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Are Educational Apps and Tech Gizmos Helping or Hurting Students?

Technology entrepreneurs believe education is ripe for digital disruption, but some of Silicon Valley’s famous inventors don’t allow their own kids to use gadgets.
Sep 24, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Patricia Dao is a regular contributor to TakePart. She is a Los Angeles–based serial tech entrepreneur and managing director of the nonprofit Girls in Tech–LA.

With 43 percent of all pre-K through 12th grade students using a smartphone, it’s no shocker that gaming apps that are popular with youths, such as Minecraft and Clash of Clans, are usually at the top of “most downloaded” lists in app stores. However, the category coming in a close second may surprise you.

Educational apps are ranked No. 2 in Apple’s app store, and the popularity and need for these apps and tools seems to increase daily. Education-minded entrepreneurs and organizations are hyperfocused on launching the next wave of inventions that will change the way children and adults learn. Investors are just as motivated to support these initiatives. They pumped an impressive $1.25 billion into tech education start-ups in 2013 alone.

Encouraging the growth of digital education is the goal of education nonprofit XPRIZE. The organization, which was founded in 1995 by engineer and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, is on a mission to “bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

Part of that is fostering tech-savvy entrepreneurs’ efforts to design software solutions that will help children around the world learn basic reading and math. The five teams with the best solutions will win $1 million each and have their innovations field-tested by kids in developing countries. The winner will receive a hefty $10 million to bring his or her solution to life.

That investment is a clear indication that XPRIZE means business and is dedicated to finding solutions that will enable children to learn autonomously and break through the educational barriers that affect those living in developing countries.

“Traditional models of learning are not scalable,” Diamandis told The Washington Post. “We simply cannot build enough schools or train enough teachers, which brings us to a pivotal moment where an alternative, radical approach is necessary.”

Gadgets like tablets and smartphones have already disrupted the traditional ways we read books. Over the past five years, school districts across the nation have even given students tablets and downloadable textbooks. Some iPad and educational software rollouts, like a successful one in Maine, have led to literacy gains. Other efforts have proven less successful. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s decision to give an iPad to every student has become bogged down in an implementation scandal rife with accusations of backdoor dealings.

But that sort of political kerfuffle isn’t stopping developers from pushing forward with digital book innovations.

In 2011 Cambridge, England–based Inkle Studio founders Jon Ingold and Joseph Humfrey set out to combine their passion for storytelling and design. The duo’s project turns classic novels, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, into an interactive and engaging choose-your-own-adventure experience. Although literary snobs may scoff at changing the plot lines of these tales, the Inkle team believes adding a gaming component can increase student engagement with literature and involvement with the characters in ways that plain text reading might not accomplish.

The duo has also designed a free choose-your-own-adventure writing tool called Inklewriter. It allows teachers, students, or aspiring writers to create interactive stories through a downloadable app.

“Video games are increasingly used in education, and for good reason. Well-designed software can be individually responsive in ways that are unique to an individual student. It encourages experimentation and creativity in well-defined boundaries,” says Humfrey. “The convention in education is to pigeonhole subjects and students into ‘art’ and ‘science.’ Inklewriter lets students who enjoy reading or creative writing to learn a bit of programming and vice versa. And it can be a great way to stretch both halves of the brain simultaneously.”

Ramping up interactive reading innovations doesn’t stop there. MIT students have created a project called Sensory Fiction that lets readers immerse themselves in a book by wearing an electronic body vest connected to a digital novel. As the reader flips through the pages of the book, the vest simulates the emotions of the lead character in the story. If the character is going through an intense or sad event, the vest might tighten. If a character is dodging through a dangerous situation, the case might heat up to let the reader physically feel those emotions.

With these tech education and interactive innovations gaining momentum, educators are left debating if an increase in screen time at such early ages causes more harm then good. According to a report from Alliance for Childhood, a child’s overall well-being may be directly affected by too much screen time (via iPhones, tablets, computers, or TV).

“Studies show that the more time infants, toddlers, and preschoolers spend with screens, the less time they spend engaged in two activities essential to healthy development and learning,” according to the alliance’s report. “Screen time takes children away from hands-on creative play—the kind of give-and-take activities that children generate and control and that are specific to their interests and abilities. Screens also take time away from children’s interactions with caring adults.”

Some of Silicon Valley’s movers and shakers are limiting or banning tablet and app use—even for educational purposes—by their own children.

In late 2010 when The New York Times tech columnist Nick Bilton asked Steve Jobs how much tablet time his kids were allowed, Jobs’ response was a surprise. “They haven’t used it,” he said. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Similarly, wrote Bilton, “Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, and his wife, Sara Williams, said that in lieu of iPads, their two young boys have hundreds of books (yes, physical ones) that they can pick up and read anytime.”

Whether or not you’re a proponent of tech’s inclusion in education, the sheer volume of educational app and tablet downloads speaks for itself. The apps and games aren’t going away. Perhaps helping teachers and parents figure out the balance in using these resources will become the next area ripe for disruption and innovation.