A few years ago, my friend and I started a small eCommerce business selling mainly teaching and learning tools. We sold a lot of mathematics manipulatives, games and other hands-on tools. But one thing we did not want to sell was multimedia products. We did have one particular set but after that, we decided that we would not sell anything like that anymore. That included DVDs, CD-ROM and VCDs.
Today, with the prevalence of tablets and iPads, and even schools are using these things in teaching, if you asked me whether I would sell multimedia learning tools now, my answer will still be ‘No’. This is especially so if the tools are targeted at little children. The younger the kids, the louder my ‘No’ will be. Do my children use multimedia learning tool? Not really. We do own an iPad and once in a long while, they get to play with it. We downloaded some learning apps since they were free and we just wanted to try them out. But honestly, the kids hardly get to touch them. The two older ones in school do have multimedia learning experience because the school requires them to do certain amount of school work online. Other than that, we do not buy educational CD-ROMs or DVDs for them. The one thing that could qualify as “multimedia” that we actively encourage and support is audiobooks. We downloaded lots of free audiobooks for the boys and loaded them into a Nano dedicated for this purpose so that they can listen to them as and when they like. Kind of like how other kids can watch the TV as and when they like. The other thing that falls into this ‘multimedia’ category would probably be online learning videos that I sometimes let my eldest son watch.
By now, you would have realised that in our world now, multimedia is everywhere and the line between “multimedia” and the conventional is now very blur. The internet, for instance, is almost like the air we breathe. Who can survive without it now? My eldest certainly relies on the internet for research and school work at times. So it would not be true to say that their lives are ‘clean’ of multimedia influence. But we do try to minimise, especially when they were younger.
Why are we so careful about this? Well, first of all, we feel that having too much screen time affects their social behaviour. Hence, from the start, we banned all handheld games. If they are out with us, we do not want them to have their faces glued to some PSP or gameboy device, oblivious to the world around them. It is better if they develop social skills in learning to play and interact with children or adults around them, and also learn basic manners. They learn to sit down for a meal and wait for everyone to finish before moving off instead of whining about ‘when can we leave?’ and they learn to talk and listen instead of ‘disappearing’ into the virtual world.
My partner in business and I felt strongly about the effect of multimedia tools on learning, brain development and behaviour. We both disliked what handheld gaming device do to children. We both felt that things like CD-ROM learning was inferior to multi-sensory learning that actually uses the 5 senses. I recently read an article where a dad said that his very young son at least learned ‘hand-eye co-ordination’ using some electronic games. That is not the kind of hand-eye co-ordination we want to spend all the hours developing. Try tossing a ball back and forth for some real hand-eye co-ordination, or pushing a lace through some beads.
There are many researches now that show the negative effects of too much screen time on developing brains. Do you know that if a child reads a story, the brain develops in such a way that is way more complex than if the child were to watch a cartoon of the same story? We are not talking so much about learning facts but how to develop the brain so that the child will eventually be able to tackle higher-order thinking. A child who spends his days in front of the television may be able to regurgitate facts about the different species of sharks or how global warming affects the environment, but he will have problem tackling higher-order, problem-solving issues later on. In fact, the American Association of Paediatrics (AAP) recommends that children below the age of 2 be given zero screen time. This means zero television time. Yet, most parents will be hard pressed to entertain their below-2s if Playhouse Disney is taken away.
When we sold things to parents, we found that one of the reasons why things like CD-ROM “educational games” were so popular compared to manipulatives or books was because for books and manipulatives, parents have to actually be there to use the manipulatives or read the books to their kids. For CD-ROMs, they can just load the games and leave their kids to “self-learn” or “self-entertain” while they go off to be busy with their own things.
What they do not realise is that all these television programmes or games, with their loud sounds, bright colours and special effects, are over-stimulating their kids. Of course the kids would be entertained, engrossed, and they would love the games! However, these stimulation are affecting how their kids’ brains develop. There are even evidence to suggest that there may be a correlation between too much media screen time and behavioural issues like ADHD.
Now, it does not take a rocket scientist or scientific research to tell this mama something that is completely common sense : If a child is exposed to lots of sounds, colours, sights, change of scenes, etc – basically what you find on a screen – and the child gets accustomed to being ‘entertained’ this way. One day, you take these screens away and put a book in front of the kid. Do you think the kid will find the book interesting? (Pause to think.)
A child, from the moment he is able, is given lots of TV entertainment, iPad games, iPhone games, and when he is slightly older, PSPs, gameboys, Wii, etc. By the time he goes to primary school, he is expected to sit at his desk for hours, listen to his teachers teach using mostly some kind of overhead projector, books and the white board. He comes home and has to do his homework and revision using his textbooks, workbooks and exercise books. All these things do not make loud dramatic sounds, bright interesting colours and figures that moves. Is there any wonder that the child will get listless in class and start acting up or dislike schoolwork?
I once met someone in the education line who, when asked by a parent what she could do with her school-going son whom she thought had ‘short attention span’, asked the parent whether her son had any problem playing hours of computer games in one go? The answer was ‘no’. The boy was too used to having stimulation that books and school could not hold his attention anymore.
But doesn’t all these ‘multimedia learning tools’ help the child to learn more easily? Isn’t it a good thing that they hold the interest of the kid? Well, I do think that to some extent, they do teach the child something. However, the harm far outweighs the benefits. It is like feeding your child junk food every day. Yes, the child will love you for it. He loves the food and the food keeps him full and not let him go hungry. The food may even have certain level of nutrition in them. But all these short term ‘benefits’ is nothing compared to the long term harm they cause. Even those touted to be ‘educational’ may have less benefits than what parents are led to believe. Imagine my surprise when I read about researches that show that watching Sesame Street did nothing to the academic results of underprivileged kids in the US.
(Update 13 April 2012 : I just read an article a couple of days ago about using tablet PC in education. Apparently, 5 years ago, some children from a certain country were given tablet PCs to be used in school for learning. 5 years later, they tested the children and found that there is no improvement in academic performance for these kids at all. The only thing they learned was computer skills, which they otherwise would not have learned because of the general lack of IT and internet access in that place.)
Ok, you may think that I am too ‘old-fashion’ and the world has progressed and eventually, learning will be done by the way of multimedia tools. Well, I agree. Looking at the trend now, even brain experts believe that going forward, human brain evolution may change to adapt to such development. Now, whether this is a good thing, we do not know. There are evidence enough to show that doing things develops the brain better than watching things. Does this mean that future generations of humans will be less intelligent?
For now, my opinion is that to bring up a great learner, you really do not need to have all these multimedia tools. You don’t have to totally get rid of them. But put a limit on them, especially when your kids are at the preschool age. Read books, play toys (but not too much of them; and there are good toys and bad toys….which I will not get into now), go out and play in the nature, have lots of physical activities. All these will bring up a healthier child both physically and mentally. If a child is taught to think (“Why do you think this happens?”), and taught how to find out answers (“Let’s go and read a book to find out!” or “Let’s do this experiment to find out.” ), I think the child will be set on the path to be a greater learner than a child who is exposed to only games and TV.
Further Reading :