THE BLOG

Are Educational Apps and Technology Nurturing or Killing Learning?

10/07/2016 05:04 pm ET

From stone tablets to electronic tablets, the evolution of technology and rise of educational apps have dramatically changed how we access information across multiple fields, from health to religion and much more.

It’s now possible for someone to use their phone to practice yoga without a gym membership, memorize the Quran while commuting without spending years in a traditional madrasah, or even learn a random new life skill in ten minutes.

While convenience and accessibility are clear advantages of educational apps and technology-enabled learning, are these digital environments actually effective for learning?

That is the million-dollar question on the lips of many skeptics. To answer this question, we need to consider a few factors.

Are we jumping to conclusions when it comes to screen learning?

There’s a general belief spread by physical book advocates that screens are harder to read, makes us learn slower, and leads to less information retention. Are screen technologies really that inferior to paper?

The researchers at Karolinska Institutet University Library don’t believe so. They suggest that habits and attitudes, rather than measurable cognitive effort during reading, largely influence people who are more familiar with books to prefer print. This means one’s familiarity with technology, rather than the technology itself, impacts learning effectiveness.

Bottom line is, nativity matters.

In the same way simplified keyboard layouts failed to go mainstream because of QWERTY familiarity, native book readers will find it cumbersome to switch to digital formats -- even if digital formats prove to be better.

This also indicates that the preference for digital learning could increase with the emerging new generation of native digital readers who grew up alongside digital formats.

What about the effectiveness of a digital learning environment?

Alongside educational apps, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have also been on the rise and has been forecasted to disrupt the global education landscape in the next 10 years.

Are digital classrooms effective for learning though, or are physical classroom interactions better?

We can gather some insights from Georgia Tech, who is spearheading a change in higher education by offering its prestigious master’s in computer science completely online. The program first rolled out in 2014, and is already proving that it is not inferior to its highly selective residential program counterpart.

Charles Isbell, a senior associate dean at the College of Computing who helped lead the effort at Georgia Tech, noted that he was interacting more with his online students.

“I never see [my residential] students at my office hours,” Isbell explains, “A few linger after class to ask scheduling questions, but that’s about it.”

In contrast, the online students constantly interact on a website set up for discussion. “I spend more time helping them with assignments online than I ever do on campus. The experience for the students and for me is much richer online,” continues Isbell.

This suggests that digital learning environments and educational apps, because of the flexibility to access it at one’s convenience, could become more engaging and effective if it provides an enriching learning environment through the digital space, by integrating elements such as social connection, multisensory learning, and gamification.

Conclusion

Learning through educational apps and digital environments can offer many more advantages than traditional learning styles, but personal factors such as a student’s familiarity with technology can have an impact upon learning preferences and effectiveness.

The future for digital learning is certainly a trend that cannot be ignored, as the next generation who are native with digital technology will no doubt create more demand for it.

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