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Designing Apps for Joint Media Engagement

by Elizabeth Carolan and Susan Rvachew

The market for educational apps and e-books is exploding, with no controls for quality or assurances of effectiveness. How are parents and educators to find apps to suit the needs of their children among the tens of thousands of apps available in this “Digital Wild West”? The Joan Ganz Cooney Center examined apps in order to gain insight on what information is available to parents and educators as they pan for technological gold in this new frontier. Specifically, the researchers analyzed a sample of 170 apps from lists like “Top 50 Paid”, “Top 50 Free”, and “Awarded” from various marketplaces, such as Google Play and the Apple App Store. They looked at the app descriptions and content to find out what is available for children and to develop recommendations for parents, teachers and industry.  Their report coupled with our own research from the Digital Media Project for Children have inspired this post on what makes a quality app.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center report identified many characteristics of a quality app but two in particular overlap with our own research so we highlight them here. First, they stress the importance of “purposeful design” which requires that the design team include experts and that the design process be guided by theory and research. The authors report that less than half of the apps in their sample describe the development team in their marketplace description; only 2% of the sample note research that has been conducted on the learning outcomes of the app.

Other quality indicators follow directly from the first because theory and research should guide the choice of curriculum content and app features. For example, research clearly supports joint media engagement as an important factor in children’s learning. Therefore app designers should build co-use into their apps, such as multiplayer games or opportunities to hand the device back and forth between adult and child. However, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center researchers (Vaala et al. 2015) found that only two apps in their sample were designed for co-use. Based on our research as well as recent studies and meta-analyses, we believe these features to be key for a quality, educational app. Below, we talk about how these concepts apply to an app we helped develop, the iRead With books.

In partnership with Tribal Nova, Inc., we have developed a series of interactive e-books, bringing ‘Caillou’ and ‘Curious George’ into the digital age. In a process involving repeated cycles of design-research-redesign, we integrated features that promote acquisition of important emergent literacy skills in a shared reading context. Unique features include living words and prompt bars for parents. Living words appear in the text that, when tapped, elicit an animation in the illustration to support text comprehension. The parent prompt bars suggest comments or questions that parents might use to deepen their child’s emergent literacy or narrative skills. We have previously described how these ebooks (in comparison to paper versions of the same stories) promoted emergent literacy skills in kindergarten aged children. Here we focus on how the books changed the interaction between the child and the adult reader, thus accounting for those outcomes.

Our research team went to two English schools in the Montreal region and implemented a within-student design to compare language and literacy outcomes of print books versus the iRead With e-books. The participating children were read two ‘Caillou’ stories over two weeks, one story in paper book format and the other in interactive e-book format; the books were presented in counterbalanced order. The stories were read three times over the course of the week (one book per week) by a volunteer reader from the school community. We analyzed the transcripts for child and adult behaviors during reading and for the quality of the interaction between reader and child. One analysis coded the content of the adult speech (disregarding read text) as follows:

  1. Rapport & Behavior (e.g., “Have you ever read an iPad before?” “So let’s start reading.” “Good job, you’re paying attention.”)
  2. Book mechanics (e.g., “Turn the page now.” “Press this one.” “Use your finger, not your fingernail.”)
  3. Story related (e.g., “Who is this?” “Where are the children?” “Do you remember what happens next?” “The end.”)
  4. Word meanings (e.g., “What is that?” “Oh, it’s a duck!” “Do you know what specific means?” “We need a certain one. We can’t just use any costume.”)
  5. Print or word structure (e.g., “This is the word mommy.” “We read this line, there’s three more lines to read.” “This is the word nose. Do you know what rhymes with the word nose?”)

Below is a chart showing the frequency of these behaviors while reading paper books compared to the iRead With e-books.

Phase III Study Parent Reader Comments

When using ebook, the adults spent much more time instructing the children about book mechanics. There were also more comments about behavior, but the difference is not statistically significant. Most importantly, there were statistically significant increases in comments and questions about word meanings and about print or word structure. Adult readers actually made five times more comments about print and word structure while reading the e-book compared to the paper book! We believe that these differences in parent comments account for the differences in child learning that we observed in this study. Specifically, we found no disadvantage to the iRead With e-book for story retell or story comprehension scores. We found a significant advantage to iRead With for emergent literacy test scores. In particular word recognition and phonological awareness scores were better after iRead With book exposure. This was especially true for children who started out with relatively poor letter knowledge skills.

In sum, we believe a quality app is comprised of thoughtful content creation and testing to ensure that the app is fulfilling its purpose. Our job as developers and researchers is to collaborate with the overall aim of producing content that is educational, choosing interactive features and integrating design principles such as joint media engagement to support the learning goal. We also believe it is essential to have feedback from educators and parents regarding marketing and presentation, content, and usability of the apps. Please feel free to leave comments below if you have any thoughts on this subject, we would love to hear from you!

In this blog, we focused on e-books and apps with narrative content in regards to early literacy. For tips on what to keep in mind when choosing early literacy apps with aural input, check out this blog by Barbara Culatta, Kendra Hall-Kenyon, and Gary Bingham from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

References:

Culatta, B., Hall-Kenyon, K., & Bingham, G. (2016). Five Questions Everyone Should Ask Before Chosing Early Literacy Apps. Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

Guernsey, L., Levine, M. H., Chiong, C., & Stevens, M. (2014). Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators.

Shamir, A., & Korat, O. (2015). Educational Electronic Books for Supporting Emergent Literacy of Kindergarteners At-Risk for Reading Difficulties–What Do We Know So Far?, Computers in the Schools, 32:2, 105-211.

Takacs, Z., Swart, E., & Bus, A. (2015). Benefits and Pitfalls of Multimedia and Interactive Features in Technology-Enhanced Storybooks: A Meta-Analysis, Review of Educational Research, 85:4, 698-739.

Vaala, S., Ly, A., & Levine M. H. (2015). Getting a Read on the App Stores: A Market Scan and Analysis of Children’s Literacy Apps. Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

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Call for Papers: Touch Screen Tablets Touching Children’s Lives

Dear colleagues
 
In collaboration with Frontiers in Psychology, we are organizing a Research Topic entitled Touch screen tablets touching children’s lives. We are emailing today to encourage you to contribute to this Research Topic. We encourage authors to submit basic research from any theoretical perspective. We invite original research articles, reviews, hypothesis and theory articles, methodological articles and brief commentaries or opinion pieces.
 
Host Specialty: Frontiers in Developmental Psychology
Description:
Touch screen tablets have greatly expanded the technology accessible to preschoolers, toddlers and even infants, given that they do not require the fine motor skills required for using traditional computers. 

Many parents and educators wish to make evidence-based decisions regarding young children’s technology use, yet technological advancements continue to occur faster than researchers can keep up with. Accordingly, despite touch screen tablets entering society more than 5 years ago, we are in the infancy of research concerning interactive media and children. 

The topic has gained traction in the past couple of years. For example theoretical papers have discussed how interactive media activities differ from physical toys and passive media (Christakis, 2014), and how educational apps development should utilise the four “pillars” of learning (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). Yet there has been little experimental research published on young children and touch screen use. 

We plan to use this Research Topic to move forward our understanding of how young children interact with touch screen technology, the impact that it has on them, mediators of these effects, and individual differences. By doing so we aim to collate a body of much-sought research that can increase academics’, industries’, educators’ and parents’ understanding of the impact that touch screen technology has on young children’s lives. We especially welcome submissions focused on children from birth through middle childhood. 

Questions that might be addressed include: 
– How are touch screen technologies best used in early childhood classrooms? 
– How do parents interact with their children when they are using touch screens? 
– How do young children understand and control different interactive features of touch screens (e.g., swipe, pinch, shake)? 
– How does haptic feedback influence participation and learning? 
– How does learning from touch screens compare to learning from other media? 
– Are there sub-populations of children for whom touch screens offer a particular advantage? 

The research topic may include but is not limited to: 
– Descriptive studies reporting how and when young children use interactive media including at home and in classrooms. 
– Replication studies using touch screens in cases where studies with traditional media are being used to support claims about interactive media. 
– Comparison studies directly comparing learning from a traditional (physical) tasks and an analogous app. 
– Transfer and learning studies in which children learn and apply knowledge learnt in one modality (e.g., touch screens) to another (e.g., the physical world). 

The submission of research articles, reviews, hypothesis and theory articles, methodological articles, and brief commentaries or opinion pieces are welcomed. 

We also encourage both interdisciplinary collaboration between developmental, education, and human-media interaction researchers and partnership between industry and academia. 

Important Note: All submissions/contributions to this Research Topic must be in line with the scope of the journal and section they are submitted to. While authors are encouraged to draw from other disciplines to enrich their papers where relevant, they must ensure papers fall within the section, as expressed in its Scope.
  
 
Abstract Deadline: December 1, 2015
Manuscript Submission Deadline: May 16, 2016
Should you choose to participate, please confirm by sending a quick email (JTarasuik@swin.edu.au or Gabrielle.Strouse@usd.edu) and then your abstract no later than December 1, 2015 using the following link: http://www.frontiersin.org/submissioninfo.
 
The goal is to create a comprehensive collection of papers to serve as an interdisciplinary forum for discussion and debate. Contributions can be articles describing original research, methods, hypothesis & theory, opinions, etc. Frontiers will also compile an e-book, as soon as all contributing articles are published, that can be used in classes, be sent to foundations that fund your research, to journalists and press agencies, or to any number of other organizations.
 
All Frontiers articles undergo a rigorous and interactive peer-review process.  Average time from submission to final decision is 85 days. Frontiers is a Swiss Gold-model open-access publisher. Open access journals are growing in popularity with researchers around the world because they make publications accessible to all scholars, regardless of affiliation.  As an author in Frontiers, you retain the copyright to your own papers and figures. Once published, your articles will remain free to access for all readers, and will be indexed in PubMed and other academic archives.  Manuscript accepted for publication do incur a publishing fee, which varies depending on the article type. Research Topic manuscripts receive a significant discount on publishing fees (25% discount off category A). Please visit the Frontiers website (http://www.frontiersin.org/about) for more information about open access, peer review, and impact.  Fees and article types are listed in the “For Authors” menu under the Developmental Psychology journal page (http://journal.frontiersin.org/journal/all/section/developmental-psychology).
 
We would be delighted if you considered participating in this Research Topic.
 
Sincerely,
 

Joanne Tarasuik, Gabrielle Strouse and Jordy Kaufman

The e-Book as a Facilitator of Language and Literacy among Hebrew-Speaking Children

DSCF4501 KoratThe second presentation in Theme IV: Learning to Read with Digital Media was presented by Ofra Korat . Ofra demonstrated two delightful books that she has been using in her research on the use of digital media for facilitating the acquisition of oral and written language skills by Hebrew-speaking children.  The books are carefully designed with elements shown to improve children’s learning such as animated dictionary pop-ups. Ofra’s research program  is remarkable for its depth and breadth, involving children with variations in language skills and social class and book reading conditions that include print versus electronic versions of the stories presented with and without adult support. Ofra is convinced that if ebooks are sufficiently well designed children will learn language and literacy skills from them even without adult scaffolding; this outcome has been observed in some although not all of her studies. If the design elements that promote this outcome can be identified, such books could benefit children who have less access to high quality adult supports or who, due to language disability or differences, require additional language inputs in order to achieve adequate success in school.

Conference abstract: In this presentation, we will present a series of studies performed in the last decade that examined the contribution of e-book reading to the language and literacy of young Hebrew-speaking children.

Conference handout: Please contact Dr. Korat directly for more information about her presentation.

Using Constructive Apps to Develop Digital Literary Skills in Early Childhood Education

The second presentation in Theme IV: Teaching with eBooks in the Classroom was submitted by Monika Tavernier from the German Swiss International School of Hong Kong. However, she was ultimately unable to attend the conference and therefore her slides were presented by Jeremy Brueck. found the slides and the associated videos to be very interesting because the action research that was described in some ways addressed the issue of digital literacy more directly than the other presentations at the conference that were often more concerned with learning literacy from digital tools such as ebooks. Monika’s presentation described the children’s progress as they constructed various products using multimedia apps with less and less teacher support as the year went on. It was interesting to see the children gradually adopt strategies to organize multimedia objects both within and across pages. It’s hard to know how to interpret the progression in the children’s use of the digital media however. Clearly the children became more skilled in the use of the tools so that, whereas they initially piled print (often random letters) on top of graphics, they eventually learned to organize meaningful words under pictures in a conventional style and they further learned to organize material onto separate pages. In addition to technical skills these advances may reflect cognitive advances in the ability to organize information into meaningful groups and to adapt to the needs of the audience or reader. At the same time, do these adaptations reflect pressure by adults to adopt a ‘book’ based style that is not actually necessary or well suited to the digital medium? Must there be pages for example? Personally, I find these observational studies to be fascinating and valuable contributions to the literature at this stage of our understanding of how digital media impact on children’s learning.

Conference Abstract: Early childhood educators can make use of applications such as the Book Creator to foster an interest in experimenting with written and verbal language to create original content.

Conference handout: Using constructive apps.

Parental Co-viewing and Language Learning from Digital Media

DSCF4569 TrosethThe third presentation in Theme II: Learning Language from Shared Reading with eBooks covered a series of word learning experiments conducted by Georgene Troseth, Gabrielle Strouse, and Colleen Russo. The studies presented were a logical outgrowth of Georgene’s prior work on the role of third party social interactions on word-learning by young children. Georgene is a co-author of the well-known study “Can babies learn to read: A randomized trial of baby media”.

The studies presented at McGill, while exploratory, were carefully designed to assess word learning as an outcome jointly determined by characteristics of the technology and the child. Novel words might be taught in tasks that required the child to watch, tap or drag the novel objects presented on the screen. Child characteristics such as age, gender and self-regulation skills were taken into account as potential explanatory variables. Additional studies involved video storybook and video chat modalities with controls on the form of adult mediation of the child’s learning. You really must view Georgene’s slides to marvel at the impact of all this complexity emerging from studies involving very simple apps! However, the take home message seems to be that apps must be designed to facilitate self-regulation by the child or to help the parent regulate the child’s focus and engagement with the app. This presentation amplified many points made earlier in the day by Mary Courage – learning is dependent upon the child’s access to high quality inputs – the technology may provide educational inputs but receipt of those inputs is determined by the interaction of the child’s executive functions and active mediation on the part of adults. Coviewing of video storybooks by parents improves children’s learning; how can we improve the co-reading experience for parents and children when sharing ebooks?

Conference abstract: We will discuss young children’s language learning from video in two studies with and without parental support. This research provides important background information for those studying children’s learning from newer, interactive digital media (e.g., eBooks, touchscreen apps, and video chat).

Conference handout: Troseth DigLit Slide Upload.

Preschoolers in the Digital Age: How do E-storybooks and Paper Storybooks Compare?

The Key Note presenter for Theme II: Learning Language from Shared Reading with eBooks was Mary Courage. Her talk was entitled Preschoolers in the Digital Age: How do E-storybooks and Paper Storybooks Compare? (Mary L. Courage and Anna Richter) but she began with a valuable overview of the basic science on perceptual and cognitive contributions to language development that helped to explain the “video deficit” commonly observed in infants and young children (see also our blog post by Aparna Nadig). Subsequently she described new research from her lab in which 3, 4 and 5 year old children listened to an ebook  and a paper book  with stories and format presented in counterbalanced order within child. Although they observed predictable age differences in story recall, there were no differences as a function of story format (i.e., paper book versus ebook). The results were surprising when compared to other studies (see blog on Julia Parish-Morris’ presentation). However, in Mary’s study the amount of adult scaffolding was controlled and minimized across formats. I also note that the adult reader was not a parent. We have noted in our research that conflict for “control” of the device is minimized in the school setting, i.e., when the adult reader is the not the child’s parent! The other finding that I find particularly interesting was that visual engagement with ebooks was high but child verbal responsiveness was low during shared reading in both contexts. Often we are using child verbal responses as an outcome measure in these studies, but the child’s verbal output is not a good indicator of “learning” from the interaction. All round, this beautifully controlled study conducted by Mary and her student raised many important issues about the conditions under which children can learn from ebooks.

DSCF4520 CourageConference abstract: The increasing availability of electronic storybooks for preschoolers has raised concerns that they will not only add to daily screen time, but also distract children and diminish pre-reading skill acquisition. E-books may also change the nature of the parent-child interaction that occurs during reading with traditional print books and that supports early literacy skills. Alternatively, because electronic books are delivered via popular mobile devices, they might motivate children to read more, benefit from built-in reading aids, and increase their focused attention to story details. Research to date has not resolved these issues, leaving parents and educators with mixed messages on the pros and cons of the two formats in promoting children’s literacy. We will report on an experimental study in which we evaluated preschool children’s attention, learning, and engagement with comparable stories in both formats.

Conference handout: To request a handout or more information about this study conducted by Mary Courage and Anna Richter, please e-mail Dr. Courage at mcourage@mun.ca.

School Based Shared Reading with iRead with Books Improves Emergent Literacy Skills

DSCF4616 RvachewThe third and final presentation for Theme IV: Teaching with eBooks in the Classroom was presented by Susan Rvachew (with co-authors from the Digital Media Project Susan Rvachew, Kathrin Rees, Aparna Nadig, Elizabeth Carolan & Elizabeth Christe). This study was conducted in the context of a community reader program designed to support the oral language and emergent literacy skills of kindergarten children attending English-language schools in low-income neighborhoods in the Montreal region. The iReadWith books were developed by Tribal Nova in consultation with our research team to prompt the adult reader to use a dialogic reading style while sharing the book with the child. The books are also designed, via the linking of ‘living words’ with story congruent animations, to promote word recognition skills. A randomized within-student design was implemented to compare language and literacy outcomes after exposure to equivalent paper and iReadwith versions of two ‘Caillou’ stories in counterbalanced order. Stories were read three times in one week before outcome measures were administered. We did not find any disadvantage to the iReadwith book for story retell or story comprehension scores. We did find a significant advantage to iReadwith exposure for emergent literacy skills, and an interaction with the children’s letter knowledge skills such that children with the poorest letter knowledge skills showed the greatest advantage of exposure to the iReadwith books. Furthermore, analysis of the transcripts of reading interactions showed that adult comments and questions related to emergent literacy (i.e., print concepts, printed words, sound structure of words, and sound-letter correspondences) increased five times during iReadwith sharing in comparison to paper book sharing. When combined with the outcome of the studies described by Julia Parish-Morris, Mary Courage and Gabrielle Strouse, the conference findings in general confirm that children’s outcomes are determined by the intersection of ebook design and adult scaffolding during shared reading.

DSCF4596 Christe Rees iReadwithConference abstract: We worked with Tribal Nova Inc. to develop ebooks that encourage a dialogic reading style by adults when sharing the book with a child and tested the efficacy of the books in the context of a community reader program for kindergarten children. Outcomes are described for story retell, story comprehension and emergent literacy skills as a function of the children’s letter knowledge at intake.

Conference handout: Rvachew DigLitMcGill Slide upload.