Monday, January 17, 2011

Article of the Week: "When A Is for App"

The Horn Book Magazine
 One of my New Year's blogging resolutions is to keep up with my professional reading by posting about an article each week. I chose When A Is for App, an editorial in the November/December 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, written by Roger Sutton, for my first article.

I chose this editorial for a couple of reasons. First, it is timely given the number of IPad's received this Christmas and the recent announcement that Verizon will soon carry the IPhone. Second, the editorial is online, which makes it easier for everyone to engage in the conversation.

Roger Sutton
In the editorial, Sutton reflects on the ."..race to bring children's books into digital form," (p. 7) after seeing a child clicking through an animated digital book on a computer in a book store. It is interesting just to read his description of this event:

She was reading, or at any rate looking at, a story. I did not recognize the pictures and did not want to hover too closely, but it seemed to be an amiable tale with friendly animals in human clothing and relatively low-tech: the only clicking the girl was doing simply led her from “page” to “page.”

It brings to light how many adults are struggling to define what we are witnessing when we see children (or anyone really) engaging with books on IPads or IPhones or other comparable devices. Was the child reading or looking? Clicking or turning pages? Pages or screens?

Sutton points out that right now, digital books created for these devices are staying true to the way traditional books are read with the effect of "turning pages" and only some elements of animation. But, he "app"tly (I couldn't help myself) asks, when will that change and what difference will it make if it does change?

But there’s no reason this should or will always be the case: as print becomes a niche rather than a default, will it lose its power to confer authority?

I think there are a couple of important ways to think about these questions. Right now, I would say that relatively few children are learning to read or even have experiences with an IPad/IPhone and that will remain true for a long time. Sure, parents with IPads and access to the few children's book apps now available may think it's great to have their toddlers crawl up in their laps and share Oceanhouse Media's digital version of The Cat in the Hat together. However, I think many parents want to share the books they loved in they way they remember from their own childhood, too.

Another important consideration is that schools are inextricably bound to printed text. With the rare exception, public schools across the country use traditionally printed textbooks and take traditionally printed state mandated tests. Until that changes, traditional print will rule.

However slow schools are to come on board with digital technology, for a variety of reasons I will not go into here, on board they will eventually come. Maybe the first step will be for every child to have a Kindle/Nook/name your reading device on which they download their textbooks. Not much different from reading traditionally printed textbooks but it sure will save some of the kids' backs from lugging around all of those biology, history, and literature tomes around. Eventually, testing will also go online (some already are) as well.

But, maybe schools will skip the Kindle and like devices and go straight for the IPad due to the diversity of education apps available.  It seems that a device that supports learning in lots of areas would be more useful than one that just allows students to read digital books. Then, we get to the heart of Roger Sutton's question:

On my iPod Touch, I can go from The Cat in the Hat to the Kindle, iBooks, or Stanza eBook applications, but I can as easily turn instead to FarmVille, Twitter, or the iRosary (I got that last one because I wanted to see if they were making it up. They weren’t). If we value book-reading as a distinct activity, we need to make sure that it retains its distinct rewards.

It is important to understand the affordances and constraints of technology for literacy learning. Technology can be used to deepen many important aspects of literacy for children in ways not afforded by traditional print. However, other aspects of literacy are constrained by technology. For example, Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research and professor of Child Development at Tufts University, stresses the danger of the emphasis on immediacy, information overloading, and media-driven digital culture to deep reading.

In an article for Educational Leadership titled The Importance of Deep Reading, Wolf defines deep reading as “the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight” (p. 33).  The adult proficient reader is able to initiate these processes almost instantly, but the young brain needs years to develop them. Wolf warns, “An early immersion in reading that is largely online tends to reward certain cognitive skills, such as multitasking, and habituate the learner to immediate information gathering and quick attention shifts, rather than to deep reflection and ordinal thought” (p. 36).  

Parents, educators and care givers can assist children with learning to read deeply online by teaching them how to manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information. We can not simply leave children to figure it out on their own  Yet, as Wolf notes, “nothing replaces the unique contributions of print literacy for the development of the full panoply of the slower, constructive, cognitive process that invite children to create their own whole works...” (p. 37).

Now that I've shared my thoughts, I invite you to share yours. Let's start the conversation!

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