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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Will Multi-Touch Interfaces Really Revolutionize Education?

In an article titled One Tablet Per Child in District Administration, Susan McLester reviews the educational pros and cons of tablets. What's interesting is not their hardware limitations or their lower price in comparison to laptops, but what really makes them different from traditional desktop and laptop computers. The subhead identifies that feature:
Apps and digital content are on the rise, and the multitouch interface may prove to be a game-changer for K12 schools.
The key paragraph is this one with a quote from Vineet Madan, senior vice president of strategic services for McGraw-Hill:
But it’s the multitouch interface that remains the biggest draw for tablets in schools, especially for the youngest students, who can engage in a tactile manner with content that doesn’t require reading, writing or keyboarding skills. “The more senses we can engage students in using the better,” says Madan, who adds that the capacity to use two or more fingers on the screen at one time lets students manipulate objects in ways impossible with a laptop and keyboard. “If there’s a molecule on the screen, they can touch, pinch, zoom, spin it around on their fingertips,” he says.
Students who can't yet read need to spin molecules on tablets? I for one didn't need to tackle the spatial relationships of atoms and molecules until my sophomore year in high school, when my reading ability and spatial abilities were significantly more mature. And, how did I get those spatial abilities? Like most of my peers: by building with blocks and climbing up on the hood of Dad's car and interacting with the real world. What is it we hope pre-readers will learn from spinning molecules or dinosaurs or anything else?

My understanding of the Montessori curriculum for the pre-reader focuses on two things: developing motor and spatial skills and reading/writing readiness. I have no expertise in K-12 curricula but that sounds about right to me. Do students working with their fingers on tablets develop the same motor skills and coordination  acquired by blowing bubbles and digging holes and tapping golf pegs into clay with toy hammers? Do the gross maneuvers needed to spin and zoom fit that bill?

Further, can the tablet prepare students for writing with a pencil? I'm not sure what to make of this app:
Another example is Boreaal and PiMZ’s Letterschool, a $3 handwriting, letter and number app that lets preschool and elementary-age kids trace numbers and letters with their fingertips and receive instant instructive feedback.
Does tracing with a finger transfer to writing letters and numbers with a pencil? I don't recall tracing letters with my finger back in the day, but I do recall tracing "dotted" letters with a pencil before I tried to write my own. My five year old friend Theo did the same thing when I visited his class two month ago.

Before we get too "sold" on the multi-touch interface as a game changer, let's get back to the skills we are trying to teach. We need to ask more than if children are engaged, but if in fact this multi-touch interaction, or interaction via body movement a la Kinnect, helps educators teach and students learn. They may may well, but I am still looking for the research to support higher achievement, rather than just anecdotal comments about engagement.