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Edutainment: Move Beyond Entertaining, to Learning

A drawing made in Tux Paint using various brus...
A drawing made in Tux Paint using various brushes and the Paint tool. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
November 2, 2015 Deadline
December 2015 Issue

Randomly clicking on letters, the young boy I was watching play an educational game “won” each level. He paid no attention to the letters themselves. His focus was on the dancing aliens at the end of each alphabet invasion.

Situations like this occur in classrooms and homes every day. Technology appeals to parents, politicians and some educators as a path towards more effective teaching. We often bring technology into our schools and homes, imagining the latest gadgets and software will magically transfer skills and information to our children.

This school year, I left teaching business communications to return to my doctoral specialty in education, technology and language development. As a board member of an autism-related charity, I speak to groups on how technology both helps and hinders special education. Business students will always have the best professors. Special needs students deserve more attention.

Like many educational technologists, I have visions of technology enabling more access to education and better results for all students. Idealism tends to meet classroom reality. Our schools are victims of the best intentions, forced by the public and politicians to embrace the latest trendy theories with the slightest evidence. Technology companies have been selling their magical elixirs to schools since the 1970s, with mixed results.

Unfortunately, most educational technology embodies little more than “edutainment” that might transfer some factual knowledge through repetition, but primarily entertains the player-learner.

The young boy I observed was playing a top-selling educational game. He was learning little or nothing because the game did nothing to discourage guessing. Researchers know that failure is a part of learning, as is some frustration. The game, however, didn’t frustrate the player who was merely guessing. The player always “won” the game and received the reward.

The next youngster I watched was playing Super Why! The game, based on a popular PBS series, had the same flaw as the first edutainment title. The girl playing would click and click, until “winning” each level. The game had no time limits, no consequences for guessing or offering incorrect answers.

Don’t misunderstand, “educational game” is not an oxymoron.

The classic game The Oregon Trail has both deaths and a final score for players. With nearly 100 million versions sold since the game was first released in the 1970s, Oregon Trail has won praise from educators and researchers for helping students understand the Westward Migration. Students tend to replay the game, trying to improve their scores by reaching the West faster and with more survivors in the wagon train. Today’s versions of the game look better, yet the basics of the game remain unchanged.

Parents, teachers and school districts looking to buy effective educational games need to consider how the game challenges players and rewards right answers. Research suggests games that decrease the time allowed to complete levels or increase the difficulty of problems also help retain knowledge.

At best, games and activities reinforce what a teacher or parent has taught a child. Younger students still need teachers, because they haven’t learned how to teach themselves through reading and research. Some of the apps and games I have evaluated this year are good for reinforcing knowledge, but most seem to be advertisements for popular characters.

Reinforcement is part of learning. That’s why children repeat favorite songs and love to hear the same stories over and over again. If games use familiar character for reinforcement of basic skills, then the games are useful. But, the popular titles generally fall short of what is possible.

Maybe it is my age, but I find that nothing beats the standard “newsprint” paper with blue solid and dotted lines for learning to write. Observing students use LeapFrog Scribble and Writer toys, which teach basic lettering through tracing, I noticed the students don’t always transfer what they did on screen to paper. For young children, it can be difficult to recognize that the screen and paper are similar.

LeapFrog’s LeapReader, which is an electronic activity book device, does seem to work for young children. You can add books to the set, which work with the LeapReader pen. The pen is impressive technology. It can be too complex for some youngsters to operate without an adult around to help.

I’d like to see more research on the LeapReader’s effectiveness versus paper pads, especially with the cost of the device and several books easily surpassing $50. I buy the newsprint pads at various dollar stores for $1 each, along with 50 cent crayon boxes. It’s hard to beat the price of crayons and paper.

The most educational applications are not games or glorified activity books. Analysis, evaluation and creation represent the highest levels of cognitive development. I encourage parents and teachers to seek out technology that fosters creative play and creative expression.

Kid Pix, KidsPainter and other simple illustration apps are ideal for children. TuxPaint, originally for the Linux OS, is a free painting program for children. Drawing with a computer improves spatial skills and awareness of geometry. Best of all, students go from drawing copies of what they see to creating new imaginary worlds. The reward for learning to use the drawing app is intrinsic, an image that belongs to its creator.

Likely the best option for allowing a child to type on your computer is the WordPad or TextEdit applications included with Windows and OS X. You’ll be surprised at how quickly young children who know simple words master a basic word processor. Show a child how to change fonts and colors, and you’ve just introduced a new favorite computer activity.

Tablets, with touch interfaces, are easier than a mouse for children. A LeapPad is inexpensive and rugged, but the games are overpriced. The games vary in their effectiveness, so you need to read online reviews before spending $15 or $20 for a game. I’d consider an inexpensive Android tablet with a case, instead. As an Apple user, I’d only suggest an iPad if you are passing one along to the child; they simply aren’t a good buy for the minimal needs of a child. An iPad is better suited to preteens and older users, though, with some great content available.

Focus on a child’s learning, not only on how entertaining an app or gadget might be.


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