Digital World

The Evolving Classroom: Can Tablets Positively Impact the Learning Experience or Are They Just a Distraction?

Many parents and educators agree young children and technology, namely television and computers, shouldn’t mix.  However, with our rapidly changing society, where our technology dominates and has a considerable amount of control over how we interact, communicate, and learn, mixing is inevitable.  For some, it can seem like a world spinning out of control, while many others embrace the changes head on.  These changes in the way we communicate and learn, and the way out children learn, don’t come without their own set of problems.  And, as technologies such as tablets and other portable devices become increasingly prevalent and in the hands of children, shouldn’t we ask if we have their best interests in mind?  Is the technology really being used to their benefit?

First, let’s look at how things are shifting.  It’s somewhat fair to give Apple a piece of the credit, along with Amazon.  Since the debut of the Apple iPad in 2010, the company has pushed an education angle for the device.  Additionally, Amazon helped to popularize e-readers, with the release of the first Kindle 2007.  Both devices strived for usability and accessibly in terms of hardware and software.  Ideally, for the devices to be successful in the education space, competing with traditional bound books, they have to be as simple and intuitive to use as a book (or surpassing books in terms of usability).  In some respects, these devices have accomplished this (searchability), but in other ways, not so much (affordability).

However, these types of devices are merely the next stage of computing and computers have been a part of many schools and libraries for the past two decades, if not longer.  In the earlier years of the child/computer relationship, a child generally had access to a computer for roughly an hour a day and that access may not have been an everyday occurrence.  Of course, access varied, but generally access was limited.  Plus, it was fairly uncommon for kids to have access to a computer anywhere beyond the school or library.  It wasn’t until the late 90s and into the early 2000s this began to alter significantly.  Initially, it wasn’t a requirement for a child to have access to a computer, but over the years they’ve become increasingly essential as learning and information tools, moving beyond a “supplemental” status.

Now if a child lacks access to a computer, they’re seen to be at a disadvantage.  Whether or not that’s truly the case is debatable, but it often seems that books and libraries are becoming marginalized in favor of various devices, which helps to eliminate the perceived disadvantage.  More and more people have access.  But are these various devices really becoming more essential than books (or even libraries)?  It all comes down to how they are used.

In terms of literacy, when the devices are used as an alternative to books, they can be genuinely useful.  Tablets and e-readers are an excellent way to eliminate heavy books (and textbooks), plus they’re wonderlands for creating interactive and rich learning experiences.  But not everything that calls itself “educational” (or is marketed as an app designed to foster literacy) is indeed “educational.”  And, like anything else, book or device, a child can’t simply be handed the device and expected to learn.  There is still very much a dependence on outside influence.  Kids still need guidance to develop literacy skills.

Then there’s the distraction factor.  Like television, computers offer an element of distraction and passivity and can be non-conducive to learning and developing strong literacy skills.  Sometimes it’s in the form of games, other times it’s just purposeless internet activities (of which there are plenty).  While many schools tend to make attempts to curb these distractions, libraries typically don’t.  It’s another one of those debatable issues.  Should things be blocked?  Should everything be accessible?  There’s a lot of uncertainty.

But looking beyond the familiar computer to tablets, does the learning experience change with the technology?  Tablets are an accessible tool, much more so than the old-fashioned computer, due to its smaller, portable form factor and ease of interactivity.  The touch screen is closer to that of the tactile experience of a book than the keyboard and mouse.  At the same time, it might not be much of an improvement.  That is to say, if the device is being used as a means of pacification (a digital babysitter, a means of distraction) and the user is accessing content of a passive nature, then not much has been accomplished.

Again, it’s a changing landscape.  We’re going digital and the future will be filled with less of the traditional bound books.  Libraries are making room for more computers, sometimes at the expense of the books.  Perhaps tablets and e-readers offer a balance that desktop computers can achieve.  Desktop computers require a considerable amount of space, while tablets don’t, being, quite literally the size of a thin book or magazine.  Perhaps we can have the best of both worlds and we can explore different means of learning and developing literacy.  On that note, we’re still left with many questions as to the way kids learn.  Our teaching tools are evolving rapidly and we all want our children to become literate with access to a number of opportunities going into the future.


Elaine Wynn is a former grade school teacher and mother of 3. Since taking time off to raise her family, she remained dedicated to education as a supporter of both literacy and the arts and has recently taken an interest in personalized books for children as a way to encourage reading in young children.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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