iPads are child’s play

Today’s kids are surrounded by more technology than ever.

Even children ages 3-4 years old can pick up iPad skills quickly and intuitively in classrooms.Researchers at Brock University set out to explore how technology affected young children’s literacy learning. Their big question was: If you introduce iPads into early years classrooms, what happens?

“[The kids] are very inquisitive [and] very interested in learning new things, so they get right in there and start touching, and playing, and swiping,” says Debra Harwood, a researcher in early childhood education and the principal investigator of the iPad study. “They don’t have any kind of inhibitions about trying things out, which is perfect because that’s what an iPad invites the kids to do.”

Harwood and her colleagues employed a 21st-century definition of literacy that goes beyond just reading and writing.

“To me, traditional literacy has always been an ability to read printed words and to write printed words. That’s a very 20th-century mindset,” says Jennifer Rowsell, Canada Research Chair in Multiliteracies and member of the research team. “I would argue that literacy today is much more about being communicatively competent.”

Harwood and Rowsell presented some preliminary findings at Congress 2014 in St. Catherines.

They’re seeing a new world of play for young children where the boundaries between what’s real and what’s virtual are blurred. They refer to this as “convergence of play.”

They might be playing with Lego building blocks, for instance. Then they’ll grab the iPad and go onto the Lego app. They seamlessly move back and forth between the app and the concrete world.

lego app

“Sometimes as adults, we have preconceived notions about digital technology. We would say things to them, if they’re colouring on the iPad: Wow that looks like real colouring! And the child would kind of look at us and say: It is real!” says Harwood.

While there is an abundance of articles that highlight the negative effects of technology on children, Harwood argues that in the classroom context it’s all about the way they’re introduced as a tool to facilitate learning.

The researchers and educators controlled the apps that were on the iPad depending on the interests of the children. They chose apps that would foster collaborative play.

“For example, when spring came, the kids started going outside more so we were able to add apps so that they could photo-document trees, birds, those types of things, and then write stories around them,” says Harwood.

Social interactions are also an important part of the learning process. For this reason, not every child was given an iPad, but rather one for every three to four children. They saw that kids were able to problem-solve how they were going to share the iPads, either by helping their friend or negotiating a time when they would get access to it.

kids and ipad

“So [that level of self-regulation] for me was really quite interesting because we’re talking about such young children,” says Harwood.

Another key aspect in introducing this type of technology into classrooms is teacher training. Although the tools are constantly changing in this past-paced world, it’s becoming increasingly important to train teachers in using technology as a tool to support learning.

Turns out, iPads can be a useful tool to promote literacy. It simply offers another lens for kids to explore ideas or create their understanding of things.

“I’ve always known how clever young children are. It reaffirmed that thinking on a level that I couldn’t have imagined,” says Harwood.

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Humanitarian or missionary?

Noreen Fagan | October 27, 2014

Andrea Paras is a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the relationship between religion and humanitarian work. She explores how the religious values of different humanitarian organizations affect their practices, and how Christians in Canadian faith-based organizations distinguish themselves between missionary and development work. “I am trying to question the idea that there is a strict separation between the religious and the secular,” says Paras. “It is something that is taken for granted by Western societies – the assumption that religion should be delegated to the private sphere.” Paras argues that going into a foreign country to deliver relief or assistance has strong historical roots in religious activity, and that religious actors have been involved with development work since it started. However, over the last 50 years the dynamics of humanitarian aid have changed, and so have the requirements for organizations interested in development work. For Canadian faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA) they are required in to separate their development work from their religious mandate. This mandatory adherence to a secular format prompts Paras to question whether religious organizations can separate the two, and if they are really different from any other humanitarian organization. “I don’t think they are that separate,” says Paras. “Organizations buy into the secular fiction, but once they go down that road it can put them in tricky position. If they go too far away from their religious identities then their church-based constituencies start getting worried.” She says ultimately secular and the non-secular agencies may assume different appearances, but in humanitarian work they share a common set of values. “If you look at the values of dignity and humanity that Medecins Sans Frontiere talks about, they are not all that different from the values that would motivate a Christian or a Muslim organization, ” says Paras. She states these values are rooted in western values, which are in turn based on religious beliefs. But, as the Western world’s approach to development changed, the religious tenets gave way to a more humanistic set of values. “As Western society in general became more secular, the [development] organizations that emerged wanted to do the same kind of work, but not for religious reasons,” says Paras. In Canada, this shift from the religious to the secular became more apparent as the amount of humanitarian aid increased. Audiences started to understand the problems associated with development work. Hence, over the last 20 years agencies have steered away from the traditional paternalistic approach to development. The same fear of paternalism extends to faith-based organizations. “They [Canadian audiences] are putting pressure of church-based agencies to stay relevant and to minimize the negative effect of what they are doing,” says Paras. In order to minimize any negativity, religious organizations have become more self-reflexive about their own identities, and more concerned about staying relevant. By staying relevant, Paras means faith-based organizations have to prove they are equitable, non-discriminatory, and that they engage multiple-faith audiences in their work. While non-secular organizations may only be driven by humanistic values, faith-based agencies still have to find a balance between satisfying their church-based constituents and their role in development. They have to position themselves very carefully between secular donors and church-based audiences that might expect certain things of them. Finding the right balance can be tricky. “If they stay too close to their traditional mandates – and this is the case for a number of organizations in Canada that started off as traditional missionary sending agencies – they risk becoming extinct,” says Paras.    

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