Academic journal article The Future of Children

Technology Tools to Support Reading in the Digital Age

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Technology Tools to Support Reading in the Digital Age

Article excerpt

Technological advances are dramatically altering the texts and tools available to students and teachers. Since 2007, the number of devices available for displaying digital text has increased exponentially. (1) The first e-reader to take hold in the market, the Amazon Kindle, sold out two days after it was released in November 2007. (2) By June 2011, Amazon reported selling more Kindle books than hard- and soft-back books combined. (3) Meanwhile, the first large-scale release of a touchscreen tablet, the Apple iPad in April 2010, further expanded options for readers to access digital-text media with its inclusion of the application "iBooks." (4) By the time the iPad 2 was released in March 2011, more than 15 million units had already sold, and by June 2011 that number was 27 million. (5) Analysts forecast that 89.5 million units, including both tablets and e-readers, will sell worldwide in 2014.6

These technological advances have created high hopes among many teachers, administrators, researchers, and policy makers, who believe that the digital devices offer great promise as instructional tools for literacy education. Simple applications of existing e-reading technology such as changing font size on-screen, using text-to-speech features to provide dual input of text, or using the Internet to collaborate on learning activities may substantially improve the learning of many students. (7) At the 2011 annual International Conference on Computers in Education, researchers from around the world met to exchange ideas on more-advanced uses of e-reading technology, ranging from providing individualized feedback through artificially intelligent animated avatars, to fostering critical thinking skills through computer-supported collaboration, to predicting students' interest or frustration based on brain-wave signals and mouse-click behavior. (8)

Yet with the promise of these advances come issues that can further exacerbate the literacy challenges that are identified in other articles in this volume, such as gaps in the literacy skills of students of different socioeconomic status. Nonie Lesaux, for example, highlights the importance of higher-level conceptual skills and knowledge for literacy, and she stresses the need to narrow gaps in those areas by providing all students with adequate opportunities to develop such knowledge. (9) The new e-technology, however, may inadvertently widen such gaps. Parents, for example, increasingly use technology to provide their children with learning and reading opportunities--and today's parents are the fastest-growing population of consumers purchasing e-reading technology. But parents are not equally able to provide those opportunities for their children. (10) As figure 1 depicts, ownership of tablets and e-readers is surging, with sales doubling over six months in 2011 and doubling again in the final month of 2011.11 But as figure 1 also illustrates, purchasing patterns indicate a widening education-based gap in access, a gap that also exists when purchasing patterns are disaggregated by income level. (12) The resulting technology gap closely resembles the demographically based literacy-skills gap outlined in the article in this issue by Sean Reardon, Rachel Valentino, and Kenneth Shores, thus raising the worrisome possibility that new technologies for developing literacy skills will pose further difficulties for students from low-income families. (13)

And even if policy makers and educators address gaps in access to technology, experts warn that achievement disparities may continue to widen unless students are given sufficient opportunities to learn how to use the technology to accomplish a wide range of goals. Although demographic gaps in access to technology at home are being narrowed by students' improving access at schools, libraries, and community technology centers, serious gaps remain in students' ability to use technology in sophisticated ways. (14) High-achieving students are not only more likely to use technology for interest-driven activities such as researching topics or collaborating online to create new media, but are also more likely to have adult guidance in its use. …

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