Learning in an iPhone World

As the prevalence of smart phones has grown in recent years, I have been waiting to see when development researchers would conduct a study to examine the impact of smart phone mobile applications (apps) on children's learning. I own an iPhone, and yes, I admit I do use it to entertain my toddler when nothing else seems to keep his attention. It does seem to keep him entertained and happy while we have to wait in the check out lane or the doctor's office. It was also a lifesaver on a recent 2-hour plane ride.

I have often wondered, however, what the impact might be of him playing with the iPhone apps. Sure, they have the guise of being educational--most of the apps are either storybooks or ABC games, but is he really learning anything from them? Finally, several new studies have been released that examine the impact of apps on children's learning. These are some of the first studies I know of that specifically examine apps and their impact on young children.

A series of three studies were conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center
at Sesame Workshop and PBS KIDS Raising Readers. One study, the Usability Study, considered how well kids (age 4-7) are able to use smart phone apps. The second study, The Parent Survey, examined parents' perception and practices regarding app use with their young children. The third study, The Learning Study, examined the potential of apps for enhancing children's learning. This third study specifically addressed the educational value of two children's apps developed by PBS Kids (this part of the study was conducted by an outside research group). Here are some of the highlights from theses studies:

- Children's use of iPhones is still relatively limited
- between one-third and one-half of parents do not allow their children to use their iPhone

- Parents most frequently allow their kids to use their iPhone while traveling (primarily by car)

- Most children age 3-7 (40-60%) were able to use the iPhone without much assistance from adults

Now on to the most interesting part--the impact of apps on learning. Two PBS apps were studied: Martha Speaks and Super Why.

- Gains in vocabulary between 10 and 27% were seen in children who used the Martha Speaks app. The largest gains in vocabulary were seen in older children (5-7 years).

- Gains in literacy were seen also among children who used the Super Why, with the exception of 7 years olds (who had probably already mastered many of the skills in the app). The gains were more modest than those of Martha Speaks (8-9%), except among 3 years olds, who experienced a 17% literacy increase.

These studies suggest that young children, even as young as 3, may benefit from educational iPhone apps. It is very important to note, however, that these studies are some of the first to study these issues. Additionally, the Learning Study included only 90 children, which is a small sample size to draw firm conclusions. It does seem encouraging, however, that these apps may actually have educational benefits. As more children begin using apps it will be interesting to see what future research will show.
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