The Benefits of Digital Technology in Elementary Education and the Importance of Age-Appropriate Design

Vincent Grosso, SVP & MD, National Geographic Learning, A Cengage Company
Vincent Grosso, SVP & MD, National Geographic Learning, A Cengage Company

Vincent Grosso, SVP & MD, National Geographic Learning, A Cengage Company

The use of technology in education is an often-debated topic—how much screen time is too much? Will technology replace teachers? Does technology inhibit students’ ability to develop social skills? How do you ensure fair and equitable access across the socio-economic spectrum?

While we know technology and the use of digital materials in education certainly has its challenges, we also know, when done correctly, it has important benefits for learning. Digital can help boost students’ engagement with the material they’re studying as well as boost knowledge retention. Digital enables students to learn at their own pace while providing real-time feedback to teachers on how the class and individual students are performing and what concepts might need further study or explanation. Digital technology also helps prepare students for the futureby fostering important job and college-ready skills.

Preferences for Digital

Today’s students are often referred to as “digital natives,” and those in elementary and middle school see value in using digital technology. According to research, more than half of students (51 percent) say that learning how to use technology is important for their future, and that learning and using technology results in college- and career-ready skills like creativity (46 percent), collaboration (48 percent), and problem solving (41 percent) (Speak Up 2016 Research Project for Digital Learning)

Teachers also clearly see the benefit of digital—81 percent (with 10 or fewer years of experience) believe educational technology at school makes a really big or pretty big positive difference on students’ learning (Deloitte Digital Education Survey).

 While we know technology and the use of digital materials in education certainly has its challenges, we also know, when done correctly, it has important benefits for learnin

In addition, 86 percent of parents believe tech (computers and educational software) is beneficial to their child’s education (Microsoft Education and YouGov survey). Further, two-thirds of parents (66 percent) endorse the idea that regular usage of digital tools, content and resources by their child in his/ her classroom helps develop essential workplace or college ready skills (Speak Up 2017 Research Project for Digital Learning).

Design is King

In my career in K-12 education and product leadership, I’ve learned a lot about what makes digital products resonate with students and teachers (and what doesn’t), and what truly impacts learning.

Digital enables tremendous benefits for learning if designed appropriately. The same digital courseware used by a freshman in college should look a lot different than the platform accessed by a fifth grader.

But just how does one design a digital resource for students who are just learning to read? As an adult, it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of a 6-year old—to understand how they think, feel and make decisions.

Our team has learned a few things along the way. Here are our tips for developing engaging digital educational resources.

Keep it Simple

Elementary students have shorter attention spans than adults so this needs to be reflected in the design. An overall simple interface with limited distractions will keep the students engaged. Focused activities are key for this audience. For example, each reading lesson screen should only have a few questions on it and for the youngest learners, only one question.

Limiting distractions is also important as young kids like to explore. Designers should remove clickable options from a screen if students are not supposed to click on them at that point in a lesson.

A Picture….and Colors and Font are Worth a Thousand Words

Though we’ve all seen toddlers navigate a smartphone with impressive agility, it’s important to remember that young students use digital resources differently for learning—and many don’t yet know how to read. English Language Learners (ELLs) is another important and rapidly growing audience that designers need to account for.

To compensate for this, the user interface and the user experience of the product needs to be understandable without relying on words. Color and icons become all important. Image content for younger readers needs to more literally reflect the text to support comprehension for those non-readers, struggling readers, or ELLs.

In addition, larger point size type with slightly more letter and word spacing should be used for younger students than in the long-form paragraph text better-suited to older students. More visual space between lines of text also should be used to aid the younger students’ eyes track from line to line.

Many students today use mobile devices like a tablet or smartphone with a touch screen. Designing with a mobile-first strategy is step one, as is understanding the challenges that touch screen devices can present for students. For example, “touch targets.” i.e. the tappable areas that define links on mobile devices, need to be larger than the adult standard of 44 pixels to accommodate for imprecise tapping by little fingers. This means that buttons, drop downs, and form fields need to be larger and have more padding around them.

Test, Test and Test again

When developing any digital product, user testing is a core piece of the process to unearth and remedy issues before the product goes live. When it comes to young audiences and learning resources, user testing is even more crucial— it’s the fork in the road between a product that is a teacher's number one resource and one that collects dust.

No matter how tight of a development schedule you are on, leave adequate time for user testing with both students and teachers.

Learning is Our Shared Goal

In the end, teachers, parents, administrators and educational product developers all have the same goal—ensuring students learn. Starting with the correct, age-appropriate design is key. You can have the best content, pedagogy, and superb teacher training, but the right design will bring the product to life and ensure students are able to engage with the resource and learn.

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