Kids today are tech-savvy and reach out to digital devices for both work and play. But does that necessarily make them smart?

My textbooks in school were not palm leaves or stone tablets, but they were not phablets either. Kids today use e-readers, do homework on a school PC, play games on a tablet, find project information on the Internet. When caught watching YouTube, six-year-old Rithwik says he is ‘researching’ dinosaurs. Lori (11) weaves bracelets, does nail-art and other crafts after watching DIY videos. “She is creative, but more importantly, believes she can do stuff she once considered too difficult,” says her mom. “Her buddy group has devised summer projects, both high-tech and low-tech.”

Gleaning information

So, are devices making tech-savvy kids smarter than we were at their age?

“Smart devices allow kids access to information right when they need it,” said Vidya, who conducts the Safari Quiz on Radio Zindagi. “During dinner at a restaurant, my highschooler wanted to know the difference between 87-gas and 91-gas and looked it up on the smartphone right then. He would have lost interest if he had had to look it up in the library.” Smart devices can deliver information in a fun, more visual way, she says. An interactive video on water cycle shows water evaporating and condensing!

Sankari Amritkumar, educational content developer, is convinced kids are bored listening to the teacher. Kids explore, create projects on their tablets, she says. “Whether copy-pasting or preparing a presentation, it makes them feel, ‘I can showcase my capacity!’ Digital devices and apps are great for knowledge and self-esteem.” And Professor Sugata Mitra proved with his popular ‘Hole-In-The-Wall’ terminals that where traditional schools fail, screens can take the place of teachers and parents.

The writing is on the touchscreen. Studies (using educational apps) show digital-media learning improves vocabulary. The multi-media content and interactivity in digital devices keep restless toddlers / kids ‘engaged’ — an improvement on TV-babysitters. Working up the video game console improves hand-eye co-ordination. Kindergarteners sing ‘ABC’ along with their tablets, middle-schoolers use smartphones to look up words, take photos of assignments written on the board and highschoolers text themselves a homework reminder. Teachers use apps to better connect students with coursework. Digital devices are non-messy. Students internalise their lessons better when they’re doing them on smartphones or tablets.

Our kids are now ‘digital natives’, says Chitra Ravi, EZVidya. Connected to their peers across the world, they seek and get instant feedback. Digital information is easily accessible. Does this make them smarter? If ‘smartness’ means ability to think critically, make sense of the information-overload, ability to make well-thought-out decisions, well, these can be judged only when “kids grow up and face decision-making situations”, she says. And how good is the quality of the content that is accessible? Kids definitely seem ‘smarter’, but does it necessarily translate into strong academic conceptual understanding? Also, she isn’t sure digital content available encourages kids to explore, “thus strengthening academic concepts”.

Devices don’t allow kids to work out solutions, make them mentally lazy, say educators. Step-by-step multi-media presentation of a mathematical problem suppresses the need to think and analyse. Take away the calculator and supply a slide-rule, can our kids calculate? “Internet has so many distractions that smart devices make for lower attention spans and decreased ability to read text and process slower, more boring stuff,” points out Vidya. “Digital tech-driven learning makes for a more reactive brain, as opposed to a creative and thoughtful one. Learning existing stuff is faster and probably easier, but where is the down-time for the brain to think of new stuff? Would I rather my pre-teen daughter spent more time practising music than browsing the Web? Yes, definitely,” says Vidya.

Socially awkward

Gizmos promote individual work, resulting in socially-awkward kids, says a counsellor. Aren’t they interacting with screens rather than family, friends and teachers? Do they get to hear mom / dad reading a story to them? Is there a substitute to taking a walk in the park to see a bird fly, an ant crawl, a butterfly flutter its wings?