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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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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.

With Infants, E-Books and Traditional Books May Not Be So Different

The second presentation in Theme I (How do Parents and Children Engage with eBooks?), by Gabrielle Strouse was entitled “With Infants, E-Books and Traditional Books May Not Be So Different” (Gabrielle Strouse and Patricia Ganea). Gabrielle described her study that involved 102 toddlers who shared a traditional book or electronic book with their parent. The books were very simple apps designed for infants (Happy Babies series by Penguin Books). Therefore, there were few ‘pages’ and no narrative — the app, upon tapping, simply exposes the infant to an animal, and then the animal’s baby, with a repetitive sentence frame for labeling the illustrations. In contrast to several prior studies involving preschoolers and story books, the study revealed no disadvantage to the ebook format in terms of the quality of language input provided by the parent reader. In fact, parents and infants both made more content-related comments with the electronic book compared to the paper version of the book. Interestingly, the toddlers were observed to be highly engaged with the electronic book — more attentive than with the paper book — in direct contrast to the parent’s responses on the pre-experiment survey about their infant’s behaviors during shared reading. This study raises many questions about the intersection of the child, the ebook features and parental behaviors that must be considered before we draw firm conclusions about the potential of ebooks to support learning by children. Gabrielle is a co-author of the well-known study “Can babies learn to read: A randomized trial of baby media” . We look forward to seeing this new study in print.

StrouseConference abstract: There is reason to believe that important differences exist in the way parents and children treat new technologies and traditional formats. In this presentation, we describe the results of a study in which parents of 102 infants aged 17 to 26 months were randomly assigned to read electronic or traditional format books with identical content with their infant.

Conference handout: Strouse DigLitMcGill slide upload.

Adult Supports for Children’s Understanding of Interactive eBooks: A Cross-sectional Case Study

The third talk in Theme I (How do Parents and Children Engage with eBooks?) was presented by Kathleen Paciga. This presentation represented a shift to more qualitative work with interesting video presentations of Kathleen’s children interacting with a complex electronic story book. This longitudinal study raised several important issues that reverberated through to the round table discussions on the second day. First, the importance of ensuring developmental appropriateness of the ebook relative to the child’s age and interests became very clear. Second, the common problem of mismatches between cognitive and motor challenges at the intersection of the story and interactive features in the ebook came to the foreground.  The study also raised the issue of possible gender differences in response to digital applications, an issue that would arise again in other studies presented at the conference; personally, I became aware that this variable is not well controlled in this emerging area of research. Katie’s thoughts about apps and preschool education can be found on her blog. Katie has published other data on children’s listening comprehension of digital story books in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy.

Conference abstract: A cross-sectional case study was utilized to examine an adult’s use of supports for two siblings’ (male, 54 months old; female, 30 months old) experiences with the same interactive e-book.

Conference handout: Paciga DigLitMcGill slide upload.

DSCF4455 Paciga

Teaching with eBooks: Emerging Practices

The Key Note presentation for Theme IV: Teaching with eBooks in the Classroom was presented by Jeremy Brueck . Regrettably his co-author Kathleen Roskos was unable to join us but Jeremy’s presentation, attached below, was a perfect introduction to the Theme. The presentation was visually gorgeous, immensely practical and intellectually stimulating since it reminded us (again) that children’s learning from ebooks is not just about the design of the technology. Teachers’ knowledge, skills and experiences play a very important role. Jeremy reviewed best practices related to five key points: (1) Know your device; (2) Know your ebook; (3) Establish routines; (4) Link apps together; and (5) Be persistent. Jeremy also introduced us to some tools for evaluating and rating the quality of ebooks for teaching, including his own eBook Quality Rating Tool. Jeremy has discussed this tool in more detail on his blog and he and his colleagues have published data collected with the tool in journals such as The Journal of Interactive On-line Learning. I invite readers to download the conference handout because a brief blogpost cannot do justice to the presentation. However, as Jeremy stressed during the presentation, professional development helps but supported and persistence exploration and practice with devices and apps is the key to successful integration of these technologies into the classroom.

DSCF4608 BrueckConference abstract: The surge of eBooks and storybook apps into the early childhood world is rapidly changing the traditional early book experience and thereby the way literacy is promoted in early education. As eBooks increasingly replace print books on an array of devices, the need to understand their impact not only on children’s engagement and learning, but also early literacy teaching grows more urgent. How do adults help young children learn to read and write in an electronic reading environment? Our session focuses on emerging e-reading practices that appear promising for promoting children’s early literacy knowledge, skills and motivation. Drawing on a series of field studies in early childhood classrooms, we describe hybrid pedagogies teachers are using to support early literacy experience with eBooks and apps. We also report both the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” when implementing eBook reading instruction in mobile learning environments. Finally we discuss the supports that teachers need when adapting their existing practices to eBook enriched classrooms.

Conference handout: Brueck DigLitMcGill slide upload.