Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part Three)

What do you see as some of the benefits or pitfalls of “interactive hotspots” in today’s e-books? You discuss the difference between forms of interactivity which are there as independent sources of pleasure or as means of allowing the reader to feel some sense of control over the reading process versus those which are “on the plot” and reinforce key learnings.

As I was reading this section, I found myself thinking back to some of the very earliest Sesame Street segments, where they would do a countdown, ending up with a man carrying an armload of pies, who would trip and fall. How might we understand the pleasures and pedagogies of a moment like this in relation to today’s interactive books?

The research on ‘hotspots’ that we get into in Tap, Click, Read--including popular print ‘distractors’ in pop-up books-- shows that emerging readers do not in fact benefit in developing key skills such as complex vocabulary development, comprehension and fluency. You can see the tradeoffs that often occur in a print vs. a highly (enhanced) interactive book experience in this experiment the Cooney Center carried out. That said, the interactivity associated with hotspots, as well as the comedy and musical interludes introduced by Sesame Street 2 generations ago are certainly a boon to engagement and extended learning when well deployed by knowledgeable adults. Our work with your group at USC illustrates the key prospects for moving beyond the more traditional framing of the advantages of print vs digital by creating a deeper understanding of the potential power of transmedia.

Throughout the book, there is some question of the concept of “screen time” which runs through much policy discourse on children and media. Yet, as you note, we use screens for so many different kinds of activities; there are so many different ways of engaging with screens; and we use screens in relation to many off-screen practices that lumping everything together into the category of screen time is more apt to be confusing than helpful. Meryl Alper in a recent MIT Press publication also considers what the anxiety about screen time means for families with disabilities where children rely on adaptive and assistive technologies that use screens for even the most basic daily tasks. So, surely there’s a need to shift the focus from how should we limit the amount of time children spend with screens towards what uses of screens are beneficial to children and how do we achieve a better balance in the range of different media practices they deploy. If so, are there some common sense answers to those basic questions we could provide parents?

We agree! It is time to strike the all encompassing term screen time from our vernacular--it just isn’t a helpful construct at all. The field of early learning is beginning to come around with recent guidance for educators and parents being much more nuanced and helpful. The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center crafted a technology position statement in 2013 that stresses the importance of early educators using technology in developmentally appropriate ways.

And two recent statements--one from Zero to Three and the other from the American Academy of Pediatrics give much more direct and helpful guidance to parents, focusing more on the content, context and needs of the developing child. In fact in its recent statement The AAP hit the nail on the head when it wrote: “In a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” We need to address how learning can and should be happening in every place children congregate, regardless of the device.

Many of my readers are librarians, so I would be remiss if I did not ask you what roles librarians and libraries could and should play in the new literacy context you are advocating. Many school districts are cutting back on library staff, arguing that they are less important in an age when young people can find more and more information online. What arguments might librarians make to the contrary as they struggle to save their jobs?

We argue that librarians will become more necessary, not less, in the digital age. But as most know well, their jobs will need to adapt and we hope grow even more important. We came across several successful initiatives in public libraries that involved working with parents and educators inside and outside the physical library. The librarians had transformed themselves from being focused almost entirely on print books to being able to vet and critique digital media too, including e-books, apps, and videos.

In addition—and this is crucial—they were more than just curators. They were what we describe as “media mentors,” providing guidance to parents and teachers through workshops and one-on-one relationships with parents and teachers on how to use digital media in interactive storytimes and other moments of joint engagement with children. This summer, the Association of Library Services to Children (an arm of the American Library Association) released a white paper on media mentorship that described how librarians for children and youth were uniquely positioned to take on this role. “A commitment to media mentorship in every library,” the paper’s authors wrote, “is a firm commitment to the full spectrum of being a supporter and champion of literacy.”

This kind of mentorship is a must for children from low-income families whose parents may be least likely to have the resources, time, or preparation necessary to learn how to use digital tools well and model that use for their children. The more that librarians can provide support and guidance to parents and teachers around the use of literacy tools and media, the more essential those librarians will be.

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.