“We have to stop and think if we are embracing technology just because it is there and new or if it is the best tool for what we want to accomplish,” said Michael Rich, director of the Center on Child Media and Health at Harvard University. “Sometimes the answer is that an iPad is great, but does it really do a better job than a hunk of clay or paper?”
Help or hindrance
Recent studies show children are being exposed to far more media than any previous generation, largely because of the explosion of smartphones and tablets in the home.
But is this healthy for their development?
Some research shows that software programs such as smartphone applications help improve kids’ vocabulary and math. Children ages 3 to 7 who used an app called Martha Speaks increased their vocabulary by as much as 31 percent in two weeks, according to a 2010 study commissioned by PBS. Some educators say technology allows them to personalize teaching plans and offer free online tutoring, a way to break free from cookie-cutter lessons that don’t resonate with every student.
On the other hand, child development experts say children are developing shorter attention spans and multi-tasking too much online — habits that will become more ingrained over time. Technology is changing the way kids learn, too; ideas aren’t as original when cobbled together through Google searches and recycled from opinion blogs, teachers at Waldorf say. And students are increasingly skipping over basic disciplines such as spelling and handwriting — practices that have diminished in importance in the workplace but are still key to wiring the young brain, some child-development experts say.
In February, the Education Department , along with the Federal Communications Commission, called for all American classrooms to adopt digital textbooks by 2017. The goal was inspired by South Korea — which is now rethinking the merits of the online books over paper textbooks.
“I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game,” President Obama said last year while touring a tech-focused Boston school.
At the same time, the department has found that past investments in educational technology have not paid off. In a 2009 report, it found that students who used math and reading software over a one-year period scored the same on tests as peers who did not use the programs.