Researchers know that back-and-forth conversations with caregivers at home are one of the key building blocks for helping children get ready to read. Three new early-literacy apps — released for free from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and its Reach Every Reader initiative — are designed for parents and caregivers to use with their children. They're designed to create fun and rewarding interactions, get families talking, and give children the foundations they need to read, learn, and thrive.
The new apps, developed by a team led by Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt and Professors Meredith Rowe and Paola Uccelli, in collaboration with GBH and FableVision Studios, will be available in the Apple and Google app stores. Here, Blatt discusses how the apps came about, concerns around screen time, and the promise of education technology.
Talk about what you see as the promise and possibility of technology in education, as exemplified by the early-literacy apps you’ve developed. We know technology offers so many benefits, but we also know there are questions about how best to use it.
One way to approach the question of how technology serves education is to recognize that there's a duality in the way that people actually think of this. On the one hand, there is the idea of technology as substitute. The teacher or caregiver is not available, so you toss something to the young person in hopes they'll learn something while keeping busy, or the parent hands off a phone or a tablet because they need time to get some work done, or to make dinner, or whatever.
And my general sense is that when technology is used as a substitute for a relationship, it doesn't tend to do much to support learning.
But the other way that we can think about technology is as an enabler. And in that way, I think technology can really support learning, and it can broaden what parents and teachers can do to support learning. In some situations, the child is using the technology by herself, but in a very structured way, and in a way that carries a payoff. I would distinguish that as “enabling versus substitute,” but of course, to me, the more interesting and better version of the enabling approach is where the technology is adding to the human interaction.
Most parents want to support their kids’ learning at every age. But many parents don't know how, or they don't believe they have the capability to do so. They want their kids to learn, but they worry about supporting that learning, especially if they themselves didn’t receive an adequate opportunity to learn. That’s where technology can truly enable. It can really help families in that situation, empowering parents and encouraging their kids. The technology enriches the relationship, not limits it.
Tell us why HGSE is launching these apps? What do you hope they will achieve?
Well, research on understanding the foundations and the development of literacy is one of HGSE’s cornerstone strengths. We have fabulous faculty in that area. And we are institutionally committed to making sure that our research has an impact on people's lives. So this seems like a natural evolution for us — to harness our research to do something for as many learners as possible, putting our literacy expertise to work for people through smartphones, a technology that everyone has access to and feels comfortable using. It just seems like a natural marriage.
And the research tells us that literacy problems are often not recognized or addressed until third grade, when they have already become formidable barriers to learning.
The premise of our literacy work and of this project is that very early intervention could help ward that off and help kids get to school ready for learning. And so these apps represent an attempt to support what I call pre-literacy or foundations for literacy. It's not about reading, and it's not even about vocabulary. It's about the underlying habits of mind that support literacy. Our research tells us that practices like sustained conversation, reference to past memories or experiences that are not part of the here and now — that all of these things accomplish that. And so those were the goals in designing the apps.
But another part of the goal was that, whatever we did, we wanted it to be fun and natural for parents. So it wouldn't feel like, far-off, pointy-headed researchers telling us, ‘This is what you need to do to support your child,’ but rather, ‘Oh, this is a way to have fun together that I know is also good for my child.’ So instead of having to go buy flashcards or a board game, this is hopefully a natural kind of play situation that still carries literacy benefits — while supporting your relationship with your child.
Do apps hold a particular appeal as a learning mechanism? What other new technologies or platforms or tools are you excited about?
One important thing about the apps that I don't think we've actually talked about much is that they can be downloaded, and once they're downloaded, you don't need an internet connection to have the benefit of them. The reason that's important in this context is that a lot of what we hope to encourage is for parents and caregivers to take these ideas — like sustained conversation, dialogue, and new vocabulary — out into the world. That way families can take advantage of time in the supermarket or in the pediatrician's office or on the bus to have some of these fun conversations in a way that feels natural, not like special time you have to set aside. It’s an easy way to capitalize on time you are spending together and make the most of it. And there’s no racking up people's cell charges — there's no internet connection that's necessary.
And then what I am excited about, maybe in contrast to or as a complement to what I just said, is that it's not going to be that long until free, high-speed wifi is ubiquitous. And when that happens, I think we'll be able to do “mixed reality” — meaning we can take the best elements of virtual reality and augmented reality and fuse them together.
Augmented reality, superimposing information on the real world that we see around us, is really exciting. I don't like screening out the world the way virtual reality tends to do, but I think there are elements of virtual reality that can be really exciting, particularly by adding people who are not physically present into the augmented reality world. So that’s why I tend to think of mixed reality as the sort of coolest thing. Picture your child being able to hold up this lens that reveals an interesting story about some place she’s looking at, and brings in a classmate to talk about it. That's really an exciting learning environment.
And then the other development that I'm really excited about is personalization. At this moment, it's essential to say, we are not there yet, and there are critical problems and challenges to resolve before we can get there — challenges about how to deal with privacy, with equity, with ownership of data and information. But those are just challenges, and if we work hard, we can resolve them. And then we could get to a point where everything that we know about a child — everything that the parents, the extended family, the teacher, the social worker, the pediatrician all know — can feed into an artificially intelligent system that is smart enough to deliver genuinely personalized learning. I don't think it's a fantasy. I think it's just hard work.
You have developed these new apps, but parents may worry that their children are already spending too much time with screens. What do you say to that concern?
One of the fears that people have about technology, or modern methods of education in general, is that we're not giving kids enough room to play, to explore and to do all the kinds of self-motivated behavior that we know comes out in play, and that is really critical for learning. I think parents are absolutely right to push for a “balanced diet” of learning experiences for their kids.
But well-designed digital experiences actually can do that. I'm certainly a huge advocate of outdoor play and of taking advantage of museums and other community spaces. But I think well-designed digital environments can create play spaces as well. So I don't see those things in opposition. In fact, in some people's environments, opportunities for what we traditionally mean by play are pretty limited, and so digital play environments can really fulfill a need.
And finally, over the last year of pandemic-enforced time at home, the phrase “screen time” has become universal. Parents and caregivers who didn't think that much about the time their kids were spending with devices are now thinking about it a lot. And they're right to do that. It’s vital to spend time outside, to talk with family, and to put away screens at night so they don’t interfere with sleep – those are challenges that we need to be aware of. But I think the main thing people need to recognize is that there is good screen time and bad screen time, depending mostly on the content.
What we're asking families to do with the apps that we made are examples of good screen time. But there are a lot of sources of less good content – less well tested, less enriching, less purposeful. It’s really important that parents pay attention to what their kids are doing with screens, and try to foster the good and discourage the bad.