Technology will forever present us with a stubborn conundrum: It evolves faster than our ability to figure out if it's any good for us. This is perhaps most true when it comes to children. It didn't take long after the launch of the iPad to see toddlers everywhere glued to tablet-sized screens. The debate over the proper dose of "screen time" for young children has since raged on, with little in the way of actual scientific evidence.
Now the empirical research is starting to roll in and it's looking good for education app developers.
The latest conclusion? Those reading-focused iPad apps you've been handing to your 3-year-old actually do work. In a recent study from New York University, the popular reading and phonics app Learn With Homer had a measurable impact on the literacy scores of the children who participated.
The randomized, six-week study took a sample of 95 disadvantaged students across seven different Head Start classrooms in Brooklyn and divided the children into small groups. Each of the 4- and 5-year-old students was given an iPad running either Learn With Homer or another unnamed math and music-oriented learning app. In 12-15 minute intervals, students were fully immersed, headphones and all, in these iPad-based learning environments. Adults only stepped in as needed to ensure the kids were staying on track, but did not aid directly in the learning process so as not to taint the results of the trial.
After six weeks, the students who followed Learn With Homer's lessons showed marked differences in six of the seven phonological skills being measured. They were especially better in three key areas: print knowledge, phonological awareness, and letter sounds. These students scored higher on their post-trial TOPEL (Test of Preschool Early Literacy) test than either group did before the trial began.
The study was led by Susan Neuman, an NYU professor of early childhood education and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education. Neuman, who has long been interested in the impact of tablets and smartphones on early education, approached the New York-based startup about using the Learn With Homer app to conduct a formal study.
"As a company, we were delighted by the prospect of having someone of Susan's reputation and background conduct randomized research on the efficacy of our product," says Keith Meacham, director of partnerships at Homer. "It was admittedly a risky move for obvious reasons: Once you enter a blind study, you have to live with the results whether you like them or not."
Indeed, the team at Homer had been waiting with bated breath for the results of the study, since its results could singlehandedly validate or invalidate the entire premise of the company's flagship product. While there's plenty of further research to be done, the results of this study are clearly good news for Homer, not to mention anybody else working on tablet-based apps for reading and phonics education.
The news is also sure to influence the ongoing debate over how much screen time—if any—parents should allow their small children to have. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time for kids under two years old and recommends a maximum of two hours per day for older kids and teens. Some have criticized the AAP recommendations as being too draconian (not to mention unrealistic), although other recent research does suggest that screen time is having a negative effect on kids' ability to understand human emotion.
The lack of a scientific consensus on how mobile devices affect young minds hasn't stopped developers from churning out iPad apps aimed at entertaining and educating kids. Meanwhile parents and their tap-happy offspring continue to download kid-focused apps without much concern for the science behind it all. But Meacham thinks that may soon change.
"Despite the burgeoning of the education apps market, very few developers of apps for young children are putting their products up for rigorous evaluation," she says. "Our hunch is that there is going to be an increasing demand among parent consumers for children's technology products that are vetted by real research, in the same way that parents want to know more about the nutritional content of their children's favorite cereals or the safety of the car seats they are buying."