Designing the cognitive future, part IV: Learning and child development

Authors: Juan Hourcade
Posted: Thu, May 15, 2014 - 10:29:54

In this post, I discuss how technology may affect learning and child development in the future, and how the HCI community can play a role in shaping what happens.

Let’s start with a quick primer on some of the latest theories on child development, such as dynamic state theories and connectionism. These theories attempt to bridge what we know about the biology of the brain with well-established higher-level views on development from Piagetian and socio-cultural traditions. These theories see learning as change, and study how change happens.

One of the main emphases of these theories is on the notion of embodiment. They see learning and development occurring through interactions between the brain, the body, and the environment (including other people). When we learn to complete a task, we learn how to do it with our bodies, using the resources available in the environment. As learning, change, and development occur, the brain, the body, and the environment learn, change, and develop together.

These approaches also bring a “biological systems” view of the brain, with small components working together to accomplish tasks, and knowledge representations, behaviors, and skills emerging over time. Emerging skills, for example, are likely to show a great deal of variability initially, with the best alternatives becoming more likely over time. This also links to the concept of plasticity, where it is much easier to change behavior and learn new skills for younger people (they also show greater variability in behavior) but it is more challenging later in life.

So how does all this link to technology? I think technology brings significant challenges and opportunities. The biggest change, perhaps the most radical in the history of humanity, is in the environments with which children may interact in the future. The richness of these environments, and the ability to modify and develop with them will be unprecedented. In particular, there is a potential to give children access to appealing media to build and learn things that match their interests. Much of the research at the Interaction Design and Children (IDC) conference follows this path.

The biggest challenge is in making sure that technology doesn’t get in the way of the human connections that are paramount to child development. A secure attachment to primary caregivers (usually parents) plays a prominent role in helping children feel secure, regulate their emotions, learn to communicate, connect with others, self-reflect, and explore the world with confidence. We have increasing evidence that interactive devices are not always helping in this respect. For example, a recent study by Radesky and colleagues at Boston Medical Center found that parental use of interactive devices during meals led to negative interactions with children. 

Likewise, when providing children with access to interactive media, we need to make sure that this happens in a positive literacy environment. Typical characteristics of positive literacy environments include shared activities (e.g., reading a book or experiencing educational media together) and quality engagement by primary caregivers (e.g., use of wide, positive vocabulary). Obviously, access to appropriate media is also necessary. What are some characteristics to look for? The better options will provide open-ended possibilities, encourage or involve rich social interactions, and incorporate symbolic play and even physical activity.

So how should we design the future of learning? One path is to replace busy parents and teachers with interactive media that take their place, and may even provide children with emotional bonds (similar to the film Her), making sure they are able to accomplish tasks according to standardized measures. The path I would prefer is for technology to enrich the connections between children, caregivers, teachers, and peers; to expand our ways of communicating; to provide more options for engaging in activities together; and to enable self-expression, creativity, and exploration in unprecedented ways. 

How would you design the future of learning?

Posted in: on Thu, May 15, 2014 - 10:29:54

Juan Hourcade

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, focusing on human-computer interaction.
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