Nov 01 2018

Learning from Video

Is putting your toddler in front of an educational video harmful or helpful? This is an important question for many parents, especially in homes where both parents work and taking care of young children can be hectic. Putting a child in front of a video is the closest things parents have to an off switch for their kids, so it can be very tempting to rely upon the distraction of an iPad or TV to keep their attention while you make dinner or attend to some other task.

There is also a cottage industry of videos marketed to parents with very young children. Some are clearly nothing more than an entertaining distraction, like videos of other children playing with toys (which are incredibly popular). But parents can also be sold on the idea that their children are learning while being distracted, thereby alleviating any guilt from relying on the video-nanny.

There has therefore been increasing research into the effectiveness of video learning for very young children (and older children and adults, but we’ll focus on young children for now).  Here is a recent study of this topic which includes a great overview of prior research.

Previous research has mostly shown that young children do not respond to video the same way they respond to a live person. Exposing toddlers to their native language or a foreign language through a video or just audio seems to have no benefit, compared to the identical content presented through a live person. The probable reason for this is that we are programmed from birth to be extremely social, and young children typically will pay great attention to other people – more than anything else. A video of a person, unfortunately, just doesn’t cut it.

But the current researchers wanted to go beyond what they call the false dichotomy of video vs live, and tease out what aspects of these interactions are important. In the current study they had toddlers watch a video in the presence of other toddlers, and they found that learning did take place. They were tracking the awareness of phonemes (language sounds) learned from the video, and found it improved if other toddlers were present.

They also review other research which shows that the more interactive the video is, the more learning potential it has. So it seems that one critical component is interactivity. It is not necessarily the 2D aspect of video that’s the problem, but rather the passive character of the experience. Young children are drawn to social interaction, and if you simulate that in video then you get the learning benefits back. Having a video chat, for example, simulated live exposure. And now, with the current study, it seems that collateral social interaction, in this case with other toddlers, was enough to make the overall experience interactive.

Making a video experience interactive is, of course, very easy with today’s technology. Most video watching is probably happening on computers, rather than passive screens, which allows for interaction. Having the person on the video appear to be talking to the watcher, and allowing for some feedback, creates the impression of social interaction that seems to be a critical component for learning in young children.

The rapid increase in video consumption, however, is still a huge social experiment. We won’t know for a while what the real impact has been on the current generations. But this research is very helpful, because it seems clear that video isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s good to know that some of the potential downside can be mitigated in some simple ways. But it’s still unclear if optimizing video is the optimal path to take. We may make it good enough to justify its use, but still be lacking something from genuine human interaction.

It feels like this is one of those things that is happening on its own, from forces outside anyone’s real control. Screen use is now ubiquitous, for good or bad, and we will have to deal with the consequences. We try to adapt technology to our needs, but to some extent we end up adapting to the technology we have.

It does seem likely, however, that we are passing through a transitional technological phase characterized by mostly passive video. We may end up with far more interactive and hyper-realistic multi-media content that mitigates most of the potential downsides of consuming so much video. But again I think this experiment will happen, without any specific decision being made.

We can, however, make choices for ourselves and our families, and studies like this do help inform those decisions.

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