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Research dissection: “Sweet spots” and “social contingency”

This week's guest blogger is Carly Shuler, a former PlayCollective researcher and now co-founder of reading and communication app Kindoma, who is dissecting a recent study on learning from media through interaction.
December 19, 2013

By guest blogger Carly Shuler

As both a parent and an app developer working to tap the power of video-chat to help children learn, I was pretty excited when I saw this headline in the journal Child Development: “Skype Me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language.”

When I told my husband about the article, he asked to see it, but quickly got quiet.  I asked what he thought, and he responded, “I’m watching football now.  It lost me at ‘socially contingent’.”

One purpose of this blog is to remove jargon and capture practical insights from relevant studies, so they can benefit Kidscreen readers whose products or content reach millions of children worldwide.  Here’s how this study “spoke” to me, personally and professionally.

What was the purpose of the study?

Previous research has demonstrated that children under age three have difficulty learning language from video or television.  Three renowned child development experts set out to answer whether the same is true when the screen can talk back, as with increasingly mainstream video-chat tools like Skype and Facetime.  If the person on the screen can engage in the give-and-take that is inherent to live interaction, and not just a pre-programmed script, is the effect more like a screen or more like playtime together?

How did they do it?

To test this, almost 40 two-year-olds were randomly assigned to learn new words in one of three ways: with a live person, through video chat, or watching a DVD.

What did they find?

Reducing 15 pages of well-designed detailed research to 200 words (none of which is ‘socially contingent’), the investigators found that children learned new words about equally with the live person and through video chat, but not via the pre-recorded video instruction on DVD.

I create kids media.  What can I do with this information?

Let’s start by answering what does this not mean for us, a question that can be equally important when translating research into practice.

The first mainstream press article I read about this study used the term “young children” in the headline.  My son is one and my daughter is three – they’re ‘young children’ – so I was curious how the study might be relevant for us.  Sam still shoves screens in his mouth, whereas Paula can adeptly learn language from video (as evidenced by the “adios amigo” I get at preschool drop-off – thanks for that, Dora).  Neither of my kids is in the age group studied, though: children aged 24-30 months.

This may seem like a narrow distinction, but it spotlights how well we understand the trajectory of early development, and what a difference a few months can make in a child’s abilities and needs.

When designing media for early childhood, it’s important to have a highly specific developmental “sweet spot” for engagement, entertainment and learning.  If you’re incorporating research findings into your content, format or user interface development, therefore, make certain the children who were studied align with your target audience.

That doesn’t mean limiting your overall audience; the marketplace doesn’t afford the luxury of making unique media for every developmental age and stage.  Moreover, even if children develop in a fairly consistent progression, each does so at a unique pace.  Instead, the goal is to keep fast in your mind a specific vision of the child who will best benefit from or enjoy your concept.

Now, back to what this does mean for us.

The findings suggest that a key to language learning among toddlers is meaningful interaction, the back-and-forth dialogue between humans that includes listening and answering in context.  At this age when language learning is exploding, a child can learn from conversation with an adult, even when the interaction is with a person on a screen.

In parental practice, that’s pretty astonishing…and comforting.  For parents like me who travel for work (not to mention grandparents who live far from their grandkids, or divorced families), the ability to use Facetime with our children back home still seems like it’s out of the Jetsons, but it melts away the miles.  Not only can we participate in daily rituals, but it appears that these interactions also aid our toddlers’ learning.

A good research study should always lead to more questions, and this one does.  How long can a two-year-old stay engaged in a video chat?  Do new media forms like Toy Talk, in which non-human avatars use speech recognition to engage in conversation, qualify as ‘meaningful interaction’?  We know from other research that having an emotional connection with a character on screen enhances learning at certain ages; does it matter, as well, whether the adult is a beloved relative, friend or teacher for this sort of conversational learning?

What will we as media producers do with the knowledge that two-year-olds can learn from video chat?  What kinds of new experiences can we create for toddlers and caregivers?

We know that a “word gap” exists, in which affluent children hear far more new words than their less well-off peers, giving them a leg up in language development.  Can we use interactive technology to close that gap, or will it get wider given disparities in ownership of video-chat capable devices?  How can we help parents best use these new opportunities?  The research has given us a new piece of knowledge – it’s up to us to figure out how to translate it into practice.

Word of the Post:  “Socially Contingent” – For this study, the term refers to interactions between the child and the source of new vocabulary terms that are not fixed, but instead responsive to the situation. Conversations with a person in the same room or via a live video-chat connection were “socially contingent,” whereas pre-recorded video training was not.

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About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.

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