01/24/2012 07:05 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

Teaching With Tablets: For Young Readers, It's Interaction vs. Distraction

The potential of digital learning for children got a push last week from two prestigious sources -- Apple and the leading journal for school librarians. As usual, Apple caught the media hype and the librarians showcased the smartest and most important contribution.

Apple generated widespread media excitement when it announced its latest educational initiative. Surprise! It will revolve around iPad eTextbooks for high school kids. There are at least a few dozen unanswered questions about the Apple announcement (beginning with these) but the company's continued investment in schools shows that the future of classroom learning is transitioning to digital.

In all the excitement, most people missed a story in School Library Journal that reported on a new study involving digital learning and kids. The study, conducted by research psychologist and education expert Michael Milone, found the level of reading comprehension is exactly the same for kids whether they are reading eBooks or print books.

But Milone, who focused exclusively on fiction in this study, also raises important and largely unexamined questions about digital learning, nonfiction book apps, and the "difference between engagement and distraction" in interactive textbooks of the future. Looking forward, Milone foresees "interactivity wars" in the education establishment as different camps fight to distinguish between teaching and merely entertaining.

As part of a team that has just developed a new kind of nonfiction book app for young children (Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night) and someone who's written on this topic before, I believe the questions Milone raises point to the central challenge of using tablets as teachers: How do you use interactivity to deepen the experience of reading when it now is mostly employed to insert cartoons and other distractions that take kids away from reading altogether? (For an example, check out Moonbot's beautiful but distracting new alphabet book app, The Numberlys.)

Milone's study (download it here) was sponsored by Renaissance Learning, a national education company that provides computerized learning assessment tools to some 70,000 schools.

The study involved just 31 fourth-graders. Each student read up to six fiction books from a list of 12 provided by Milone. They alternated between reading a book in print and a different book on a Kindle. After finishing each work, the students took a computerized test to measure their comprehension. In all, they read and took tests on 135 books, 69 on the Kindle and 66 in print. The study concluded:

"The results showed no statistically significant difference between the students' understanding of the Kindle and print versions of the books. On the comprehension assessment, the percent correct for books read on the Kindle averaged 88%, while the average for books read in print was 88.5%."

Despite the small study size, Milone, an independent advisor to Renaissance, wrote in an email exchange, "I think we can generalize confidently and say that for the most part, students understand narrative text equally whether it is read in a book or on a digital device."

Interestingly, Milone is "far less confident" about applying his study's results to nonfiction, such as textbooks. "Studying is very different from reading for pleasure, and I think the research in this area is going to be less definitive," he said.

For Milone, there's still a question mark hovering over the use of eReaders and more interactive tablet devices when it comes to using them in schools to learn a subject. "The question you raise about interactivity is going to be one of the most critical publishing issues in the coming years. We are probably going to struggle at first as we learn better how to differentiate between engagement and distraction," Milone wrote.

Still, despite the question marks, both Milone's study and Apple's announcement underscore that we are in the midst of a transition from a print-based to a digital learning culture for children.

The next pivotal movement in the transition will revolve around the issues of creating engagement, not distraction, in digital products that somehow combine both interactivity and real reading. While there are a few current examples of innovation, the vast bulk of digital books keep interactivity and reading separate. They generally fall into one of two categories:

• Retreads of kids' classics where the only "e" or "app" features are mediocre soundtracks and old illustrations that animate in predictable ways; or

• Slick, Hollywood productions that use animation and film so heavily they are more like movies than books and are watched rather than read.

Sticking to retreads makes no use of all the powerful technological innovations now at our command. But creating tablet cartoons has the potential to kill off reading altogether.

Milone predicts a slew of studies on digital reading and learning. He is "begging" Renaissance to fund a similar study "using nonfiction books and textbooks on both eReaders and tablet computers."

Meanwhile educators and parents, he says, should expose children to both print and digital and use their best judgment.

"Given the history of education, there will probably be 'interactivity wars' in which two or more camps disagree on how information should be presented. I'm hoping that good judgment will prevail, and that parents, teachers, and policy makers keep in mind that not all students learn in the same way, and that providing students with meaningful options will make it more likely that they will succeed."

Note: You can download a PDF of Kirk Cheyfitz's entire exchange with Michael Milone using this Dropbox link. Kirk is part of a team that just completed a groundbreaking book app for 6-11-year-olds, built on the Unity videogaming platform. It's called Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night and features 3D effects and lots of reading and information.