A new survey from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center shows that for children 2 through 10, less than half of their two-plus hours of daily screentime is spent with any kind of “educational” media, mostly passive videos. As kids get older and start to make more of their own choices, that proportion actually drops.
Two new ed-tech products that have launched in the last couple of weeks, Wandoo and Epic!, are taking different approaches to this issue, aiming to make reading, especially, more fun and engaging for kids.
Wandoo, out January 21st, is made by Evanced, a company that started out selling software to libraries, including products that helped them manage their summer reading programs. In 2011 they were acquired by a company that makes educational games and supplemental materials, and started exploring how to expand their product line. By coincidence, Evanced CEO Rob Cullin had a cousin, Lindsey Hill, who was an award-winning elementary school teacher. She often started out her school year by having students sketch an “interest tree” identifying their passions, pursuits, or places where they could be the “resident experts” for a classroom. “Right at the door we’d create these relationships and they’d grow throughout the entire year,” she said. “They’re the experts on what they want to learn about.”
We hear a lot about interest-driven or personalized learning. Years of research by John Guthrie at the University of Maryland demonstrates the strong correlation between children’s engagement in reading (their motivation to read, their interest in reading, and the effort they consequently put forth to get meaning out of what they are reading) and their achievement in literacy. In one 2004 study Guthrie found, the correlation between engaged reading and scores on the NAEP, the “nation’s report card,” was stronger than the correlation between those scores and any demographic characteristic (socioeconomic status, family background, income, ethnicity, gender). In other words, highly engaged readers from low-income backgrounds outperformed uninterested readers with every social advantage.
On January 24th, Evanced launched a software product called Wandoo that updates the “interest tree” idea. Children 6-13 log on to the platform to find and rank their top interests. In the beta version, the system includes around 3000 possible interests, assembled from user surveys, from Disney and Angry Birds to “puppies” and “spending time with family.”
Once they’ve built their tree, kids can start to get recommendations for media, both books and videos, to check out, review, and add to the tree. (Evanced hopes that these interest-driven recommendations will be superior to the familiar type based on “those who bought this, also bought that.”) The app is free to use. Eventually the system will allow students to contribute their own interests, and in the later school years, their own pieces of content, like stories and essays. The creators envision kids using the software to battle boredom at home, and to make connections between home and school. “We found the key to motivation was in the child’s keenest interests,” says Rob Cullin.
Epic!, a new iPad app launching today, is taking a different approach to the screentime problem. Their idea is to get kids to read more by making it a more seamless, appealing experience online.
Of all of kids’ average two-plus hours of screentime, according to the recent Cooney Center survey, only five minutes is spent reading e-books. Epic! co-founder Suren Markosian, who formerly worked in video games, says a big part of that is the user experience.
“I was spending more time with my son Max after I sold my last company. I tried to get him to read more books on the tablet–it was his favorite device. What I found is that he could easily download lots of games for free, he could watch unlimited videos, but it was not very easy to find and read a book on the tablet.” Most books must be purchased separately, requiring permission from adults, and then they need time to download, which can tax a child’s attention span.
Epic! has created a subscription service that is launching with a few thousand ebooks, from picture books up to chapter books, for the 2 to 12 age range. For $9.99 a month or $79.99 a year, kids can instantly read any of the books with just two taps. They have signed the first-ever electronic subscription deal with big publisher Simon and Schuster and signed up independent publishers as well, and hope to keep adding and expanding their selection. The system automatically logs your reading time, offering the opportunity to earn badges and rewards for reading. In initial testing, kids were spending ten to 12 minutes a day with the books; it may not sound like much, but if you’re doubling average daily time reading ebooks, that is a major improvement.