Researchers assess the value of apps for early childhood learning

Kindergarten pupils armed with iPads are helping researchers in the US to evaluate and develop the mathematics apps of the future

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 7:40am

Elias was shy at first. "He's four," his teacher whispered when he would not say his age. He made no sound as his peers rushed to the tables with the iPads. When a friend grabbed the device to take his photo, he covered his eyes with his hands.

Maybe it was the room full of strangers that had him a little spooked. Six software developers and designers from WGBH, a Boston public television station, had descended on his classroom at the Little Sprouts childcare centre in the US state of Massachusetts, bearing a fleet of iPads.

Their mission was to test prototypes of maths apps they had been working on for months - tools designed with the help of researchers in child development and cognitive science - and to learn from pupils like Elias. Would he understand how to play the games? Would he like them? Would he learn anything?

One of the adults showed him Breakfast Time, an app meant to lay the groundwork for understanding fractions. A waffle appeared on screen. "Can you slice it?" the man asked Elias.

Educational apps have been booming in the six years since the arrival of the iPhone's touch screen, despite warnings from some educators that children could spend too much time with devices and too little time exploring the physical world. The iTunes store offers more than 95,000 educational apps.

Nearly three-quarters are aimed at kindergarten and primary pupils, said a 2012 report by Joan Ganz Cooney Centre, a research organisation affiliated to Sesame Workshop, the non-profit producer of Sesame Street.

Concern about the foundations of maths education has helped fuel this hunger for apps. A 2009 report from the US National Academy of Sciences recommended increasing informal opportunities for children to learn maths, including through "software and other media".

The WGBH developers in Elias' classroom are part of a project called Next Generation Preschool Math financed by a US$3 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Research organisations EDC and SRI International are leading the project, known as NextGen. Its aim is to develop and evaluate apps, teachers' guides and tools for tracking children's progress on the path to enjoying and excelling in maths.

Scientific research on the educational value of apps is almost non-existent. The NextGen project is trying to change that, through a painstaking process that includes not just software development but also testing, data gathering, observations of classroom dynamics, interviews with teachers, assessments of children's learning and controlled comparisons. This school year, in 16 classrooms in New York and California, researchers will assess children at the beginning and end of a four-week unit to see whether the apps - and an accompanying set of materials for teachers - make a difference.

Maths games sound deceptively simple: flash numbers on the screen, add animation, and you have shown a child how to count. But these kinds of apps are based on a misunderstanding of what children need to know, said Herbert Gingsburg, an expert in mathematics education at Columbia University and an adviser to the NextGen project.

"It's not just 'I can count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5'. It's 'What does 5 mean?'"

Phil Vahey, a researcher at SRI in San Francisco and an investigator on the NextGen project, agreed. Simply knowing the words for numbers, he said, "doesn't set children up for much deeper understanding".

Last year, the National Association for the Education of Young Children published a position statement on technology in early childhood, saying: "With guidance, these various technology tools can be harnessed for learning and development. Without guidance, usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development."

At Little Sprouts that morning, Elias had cut his waffle into two parts, and progressed to four, then eight. Shy no more, he put the slices on each plate that came his way, feeding characters on the screen. By the end he told the developers watching him play: "They are going to get sick!"