They Still Need You: How Adults Help Young Kids Learn With Technology

[Over the years I’ve had a chance to observe and work with learners from 3 to 83. Especially for younger learners, it’s important to have a human connection. In this Mindshift article there are great examples of how working with adults improved student learning compared to just using an app. I serve on the board of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). PAEYC has partnered with the Fred Rogers Center to look at appropriate ways to use digital media. We want our children to use today’s technology, but we need to remember that learning is social. As Fred Rogers explained, “It is through relationships that we grow and learn best.”]


Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

There are more than 80,000 educational apps in Apple’s app store. It seems like a great way to encourage brain development and make your little one the smartest baby genius. But just sticking a tablet in your kid’s hands might not be as helpful.

Sure, use the app. But it’s not a babysitter — you’ve got to help them use it, too.

Several recent studies have looked at how young children learn from touchscreens. One study, published in Child Development, compared how 2- and 3-year-olds learned to build a three-piece puzzle. Some children learned how to assemble the puzzle from a “ghost demonstration” — meaning that, initially, the pieces moved by themselves on the tablet to show how it works. A lot of apps that are intended for young children often have some element of this ghost demonstration: Pieces move on their own or objects will move them.

Other children had a person sitting next to them to move the puzzle pieces on the tablet.

After they watched the demonstration, both groups of children were asked to complete the task on either a touchscreen tablet or a real puzzle that looked identical to the one they saw.

The 2- and 3-year-olds who saw the ghost demonstration had a hard time replicating the task — but did well after they saw the human hand. Researchers concluded that having a human guide — often referred to as having social scaffolding — helped these young children learn.

“Simply having someone show them how to put that puzzle together, rather than the app showing it to them, allowed them to put that puzzle together themselves” explains Rachel Barr, a professor at Georgetown and one of the authors of the study. “But taking away that person — taking away that scaffold — made their performance just look like they had never even seen it before.”

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Pump up the volume! More talking in class, please!

[This Hechinger Report brings up a critical issue – how do we engage students in social conversation to deepen or clarify understanding, while using a personalized learning process? The answer is given by explaining how two different apps give teachers tools to pause online learning and discuss the issues by making student responses anonymous. In my work with Classroom Salon,  a Carnegie Mellon tool, I witnessed how powerful it was to have students talk about their answers.]

Math teacher Heather Kohn prompts a discussion of algebraic functions using the new “Classroom Conversation Toolset.” It allows Kohn to use a class-wide pause feature, then project student answers to a tricky problem, but only after using the app’s “anonymizer” to swap student names with those of famous mathematicians. Photo: Chris Berdik

Math teacher Heather Kohn prompts a discussion of algebraic functions using the new “Classroom Conversation Toolset.” It allows Kohn to use a class-wide pause feature, then project student answers to a tricky problem, but only after using the app’s “anonymizer” to swap student names with those of famous mathematicians. Photo: Chris Berdik

Last year, an ed tech startup called Desmos faced a curious conundrum –classrooms using its math app grew quiet, too quiet.

Teachers use the Desmos “Activity Builder” tool to create a series of self-paced math challenges using an online graphing calculator. There was just one problem, said Dan Meyer, Desmos’s chief academic officer: With each student deeply engaged in a different part of the lesson, “teachers were having trouble starting class discussions.”

The hush was troubling, because students learn a lot from debating ideas, sharing feedback and collectively exploring big questions. So, this fall, the company added three new features, dubbed the “Classroom Conversation Toolset,” to let teachers pause the app classroom-wide, snap every computer to a particular screen, and cloak student identity to anonymously share answers with the entire class. In doing so, Desmos joined a handful of other startups using tech to boost student interaction and class discussion, so that in the rush to personalize learning we don’t lose the benefits of learning together.

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This new tool makes the flipped classroom more social

[One of the problems with Flipped Learning is engaging students in conversation before they come to class. Teachers need to know where students have confusion or a “need to know.” In this eSchoolNews article, Eric Mazur, professor of physics at Harvard, explains how he developed Perusall to gain insights into student learning to increase the effectiveness for class instruction. I’ve had an opportunity to work with Ananda Gunawardena when he was at Carnegie Mellon University and developed Classroom Salon as a Flipped Learning tool. While Classroom Salon, like Perusall were designed for higher education, they have the potential to work in K-12 as well. For a tool specifically designed to spark provocative thinking and activate student voice in K-12, take a look at the Australian product, Verso. ]

July 21st, 2016

Watching videos at home is a rather solitary affair. Can a new tool change that?


Flipping your class by having students watch lecture videos for their homework can lead to richer discussions about the content, but only if students come to class prepared. And having them watch a video lecture at home “simply takes a technique that didn’t work in person and puts in online,” said Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur.

During the 2016 Building Learning Communities (BLC)conference organized by education thought leader Alan November, Mazur unveiled a free tool that he and a team of colleagues developed to solve this problem.

Called Perusall, it’s a social learning platform that will “essentially make sure every student is prepared for class,” Mazur said. It also makes sure teachers are prepared to address students’ key questions and areas of confusion—without creating more work for the instructor.

Mazur spent the first part of his opening keynote recalling how he realized long ago that teaching must be more than simply transferring knowledge.

Early in his career, he would spent countless hours before every class preparing lecture notes from a different textbook than students were using. He even found a textbook that was out of print, so there would be no danger that his students would own a copy—and therefore his notes wouldn’t mirror what they were reading. He also prepared copies of his lecture notes for students to take with them at the end of class, so they’d stay throughout his lecture first. But in describing this strategy, he noted: “Isn’t that already admitting there’s a problem?”

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