In recent years, the popularity of tablets has skyrocketed and there has been an explosive growth in apps designed for children. Howhever, many of these apps are released without tests for their effectiveness. This is worrying given that the factors influencing children’s learning from touchscreen devices need to be examined in detail. In particular, it has been suggested that children learn less from passive video viewing relative to equivalent live interaction, which would have implications for learning from such digital tools. However, this so-called video deficit may be reduced by allowing children greater influence over their learning environment. Across two touchscreen-based experiments, we examined whether 2- to 4-year-olds benefit from actively choosing what to learn more about in a digital word learning task. We designed a tablet study in which “active” participants were allowed to choose which objects they were taught the label of, while yoked “passive” participants were presented with the objects chosen by their active peers. We then examined recognition of the learned associations across different tasks. In Experiment 1, children in the passive condition outperformed those in the active condition (n = 130). While Experiment 2 replicated these findings in a new group of Malay-speaking children (n = 32), there were no differences in children’s learning or recognition of the novel word-object associations using a more implicit looking time measure. These results suggest that there may be performance costs associated with active tasks designed as in the current study, and at the very least, there may not always be systematic benefits associated with active learning in touchscreen-based word learning tasks. The current studies add to the evidence that educational apps need to be evaluated before release: While children might benefit from interactive apps under certain conditions, task design and requirements need to consider factors that may detract from successful performance.
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