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Handheld vs. Desktop Computers:

Effective Usage by Preschoolers in Natural Learning Environments

Summer 2010

Principal Investigator: Dr. Sudha Swaminathan
Student Researcher: Meghan Ryczek

The purpose of this research project was to study preschoolers' natural use of two educational technology devices, a handheld computer and a desktop computer. Select children were introduced to these devices within a learning center environment. Children's interactions were documented using a participant observation methodology and measured on five dimensions, namely ease and comfort of use, effectiveness for video revisiting, use as a literacy tool, use as a cognitive tool, and for expressing creativity. Results were compiled to inform both research and teaching practice about preschooler's preference, competency, and learning potential using both devices. The project also involved the development of a rating scale to evaluate children's applications available for the iPad. 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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