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Children’s experiences with digital technologies
Children’s experiences with digital technologies

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6 Effects on learning and development

In this section, you will learn about the effects of mobile devices and applications, digital games, computers and the internet on children’s learning.

Mobile devices and applications (apps)

Mobile devices such as tablets have been used by children including toddlers, pre-schoolers and older children. The ease of use of these devices including their tactile-based interface enabled interactions earlier in the development of children compared to other technologies such as computers. These and other features such as portability, lightweight design and low cost have created high expectations about the potential of mobile devices to support flexible, personalised and mobile educational experiences and bring learning benefits to children.

Systematic reviews of several studies with children have evidenced learning benefits when children interact with certain mobile applications. Having said that not all mobile applications, even when labelled or advertised as ‘educational’, benefit children. In particular, positive learning effects were found when children 2 to 5 years old used mobile devices in relation to:

  • better vocabulary skills
  • better reading and writing skills
  • enhanced mathematics and science knowledge and skills
  • earlier development of fine motor skills
  • enhanced problem-solving
  • improved social interaction skills
  • boost of children’s general confidence
  • enhanced peer interactions in the class
  • enhanced self-efficacy and self-worth from completing game tasks.
(Herodotou, 2017)

Yet, there was no clear evidence as to whether mobile devices can support emergent writing skills (that is writing with a stylus on a device rather than with a pen on a piece of paper) and specific science knowledge and skills especially when children were younger than 5 years old (Herodotou, 2017). Negative effects were observed when parents and children were reading together from a mobile device or an ebook. Well-designed ebooks can help children learn equally well to printed books. Yet, enhanced ebooks, that is books with animations, sounds, games and pop-ups (advertisements) may distract both children and parents and lead to conversations about these extra features than the content of the book or the storyline.

Similar outcomes have been reported about older children (Haßler, Major and Hennessy, 2016): benefits from using mobile devices were identified in relation to science, maths and social studies and in topics such as plant morphology, fractions and financial management. Also, particular benefits were recorded in assisting students with special educational needs. Yet, some other studies found no improvements compared to the standard non-technology-mediated teaching practice in topics such as literacy, mathematics, science and creative tasks.

Digital games

Digital games is another medium that has attracted much attention especially in relation to whether it can support learning, often labelled as ‘game-based learning’. Digital games are virtual spaces that can support interactive or experiential learning experiences as well as learning through problem-solving, failure, error and recovery. This type of learning has a unique value especially when compared to less interactive or observational learning such as listening to a lecture or reading plain text. Children are more likely to remember things they learn by doing or interacting with materials and others (in a goal-directed manner) than things they listen to or observe. ‘Unlearning’ is easier when knowledge was acquired by observation than a goal-directed manner (Klein-Flügge et al., 2019). Digital games that are commercially available or especially designed to support learning (often labelled as ‘educational games’) were shown to facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge and understanding of content, promote student motivation and engagement (Connolly et al., 2012), promote critical thinking skills, collaboration and communication skills, and problem-solving skills (Qian and Clark, 2016).

Computers and the internet

Computers are widely used by children and teenagers both at home and at school. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), identified that 96% of 15 years old students were found to have a computer at home, and 72% of them reported that they use a computer at school. Yet, these figures were much lower in Korea (42%) and China (38%). What is surprising is that students in Korea and China were among those performing the best in digital reading and mathematics tests (OECD, 2015).

What does this discrepancy suggest? Can less use of computers relate to better learning outcomes? There are mixed outcomes when it comes to the impact computers and the internet have on students. In particular, in countries that have heavily invested in the use of computers in the classroom, children showed no improvements in reading, mathematics and science. Some learning improvements were found in countries where students used computers moderately as compared to countries where students used them rarely. These differences were found after researchers had controlled for differences between students in social background and demographics (for example gender and age).

These findings suggest that ‘simply’ using computers and the internet in the classroom will not automatically translate to better learning outcomes. Much thought should be given by teachers on how and when computers are used as ‘technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching’ (OECD, 2015, p. 17). Teachers should ensure that computers are used when they have an added value compared to traditional ways of teaching such as they can provide immediate and corrective feedback to students, or motivate students when engaged with repetitive learning tasks. On the other hand, not using computers at all may be detrimental for students as computers and the internet have a central position in our personal and professional lives. Therefore, students who do not possess digital skills, that is know how to navigate, read and write online, may restrict their employment opportunities in the future.

The more often computers and the internet are used in teaching is not necessarily translated into better learning outcomes. A balance is needed between technology-enhanced learning activities and conventional, analogue tools and teaching approaches. A great example is students in Korea and Singapore: they are the most proficient in navigating the web, have excellent broadband connections and use computers with ease at home. These students are not more exposed to computers and the internet at school than are students in other countries, yet they are the highest performing students in the world in digital reading skills (OECD, 2015).