Tablets Present Benefits and Risks for At-Home Learning

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Part Three of a three-part series: Tablets in Education

Increased tablet use in education can be a double-edged sword.

Experts tout the devices’ benefits, like increased engagement for students with learning disabilities, but using tablets for at-home learnng can be difficult because kids would rather use them for fun instead of learning.

Tablets in EducationMoreover, it’s tempting for busy or distracted parents to use tablets (or TVs and laptops) as electronic babysitters. And with more tablets in schools, the fear of diminished social interaction, decreased physical exercise, increased cyber bullying, and easier access to inappropriate content has increased among parents and educators.

Doctors and parents stress the importance of face-to-face interaction and not using technology to replace human contact. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram, and other avenues connect children with their peers but don’t provide the same benefits compared with human contact.

“Social and non-verbal [cues] are critical,” said Dr. Paul Yellin, director of The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education as well as an associate professor of pediatrics at the New York University School of Medicine.

Human brains are meant to read other’s feelings and technology can sometimes miss that, said Yellin. It’s a concern especially for those who tend to be more isolated than others.

Managing Screen Time

While educators teach students how to collaborate and share content among themselves, limiting screen time can be important for health reasons. However, it’s difficult to set a hard and fast limit on screen time.

“As far as we know, screen time at home [tends] to be passive absorption on the Internet” compared with using tablets at school for accessing educational content or using the devices as a tool, he said.

In fact, even some technology CEOs such as the late Steve Jobs reportedly limit screen time for their children.

Responsibility 101

In addition to making sure too much screen time doesn’t interfere with everyday life, children need to be taught Netiquette — the appropriate rules of Internet behavior.

Kids don’t always think about the consequences from a posting on Facebook or Twitter. An inappropriate post could have a greater impact on children than it would have in previous generations.

“One of the things that concerns me is how unforgiving the world is,” said Yellin.

In addition, parents need to speak with children about using technology responsibly. While school tablets probably have filters, many home devices likely don’t have anything.Let children know sometimes they will click on a site and send them to a place they didn’t mean to go, said Kelli Etheredge, teaching and learning resource director at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Mobile, Alabama. St. Paul’s recently gave Lenovo tablets to its 5th and 6th grade students.

She recommended that parents and kids talk about how to avoid such inappropriate content in the future.

Strategies for Parents

  • Decide what the device will be used for
  • Encourage the use of a tablet as a tool
  • Set firm boundaries with the child using conversation
  • Follow Netiquette strategies
  • Curate applications

Talk About Setting Limits

Setting firm boundaries for tablet use at home isn’t an easy task.

There’s a lot of work around the concept of collaborative problem solving, said Yellin. In this case, setting arbitrary limits to screen time could lead to battles for using the technology at the right or wrong time.

He urges parents to have healthy conversations with their children about why they need to use a device, so they can mutually decide on whether it’s necessary.

“The conversation … has nothing to do with the technology [but rather] how you parent,” Yellin said.
Other experts agree and think tablets should more or less be thought of as a tool.

“Before you buy a device, decide what you want to do with it,” suggested Jena Sherry, a middle school math teacher with the Wisconsin Virtual Academy.

If you want a tablet for reading only, then purchase an e-reader, she advised. But if you want to access educational apps, as well as ones for managing other tasks like helping children keep track of chores, an iPad or Android tablet makes sense.

Showing children how tablets can be used as a tool and problem solver enables them to begin seeing their value.

“When children see the power of a [tablet] and use it in dynamic ways … they start to get the deeper meaning [of content] and usage,” said Etheredge.

Tool vs. Toy

Many tech-savvy educators are parents themselves, and they have the same debate about how to use tablets at home, especially when their school districts use tablets or other 1:1 technology initiative.

Wes Miller, a parent and the vice president of research at IT consulting firm Directions on Microsoft, believes that it comes down to trust and verifying how students use the device. His philosophy is to teach students and children to investigate and find the most valuable technology.

A tablet can replace a laptop, but it’s a matter of what you want to do, agreed David Ernst, CIO at the College of Education and Human Development for the University of Minnesota. Ernst’s son uses a tablet for reading e-books.

While tablets can be thought of as learning tools, they can also encourage interaction between children. Parents can teach and reinforce good sharing habits.

“Kids like sharing,” said Sherry. “Not everyone has [a tablet] and they are more likely to share.”

It’s All About Apps

Finding the best educational software among the hundreds of thousands of options in an app store can be downright confusing. Curating tablet apps can be a nightmare and time-consuming chore.

Etheredge uses Common Sense Media, a website dedicated to helping parents navigate the world of technology. The site includes recommendations for books, apps, and movies, among others.

“The truly disruptive change [for using tablets to replace textbooks] will come from the educational apps proliferating on the market,” said Ric Getter, programmer analyst at Portland Community College.

Getter sees a lot of potential for tablets as a textbook replacements and general tools. A good example of software migrating to the tablet is Ace Reader by StepWare, he said. Although the full version of the software is currently only available for Windows and Mac, there is a basic iPad edition. Students can run the app on a tablet to learn how to read faster with greater comprehension.


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  1. RicGetter

    This is an excellent series and right on target (so to speak). In the late 90’s and 2000’s companies like Apple and NetSchools recognized the immediate benefits of one-laptop-per-child initiatives and the results in cutting-edge school districts in Texas and Maine were noteworthy. Back then, the issues of cost, performance and even durability were significant. Now, the technology has caught up with the need and the market for innovative and effective content is burgeoning.

  2. Diana Hwang

    Thanks for the comment, Ric. It’s amazing to watch how kids are applying the technology in different ways and coming up with new ways to use the tablets both at school and in the home.