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Educational Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

February 3, 2014
Original Author: Keren Perles

Child Watching Video

While books present information in more static ways, processing the content is similar. Children will work to actively understand what they are seeing, hearing, and visualizing.

Deborah Linebarger

associate professor of education

University of Iowa

“Make learning fun!”

“We can teach your baby her letters in three easy DVDs!”

“Teach your child about world cultures through our engaging videos.”

Producers of educational media shout at parents that the best way they can supplement their children’s learning in this digital age is by showing entertaining – but educational – DVDs. After all, children love sitting in front of screens today, so why not take advantage by making sure that the content they view is educational?

They have a point. But can National Geographic and Baby Einstein really help your children learn? Experts generally promote a message of both encouragement and caution to parents who are looking to educational videos as a means of teaching their children.

No media before age 2 say experts

Children under age 2 should not be exposed to any media at all, according to a 2011 policy statement from the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics). This includes educational media, much to the dismay of many marketers of “educational” videos for toddlers. Research involving these young children found that it takes about 10 or 11 exposures for young children to learn the same information from a video that would take them one exposure through real-life learning. Not only that, but some studies have discovered that very young children who are exposed to videos or television are likely to show poorer cognitive development.

Advantages of educational media

Perhaps the most obvious advantage of educational videos and other media is the fact that they engage kids and get them excited about learning. “Screen media can present content in a combination of audio and dynamic visual cues,” explains Deborah Linebarger, University of Iowa associate professor of education. “While books present information in more static ways, processing the content is similar. Children will work to actively understand what they are seeing, hearing, and visualizing.”

Perhaps because of this, research about the impact of educational videos and other media on children suggests that it can actually enrich a child’s academic learning. According to Linebarger, who has studied the impact of media on children, watching educational media at a young age can predict higher grades, a stronger academic self-concept, and more leisure time spent reading when those children reach adolescence. (As a disclaimer, it is important to realize that this research typically shows correlation and not causation, which means that other factors may be coming into play.)

Real life is better than video

It’s easy to pop in an educational video and trust it to teach your child everything she needs to know. But some research suggests that children learn substantially less from videos than from live presentations, at least at very young ages. The term “transfer deficit” describes the phenomenon in which children who understand something described by a real-life teacher flounder when “taught” by an on-screen teacher (or any other non-interactive form of media).

The main deficit of educational videos seems to be the lack of back-and-forth interaction between teacher and pupil. This type of interaction can facilitate the child’s learning process, enable misconceptions to be cleared up, and ensure that the material is presented at a level appropriate to the child’s abilities.