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Immersion or Interaction? The Learning Potential of Digital Tablets

By Kathrin Rees, Doctoral Candidate, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University

In January this year the French Academy of Sciences, the reputable institution dedicated to the development of the sciences which acts as a consultant for the French government in this domain, published a statement paper titled ‘L’enfant et les écrans’ (The child and screens). Chapter 7 of this statement ‘Différents écrans, différents usages’ (different screens, different usages) presents a compelling summary of how technological innovations in the course of the 20th century have continuously changed the way that we relate to screens, from cinema and television, to computer and mobile phones, all the way to touch tablets and 3-D-screens. The main turnover brought about by digital technology according to the publishers lies in the way it empowers users to interact with screen contents and change these contents thanks to interfaces that are becoming more and more intuitive and ergonomic. Earlier inventions had emphasized a spectator’s capacity for immersion in contrast to interaction. Thinking about screens with a high presence in the everyday lives of families, TVs and digital tablets represent the end points of this immersion – interaction continuum. TV may count as a prototypical screen designed to immerse its spectators in the content that they are viewing; in contrast, tablets allow for and indeed evoke interactive engagement so that users can to some extent create or at least shape the content that they are experiencing. However, this dichotomous view that immersion is for TV and interactivity is for touch tablets is too simplistic in that it assumes that interactivity is strictly determined by the technology rather than by the human user’s preferences and creativity. For example, Disney’s toy story (an enhanced e-book available for free in the App Store), representing a crossover of movie and e-storybook, allows for four different modes of reading with “Read To Me”, “Auto-turn Pages”, “Young Reader Mode”, and “Use My Recording”. Depending on the selection, each one of these could lead to quite a different experience of interactivity by a child. Selecting the modes “Read To Me” along with “Auto-turn Pages” in this example could result in a comparably passive consumption of screen content by the child, not very different from immersion in a movie. On the other hand, research has shown that TV viewing can be a highly interactive experience in some contexts. Before the diffusion of digital media on a grand scale, at least two decades of research on television coviewing have shown that parental mediation, in particular when it comes in the form of instructive mediation, can play a prominent role in transforming screen content in a way that it may be more effectively taken in by a child (see the report “The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning through Joint Media Engagement” by Takeuchi & Stevens, 2011). Instructive mediation refers to the tutorial efforts of a parent while watching television programming together with a child: engaging the child in dialogue about what he/she views, prompting him/her to react to the content, or modeling media literacy skills (cf., Takeuchi & Stevens, 2011, p.11). Hence we cannot ignore the amplifying potential of human-to-human interactivity in the reading process, which may in largely account for learning that occurs on the child’s part. Yet most producers of e-books for children have been designing their products mainly with the single (child) user in mind, being well aware of the fact that parents have come to value touch tablets as child sitters on hand at busy times. Our research is specifically designed to investigate parent-and-child interactivity while jointly engaged with digital tablets. Thus far, our video recordings show that while “the medium may be the message”, interactivity is driven by humans. The potential for certain technologies to support high quality interactions between parents and their children remains an open question.