourth, given the low marginal costs of digital provision of content, it would be interesting to estimate how the substitution of more textbooks affects learning outcomes. It is a priori unclear whether there are positive or negative scale effects on learning. Fifth, another relevant area to explore is how freedom of choice may impose a cost control on users. More specifically, laptops may make it difficult for students to focus on learning tasks. Students may get distracted by games, music or social communication features.

Is this the definitive study on laptops versus books in education? Did you just read the last paragraph? Hell no. It’s just another interesting piece of a jigsaw puzzle of which we don’t know how it looks like and how many pieces there are left.

Abstract of the study:

Information and communication technologies can be used for educational purposes, but these devices may also pose as distractors that may tamper with the learning process. This paper presents results from a randomized controlled trial in which laptops replaced traditional textbook provision in elementary schools in high poverty communities in Honduras. We show that at the end of one school year, we fail to reject that there were no differences between laptop and textbook provision on mathematics and Spanish test scores and in non-academic outcomes related to coding and verbal fluency

 

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Good but alarming talk by Alison McDowell: What Sillicon Valley has planned for public education

The talk is more nuanced than you might think, but holds a clear warning. (H/t E. Morozov)

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Everybody should read this: The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools

This is a truly must-read article in the NY Times. Do you remember the letter by Bill Gates acknowledging that his impact on education was a bit dubious to say the least? It didn’t stop him from having a new idea for educationalthough personalized learning hasn’t much evidence backing it up yet (no, not really).

And the experiences by Bill Gates didn’t stop other Silicon Valley Billionaires for trying their own piece of solutionism for education. If you wonder what solutionism is:

  • The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature. (source)

So we have Hastings from Netflix trying to use algorithms in education, Marc Zuckerberg aiming at education with less emphasis on the teacher but rather having pupils teach themselves, … Stuff that they probably think:

  • that it will work,
  • that it hasn’t been done before.

Take the example of the present emphasis on coding in education to learn e.g. general problem solving skills. The sad thing is: a lot of this actually has been done before and often failed. We bought the t-shirt and it didn’t fit.

The sole reason these people have their big influence is not because they are smarter than anybody else. Or that they have newer insights. It’s because of two things: a) they have a lot of money and b) they want to do something for the community. Oh, and often you can add a third thing: they are parents and want the best for their own kid(s) and all the other kids. Nothing wrong with these reasons and I have nothing against billionaires, but it can be both undemocratic (my opinion is more important because I’m wealthy) and dangerous (by reinventing square wheels).

In the article in the NY Times you’ll find more info and there is one paragraph I really needed to share, quoting Larry Cuban:

Captains of American industry have long used their private wealth to remake public education, with lasting and not always beneficial results.

What is different today is that some technology giants have begun pitching their ideas directly to students, teachers and parents — using social media to rally people behind their ideas. Some companies also cultivate teachers to spread the word about their products.

Such strategies help companies and philanthropists alike influence public schools far more quickly than in the past, by creating legions of supporters who can sway legislators and education officials.

Another difference: Some tech moguls are taking a hands-on role in nearly every step of the education supply chain by financing campaigns to alter policy, building learning apps to advance their aims and subsidizing teacher training. This end-to-end influence represents an “almost monopolistic approach to education reform,” said Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University. “That is starkly different to earlier generations of philanthropists.”

These efforts coincide with a larger Silicon Valley push to sell computers and software to American schools, a lucrative market projected to reach $21 billion by 2020. Already, more than half of the primary- and secondary-school students in the United States use Google services like Gmail in school.

But many parents and educators said in interviews that they were unaware of the Silicon Valley personalities and money influencing their schools.

Hence the undemocratic…

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Interesting read: Adaptive practice, personalized learning, and what will “obviously” work in education.

Has been a while that I did a blog post like this, but this new post by Daniel Willingham is an interesting read – adding to this earlier post by Larry Cuban.

Daniel Willingham is discussing in his post this new Dutch study:

 

  • A double-blind field experiment for evaluating two practicing algorithms.
  • Adaptive practicing yields test scores similar to traditional static practicing.
  • High ability students perform slightly worse when practicing adaptively.
  • Effective personalization of education asks for a more comprehensive approach.

Does this mean that adaptive instruction doesn’t work? Willingham explains why there was not a positive effect of adaptive testing? (bold by me)

One possibility is low dosage. The intervention was only 15 minutes per week and although students could have practiced more, few did. At the same time, the intervention lasted an entire school year, the N was fairly large, and an effect was observed (in the unexpected direction) for the better prepared students.
Another possibility is that the program was effective in getting challenging problems to students, but ineffective in providing instruction. Students in the adaptive condition saw more difficult problems, but they got a lot of them wrong. Perhaps they needed more support and instruction at that point, so the potential benefit of stretching their knowledge and skills was not realized.
Another possibility is that the adaptive group would have shown a benefit on a different outcome measure. As the authors note, the summative test was more like the static practice than the adapative practice. Perhaps the adapative group would have shown a benefit in their readiness and ability to learn in the next unit.
​This result obviously does not show that adaptive practice is a bad idea, or cannot be made to work well. It simply adds to the list of ideas that sound like they are more or less foolproof that turn out not to be: think spiral curriculum, or electronic textbooks. Thinking and learning is simply too complicated for us to confidently predict how a change in one variable will affect the entire cognitive and conative systems.

 

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Please look up? Is your tech behavior causing your child to misbehave?

A new study by researchers from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Illinois State University suggests that even in low amounts, interruptions to parent-child time caused by digital technology are associated with greater child behavior problems.

About half of parents reported that technology interrupted time with their children three or more times on a typical day. Even in low amounts, interruptions to parent-child time caused by digital technology are associated with greater child behavior problems.

Feeling bad yet? I have some good news: you can argue that this study is rather small – it is. And in court the evidence would be called rather circumstantial (and correlational). Still, the study seems to be a nice starting point for further research.

Still, read the press release:

Those are often on the list of reasons parents mention if their child whines, has tantrums or acts out.

Researchers are now asking if such negative behaviors could be related to something else: parents spending too much time on their smartphones or tablets.

A small study from University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Illinois State University found that heavy digital technology use by parents could be associated with child behavior issues. The findings were published in the May 2017 online issue of Child Development.

Researchers analyzed surveys completed separately by both mothers and fathers from 170 two-parent households. Mothers and fathers were asked about their use of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other technology — and how the devices disrupted family time (a disturbance that lead author Brandon T. McDaniel coins ‘technoference.’) Interruptions could be as simple as checking phone messages during mealtime, playtime and routine activities or conversations with their children.

Might a few stolen moments used to check a couple text messages have a deeper effect?

While more research is needed, the study suggests it might: Even low or seemingly normal amounts of tech-related interruption were associated with greater child behavior problems, such as oversensitivity, hot tempers, hyperactivity and whining.

“This was a cross-sectional study, so we can’t assume a direct connection between parents’ technology use and child behavior but these findings help us better understand the relationship,” says senior author Jenny Radesky, M.D., a child behavior expert and pediatrician at Mott. “It’s also possible that parents of children with behavioral difficulties are more likely to withdraw or de-stress with technology during times with their child.”

But she adds “We know that parents’ responsiveness to their kids changes when they are using mobile technology and that their device use may be associated with less-than-ideal interactions with their children. It’s really difficult to toggle attention between all of the important and attention-grabbing information contained in these devices, with social and emotional information from our children, and process them both effectively at the same time.”

McDaniel, who designed and carried out the study, says researchers hope to learn more about the impact of increasing digital technology use on families and children.

“Research on the potential impact of this exposure lags far behind,” says McDaniel, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University.

“It’s too early to draw implications that could be used in clinical practice but our findings contribute to growing literature showing an association between greater digital technology use and potential relationship dysfunction between parents and their children.”

Parents in the study were asked to rate how problematic their personal device use was based on how difficult it was for them to resist checking new messages, how frequently they worried about calls and texts and if they thought they used their phones too much.

Participants also were asked how often phones, tablets, computers and other devices diverted their attention when otherwise engaged with their children.

On average, mothers and fathers both perceived about two devices interfering in their interactions with their child at least once or more on a typical day. Mothers, however, seemed to perceive their phone use as more problematic than fathers did.

About half (48 percent) of parents reported technology interruptions three or more times on a typical day while 17 percent said it occurred once and 24 percent said it happened twice a day. Only 11 percent said no interruptions occurred.

Parents then rated child behavior issues within the past two months by answering questions about how often their children whined, sulked, easily got frustrated, had tantrums or showed signs of hyperactivity or restlessness.

The researchers controlled for multiple factors, such as parenting stress, depressive symptoms, income, parent education as well as co-parenting quality (how supportive partners were of each other in parenting their child), which has been shown to predict child behavior.

The study joins other research and advocacy groups contributing to a larger debate about technology and its effect on child development.

Some professional societies, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Zero to Three, recommend “unplugged” family time. But they haven’t tested whether lessening or changing digital technology use during parent-child activities is associated with improved child behavior.

McDaniel and Radesky advise parents to try to carve out designated times to put away the devices and focus all attention on their kids.

Reserving certain times of the day or locations as being technology-free — such as mealtime or playtime right after work — may help ease family tensions caused by the modern blurring of outside worlds with home life, they say.

“Parents may find great benefits from being connected to the outside world through mobile technology, whether that’s work, social lives or keeping up with the news. It may not be realistic, nor is it necessary, to ban technology use all together at home,” Radesky says. “But setting boundaries can help parents keep smartphones and other mobile technology from interrupting quality time with their kids.”

Abstract of the study:

 Heavy parent digital technology use has been associated with suboptimal parent–child interactions, but no studies examine associations with child behavior. This study investigates whether parental problematic technology use is associated with technology-based interruptions in parent–child interactions, termed “technoference,” and whether technoference is associated with child behavior problems. Parent reports from 170 U.S. families (child Mage = 3.04 years) and actor–partner interdependence modeling showed that maternal and paternal problematic digital technology use predicted greater technoference in mother–child and father–child interactions; then, maternal technoference predicted both mothers’ and fathers’ reports of child externalizing and internalizing behaviors. Results suggest that technological interruptions are associated with child problem behaviors, but directionality and transactional processes should be examined in future longitudinal studies.

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How do kids and parents worry about privacy with internet-connected toys

Your daughters’ Barbie can be hacked to spy on your children. So, got you worried? Researchers have now conducted a new study that explores the attitudes and concerns of both parents and children who play with internet-connected toys. Through a series of in-depth interviews and observations, the researchers found that kids didn’t know their toys were recording their conversations, and parents generally worried about their children’s privacy when they played with the toys.

From the press release:

University of Washington researchers have conducted a new study that explores the attitudes and concerns of both parents and children who play with internet-connected toys. Through a series of in-depth interviews and observations, the researchers found that kids didn’t know their toys were recording their conversations, and parents generally worried about their children’s privacy when they played with the toys.

“These toys that can record and transmit are coming into a place that’s historically legally very well-protected ? the home,” said co-lead author Emily McReynolds, associate director of the UW’s Tech Policy Lab. “People have different perspectives about their own privacy, but it’s crystalized when you give a toy to a child.”

The researchers presented their paper May 10 at the CHI 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Though internet-connected toys have taken off commercially, their growth in the market has not been without security breaches and public scrutiny. VTech, a company that produces tablets for children, was storing personal data of more than 200,000 children when its database was hacked in 2015. Earlier this year, Germany banned the Cayla toy over fears that personal data could be stolen.

It’s within this landscape that the UW team sought to understand the privacy concerns and expectations kids and parents have for these types of toys.

The researchers conducted interviews with nine parent-child pairs, asking each of them questions ? ranging from whether a child liked the toy and would tell it a secret to whether a parent would buy the toy or share what their child said to it on social media.

They also observed the children, all aged 6 to 10, playing with Hello Barbie and CogniToys Dino. These toys were chosen for the study because they are among the industry leaders for their stated privacy measures. Hello Barbie, for example, has an extensive permissions process for parents when setting up the toy, and it has been complimented for its strong encryption practices.

The resulting paper highlights a wide selection of comments from kids and parents, then makes recommendations for toy designers and policymakers.

Most of the children participating in the study did not know the toys were recording their conversations. Additionally, the toys’ lifelike exteriors probably fueled the perception that they are trustworthy, the researchers said, whereas kids might not have the tendency to share secrets and personal information when communicating with similar tools not intended as toys, such as Siri and Alexa.

“The toys are a social agent where you might feel compelled to disclose things that you wouldn’t otherwise to a computer or cell phone. A toy has that social exterior which might fool you into being less secure on what you tell it,” said co-lead author Maya Cakmak, an assistant professor at the Allen School. “We have this concern for adults, and with children, they’re even more vulnerable.”

Some kids were troubled by the idea of their conversations being recorded. When one parent explained how the child’s conversation with the doll could end up being shared widely on the computer, the child responded: “That’s pretty scary.”

At minimum, toy designers should create a way for the devices to notify children when they are recording, the researchers said. Designers could consider recording notifications that are more humanlike, such as having Hello Barbie say, “I’ll remember everything you say to me” instead of a red recording light that might not make sense to a child in that context.

The study found that most parents were concerned about their child’s privacy when playing with the toys. They universally wanted parental controls such as the ability to disconnect Barbie from the internet or control the types of questions to which the toys will respond. The researchers recommend toy designers delete recordings after a week’s time, or give parents the ability to delete conversations permanently.

A recent UW study demonstrated that video recordings that are filtered to preserve privacy can still allow a tele-operated robot to perform useful tasks, such as organize objects on a table. This study also revealed that people are much less concerned about privacy ? even for sensitive items that could reveal financial or medical information ? when such filters are in place. Speech recordings on connected toys could similarly be filtered to remove identity information and encode the content of speech in less human-interpretable formats to preserve privacy, while still allowing the toy to respond intelligibly.

The researchers hope this initial look into the privacy concerns of parents and kids will continue to inform both privacy laws and toy designers, given that such devices will only continue to fill the market and home.

“It’s inevitable that kids’ toys, as with everything else in society, will have computers in them, so it’s important to design them with security measures in mind,” said co-lead author Franziska Roesner, a UW assistant professor at the Allen School. “I hope the security research community continues to study these specific user groups, like children, that we don’t necessarily study in-depth.”

Abstract of the study:

Hello Barbie, CogniToys Dino, and Amazon Echo are part of a new wave of connected toys and gadgets for the home that listen. Unlike the smartphone, these devices are always on, blending into the background until needed. We conducted interviews with parent-child pairs in which they interacted with Hello Barbie and CogniToys Dino, shedding light on children’s expectations of the toys’ “intelligence” and parents’ privacy concerns and expectations for parental controls. We find that children were often unaware that others might be able to hear what was said to the toy, and that some parents draw connections between the toys and similar tools not intended as toys (e.g., Siri, Alexa) with which their children already interact. Our findings illuminate people’s mental models and experiences with these emerging technologies and will help inform the future designs of interactive, connected toys and gadgets. We conclude with recommendations for designers and policy makers.

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What’s the effect of code clubs on computational thinking and more? (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and this study will be of interest to many…

The National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) in the UK has published the results of a randomized controlled trial and process evaluation of Code Clubs – a UK network of after-school clubs where children aged 9-11 learn to program by making games, animations, websites, and applications. Code Club UK produces material and projects that support the teaching of Scratch, HTML/CSS, and Python. The clubs, which are supported by volunteers, usually run for one hour a week after school during term time.

The evaluation, conducted by Suzanne Straw and colleagues, assessed the impact of Code Clubs on Year 5 (4th grade in the U.S.) students’ computational thinking, programming skills, and attitudes toward computers and coding. Twenty-one schools in the UK took part in the trial which used a student-randomized design to compare student outcomes in the intervention and control groups. Intervention group students attended Code Club during the 2015/16 academic year, while control group students continued as they would do normally.

The results of the evaluation showed that attending Code Club for a year did not impact students’ computational thinking any more than might have occurred anyway, but did significantly improve their coding skills in Scratch, HTML/CSS, and Python. This was true even when control children learned Scratch as part of the computing curriculum in school. Code Club students reported increased usage of all three programming languages – and of computers more generally. However, the evaluation data suggests that attending Code Club for a year does not affect how students view their abilities in a range of transferable skills, such as following instructions, problem solving, learning about new things, and working with others.
Or in short: transfer is a bitch.

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A very interesting article on Google: How Google Took Over the Classroom

This is an interesting NY Times article with a lot of stuff to be both thrilled and alarmed about.

Some excerpts:

  • [M]ore than half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students — more than 30 million children — use Google education apps like Gmail and Docs … Chromebooks, Google-powered laptops that initially struggled to find a purpose, … account for more than half the mobile devices shipped to schools.”
  • Why it matters: “Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education — prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas.”
  • 50,000 feet: “It puts Google, and the tech economy, at the center of one of the great debates that has raged in American education for more than a century: whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable citizens or skilled workers.”
  • “Every year, several million American students graduate from high school. And not only does Google make it easy for those who have school Google accounts to upload their trove of school Gmail, Docs and other files to regular Google consumer accounts — but schools encourage them to do so.”
  • “[S]ome parents ... warn that Google could profit by using personal details from their children’s school email to build more powerful marketing profiles of them as young adults.”

But this excerpt shows another, big problem:

The director of Google’s education apps group, Jonathan Rochelle, touched on that idea in a speech at an industry conference last year. Referring to his own children, he said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”

Really? Because you can’t download creativity? Because you need a point of reference to check if Google is correct – and we know this is often not the case. Because you still need knowledge if you want to do things without being dependent of a big tech company. That and more is why. But if a director of Google’s education apps group knows so little about learning and education? Well, that’s scary.

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Oops… No evidence that enrichment activities encourage pupils to study STEM A-levels

It’s a theme in many countries: how can we get more pupils to choose for STEM-subjects in education. This new study from the University of Exeter shows that there is no evidence to suggest enrichment activities run to interest pupils in science, technology, engineering and maths results in significantly higher numbers of teenagers studying these subjects at A-level: “While these enrichment and engagement activities may have been enjoyable and memorable for children, there is no evidence they encouraged them to keep on studying STEM subjects. There is also no evidence that these activities increased the numbers of children from poorer homes or from ethnic minority backgrounds studying technology, engineering, science or maths.”

My own kids did like it, and I know a lot of people involved in these kinds of activities. I wouldn’t quit them yet, as the authors suggest there are maybe other benefits, but this result can be a kind of a depressing shocker for many. On the other hand: maybe it’s a bit naive to think that small time investments – from the look of the participants – could have a big impact?

From the press release:

There is no evidence to suggest enrichment activities run to interest pupils in science, technology, engineering and maths results in significantly higher numbers of teenagers studying these subjects at A-level.

Research shows there is nothing to show offering trips to laboratories or special practical lessons alone helps increase participation in science, technology or mathematics qualifications after 16.

A new study shows that, despite these activities being embraced by individual schools and the Government and being enjoyable and providing opportunities, they have not had a direct impact on the numbers choosing to study AS or A-levels in these subjects.

The enrichment activities, which also include the work of STEM centres, support by higher education institutions and visits to schools by inspirational role models, are run to tackle a skills shortage in the UK and to improve understanding and enjoyment of these subjects.

Dr Pallavi Amitava Banerjee, from theGraduate School of Education at the University of Exeter, tracked the educational progress of children in Key Stage 3, when they are aged 11 or 12, in 2007 until they reached the end of Key Stage 5, when they are 18, using information from the official National Pupil Database. She was able to single out pupils who had participated in STEM enrichment activities thanks to data given to her by activity providers, and then see the A-level subjects they ended up choosing. Dr Banerjee did not find a clear link between subject choice and STEM A-level participation.

Dr Banerjee examined data from around 600,000 teenagers for the study – all those in Year 7 in 2007 in English state secondary schools. She was able to divide them into five groups – those who had taken part in STEM enrichment activities from the age of 11 to 16; those who had only taken part when aged 11 to 14; those who had only taken part from 14 to 16; those who took part irregularly, and those for which this information was not known. Dr Banerjee was then able to track if these students had taken STEM subjects when aged 16 to 18 by looking at the National Pupil Database.

A total of 8.7 per cent of all those who had taken part in STEM activities during school went on to take biology A-level, 7.5 per cent for chemistry, 5 per cent for physics and 12 per cent for maths. The number of students who went on to study STEM A-levels having not taken part in STEM enrichment activities were very similar – 7.3 per cent for biology, 6.1 per cent for chemistry, 4.3 per cent for physics and 10 per cent for mathematics.

Students who only took part in STEM enrichment activities during only Key Stage 4, when aged 14 to 16,had the lowest STEM participation rates. Those who participated in interventions only during KS3, but never in KS4, were found to be slightly more likely to opt to take STEM subjects.

Students who qualified for free school meals, irrespective of their participation in STEM activities were the least likely to keep studying STEM subjects.

Dr Banerjee said: “While these enrichment and engagement activities may have been enjoyable and memorable for children, there is no evidence they encouraged them to keep on studying STEM subjects. There is also no evidence that these activities increased the numbers of children from poorer homes or from ethnic minority backgrounds studying technology, engineering, science or maths.

“Of course there are many factors which can affect the decisions young people make about the subjects they choose to continue studying at age 16, but it is hard to say STEM enrichment activities have a direct impact. They are one aspect which can help.

“It is essential for policymakers to consider ifwhether, if these schemes are not working, perhaps the money could be spent elsewhere. Giventhe range of schemes being run it is also crucial to understand if any workbetter than others. Knowing the answer to this could help ensure money is spent on only the highest quality activities.

“It would also be useful to measure or investigate the other benefits – apart from continuation to AS and A-level study – of the STEM enrichment activities.”

Abstract of the study:

This paper summarises research findings from a longitudinal national evaluation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) ‘enrichment and enhancement activities’. The activities included science practical lessons, supported by ambassador visits, trips to laboratories, STEM centres and higher education institutions. The common theme for these activities was their aim to improve understanding and enjoyment of science in the short term and encourage STEM participation in the long term. The 2007 cohort across all state maintained secondary schools in England was followed up from the beginning of key stage 3 to the end of key stage 5 making use of school and pupil level datasets from the national pupil database. The study investigated whether engaging in these STEM programmes, run for 11–16 year olds, in secondary school is likely to affect subject choices during post-compulsory education? Do young people sparsely represented in STEM courses such as those from a lower socio-economic class and black ethnic minority engage better with STEM subjects because of actively participating in these activities? A direct noticeable impact of these activities was not seen on STEM take-up. The analysis presented here concludes there is no evidence to suggest continued engagement in these activities is manifested in terms of increasing or widening STEM participation.

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Educational apps for kids? Interactivity can either help or hinder learning.

It’s funny how I received a question today from someone in the audience and in the way back home I discover a new study on the same topic. This new study looks at the influence of touchscreens for learning, more specific for toddlers. And it’s a bit more complicated than iPads are good or bad. This study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that Educational apps for kids can be valuable learning tools, but there’s still a lot left to understand about how to best design them.

From the press release:

“Our experiments are a reminder that just because touchscreens allow for physical interaction, it doesn’t mean that it’s always beneficial,” says Dr. Colleen Russo-Johnson, lead author of the study and who completed this work as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.

Smartphones and tablets have become so pervasive that, even in lower-income households, 90% of American children have used a touchscreen by the age of 2. Eighty percent of educational apps in the iTunes store are designed for children–especially toddlers and preschoolers. But recent research has shown that sometimes all those chimes and animations hinder learning, prompting the question, how well do we understand what it takes to make a truly beneficial learning app?

“Children interact with touch screens and the embedded media content in vastly different ways and this impacts their ability to learn from the content,” says Russo-Johnson. “Our experiment focused on how children interacted with touchscreen devices–on a more basic level–by stripping away fancy design features that vary from app to app and that are not always beneficial.”

Using a custom-made, streamlined learning app, Russo-Johnson and her colleagues showed that children as young as 2 could use the app to learn new words such as the fictional names of a variety of newly-introduced toys (designed specifically for the study). Unsurprisingly, slightly older children (age 4 to 5) were able to learn more than the younger ones (age 2 to 3) and they were also able to follow directions better–such as only tapping when instructed to do so.

The researchers went on to show that the excessive tapping by younger children seemed to go hand-in-hand with lower scores of a trait called self-regulation. As in this study, self-regulation is commonly measured by seeing how long children can keep themselves from eating a cracker that is placed in front of them–after they’ve been told to wait until they hear a signal that it’s ok to eat the cracker.

To complement this first study (which included 77 children), Russo-Johnson and her colleagues designed a second app to see which interactions–tapping, dragging, or simply watching–were better for learning new words.

Somewhat surprisingly, across this next group of 170 2- to 4-year olds, no single type of interaction proved to consistently be the best. But there were differences depending on age, gender, and the extent of prior exposure to touchscreens at home. Boys appeared to benefit more from watching, whereas dragging seemed best for girls and children with the most touchscreen experience.

These results complement the growing body of research on identifying effective interactive features, as well as providing insight into how apps might be tailored to fit the learning needs of different children.

“I hope that this research will inform academics and app developers alike,” says Russo-Johnson. “Educational app developers should be mindful of utilizing interactivity in meaningful ways that don’t distract from the intended educational benefits, and, when possible, allow for customization so parents and educators can determine the best settings for their children.”

This study is part of a broader Frontiers collection of articles on the influence of touch screen tablets on children’s lives.

Abstract of the report:

Touchscreen devices differ from passive screen media in promoting physical interaction with events on the screen. Two studies examined how young children’s screen-directed actions related to self-regulation (Study 1) and word learning (Study 2). In Study 1, 30 2-year-old children’s tapping behaviors during game play were related to their self-regulation, measured using Carlson’s snack task: girls and children with high self-regulation tapped significantly less during instruction portions of an app (including object labeling events) than did boys and children with low self-regulation. Older preschoolers (N = 47, aged 4–6 years) tapped significantly less during instruction than 2-year-olds did. Study 2 explored whether the particular way in which 170 children (2–4 years of age) interacted with a touchscreen app affected their learning of novel object labels. Conditions in which children tapped or dragged a named object to move it across the screen required different amounts of effort and focus, compared to a non-interactive (watching) condition. Age by sex interactions revealed a particular benefit of dragging (a motorically challenging behavior) for preschool girls’ learning compared to that of boys, especially for girls older than age 2. Boys benefited more from watching than dragging. Children from low socioeconomic status families learned more object names when dragging objects versus tapping them, possibly because tapping is a prepotent response that does not require thoughtful attention. Parents and industry experts should consider age, sex, self-regulation, and the physical requirements of children’s engagement with touchscreens when designing and using educational content.

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