Here are two questions we can ask about educational technology.
The differences between them are important.
- Is the activity this technology supports more intellectually stimulating than what children would otherwise be doing?
- Is the activity this technology supports more intellectually stimulating than what children should otherwise be doing?
I will confess, here, now and publicly that I hold (for example) Khan Academy to the latter standard.
And, it seems to me, the typical defense of Khan Academy is that it should only be held to the former.
What made this difference especially salient for me was a recent article in the New York Times, which describes (among other things) a waffle-cutting app on the iPad. (See video at this link.)
Now, it seems to me that the children in the study were telling the researchers that there is something inappropriate about the activity when the 2-year old was trying to taste the waffle, and the 4-year olds needed to be coerced into not tap, tap, tapping everything on the screen.
But if we imagine a perfected version of the app, optimized for the ways 4-year olds interact with electronics, then we can ask those two questions about the idealized waffle-cutting app.
If kids are cutting virtual waffles in a daycare environment that otherwise provides little to no math talk, then perhaps this app would be an improvement. But I cannot really imagine an app that would be better than having children cut real waffles and talk about the nature of their activity with sympathetic adults as they do so.
I cannot imagine a virtual waffle app that is better than what 2—4 year olds should be doing, which is talking math.