Why a touchscreen (tablet or iPad) is better than a mouse and keyboard for young learners

The Idea, In Brief

As schools acquire significant numbers of tablets (Androids and iPads), administrators face questions regarding how these devices relate to the other learning technologies they already own.  In particular, should tablets be thought of as a less expensive and more portable version of desktop and laptop computers?  Or should they be thought of as a new type of educational technology altogether?

In this article, I argue that although today’s tablet computers are probably incremental innovations when it comes to adult productivity (“getting work done”), they are better thought of as major innovations when they are used as learning technologies, especially for children.  I highlight two issues in particular:

  1. Touchscreen computers enable many children as young as one year old (and in some cases even younger) to engage in independent learning activities on the computer for the first time, and
  2. Although there is not yet much empirical data on the relative benefits of touchscreen computers compared to desktop and laptop models, learning theory suggests we can expect faster learning and greater knowledge transfer from learning on a touchscreen computer compared to one equipped with a keyboard and mouse.

A Brief History of Educational Technology

Major technological innovations have arrived in waves over the past century, each bringing with it new opportunities and challenges for educators.

The Broadcast Epoch

Early technologies included radio and television.  These broadcast media opened up new possibilities for educators, but were highly inflexible and therefore difficult to incorporate into lessons.  The invention of recording and playback technologies – especially videocassettes and laser disks – gave teachers control over the time and place of presentation so that they could incorporate them systematically into their teaching plans.  Despite some clever and heroic efforts to make these technologies interactive, however, their capacity for interaction and adaptation were very limited and consequently they were still used mostly to “push” the same set of canned programs to all learners.

The Interactive Epoch

The emergence of affordable personal computers changed the game.  First, the desktop computer arrived in the late 1970’s, followed a few years later by smaller and more portable laptop models.  Computers were different from broadcast technologies in many ways, perhaps most notably from an educational standpoint in terms of their ability to respond to user input.  That is, unlike broadcast television and audio programs, computer programs could change their behavior in response to different user actions, opening the door to more interactive, individualized, and dynamic learning experiences.

The Networked Epoch

The World Wide Web became mainstream in the 1990’s, ushering in the era of massively networked communication.  The Web created opportunities to aggregate data across users and analyze patterns to provide a more social, customized, and targeted experience – consider, for example, the targeted book recommendations from Amazon.com, the free self-study courses available via iTunes University, and the massive information sharing among educators and other stakeholders taking place on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

In each technology epoch there have been major shifts – such as the rise of personal computing and the emergence of ubiquitous social networks – that have created qualitatively new kinds of experiences and opportunities, and there have been more incremental advances – such as the laser disk following VHS and the laptop following the desktop computer – that have not so much enabled truly new experiences as they have expanded the availability, usefulness, and flexibility of existing opportunities in more modest ways.

Currently, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are experiencing the rapid global adoption of touchscreen devices like smartphones and iPads.  Which raises the question…

Are touchscreen computers incremental extensions of desktop and laptop computers or a qualitatively new category of technology?

I would suggest they are both, but for different audiences.

For many adults, in particular, the jury still seems to be out on this question.  Tablet sales are growing fast, but few adults who use their computers for production work such as word processing, software development, or video editing are replacing their laptop or desktop computers with tablets. The devices are still underpowered and the touchscreen interface tends to make them awkward to use for those types of tasks.  Most such people are evidently buying tablets in addition to their primary computer and using them for lighter, more consumption-oriented tasks like surfing the web, reading email, and playing games.  From an adult’s perspective, touchscreen computers appear to be more like incremental extensions of desktop and laptop computers.

And that’s the trap – the fact that adults experience tablet computers as less powerful but more portable versions of laptop computers is likely to blind them to the fact that for young children, touchscreen computers are truly revolutionary innovations – in the sense that they have the potential to enable entirely novel kinds of experiences.  Two important benefits of touchscreen computers as learning technologies are that they enable access to independent learning activities to some groups of learners for the first time and they support faster learning that is also more transferable to the “real world.”

In terms of accessibility, touchscreen computers represent the first personal computer revolution for children

For the youngest children, who can’t effectively use a keyboard or mouse, the arrival of tablet computers is analogous to the arrival of the first personal computers for adults in the 1970’s. Tablets make personal computing – with all of its interactivity, adaptiveness, and dynamism – fully accessible to millions of young children for the first time.  Why?  Because the tap and swipe gestures used to manipulate virtual objects on a tablet computer can be made very similar to the kinds of gestures that children would spontaneously use on physical objects in the real world.

Using a keyboard or mouse requires learning a new skill, and that skill is both counter-intuitive and idiosyncratic to the domain of computer use.  Where else in life, for example, do we touch something in one place (the left mouse button, for example) while looking in a completely different place for the effect of that action (a point on the computer monitor that is three feet away from the hand doing the pressing)?  This situation is not only unnatural – it also involves applying a skill that is unrelated to the task at hand and – for young children at least – is generally more complex than the task they are actually trying to accomplish in the first place.

Think about that for a second.  If the game we are playing with a child is to identify which of three objects is a particular color (“which one is blue?”), then the response we want from them is not terribly complex – they should, for example, point to or grab the one blue object out of the three different colored objects arrayed in front of them.  Such a response generally requires only very gross motor control, and the action is very intuitive – they look at the object and then grab at the same spot where they are looking.  Our brains evolved to handle this kind of task almost reflexively very early in life.

If we expect the child to respond using a mouse, however, suddenly the task requires not only fine motor control – placing the tiny cursor on the virtual blue object using the mouse – but also a complex coordination of counterintuitive fine motor actions: look straight ahead at a cursor moving on a vertically oriented screen while moving a mouse sitting off to your side across a horizontally oriented table, and then hold the mouse perfectly steady while pressing the correct button on it to indicate your selection.  The child can know the right answer while being completely unable to express it using this complex interface, which can make a straightforward, enjoyable learning activity both puzzling and frustrating.

For children, the touchscreen is the first computer interface that does not automatically add a high barrier to entry for engaging in an activity that is completely unrelated to the activity itself.  Consequently, many more children can engage in a greater range of independent learning activities than ever before.

Touchscreen interfaces support learning that is far more transferable to the “real world” than keyboards and mice

Beyond making the interactive capabilities of computers fully accessible to many children for the first time, however, there is an even more important educational benefit of touchscreen computers compared to their desktop and laptop cousins.  Learning theory suggests that we can expect the natural gestures used with the touchscreen interface to support faster learning and greater knowledge transfer from computer to real world than an otherwise identical activity accessed on a desktop or laptop computer via keyboard and mouse.

To illustrate why this is true, imagine a boy who dreams of being a great chef but grows up in a small apartment with limited facilities.  The only kitchen appliances are a fridge/freezer and a microwave oven.  The boy helps his parents prepare food every day – a combination of frozen meals and dishes improvised from fresh ingredients.  Over time, his skill grows, so that he can successfully prepare a variety of dishes with hardly a glance at recipes or recommended preparation instructions. The boy loves to cook and he has received a lot of positive feedback for his skill at operating the microwave.

Now imagine that this same boy lands his first job – as a sous chef in a restaurant.  He shows up for his first day eager to build on his skills only to find that he doesn’t know how to perform even the most basic tasks like slicing and dicing vegetables or pre-heating the conventional oven – and he is alarmed to see people putting metal containers into it!  What is going on?  The boy’s knowledge of food preparation is all mixed up with the peculiarities of the tool he uses for cooking – the microwave oven.

Similarly, when children engage in certain types of learning via keyboard and mouse, the peculiarities of the interface can become mixed up with the subject matter they are learning.  For example, imagine a child is working on developing her visual spatial skill by playing a “Tangrams” type puzzle game that involves dragging and rotating pieces into position.  She uses the “Tab” key to select a puzzle piece, the space bar to pick it up, the arrow keys to move it into position, and then the “[” and “]” keys to rotate the piece left and right.  The girl might become very proficient at this type of task.  But how much will proficiency in this activity transfer to physical challenges in the real world where the actions required to drag and rotate pieces into place are completely different, and where there are no space bars or arrow keys?  The child in this scenario is like the boy who steps into a fully equipped kitchen for the first time – she is likely to find that her keyboard-and-mouse knowledge does not apply readily to real-world situations.

The advantage of the touch screen is that the actions required to complete a task can be made much more similar to actions taken on physical objects – dragging a virtual object requires touching the object and dragging it with one or more fingers, for example, and rotating the object can be done by rotating one’s fingers on the screen.

The actions are of course not exactly the same as they would be with physical objects, but the point is that they are much more similar and that should support both faster learning and greater transfer.  In fact, by combining the benefits of real-world interaction with the adaptive affordances of computer technology, in some cases touchscreen computers like iPads can provide entirely novel learning experiences that would not be possible in either the real world or on a computer with keyboard and mouse.

But don’t take my word for it – check out some examples of young children using iPads:

Two-year-old drawing and using apps

14 month old baby playing Angry Birds

15 month old baby playing Garage Band

You won’t see them doing that on a laptop computer!

The iPad has only been around for a little over two years.  As of this writing, empirical research on children’s use of tablet computers is scant.  As one can plainly see from videos like those above, however, touchscreens have made computers accessible to a large number of children in unprecedented ways.  Even more exciting, learning theory suggests that tablet computers like the iPad can support higher quality learning than desktop or laptop computers.

Adults would do well to keep these considerations in mind when making choices on behalf of the children in their care.  Despite appearances, all learning technologies are not created equal.




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