iPads – A Tool, Not Alchemy, for Education

by Björn Jeffery
April 25, 2013
toca boca

Photo Courtesy of Toca Boca

The topic of kids and technology is a hot topic again. This would normally be a good thing, if the questions that are being discussed weren’t fundamentally the wrong ones. It is, however, a familiar situation. We are going through a normalization of a new technology, and it will be met in the same way that technology has been met before: with skepticism, doubt and the occasional hint of technophobia. Discussions like these cloud the interesting part—the choices that parents make for their kids. But let’s start with at least getting the terminology right.

Firstly, we need to stop talking about the notion of screen time. All screens are not equal. A TV is different from a computer, and they are both different from a touchscreen tablet. Putting all of them in the same category is dishonest and simplistic. Screens are merely a way of visualizing experiences of a wide variety of categories. They are bearers of media—they are not media in themselves. Thus, they cannot categorically be defined as good, bad or neutral. For instance, no reasonable person would say that all computers are bad in the workplace. There may be good or bad uses of a computer, but the computer itself is neither. It’s just there—as an instrument, or a bearer of media.

Secondly, there is a big difference between watching something and interacting with it. The interactive component changes everything when it comes to creating new experiences for kids. Being engaged and actively participating in something—with feedback, collaboration, imagination and creativity—is a completely different experience from viewing a passive narrative. There can be a time and a place for both, but they are by no means the same thing.

Thirdly, it is no longer a matter of “if” you should use technology for learning but rather “how” it can be done. This is the foundation on which the Joan Ganz Cooney Center rests too. I am not saying that the iPad is the solution to everything—not at all—I am suggesting that we should not be thinking about iPads that way from the beginning. Think about what your kids need to learn and grow. Play with them, talk to them, observe them. What do they need to develop? Start there. Then—once you know that—you can start thinking about ways to do this. Perhaps all your kids really need is to develop a certain skill a little more, or perhaps to dive deeper into an interest that they have. If that is the case, then that is what they should do. But there are areas where technology can help too. Then—and only then—should you start thinking about how an iPad can be used. It isn’t alchemy for education—it is a merely a tool with which you can do great things. The iPad is not interesting. What you choose to do with it is.

Finally, technology is not a replacement for anything else. It isn’t intended to be, and shouldn’t be treated that way either. But here’s the thing—it is the parents who draw that line. You choose what apps your kids can play with, and the occasions where you think it is appropriate to do so. It is only a replacement if you as parents treat it as one. You choose and steer how kids develop by your own participation. It is a tool for you to use, but the tool does not dictate the rules. Just as little as a leather football dictates how long you should play a game of football. You make the decisions based on how you want your kids to grow. An iPad is in no way a threat to that decision.

The iPad is not a babysitter, some say. Well—it’s not if you don’t treat it as one. The iPad in itself is nothing more than a tool that can be used for many different things. You as parents decide which ones.



Bjorn JeffreyBjörn Jeffery is the CEO and Co-Founder of Toca Boca, a play studio that makes digital toys for touchscreen devices. Since 2011, it has released 17 digital toy apps that are played in more than 150 countries. The apps carry consistently high ratings on the App Store and have totaled more than 32 million downloads to date. Toca Boca is a part of The Bonnier Group, one of Europe’s largest media groups with interests in books, newspapers, magazines, television, internet and film. Mr. Jeffery is currently based in San Francisco at the company’s U.S. headquarters.

  • What if it is too early to tell what the technology can do? How many apps have been vetted by kids and had results measured? Our educators can’t even suggest a National Recommended Reading List so how can they suggest apps for tablets?

    • BeMine

      I think you’ll begin seeing just that —apps tested for impact. Our preliminary studies with the app: 8 Great Word Patterns (Bugbrained) show promising results with struggling readers, especially special ed and dyslexics.

  • Great post! I wrote a similar one ‘Should you buy an ipad for your child?” http://www.talkingtalk.co.za

  • Margot van Ryneveld

    iPads in Pre-schools

    I weep for our children if this is the wave of the future – it could very easily become a tsunami with destructive consequences not yet even imagined.

    I was recently invited to attend a
    workshop at the Apple store entitled “iPads in preschools”

    I decided to go along with an open mind to see what was on offer and to decide whether or not there was a place for this technology in a pre-primary school environment. From the outset we, as attendees, were bombarded with clever marketing and ‘techno-speak’ from a local school that has taken on board this technology and they now wish to declare that this is the way of the future for pre-primary learners to be relevant and ready for the 21st century. They made one feel that without it your learners were missing out on educational best practice! Even homework and child assessment must be uploaded to the iPad on a daily basis – Gone are personal interactions with our parents in the pre-school and a notepad and pen that cost are few rand are clearly not effective enough to send a note home! We must now invest in a piece of technology that costs thousands of rands to be “relevant”.

    I was deeply concerned to learn that children as young as 2-year old are issued with their own iPads on enrolment and that all children in the school are given daily access to their personal iPads for some aspect of their pre-primary learning.

    As a “cute” example of the power of
    this device we were shown a Youtube clip of a toddler sliding her finger
    through an iPad book and then being presented with a three-dimensional “real”
    magazine which she then attempted to view; by sliding her finger across the
    cover page. This elicited several naïve responses of; “Aw cute!” or “ Look at
    her – she’s trying to use it like an iPad” from attendees – I, however, saw it
    as a tragic indictment of all that is potentially bad with introducing two-
    dimensional technology in a key phase of development where the greatest and
    most critical aspects of brain development take place.

    Bearing in mind that from
    the moment of conception until the beginning of Grade R, children’s brains
    develop more rapidly than at any other phase of their lives. Born with brains that are only 25% developed, human
    brain development is heavily dependent on what children experience in their
    environments, demonstrating the critical nature of early exposure to quality
    learning opportunities. If children are given appropriate ‘learning-through-play’
    opportunities in a three-dimensional, concrete operational manner on a consistent
    basis, many of them will be uniquely able to rapidly acquire the early
    language, mathematical, artistic, and physical abilities that will serve them
    well in their later learning. By the time children reach their fifth birthdays,
    their brains are 90% grown. All the more reason to ensure that you child is
    placed in a good school with degreed ECD specialist teachers from an early age.

    It is not sufficient to say you have Varsity graduates running your schools – You need to ask if their area of specialization is Early Childhood Development. If not, ask why not? Would you allow a graduate lawyer to design military helicopters – just because he has a degree? No; of course not? So why then would you let any varsity graduate other than an ECD specialist teach your pre-school child? We need to ensure that graduate educators that have specialised in this key phase of education are the only ones allowed to fulfil this critical educational role? Do you want to entrust 90% of your child’s critical learning opportunities to under-skilled or inappropriately skilled facilitators that are marketing some or other gimmick or new-fangled curriculum that could
    in fact do more harm than good?

    As a cautionary note: We should all remember the consequence of offering Thalidomide to pregnant mothers suffering morning sickness before adequate trials were conducted. Thalidomide certainly stopped their morning sickness but it also stunted the growth of limbs in the developing foetuses. How can we be placing untested technology in the hands of children as young as two when iPads have only been around for two years and there are no longitudinal studies currently available to show the impact of these devices on our precious children’s developing, highly malleable brains? I may be ‘old school’ when it comes to my views but I would much rather turn to tried-and-tested approaches that do have long-term, provable results before I will ever experiment with methodologies that may, and very well could, have a negative impact in the future, with dire consequences too awful to contemplate.

    We should all be asking critical questions about the early introduction of this type of technology now before it’s too late. Even a cursory search on the internet shows that there are things that we need to be concerned about – even in these early days of iPad exposure and none of these issues were even touched on by the workshop presenter. I believe she was significantly remiss in this regard. In as much as cigarette packages carry a warning the LAP schools’ marketing brochures should carry a warning re: the fact that they are exposing your children to untested approaches and new technology and parents that allow this; do so at a potential
    risk to their children’s brain development.

    We need to carefully consider
    an extensive range of areas that could be and often are affected: Ranging from
    the financial implications for parents whose disposable income is already
    stretched to the impact on the children’s language development and the erosion
    of existing language skills. From the reduction of social interaction to total
    social isolation as children interact one-on-one with a device rather than with
    each other. Then there is the very real threat of ‘addiction’ that iPad games
    generate, as children seek instant gratification and many games develop a false
    sense of hope. They start to believe that there is always an instant reward for
    meeting a basic expectation. Also when children sit for extended periods of
    time and play with iPads there is a decrease in the level of physical activity
    which is a critical component of pre-school development and could lead to
    challenges in a number of areas and could lead to obesity in the very young.
    These aspects all need to be explored thoroughly.

    Our children live in a three-dimensional world – let them learn to live in it through
    three-dimensional experiences every day in a range of ways – there is plenty of
    time in the 12 years of formal schooling to get to come to grips with
    technology and all it implies.

    Margot van Ryneveld

    BA, B Ed(Ed
    Mngmnt) HDE(JP/PP), Dip Comp

    Headmistress – Stepping Stones Pre-Primary


  • Margot van Ryneveld

    This week Times newspaper has posted an article stating that iPads are as bad as Heroin for our children – that is terrifying. Children as young as four are having to go into technology detoxification programmes to assist in overcoming their addiction to iPads. Clearly this needs to be addressed.

  • William Blake

    kids are so much attracted to such gadgets that it is very difficult to keep them away all of this… but it is also important that they should not get addicted gadgets at so early stage.

    Heritage Education Funds