Young children can struggle to master a mouse or a keyboard, yet it is through these devices that most are introduced to the world of digital technology. Fortunately this is changing. Engagement with technology is becoming easier through touchscreen devices such as the iPad and game consoles such as the Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Kinect that respond to children’s gestures and body movements.
The popularity of such devices with children has, unsurprisingly, generated excitement in their educational potential. Our challenge is to better understand how these new ways of directly engaging with technology can enhance learning. This will not only help us decide which devices to use and how, but also inform the design of new, more effective technologies.
Children find new technologies exciting, and they can make learning more active and fun. However, there is always a risk of the novelty wearing off and what may be more significant is that new devices make interaction with technology easier. Indeed, devices such as the iPad offer exciting digital interaction even to infants.
Making it easier to manipulate technology doesn’t only benefit young learners. Digital materials can represent different ideas, and new forms of interaction can facilitate, and extend, the way these ideas can be manipulated and explored. For example, number blocks can be slid around a touch screen using fingers on both hands, or images can be enlarged or reduced with a ‘pinching’ gesture. As technologies become more adept at recognising specific gestures, learners will be able to manipulate and investigate digital information more and more seamlessly.
There is increasing support for the idea that the way we think may be ‘embodied’, or inseparably linked to our physical experiences. Evidence has largely come from the way that we use gestures when explaining ideas, for example, moving our hands up and down to explain the notion of balance. These gestures do not just help listeners’ comprehension; they help the speaker’s own thinking.
Significantly, children are often able to express ideas through gesture before they can do so verbally. This has important implications for new forms of technology because devices can capture and respond to particular actions that relate to concepts being learnt. For example, by linking the acceleration of a handheld device to an on-screen representation, children can explore how their physical movements link to concepts of motion.
To understand how new technologies can enhance embodied learning, we need to identify the relationship between thoughts and actions. In this regard, concepts that were once considered rather ‘abstract’, such as many mathematical ideas, are now being examined in terms of embodiment, raising the possibility of using new technologies to enhance learning in these areas. The Embodied Design Lab in California, for example, is looking at developing children’s understanding of proportion. Building on the fact that children’s understanding is often first expressed through gesture, they are investigating how a gesture recognition device (the Wii in this case) can help them explore and reflect upon the physical components of their understanding.
New technologies make it easier for several people to interact with digital information at the same time. Multiplayer games on the Wii and multi-touch devices, for example, offer exciting new ways for children to play and learn together.
The potential of multi-touch devices is currently being explored by SynergyNet. In this Technology Enhanced Learning programme research project, children work at one of four large multi-touch tables, a little like giant iPads. The tables allow them to work on their own or with others; manipulate different forms of information such as text and diagrams; and communicate with other groups by ‘sliding’ an item off their table towards another table. Initial findings indicate that using the tables encourages the children to have more task-focused conversations and increases their joint attention.
As well as observing how new devices influence children’s learning, the SynergyNet researchers can also use the tables to record children’s interactions, including gesture, providing rich data on the relationship between their actions and their thinking. Such information is particularly important given the increasing evidence that the ideas that children develop are strongly related to particular physical actions.
Whilst considering the benefits of new forms of interaction, we need to recognise the fundamental role played by educators in mediating learning with these tools. Indeed, a significant aspect of the SynergyNet project has been to identify ways to support the teacher in orchestrating learning with new forms of digital interaction.