Current Debates Surrounding Children’s Learning, Media and Technology
Current Debates Surrounding Children’s Learning, Media and Technology
Technology undeniably influences educational experiences and outcomes, and there is agreement education scholars and practitioners that technology has a role to play in education. As technology advances, researchers, policymakers, educators, and parents are usually curious about the influences of technology on the learning experiences and outcomes of learners from an early age and throughout the life of the learner. Technological advancements have far-reaching ramifications to the lives of people and not just the learning aspects. Therefore, the effectiveness of the new technologies in improving all aspects of learning has remained debatable and often controversial as illustrated by the diverse opinions and evidence that emerge over time.
Digital technologies and children’s learning is an educational technology topic that attracts intense debate. Due to the ubiquity of mobile devices and the high penetration of the internet in contemporary society, children are exposed to digital technologies at a very early age. This exposure occurs before the children even start undergoing formal learning or attending school. However, while children are exposed early to digital gadgets and media in their home environment, parents and teachers are not sure whether this early exposure is beneficial or detrimental to the children. Besides, digital technologies are increasingly permeating the classroom, yet there is no agreement on the teaching and learning models that would best integrate these technologies into the classroom experiences or aid learning. The great diversity of the technologies and disparities in access and knowledge levels in schools and among teachers complicate the debate further. Moreover, children are not able to verbalize their learning experiences or provide their perceptions as they interact with digital technologies. Therefore, many studies rely on observations made on the children, which may differ between researchers and often loaded with bias.
The opinions about the effectiveness of digital technologies in improving the learning experiences and outcomes of children are divided with as many people finding benefits while others cite detriments. Also, evidence from studies is diverse, varied, and often inconclusive, especially considering that different methodologies, settings, and participants are employed in the studies, further fueling the debate. Moreover, rapid developments in digital technologies and the continued innovation of learning models to accommodate these technologies create more opportunities for research. Research seeks to answer the emerging questions emerge and fill the knowledge gaps that are revealed as information about new technologies and learning models accumulates. As such, fresh pieces of evidence emerge to discount previous findings, thus invigorating the debate further. Altogether, digital technologies have disrupted learning among children so much that the current debates revolve around fundamental educational issues. These issues include whether technology would replace the school and the teacher, whether technology individualizes learning in children and whether technology improves the learning experiences and outcomes of children. It may be long before schools and teachers are made obsolete to be replaced by digital technology. It may also be long before the concepts of individualized learning are invalidated, or the positive influences on the children’s learning experiences and outcomes by technology are discounted. However, understanding the controversies and debates surrounding these issues improves the opportunities for leveraging the positive aspects of technology in enhancing learning experiences and outcomes in children with the effects persisting beyond their childhood.
The ensuing critical discussion focuses on the debates that have emerged on issues surrounding learning and technology broadly. However, more specifically, the discussion dwells more on the issues surrounding digital technology as an aspect of technology and media, and learning in children as an aspect of human learning. In this regard, digital technologies are the current educational technologies that have made the most recent debut in educational circles, yet the least understood of all educational technologies in existence. Besides, childhood is the earliest human developmental level at which learning occurs, yet children rely on adults to set and control their learning environment. Also, children learn in formal and informal settings considering that they begin learning at home first and their home learning experiences are extended to the early childhood learning setting in schools as the children grow, yet their learning experiences in the two setting influence each other and the overall learning of children. Moreover, the current debates that are discussed here emerge from studies that provide evidence of the various and divergent ideas and knowledge relevant to the topic of children’s learning, media, and technology; rather than from the undocumented opinions and perspectives of the parents and teachers as the key stakeholders in childhood education. Therefore, published literature and existing knowledge serve as the references for the current debates that are discussed rather than the personal perceptions, intending to present diverse views and ideas without passing any personal judgment. To this end, the discussion begins with explaining the field of study that is related to the topic of children’s learning, media, and technology to narrow down on the specific issues in the debates. After that, the various researches and methodologies used in documented studies are discussed critically to unearth the areas in which the debates abound.
Delineation of the critical terms and concepts featuring in the current debates
For purposes of this critical discussion, it is pertinent to narrow down the scope of the current debates by delineating the critical terms and concepts, namely technology, media, and learning. It is also pertinent to layout the areas on which the current debates are focused and those that are attended to by this discussion.
Technology is a wide term even when used in educational circles and educational technology has been used to denote the technologies that are employed in education settings. The term educational technologies has been used increasingly to refer to the technology associated with electronic devices since the recognition of computers as teaching machines in the 1960s (Higgins, Xiao & Katsipataki, 2012). However, for the purposes of this critical discussion, digital technologies are the relevant educational technology because of their recent increasing applications in education settings and dominance is the current debates. While traditional educational technologies have been used to augment instruction while treating learners and passive participants, digital technologies also augment instructions although they can also substitute instruction in some cases. In addition, digital technologies are interactive thus enabling learners to become active participants in many of the learning processes. The digital technologies that feature most in the current debates include the internet, web 2.0 technologies and mobile technologies including the hardware and software that enable these technologies to be applied for educational purposes (Burnett, 2016).
Media is a broad term denoting a method of communication. Educational media are methods of communication used in educational settings that usually target the visual, auditory and tactile senses of the learner. While educational multimedia combine different forms of content and communication channels, and facilitate the transmission of knowledge to learners, the advent of digital technologies has expanded the ways of combining the different educational media alongside diversifying the representation and manipulation of the symbol systems (Omodara & Adu, 2014). The educational media that feature most in the current debates include digital games, digital images and other interactive educational media that are often enabled by digital technologies.
Learning is a wide concept and numerous learning theories and models have been developed over time to explain learning processes and outcomes. However, the emergence of digital technologies and their increasing utilization in education settings has seen the development of digital learning theories and models such as connectivism (Goldie, 2016). In addition, the application of digital technologies for learning purposes has brought to the fore learning concepts that had remained problematic to understand using that traditional learning theories and concepts such as student-centered learning, self-directed learning, blended learning and lifelong learning among others (Burnett, 2016). Although the advent of the digital technologies in the education spheres has invigorated research on the various aspects related to learning in the digital era, study findings remain scarce and fragmented. Therefore, the concepts and theories of learning in the digital age feature in the current debates under discussion.
The field of study
The topic of children’s learning, media and technology has attracted much research activity particularly as children continue interacting for extended periods with digital technologies. Notably, children interact with digital technologies at home and in schools and such interaction influence their learning processes and outcomes. However, the relationship between learning, new media and digital technologies concerning children is poorly understood because research findings in this area are few, fragmented across disciplines and researchers, and inconclusive. The current debates seek to not only clarify this relationship but also to answer some fundamental questions that arise from the application of digital technologies in education. The current debates surround issues such as the positive and negative effects of digital technologies on children, the effectiveness of digital technologies on the learning experiences and outcomes of children, and the future of the schools and teachers in the digital era.
Current debates on the effects of digital technologies and media on children
The debate on the positive and negative effects of digital technologies and media on children remains vibrant fueled by insufficient, fragmented and inconclusive evidence from research. Notably, the debate about the effect of digital technologies on children has tended to lean towards the negative effects rather than the positive effects because research has focused more on the link between media use and its undesirable outcomes rather that between the use of digital media and desirable effects (Plowman, Stephen & McPake, 2010).
The debate on the negative aspects of digital technologies on children originates from the apprehension people across successive generations experience regarding new technologies, particularly those that relate to children. In addition, since children are under the care of their parents and caregivers, the adults were expected to guide children strictly on the use of new technologies, and therefore the negative effects were to discourage leaving the children to interact with digital technologies unsupervised. This has been termed as romanticizing the past in which screen-based technologies are believed to have caused adverse effects in children particularly when they are overexposed to screen-based media (Plowman, Stephen & McPake, 2010). In addition, the arguments supporting the negative effects of exposure or access to various technologies are premised on technological determinism in which children are believed to have a technologized childhood with is a major cultural shift. This is because while agency is ascribed to agency, children were believed to lack in agency and therefore vulnerable to technologization of their childhood (Plowman, Stephen & McPake, 2010)
To address these anxieties, several studies have focused mainly of the perceived detriments of digital technologies on children who have no control over the content they are exposed to or the duration of exposure considering that the children are in the most curious, adventurous and impressionable stages of their lives. Besides, digital technologies are the latest educational technologies in the contemporary society and therefore successive generations usually experience anxiety about the advent of such new technologies. For instance, Plowman, Stephen and McPake (2010) argued that children suffered numerous ills from exposure to screen-based media such as computers, games and television. They went on to classify the threats that these technologies present to children as those related to the health and wellbeing of children, related to the effects on the brain and cognition and related to the cultural and social aspects of the lives of the children. These sentiments have been echoed by other researchers. Specifically, McMahon (2015) and Stephen and Plowman (2014) concluded that extended interaction with digital devices such as smartphones could contribute to the children being overweight and obese because of not engaging in physical exercise alongside overeating of fast foods. They go on to observe that exposure to adult content could have long-lasting impressions on the minds of children and lead to negative psychological effects on children and influence their behavior negatively in the long-term. Walsh (2003) had argued that children could become curious sexually at a young age due to being exposed to displays of adult intimate behavior such as kissing on media screens. Similarly, Mills (2010) opined that screen media had negative social effects on children by isolating them for the outside world due extended time spent on the screen. In the same vein, Hall et al. (2013) interaction with the latest digital devices could expose children to social, emotional and psychological turmoil.
However, the negative effects of technology are increasingly being discounted as gaps in the existing evidence emerge and evidence of positive effect joins the foray. For instance, according to Oakes (2009), these detrimental effects have been generalized across the general children population and have focused on gender and age without addressing the different social groups or the contextual use of the technologies by the children. In addition, the evidence on the negative effects of media was originally associated with the televisions, which was believed to hinder interaction with the child who was seen as a passive consumer of media. However, when these studies are extended to the effects of digital media, the child is no longer assumed to be a passive consumer of media but an active one. Therefore, literature on computers has presented evidence indicating that the concerns about computer technologies are unfounded and misguided (Plowman, Stephen & McPake, 2010). As such, the advent of digital media, which is interactive, has yielded some positive effect on children especially in learning, with the duration of exposure no longer being the determinant of the detrimental effects. Rather, the quality of exposure rather than the duration of exposure to new technologies and media is the better determinant of the effects on children. Indeed, Plowman and McPake (2010) have indicated that many of these detrimental effects are myths because they have not been proven conclusively by sufficient research and evidence, and that technological determinism or the romanticization of the past are not a sound premise to base the debate about the effects of digital technologies because evidence on the positive effects is emerging.
Current debates on the effectiveness of digital technologies on the learning experiences and outcomes of children
Digital technologies have been evidenced to influence the learning experiences and learning outcomes of children. This is premised on the belief that technology can be a robust instrument for transforming learning (US Department of Education, 2017). However, although there is no argument that digital technologies present potential learning opportunities to children vibrant debate continues to focus on which digital technologies are best suited for what particular educational purposes and which educational contexts (Higgins, Xiao & Katsipataki, 2012). In addition, the realization of the full benefits of technology in the learning of children is yet to be achieved at home and in school considering there remain unresolved issues around the effective use of technology and the provision of authentic learning experiences remain problematic for parents and teachers (US Department of Education, 2017). Despite these uncertainties, there is a general consensus that digital technologies and media are largely beneficial to children’s learning and therefore, much evidence has been build to support the positive learning processes and outcomes while seeking to reduce the barriers that may hinder the achievement of these positive effects. From this premise, prominent areas on which the current debates dwell include the ability of digital technologies to enhance the learning experiences of children in different educational settings and the ability of digital technologies to impart 21st century skills early in children. As such, current debates can be viewed from the lens of digital technology as an enabler of the learning process and as enhancer of learning outcomes in children. These debates occur in a backdrop of the unique circumstances that children exist in the contemporary world and the uniqueness of digital technologies as educational technologies whose full effects on learning are yet to be fully understood. Notably, children in the contemporary society are growing in a technologically rich environments in which digital technologies and media are prevalent in their lives at home and in schools. In addition, digital technologies and media are interactive unlike the traditional education technologies and media. As such, the perception of the child as an active participant in the learning process rather than a passive recipient of knowledge have been highlighted by the interactivity of the digital technologies and media.
The debate on the ability of digital technologies to enhance the learning experience of children revolves on the ability of these technologies to influence the learning process in children. Hisrich and Blanchard (2009) have addressed the unique environment in which children are born and reared, which is characterized by digital media saturation. They have argued that exposure to digital technologies and media is a potential learning opportunity for children even when there is no express intention to teach the children. As such, they observed that children learn by observing family members interact with digital technologies and therefore all family members serve as role models who enable digital-mediated learning in children (Hisrich & Blanchard, 2009). However, Hisrich and Blanchard (2009) contend that the home appears to deliver better learning opportunities to children through digital technologies and media that the school setting. The reason behind this scenario is because the home environment is not as controlled as the school environment, and while digital technologies are available at home, they are not readily available at school, and it they are, the children experience more restrictions at school on using them than they experience at home (Hisrich & Blanchard, 2009).
Another debate surrounding the influence of digital technologies on the learning experiences of children focus on how children learn. It is without doubt that children are at a developmental stage in which they exhibit curiosity and creativity as they interact with the environment (Henriksen, Mishra & Fisser, 2016). As such, children learnt through play and were interacting with digital technologies and media from very early in their lives (Hall et al., 2013). As such, various toys incorporating digital technologies had emerged in the consumer market with the promise to enhance learning in children (Hall et al., 2013). However, their effectiveness in enhancing learning in children was not well documented, especially considering that many of these toys were not available in the formal school setting and therefore often escaped the attention of researchers. Another issue that remains debatable is whether digital technologies and media are able to appeal to the multimodal learning process in young children as they learn to communicate with others. Notably, multiliteracy and blended learning pedagogies because teachers continued to experience challenges with infusing digital technologies effectively in their classroom practices and therefore children were not equipped with sufficient skills that would enable them to reap the full educational benefits of digital technologies and media (Haggerty, 2011; Vaughan, et al., 2014). More specifically, Levy (2009) argued that computer technology helped introduce text and reading skills, which built their confidence to interact with print media and promoted the development of emergent literary. However, the school setting appeared to undo the gains in print literacy that had been acquired by children at home because the schooled approaches were in conflict with the unschooled approaches to literacy (Burnett, 2010; Levy, 2009). Earlier on, Levy (2008) has indicated that the disconnect between schooled and unschooled literacy in children was hindering the overall development of literacy because there was no continuity from the role playing experienced at home to that experienced at school by the child. As such, there was need to recognize a third space between the home and school contexts so that literacy contexts and pedagogies at home could be easily transited into the classroom setting as advocated by the third space theory (Levy, 2008).
Moreover, the digital divide was a cause of concern to educators and parents and presented a major challenge to the infusion of digital technologies into the learning experiences of children (US Department of Education, 2017). As such, socioeconomic differences among children and schools favored the effective utilization of digital technologies among the better financially endowed children and schools while denying disadvantaged children as school of similar technological benefits (US Department of Education, 2017). Therefore, the ability of digital technologies and media to bridge the digital divide among children remained questionable as the current digital technology investments and practices in childhood education has not managed to level the educational access, equity and quality among children.
The debate on the ability of digital technologies to enhance the learning outcomes of children revolves on the ability of these technologies to influence these outcomes. In the 21st century, childhood education should be able to sustain the creativity of children and make the children lifelong learners in the long term (Henriksen, Mishra & Fisser, 2016). As such, digital technologies and media promise to develop pertinent skills such as collaboration, appreciation of diversity and inclusiveness, self-direction, problem solving and creative thinking because the technologies enhance interactions between the learners and the teachers and among the learners as well (Collins & Halverson, 2018). However, this noble vision is extinguished by, again, the digital divide such that children do not enjoy similar exposure to high quality educational digital technologies and media and their teacher are not able to infuse these technologies effectively in the learning process to guarantee the achievement of the promised outcomes. The divide appeared to hinder equity and accessibility including advancing the inability to enable children to acquire non-cognitive competencies such as relational skills, perseverance, self and social awareness, self management, and growth attitude that would make one a lifelong learner and a good global citizen (US Department of Education, 2017).
Current debates on the future of the schools and teachers in the digital era
The proliferation of digital technologies at home and increasing but still limited availability of the technologies in early childhood school settings have inspired the questioning of the future of schools and teachers in the digital era. Already, digital technologies are creating numerous and significant learning opportunities in environments outside the school setting such as the home and various public places for the children. Therefore, as the digital revolution unfolds, and digital technologies permeate the contemporary society more, the current debates are increasingly focusing on whether the school and the teacher in their traditional sense are still relevant in the current and future digital worlds. Indeed, Collins and Halverson (2009) have indicated that children are especially from the well socioeconomically-endowed segments of the society, are interacting with digital technologies and media outside the formal school setting. In addition, technology developers are increasingly producing educational products that contain sophisticated digital technologies, which can be accessed by customers who are willing to pay the price. Moreover, public schools through which many children pass through in their educational journey continues to experience challenges with the adaption and incorporation of digital technologies due to financial and technical constraints at the teacher and school levels (Collins & Halverson, 2009). In fact, Collins and Halverson (2009) pointed out significant and deeply-rooted incompatibilities between the digital technologies and schooling. For instance, they argued that digital technologies diversify knowledge sources and therefore challenge the teacher’s position as an expert. In addition, digital technologies better accommodate customized, personalized, individualized, and self-directed learning rather than the uniform learning structure of schooling that focuses on mass-producing schooled children (Collins & Halverson, 2009). Therefore, digital technologies could meet the unique and specific needs of individual learners better than the school system, particularly the public school system (Collins & Halverson, 2009). Selwyn (2016) provides further insights into the survivability of the school and the teacher by arguing that the school system may not be able to successfully and sustainably produce the critical thinkers, consumers and citizens that are demanded by the contemporary society in the digital era and that digital technologies has the potential of achieving these societal goals. In the same vein, Ally and Prieto-Blázquez (2014) had argued that the education model in current use was outdated considering that it had been developed prior to the advent of information and communication technologies and efforts to reform it to accommodate the digital technologies was not forthcoming. Likewise, Plowman, Stephen and McPake (2010) faulted classrooms for not adapting to accommodate the demands of a high tech society in the global post industrial era and therefore, many students who had past elementary school level were finding schools to be irrelevant. The literature revealed in the current debates on the future of the schools and teachers in the digital era have been premised on romanticizing the future of the unraveling digital revolution that foresees the obliteration of the traditional school and teacher models to be replaced by the evolving advancements in digital technologies that place the learner not only as the recipient of knowledge but as a creator of knowledge and driver of the learning process as well (Plowman, Stephen & McPake, 2010).
However, the threats to the school institution and teaching profession have been largely speculative as they have been future projections as informed by current trends, which cannot be generalized across different school and societal settings. For instance, in financially disadvantaged settings, the public school system and the teacher would continue to play a pivotal role in the learning of children. In addition, much of the evidence fueling these speculations has originated from high schools and colleges and not from early education school setting. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to generalize findings from an adult educational setting to child educational setting. Therefore, this debate is bound to continue as new evidence emerges through increased research activities.
Research and methodologies
The insufficient and inconclusive evidence from studies related to the use of digital technologies for learning purposes have raised questions surrounding the focus of research activities and the methodologies used to generate evidence that can be used to inform learning practices among children. Notably, research efforts have concentrated on studying digital technologies and learning among older children, college students and adults while ignoring preschool children. Besides, while there was increasing focus on children in recent times, most researches focused on school environments in which the effects of digital technologies could be compared with those of traditional classroom approaches (Higgins, Xiao & Katsipataki, 2012; Hsin, Li & Tsai, 2014; Takacs, Swart & Bus, 2015). Moreover, studies such as the one undertaken by Blackwell, Lauricella and Wartella (2014) are usually large-scale surveys, which do not account for the inherent variations such as the family background of children, the cultural orientation of teachers, and the socioeconomic circumstances in schools. Therefore, the findings from such studies cannot be generalized for all children as their developmental stages vary even in the same cohort, their cognitive capacities and competencies are still underdeveloped and their learning processes differ from those of older children and adults. However, numerous research gaps have emerged from the meta-analyses that could address some of the issues featuring currently in debates. For instance, Hsin, Li and Tsai (2014) observed that the role of children as creators of technology had been understudied and thus called for more research attention because many studies dwelt on the children as technology consumers. In addition, Anderson and Hanson (2009) noted that studies on the effects of digital media focus did not address quality issues such as digital media content and form because they dwelt on quantity issues like the time of digital media exposure.
Research on digital technologies and media and learning has been undertaken using both qualitative and qualitative methodologies. However, many of the meta-analyses inspected revealed that experiments, quasi experiments and case studies were overrepresented in literature dealing with the effects of digital technology on children’s learning (Higgins, Xiao & Katsipataki, 2012; Hsin, Li & Tsai, 2014; Takacs, Swart & Bus, 2015). For instance, Higgins, Xiao and Katsipataki (2012) and Takacs, Swart and Bus (2015) noted from their meta-analysis that the effect of interventions based on digital technologies in the learning environment have been studied using experimental and quasi-experimental research designs while Hsin, Li and Tsai (2014) noted that the predominant research designs were experiments, quasi-experiments and case studies. Notably, many of these studies revealed minimal improvement on learning outcomes from technology-based interventions compared to other interventions that are not technology-based, while others indicated that technology-based interventions did not improve learning outcomes.
The methodological gaps that emerged from these meta-analyses indicated that the overreliance on quantitative research methodologies and the limited use of qualitative research tended to omit numerous variables that would provide deeper insights into the issues surrounding the adoption of digital technologies in childhood classrooms (Blackwell, Lauricella & Wartella, 2014). In addition, Anderson and Hanson (2009) noted that the research methodologies used in the studies were not incorporating new methodologies that used technologies that as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and eye tracking. As such, the discernment of the application and impact of digital technologies in children’s learning hampered the advancement in effect studies.
The current debates surrounding digital technology and media, and children’s learning are well evidenced in published studies. Digital technologies and media are still evolving and remain not fully understood by education stakeholders. Oftentimes, the rate of advancements in digital technologies has outpaced the vigor and frequency of research. As such, before studies have answered old research questions, new technologies that come along with new questions emerge. Therefore, many controversies and misconceptions continue to prevail, further fueling current debates. The critical discussion revealed that current debates revolved around the effects of digital technologies and media on children, the effectiveness of digital technologies on the learning experiences and outcomes of children, and the future of the schools and teachers in the digital era.Moreover, the focus research and the methodologies of the studies have not helped resolve the current debates because various gaps in knowledge continue to exist. The diversification of the research focus beyond the effect of digital technologies on learning experiences and outcomes of children, and beyond the overreliance on experiments, quasi-experiments and case-studies could improve the understanding of digital technologies among crucial educational stakeholders such as parents, teacher and policymakers. In turn, this would help improve the adoption of digital technologies in homes and preschool classes alongside helping the longstanding traditional education model to the reformed to accommodate the digital revolution and save the school system.
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