What's Really Best for Learning?

Seeta Pai Vice President, Research | Mom of two Categories: Learning with Technology
Vice President, Research | Mom of two

Wondering how "educational" that app your preschooler plays really is? Wishing for a video game that fascinates and challenges your teen? Looking for trustworthy information on good products that have educational value? You're not alone. An overwhelming majority of parents and teachers in our 2011 national poll felt that digital media have learning potential, but were skeptical of claims made by media producers. Your desire for a reliable resource on enriching technologies led us to build our new Learning Ratings, based on careful research. A highly trained team rates and reviews apps, games, and websites to help you find products with the best learning potential for kids and teens. Why is this important, and what does it mean for you? Consider these three concurrent trends:

One: An explosion of digital content in recent years. There are now almost a million apps for mobile devices; over 22,000 video games on record; and several new websites like virtual worlds and social networks. How do you find the good stuff?

We sift through this sea of products to bubble up those we think may be best for learning.

Two: Kids are "digital natives". Research from 2009 showed that kids and teens ages 8-18 average 2 hours and 40 minutes a day on digital screen media (and that's just at home), and our recent study Zero to Eight found that over half of kids under 8 had used a computer and played a video game; with 27% having used a mobile device like a smartphone. Interactive digital technologies are integral to this generation's lives in the same way telephones and televisions were in yours. I don't think you'd argue that kids are learning something from the media they consume. Or that they're having fun doing so. The question is, can you build on their engagement and up the nutritional quotient? How do you intentionally seize this opportunity?

We help you sort stuff that's hot (age-appropriate, high quality, and best for learning) from stuff that's not.

Three: The way we think about learning has changed.  Education experts feel that we need a renewed focus on preparing our kids for life and work in a new, inter-connected, global world. Old models of learning and old expectations won't cut it in the world they're growing into. Kids need to be flexible, creative, critical thinkers, problem-solvers and makers. They need to be empathic, respectful, tolerant collaborators; and stewards of themselves and the planet. These skills will serve them well whether they're coming up with a new type of energy-efficient vehicle, solving world hunger, or settling an everyday conflict with a friend. And learning these skills doesn't just happen in a schoolroom with the teacher standing in front. It can happen anytime, anywhere, and should reach kids - digital natives - where they are.  How can you support your kids' learning in this new way?

We assess products for core academic subjects like math and reading, and also deeper skills for thinking, working, and living in tomorrow's world. Only the most engaging and fun ones make our cut.

Right about now, some of you are thinking, "What's so special about interactive technology?" or, "Isn't there more harm to be done than good?" Here's our answer.

Learning potential

We're appropriately cautious, and you should be too. We talk about the potential of a product to facilitate your kid's learning and make no promises about the outcomes. Keep in mind there is no "educational aspirin" (despite claims to the contrary by some media developers) that will miraculously cure your kid of his math woes or propel him to be a genius overnight. The learning potential and success of any teaching tool -- be it a cardboard box, a revolutionary new math curriculum, or an innovative tech product -- depends on who's using it, and how their learning is being supported by the teachers, parents, and friends in their lives. Kids can skim the surface of Sid Meier's Civilization V and get something out of it, but they'll get a whole lot more if they delve into its complexity and parents extend their learning with other activities.

Know your child

There is no one-size-fits-all in the world of learning technology, so you have to figure out which tools work best for your child. Some kids get fired up by challenging puzzlers like Portal 2 or Professor Layton and the Last Specter, while others prefer word games like Scribblenauts Remix or those on The Electric Company. One of my girls is an engineer - she loves tinkering and putting things together. The other is an artist with a vivid imagination. I'm always on the watch for toys and products that feed their interests and strengths, while pushing the boundaries to support their trying out something new.

The power of balance

As with anything else, kids shouldn't be exclusively or excessively spending time with a particular product or technology. Their learning lives are best served by variety. Moreover, the best teaching tools aren't an end unto themselves, but spark something in your kid that she will carry across time and place. My toddlers showed an early interest in birds and birdcalls during morning walks with their dad. Not an avid birder, he wanted easily accessible information about birds to discuss with the girls. He found a couple of iPad apps that helped him -- and them -- identify birds, and they've been using them as a reference while checking out the avian life outdoors. This interest has grown with the new birdfeeder we've installed outside the dining room window. 

Get involved

Become educated about the learning technology choices that are available. Observe your kids playing a game or navigating a website, ask them open-ended questions to spur their learning, and set up companion experiences to take the learning off-screen. Check out our learning reviews and recommended lists. And watch this space for new articles about learning with technology, and how you can make the most out of your kid's time with the screen. We're adding new content every day, so do come back for more.

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About Seeta Pai

As Vice President of Research, Seeta Pai heads research at Common Sense Media, including our Research Program, evaluation of our impact, and program development research. She also serves as the thought leader behind our... Read more

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Comments (1)

Teen, 13 years old written by Majestic

A child should be able to face to face contact at a young age. Usually reading to them any kind of leveled books, talking to them, and other things will help them as far as toddlers...A baby is like a big ball of wet clay, they harden over time, but the events of everything will effect them as they grow.....