Eastern Connecticut State University
Center for
Early Childhood Education
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Handheld vs. Desktop Computers:

Effective Usage by Preschoolers in Natural Learning Environments

Research by Dr. Sudha Swaminathan and Meghan Ryczek (student)

Summer 2010


With the proliferation of educational technology tools, it is important that educators examine the effectiveness of their usage before implementing them in the classroom. This particular research project aimed to scrutinize one such tool, the iPad. To fully understand children’s competence, we documented and compared preschooler’s social and cognitive interactions with two educational technology devices, a handheld computer (the iPad) and the desktop computer. During a pilot study, a rating scale to evaluate apps for the iPad was developed and several freely available apps were examined. The rating scale evaluated the apps on four dimensions, namely, educational value, social interactions, engagement and technical design. Using this rating scale, 20 apps were evaluated and three were selected for use in this project. Select children (n=8) were alternatively introduced to three different iPad apps or applets on a desktop computer and encouraged to engage in the activity independently for a minimum of 20 minutes.  These three apps/applets covered areas of creativity, cognitive (Math skills) and literacy. Children’s interactions were documented using a participant observation methodology and measured on five dimensions, namely ease and comfort of use, duration of usage, frequency of socialization, vocalizations and problem solving. The results clearly indicate that the touch screen of the iPad with direct contact with the activity, rather than through the mouse, was uniformly favored by the children. Children spent significantly longer time with the iPad, even allowing for novelty effect. Social interactions were seen in both environments but the iPad elicited more vocalizations and initiations. In terms of the apps/applets, the children preferred the iPad for creativity, drawing freely with their fingers. The cognitive app was too difficult for these young children, while the computer applet was definitely more appealing.  Literacy was not engaging on either device, for any number of reasons, including the fact that most literacy apps and applets are prescriptive and not creative. Implications of this study favor the use of the iPad in preschool classrooms but also call for the development of more appropriate and creative apps for young children.

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