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Study Finds One More Element Needed to Make Educational Apps Most Effective

Published December 20, 2016 in News

By: Jane Kelly | University Communications

Screens are in our faces more than ever before. Smartphones, tablets, televisions and computers are part of daily life.

For young people, screen technology has been around as long as they have. To gain a toehold with these “digital natives,” companies are flooding the market with educational apps.

That raised a question for Sierra Eisen: Just how educational are they?

Eisen – in her third year of graduate study in psychology at the University of Virginia, where she is working in the Early Development Lab – had her curiosity piqued by what she saw while working in an Apple Store in Berkeley, California in 2013. (She previously earned a B.A. in psychology from University of California, Berkeley.)

“As I was applying to grad school, I was taking a year and was working at an Apple Store as a salesperson,” she said. “I saw the children around me come into the store and just race over to the iPads. They’d pick it up, and even if it was the first time they’d ever interacted with an iPad, they instantly knew how to use it.”

Meanwhile, the children’s parents were trying to figure out why their email wasn’t working. “There was this difference between how quickly children picked it up and how difficult it could be for adults,” Eisen said.

The store also sold educational apps and accessories marked “cognitive development.”

“It really struck me as I was working there that there wasn’t any kind of regulation of what could be called an ‘educational app’ and what couldn’t,” she said.

Since arriving at UVA in 2014, Eisen has been exploring children and their interactions with touch screens with Angeline Lillard, director of the Early Development Lab.

Together, they are starting to get answers. Their study, just published in the Journal of Children and Media, offers some insight into what preschoolers think about screens and other types of media tools, like books and puzzles.

“One of the really interesting things that we found was that about 80 percent of children thought books were for learning. But only about 50 percent of children thought that iPads were used for learning and only 33 percent of children thought that iPhones were used for learning,” Eisen said. By contrast, 100 percent of adults said all those things could be used for learning.

“We give our children educational games and we think, ‘Oh, it’s educational’ – that’s the part we are focused on. But for the child maybe, it’s more about the game. Almost any app these days is really, really engaging for children,” she said. “What really has to be focused on is, ‘Is it so engaging that children are also not learning?’ Are those two things at odds with each other, or are they actually being used to promote each other?”

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