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Word learning from a touchscreen app: 30-month-olds perform better in a passive context

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posted on 2019-06-24, 14:44 authored by Lena AckermannLena Ackermann
Tablet computers are becoming increasingly popular: In 2016, 78 % of American households with children had a tablet at home, while 42 % of children had a tablet computer of their own (Rideout, 2017). At the same time, educational apps are a growing market that lures parents with bold claims of boosting children’s learning in various domains. The majority of apps targeted at toddlers and pre-schoolers has not undergone formal evaluation (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). Nevertheless, at least 80% of parents report having downloaded apps for their children (Rideout, 2017).
Recent work (Kirkorian, Choi, & Pempek, 2016; Partridge, McGovern, Yung, & Kidd, 2015; Russo-Johnson, Troseth, Duncan, & Mesghina, 2017) has shown that children can indeed learn new words from a tablet app. Crucially, older children have been shown to benefit from active learning in touchscreen contexts (Partridge, McGovern, Yung, & Kidd, 2015), while interactivity seemed to impede learning in younger children (Kirkorian, Choi, & Pempek, 2016).
In the present study, we investigate if 30-month-old children benefit from active selection in a touchscreen-based word learning task. Based on previous research, we expected both groups to perform above chance, but we were particularly interested to see whether children the active condition would outperform their passive counterparts. Participants (n = 34) were assigned to either an active condition (where they could choose which objects they wanted to hear the label for) or a yoked passive condition (where selections were based on the choices made by age-matched children in the active condition). We familiarized children in both conditions with the touchscreen device and presented them with four novel word-object-associations. Word learning was examined using a two-alternative forced choice task (2-AFC) and a four-alternative forced choice task (4-AFC).

Surprisingly, children in the passive condition significantly outperformed those in the active condition in the 2-AFC (p = 0.0372). In the 4-AFC, we found a significant interaction between condition and test order (p = 0.0211), indicating that active participants' performance decreased in later trials, while passive participants got better as the test phase went on.

These results suggest that 30-month-olds do not benefit from active learning in a touchscreen-based word learning task. These findings are in contrast to Partridge, McGovern, Yung and Kidd (2015) who find a beneficial influence of active selection in preschoolers (3-5 years). One explanation is that younger toddlers in the active condition allocate valuable cognitive resources to the tapping itself, while children in the passive condition can focus on the word learning task itself. Relatedly, tapping might constitute a prepotent response for children in the active condition. Instead of paying attention to the prompt, they might be waiting for their next chance to tap and do so as soon as they can, regardless of instruction.

The current study adds to the growing body of evidence that educational apps and their bold claims should be taken with caution: While children might benefit from interactive touchscreen apps under certain conditions, locomotor and cognitive constraints should always be taken into account.