With promises of future success for their bright and ready-to-learn children, parents are purchasing educational software in droves. In fact, the educational media business is booming, with cumulative sales in the tens of billions of dollars range. Claims targeting specific educational outcomes, such as “teaches language and geography skills” and vague educational claims, like “....can help stimulate cognitive development” appear on jackets of most educational software marketed to youth. Are such claims valid? Can children and adolescents actually learn from these electronic “teachers?” As the review below will illustrate, the answer to these questions varies by the age of the child and the academic area under investigation.
Zero- to Two-Years-of-Age
Infants and toddlers are exposed to educational software on both computers and hand-held devices, such as the V-tech Leapster. Educational software claim to benefit youth on a variety of cognitive abilities, such as reading readiness (e.g., letter recognition), math (e.g., counting, addition), language (e.g., vocabulary), and pattern recognition. Unfortunately, during infancy and the toddler years there is no empirical research to validate these claims. Given that exposure to educational DVDs during the first 18-months of life do not appear to benefit youth academically, and may even impair vocabulary development, parents may wish to wait until at the child is at least a year-and-a-half-old before exposing their children to educational software.
Three- to Five-Years-of-Age
Education software does appear to benefit preschoolers in areas important for school readiness. For instance, preschoolers exposed to educational showed greater improvements on two key components of reading success: (1) the ability to detect and manipulate sounds in language and (2) the ability to create and recognize words. However, whether or not educational software can impact grammar is unclear. As of yet, educational software has been unable to provide the type of realistic socially relevant cues that are needed for grammar acquisition during childhood.
Although several studies have found that preschooler’s mathematical abilities improve as a result of educational software, other studies have failed to demonstrate this effect. Variations between programs may explain the inconsistency. Educational software providing immediate and simple feedback (such as the marking and erasing answers) has been shown to foster mathematical learning, whereas competitive games and grouping questions by difficulty tend to impede it.
The Elementary School Years
In addition to helping children’s preparation for reading, education software appears to be beneficial to beginning readers as well. Such programs have been shown to help kindergarten youth improve their phonological awareness (e.g., phone blending and segmenting), print concepts (i.e., understanding how print works) and listening comprehension skills. For elementary school-aged youth struggling with learning-disabilities or who are otherwise at-risk for falling behind grade-level, educational software provides clear benefits for basic reading skills as well as reading comprehension. Youth with learning disabilities need substantially more practice in reading-based skills than their “normal reading” counterparts, and practice is exactly what educational software can best provide. Moreover, educational software can provide instructional information, thus helping learning-disabled youth learn new skills, in addition to advancing those already present. For established readers, however, there is little research to suggest that educational software can improve upon normative reading abilities. It may be that current educational software programs can help bring youth “up to speed” but have more difficulty in advancing youth beyond grade-level abilities.
For mathematical skills, whereas exposure to computer and video games involving math simulations and applications (e.g., math is part of a game) is associated with higher achievement scores, the drilling of math facts is associated with lower scores. However, for youth with math-related disabilities educational software can lead to improvements on tests of general math achievement across the elementary school years.
During adolescence, there is little research to support the contention that educational software improves existing skills in reading or spelling. However, for math, educational software can lead to greater problem solving ability throughout adolescence, especially if the software program can be personalized to match the adolescents’ interests. Educational software can also lead to improvements for both knowledge-based (e.g., facts) and skill-based learning (such as application of material and problem solving) across a variety of scientific domains, such as biology, physics, and chemistry. On a bright note for animal lovers and activists, girls participating in a virtual pig dissection scored higher on practical and objective tests used to measure knowledge acquisition, relative to girls conducting a real dissection.
For additional reading, see Media and Youth: A Developmental Perspective (Kirsh, 2009).