Engaging Primary Learners Through Screen Media:
A Review of the Most Promising Educational Tablet Applications for K-2 Students

Journalism and Mass Communication Honors Thesis, May 2013
Caryn Maconi

I. Introduction

In the Age of Information, children are exposed to an increasingly large variety of screen media — including televisions, computers and tablets — from birth. Two-year-olds with iPads in hand, whether they’re watching videos, listening to music or playing an interactive game, are no longer uncommon. While children are certainly not experts at operating these devices by the time they reach primary-school age, they are at least familiar with many of them. As noted by Marc Prensky (2001), children and young adults are now considered Digital “Natives,” having never known a time when screen media was not available as a tool for learning, communicating and playing. Older adults, and a decreasing number of them, are digital “immigrants,” having entered the world of screen-media technology partway through their lives. Digital “Immigrants,” Prensky says, must learn about the operation of new technology as if learning a second language, through deliberate practice. Digital “Natives,” on the other hand, are especially apt to make meaning from educational technology simply because they have grown up around these media since before their kindergarten years. In fact, in 2001 an average college graduate had spent, in his lifetime, more than twice the number of hours playing video games — 10,000 — than reading of any kind (Prensky 2001). This thesis aims to discover how young students can use their experiences as “Digital Natives” in a positive, educational way even as very young elementary students. In other words, how can kindergarten through second-grade elementary teachers implement a successful educational technology program so that students can learn the crucial math and literacy skills required by state and national standards while using the screen media to which those children have become so accustomed?

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Technology’s role in education is ever-evolving as new devices and programs are developed daily. Thus, even Prensky’s view of the “Digital Native/Immigrant Divide” is somewhat outdated. Both educators and media specialists must be cognizant of this constantly-changing landscape, continually working to improve their knowledge of today’s technologies with the goal of successfully implementing technology programs into public school systems. The effectiveness of an educational technology program is also dependent on the characteristics of specific school sites, including but not limited to the types of technology provided, the availability of adequate funding, the subject matter and standards addressed, and the achievement level and demographic of students and teachers. In fact, as Gaynor-Vescuso (2008) states, technology integration in the classroom “tends to be limited by costs of hardware, training, facilities and demands on teacher preparation time” (3). On average in the United States, however, integration of screen media such as computers has grown drastically in recent years. According to Cattagni and Farris (2001), “The percentage of American public schools connected to the Internet increased from 35 percent in 1994 to 98 percent in 2000” (as cited in Zhao 2003, 1).

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While the potential benefits and drawbacks of “older” screen media such as televisions, computers and projector screens in the classroom have been debated to a certain extent in both scholarly research and the popular press for several years, the potential educational value of “newer” technologies such as iPads and other electronic tablets have not been as closely examined. Thus, the goal of this thesis is to offer a sampling of the most promising electronic tablet applications for elementary students in kindergarten through second grade based on the findings from scholarly research targeted at “older” technologies such as televisions and computers. Conclusions were drawn from research in both the field of education and the field of media studies. Articles cited focused on which subject matters and forms of instruction were best taught through technology, which particular programs have proven most effective in a classroom environment, and which components of these “older” screen media have been shown to be the most engaging, specifically to primary-aged students.

II. Methods
The research for this thesis was based primarily on pre-existing, peer-reviewed research related to educational technology and the successful integration of screen media into public schools. Most studies were based on school districts in the United States in urban or suburban settings, though one article was based on a study conducted in Turkey (Altun 2001). The oldest article cited was published in 1996, but research prior to 2000 was limited in an effort to keep findings current and as relevant as possible to today’s students. All applications mentioned are available on Apple iPad, but some may also be accessible through Google Chromebook, Google Nexus, and other tablet devices and operating systems. The research is also based on findings from students of all elementary grades, though most were targeted at primary grades and focused on mathematics and/or literacy skill development.

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Primary students were chosen as the potential users of the technology in this thesis because these students have historically had less exposure to educational technology in the classroom compared to their upper-elementary, middle and high-school counterparts. Much of this trend is due to primary students not yet being proficient typists, which increases “teacher discretionary time” and management requirements according to Gaynor-Vescuso (2008). However, the fact remains that educational technology initiatives “abound for high school and middle school students … [while] fewer opportunities exist for elementary students and their teachers” (DeJarnette 2012, 77). Thus, the value of tablets in a K-2 classroom has not yet been explored to its greatest potential.

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Throughout the research process, informal conversations with elementary school teachers, administrators and technology specialists in Colorado school districts were conducted in order to provide background knowledge on the current status of iPad and other tablet use for primary students in American public schools. These individuals were not quoted or referenced as research subjects. Rather, their input provided practical feedback on the implementation of the applications discussed, adding reliability to a piece of research that otherwise risked becoming purely hypothetical. Finally, because affordability is a factor that must always be considered when discussing technology development in public schools, all applications mentioned here are either free downloads or, if the “full” version requires payment, are available as “lite” or reduced versions at no cost. For some literacy-based applications in which students download eBooks, the application provides a limited sampling of free books, but the opportunity exists to purchase more books to add to the pre-existing selection. The research does, however, assume that those schools interested in integrating electronic tablet technology into the classroom have the funding needed to make these devices accessible by individual students in primary grades on a somewhat regular basis. For instance, one K-5 elementary school should have access to about 15-30 shared electronic tablets, depending on class size, which individual classrooms or students could rent for a limited duration of time.

III. Background Research
According to Gaynor-Vescuso (2008), schools that are reluctant to integrate technology into their teaching methods represent a “focal problem” in the current educational system, in which there exists “a growing discrepancy between the use of computers by citizens in the community and the integration of computers into the curriculum of the school” (2). For primary students, the level of access to technology at home certainly varies based on family demographics; however, the level of technological literacy required for middle and high school students, college students and citizens in the workforce is ever-increasing. The sooner children begin developing real-world computer and tablet skills, Gaynor-Vescuso argues, the better. The National Center for Education Statistics’ 2002 Technology in Schools report echoed a similar position, stating that “instructional technology should prepare the student for lifelong learning in a rapidly changing technological society by providing a basic understanding of technology usage, processes and systems” (NCES 2002). Technology, then, is more than just a method for teaching skills like math and reading — it is, in the Age of Information, a crucial skill in and of itself. Prensky (2001) adds that “Today’s students are no longer the people that our educational system was designed to teach” (1), meaning that students are entering elementary schools as relatively technologically literate individuals. Schools, however, are lagging behind in providing the level of technology integration in the classroom that will best serve the needs of these students.

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Integration of technology into the elementary school system, however, does not happen seamlessly, nor is it an appropriate method for teaching every skill or concept. In order for technology, specifically screen media, to be successfully implemented in the classroom, teachers and administrators must maintain optimistic beliefs about the educational value of such media. For instance, Altun et. al. found in one 2001 study of elementary schools in Antalya, Turkey, that “those who would possess positive attitudes toward technology are thought to be effective in the integration of technology into schools” (3). In addition, Douglas (1996) argues that the use of technology in the classroom must have a solid foundation in pre-established curriculum guidelines and standards for a given grade level. If a purposeful connection is not made between already-developed learning goals and newly-integrated technology, Douglas argues, “We may employ technology to no avail or achieve unintended outcomes at the expense of much-desired educational results” (14). For instance, students may engage in “digital delinquency” such as downloading unauthorized programs or engaging in non-educational digital activities. Teachers, too, may misuse technology by failing to identify and preview appropriate websites and programs in advance of students‘ handling of the devices. Thus, teachers who wish to integrate technology into their lessons must first consider what skill or concept the lesson is designed to teach, then assess whether or not electronic tablets or other media are appropriate teaching tools for that outcome.

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In what ways, then, can schools and teachers best align their curriculum goals and teaching practices to support the thoughtful use of screen media in the classroom? Prensky (2001) notes that “Digital Natives … like to parallel process and multi-task … They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards” (2). Thus, educational technology programs must be engaging and rewarding enough to maintain students’ interest and motivation. According to the NCES 2002 report, the “effective integration of technology is achieved when students are able to select technology tools to help them obtain information in a timely manner, analyze and synthesize the information, and present it professionally” (75). Screen media can afford students valuable opportunities to practice these skills of analysis and synthesis using tools such as interactive read-alongs (Fountain 2003, Narda et. al. 2005) and virtual math manipulatives (Mendiburo et. al. 2011).

IV. Components of Effective Educational Technology
The pre-existing research on “older” educational technology programs identified several common components found to be effective in building students’ proficiency in meaningful skills and concepts. Four components in particular stood out as commonalities across the most successful programs. First, technologies that allowed students and teachers to monitor student progress, both long-term and short-term, generally produced positive results (Alamaki, 2008). In these programs, teachers were able to track the accuracy or comprehension level of students as they participated in a program over time, allowing the teacher to make informed decisions about which level of difficulty to assign to which students. “Hands-on” or interactive components also encouraged students to learn the material more so than static, one-way technologies. For instance, kindergarten students achieved greater success in reading comprehension when they engaged in a read-along using audio-visual technology rather than simply listening to the teacher conduct a read-aloud (Fountain 2003, as cited in Narda et. al 2005).

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Thirdly, successful screen-media programs challenged students to engage in higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills rather than task-completion or memorization; this trend was seen in both mathematics and literacy-based programs. Alamaki (1998) notes that “higher-order thinking skills such as an ability of innovation and adaptation, creative problem-solving … [and] a learning to learn ability have to be the primary goals of technology in education in elementary school” (3). According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchy of learning objectives developed by a committee of educators in 1956, meaning-making by students begins at the lowest levels, remembering and understanding, but the end goal of every curriculum should be a steady progression into those higher-order thinking skills such as applying, analyzing, evaluating, and finally creating. Some of the most successful educational technology programs fall into the “higher-order thinking” category and were chosen because they represent the most complex levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: evaluating and creating. The research found, however, that if students are asked to engage in higher-order thinking, they also must be able to see that thinking’s relevance to their lives outside of school. Furthermore, they must be provided the opportunity to work at their own developmental level rather than fitting into a one-size-fits-all classroom. Thus, the most engaging educational technology programs provided some sense of “enriched and individualized instruction” (Gaynor-Vescuso 1998), meaning that students are able to choose their level of difficulty and receive greater support or challenge whenever necessary. The learning is context-based and relevant to students’ lives rather than purely abstract, and students are provided appropriate scaffolds as they move from guided practice into independent learning.

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With these four components of effective educational technology in mind, it is important to note that technology programs are a worthwhile addition to any elementary classroom for reasons beyond developing literacy and mathematics skills. For instance, Hassel et. al. (2011) notes that “successful teaching is much more than delivery of core instruction, no matter how effective” (1). He goes on to describe the various life skills that students can build through technology-based instruction. Hassel’s conclusion is that educational technology should ideally provide the same “bigger-picture” learning opportunities that successful in-person instruction does: the ability for students to practice time management and mental fortitude, and the chance for them to take on complex intellectual challenges and gain confidence by overcoming them.

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In order for such programs to be successful, however, the classroom teacher must remain truly engaged in students’ learning. She must support students in their skill development by explaining the directions and objective for each technology-based activity in a clear but concise manner. She must be fully educated in the use of the technology she is presenting to her students, for according to Zhao (2003), “New pedagogical knowledge and practices emerge from the integration of technology, but only when teachers reach a certain level of technology understanding” (10). She also must keep her own records on student struggle, success and progress in order to differentiate instruction for her youngest learners. For instance, while students may have the option of choosing a difficulty level for the programs discussed, teachers must support their students in making an appropriate choice to encourage challenge while ensuring some level of success. As Makiya and Rogers (1992) note, “The role of the teacher when teaching technology is to use children’s capabilities and build upon them, as well as introduce them to a variety of new techniques and skills that will extend and widen these experiences” (as cited in Alamaki 1998). Therefore, tablets such as iPad and Chromebook have the potential to enrich students’ learning experiences at school, but they must be used thoughtfully, alongside in-person instruction, and in a way that engages students in thinking at a deeper level.

IV. Most Promising iPad Applications Based on Preexisting Findings
Based on the components of successful technology found in the preexisting research, the following electronic tablet applications are the most likely to provide meaningful and context-based learning opportunities for primary students. The applications are organized based on the four most effective components of “older” screen-media programs determined from preexisting research: the ability to progress-monitor, “hands-on” or interactive elements, the ability to engage in higher-order problem-solving skills such as evaluating and creating, and a degree of enriched and individualized instruction. These applications are currently free of charge, at least in a “lite” version, but it is not uncommon for applications that were once free to begin charging once they reach a certain user base.

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In the area of progress-monitoring, the “Splash Math” collection of apps provides the most purposeful opportunity for students to self-regulate throughout the learning process. “Splash Math” is arranged by grade level, with different skills, difficulties and game formats for each grade, although students could certainly use the apps geared toward higher or lower grade levels based on their levels of proficiency in certain skills. The “Splash Math” First Grade app, for instance, is a basic addition and subtraction game in which students problem-solve by matching various number sentences to their corresponding visual models. Students, their parents and their teachers receive weekly progress reports via email, a method that allows all involved to keep track of and analyze the student’s improvement in a particular skill set over time. The “FasTT Math Next Generation” collection of apps also emphasizes progress-monitoring with games like “Sushi Monster.” In this game, students are presented with a hungry cartoon monster, a number floating over its stomach. In order to appease the monster, the students must choose two sushi rolls, each with an assigned addend, that will combine to form the sum on the monster’s stomach. The goal is for students to achieve fluency and automaticity in their addition facts, and a multiplication component is also available for advanced second-graders. Players earn points for each correct combination of addends. A clock also keeps track of time — not because students must complete the math in a limited amount of time, but so that students can assess the amount of time they took to answer the problems and try to improve on that total in a later attempt.

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Literacy applications such as “Cimo Spelling” also allow students to self-regulate by providing feedback after every question. For instance, when a student spells a word correctly, the app’s voiceover, a friendly cartoon penguin, speaks positive reinforcements such as “Great job!” or “You did it!” When a word is spelled incorrectly one time, the penguin voice says, “Let’s try again,” and allows the student to start over again with the same word. When a word is spelled incorrectly twice, the voice says, “Let’s spell it together.” Then, the app provides the correct spelling, finally speaking aloud the phonemes for each letter. Thus, students are given the opportunity to retry if they do not experience success right away, but they do not remain “stuck” on any given word for an extended period of time. One application called “AlphaMerge” keeps track of students’ spelling improvements by recording both personal “achievements” and “leaderboards.” Students can therefore focus either on meeting their own goals and setting new personal bests or, for more competitive children, seeing how their scores stack up against those of other classmates using the app. Finally, the “Show Me” presentation app gives students the opportunity to create educational videos for their classmates using a format similar to the “Kahn Academy” tutorials. “Show Me,” while free, requires the teacher to set up a classroom account, and students submit their videos to a central location within this account. Thus, the teacher can view an entire body of student work at one time and conveniently assess the submitted videos alongside the objectives of the assignment.

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The most “hands-on,” or interactive, mathematics applications found allow students to physically manipulate the tablet screen as they selected responses for math problems of varying difficulties. Students are likely to be more engaged in the curriculum and more motivated to participate in the activity because they are doing more than simply watching the screen. For example, the “Motion Math” collection of apps for iPad encourages students to think in terms of number sense rather than abstract operations because they are challenged create their own number sentences rather than simply filling in answers to predetermined problems. In “Motion Math Zoom,” students work with a virtual-manipulative number line to practice place value and subitizing. Students are given a number which they must drag into the appropriate spot on a number line, “zooming in” on or expanding the number line if necessary. For instance, the number line may be arranged in intervals of five, but the student must drag the number three into its exact location. To do so, the student must “zoom in” on the space between one and five, eventually landing on the open space between two and four. For primary geometry units, students can practice creating and identifying shapes using the “Geoboard” app for iPad by the Math Learning Center. In this app, students move virtual rubber bands around the pegs of a geoboard, stretching and manipulating them to form various geometric shapes. The shapes can be as simple as a square or triangle or as complicated as an octahedron; students can even use several rubber bands of different colors at once. This app functions nearly identically to a physical geoboard tool, which elementary mathematics instructors have been using in geometry units for years. The app, however, is likely to encourage student engagement more so than the physical manipulative simply because it caters to that screen-media proficiency that Pransky’s “Digital Natives” know so well.

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Several tablet applications for literacy offer interactive components as well. The “ABC Phonics” application, for example, offers several “hands-on” games in which students practice phonemic awareness and spelling patterns using their favorite zoo animals. One activity within this app, “Animal Flashcards,” displays a cartoon image of a certain recognizable animal as well as the letters that make up the spelling of that animal. Students must choose from the available letters in order, physically dragging the letters to a different area of the screen as they make their selections. In “Animal Matching,” students choose from a set of animal names, dragging the name of the animal shown in the image to the corresponding spot on the screen. The “Letter Tracer” game gives primary-aged students valuable practice in both handwriting and spelling, as they must drag their finger along a dotted line to form the letters that spell the name of each animal. The “Grammar Jammers” Primary Edition application teaches students about the different parts of speech using catchy sing-alongs — similar to the beloved “School House Rock” films, but organized in a more modern, iPad-friendly format. For instance, students learn about adjectives by singing along to the following rap: “An adjective is a word that describes a person: how about a tall man, a little girl, or a happy, funny boy?” The video is complete with colorful characters and an instrumental background, and the songs will keep playing in children’s heads long after the video is over. In addition, a multiple-choice quiz or interactive game follows each video, giving children the chance to apply the information that they learned from the video in an independent way.

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In terms of higher-order thinking and problem-solving, one of the most promising applications for mathematics is the “Kahn Academy.” This app originated as a website and provides guided assistance in various content areas for all grade levels. The K-2 mathematics support, however, stands out in its straightforward, non-intimidating explanation of foundational mathematical concepts. The app is organized into several short, YouTube-style videos in which an instructor named “Sal” models a math problem on a tablet, explaining his thinking in a voiceover as he works. For instance, in one “addition with carrying” tutorial, “Sal” introduces the video with a word of encouragement to his students, assuming they already know how to do basic, non-carrying addition:  “I want to show you that we now have all the tools we need to really tackle any addition problem.” This application is most promising for students who are not on grade level in math proficiency, since the instruction is delivered in a motivational tone rather than one that assumes student struggle.

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In terms of literacy, several presentation-based applications were found to encourage higher-order thinking in elementary students, specifically in the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy: creating. For example, the “TinyTap” application for iPad provides students as young as kindergarten the opportunity to create their own creative “quizzes” using photographs, illustrations, captions, labels and other embedded features. Students must know the material well enough to test others on it and explain whether or not an answer is correct. For instance, students in first grade may enhance their understanding of the difference between the three states of matter by creating TinyTap quizzes for each other or their parents. Students may take photographs of items around the classroom, such as a desk, a pencil and a cup of water, and ask, “Which of these is a liquid?” The student then records the question in voiceover format and selects the correct answer by tracing around the photograph of the cup of water. Then, when the project is complete, a classmate or parent can view the quiz in a format similar to Keynote or Powerpoint, tapping the image of the cup of water to select it as the answer. Students also have the option to record phrases like, “You’ve got it!” and “Try again!” to play when the quiz-taker chooses a correct or incorrect answer.

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Out of the four components of educational technology discussed, perhaps the most important and critical to success is an app’s ability to provide a degree of “enriched and individualized instruction” (Gaynor-Vescuso 1998). An “individualized” educational tablet application allows specific students to work at their appropriate levels of difficulty and improve to higher levels with greater practice. If teachers deliberately choose apps that provide enough individualization, they will be able to meet the needs of all students in the classroom without leaving higher-level students bored or lower-level students struggling to keep up. For instance, using an appropriately differentiated mathematics app would allow students in a first-grade class to work in the same app on math concepts ranging from simple addition, even counting, all the way through to early multiplication. The classroom community remains inclusive of all learners, and each student is given the right amount of challenge so that he or she will eventually proceed to the next phase of understanding for a given concept.

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Most of the tablet applications reviewed here in the areas of progress monitoring, higher-level thinking and interactivity actually provide some amount of differentiation, as they generally allow students to choose a starting level and move up or down depending on progress or lack thereof. For example, the Kahn Academy mathematics videos begin at the most basic level of number sense: “Introduction to Addition and Subtraction.” From there, students can achieve mastery and then have the option to move onto first two-digit addition and subtraction. Next up is addition with carrying, subtraction with borrowing, and so on. In one elementary classroom, students could all be using the Kahn Academy application, but they would be watching videos catered to their specific level of mathematical thinking. Students can self-pace, pausing or rewinding their videos whenever necessary in order to spend more time on or review a challenging concept.

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The “Spelling with Cimo” literacy app also provides a valuable degree of individualization, as students have a choice of six different levels of spelling assessments to practice. Each level tests students on a different spelling pattern, starting at Level 1 with the easier “short vowel” pattern, and eventually moving into Level 5, “irregular vowels.” In Level 6, the “Challenge” level, students may not use all of the letters given in order to spell the tested word. For instance, students must spell the word “how,” given a choice of four letters: “o,” “u,” “h” and “w.” Another spelling application, “Kids Can Spell Animals,” first of all, is engaging in its selection of interesting animals guaranteed to excite and motivate young learners. More importantly, though, “Kids Can Spell Animals” offers both a “classic” and a “timed” spelling assessment. The “classic,” self-paced version is appropriate when students are just beginning a spelling unit and need more time to determine the letter sounds for each word. The “timed” version serves as a valuable end-of-unit challenge, when students are expected to have memorized the spelling of certain keywords and be able to analyze the patterns of related words. The “classic” version is also a valuable differentiation tool for students who have special needs and may need extended time to look at and analyze each word’s letter sounds. These students are able to access the same spelling words and the same fun game as the rest of the class, but within the app, they are provided the scaffolds needed to achieve success. Finally, the “Spellosaur” app allows the classroom teacher to choose the spelling words with which the child will work, making the spelling practice on the tablet directly correlated with spelling units in the regular classroom. “Spellosaur” offers four different levels of complexity, from very scaffolded (“listen and choose the correct word”), to more complex (“complete the word” and “unscramble the word,”) and finally indo independence (“spell the word.”)

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For grammar and “word work” practice, primary students of varying proficiency levels can use the “Bluster” application for iPad. The skills developed in this game range from simple rhyming words to prefixes and suffixes, and students can play either on their own or with a partner. When playing with a partner, students sit on opposite sides of the iPad. The students are collaborating rather than competing, meaning that their goal is to achieve a certain combined number of correct answers. Most importantly in terms of differentiation, students can be working on two different skills within the same game. For instance, one student may be working on pluralization of common and irregular nouns, while another student is practicing recognizing short and long “a” patterns in one-syllable words. “Bluster” is a rarity in that it encourages collaboration and team-building in the classroom while at the same time providing a broad range of difficulty and complexity levels for a diverse group of learners.

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Enrichment and individualization of instruction, however, means far more than just varying difficulty levels. In order for all students to make real-world meaning out of the content they are learning, they must be able to relate those skills and concepts to their lived experiences. The most personalized literacy application based on this criteria is “StoryKit,” a writing program in which students take stories from their lives in or outside of school and share them in an engaging storybook format. This application allows young students to develop their own pieces of creative writing, complementing them with either self-illustrated pictures or photographs taken on the tablet itself. For instance, if a student wanted to write a story about her best friend, she could take a picture of that friend without exiting out of the application, and then seamlessly integrate that photograph as an image alongside her writing. She can resize the photograph, angle it in an interesting way, or add a fancy-looking frame. The value of “StoryKit” is that it gives students a chance to enhance their writing with images from their own lives, which helps them make connections to writing as a skill set learned in school and writing as a way to share stories about exciting life events. In addition, because their work becomes a polished and visually-appealing “finished product,” students are proud to present it as their original work and are likely to think of themselves as “real authors.”

V. Conclusion
The effectiveness of educational technology programs in public schools depends on more than just the applications teachers choose, no matter how engaging such apps may be. Assuming that schools have the resources available to implement tablet-based instruction using the criteria discussed above, teachers must be equally committed to becoming digitally-minded instructors. According to Prensky (2001), “The biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language,” that of the Information Age. The “Native/Immigrant” divide, however, is becoming less of an issue each year as young teachers — “Digital Natives” — join the workforce and older teachers educate themselves on the value of screen-media instruction. More and more, teachers are becoming members of the “Digital Natives” population, and are therefore more likely to have positive attitudes about the implementation of technology instruction in the elementary classroom environment.

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Furthermore, educational technology — and specifically tablet-based programs — are not appropriate for every lesson or every unit, regardless of grade level. For instance, one writing application, “ToonTastic,” allows students to create their own story based around cartoon characters, complete with voiceovers, background music and colorful backdrop patterns. However, while the app requires students to divide the story into well-intentioned categories such as “introduction,” “rising action,” “conflict,” “climax” and “conclusion,” students may become distracted by the time-consuming details of the creation process rather than focusing on those elements of a realistic fiction story. Thus, teachers must choose applications with the end goal in mind. Rather than a teacher deciding that he would like to teach his next literacy unit using a tablet, he must first decide on the desired outcome of that unit and then assess the available tablet applications to see if any would fit well with the standards and timeline necessary for that unit.

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The most promising tablet applications for elementary students, not surprisingly, are the ones that provide the same type of learning experiences that strong teachers provide on a daily basis: progress-monitoring, interactivity and a sense of the “hands-on,” the chance to practice higher-level problem-solving skills, and enrichment and individualization of instruction. These teaching methods are effective whether students are working directly with a teacher, using an “older” technology such as TV or document camera, or working with more modern devices such as tablets and their related applications. Students today must still master each skill in the hierarchy of Bloom’s Taxonomy — remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating — for each unit of study they encounter. Educational technology’s potential, then, lies in helping students who are already so exposed to these screen media outside of the classroom synthesize important information using the methods they know so well. The inclusion of educational technology in the classroom is a deliberate choice teachers should make based on both the background knowledge and competency of their “Digital Native” students and the high demand for technological literacy placed on today’s young workforce.

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Ultimately, while technology is a valuable asset to the elementary classroom and can enhance students’ understanding of key concepts, it still cannot replace the personal and humanistic learning moments that are representative of the most outstanding teachers. As Hassel (2011) notes, “The elements of excellent teachers that are most difficult for technology to replace will increasingly differentiate student outcomes” (1). Thus, while students across the nation may be using the same tablet applications in their math curriculum, the way that classroom teachers support that learning with their own instruction is more important than ever. In addition, no technology will ever be able to replace the presence of a classroom teacher’s mentorship and support, especially in terms of social and emotional development. The everyday “life skills” that excellent teachers afford their students, such as role-modeling and community-building, are not likely to be replicated through tablets and other screen media. Furthermore, those teachers that maintain an optimistic view of technology’s integration in the classroom are most likely to see that technology make a positive impact in their students’ learning. Thus, while increasing levels of educational technology may mean less direct teacher-to-student instruction, teachers that can maintain their presence as community and classroom leaders will stand out more than ever in a constantly-changing educational landscape.

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