Learning and Retaining through Technology

The month of August brings thoughts of the new school year and a fresh look at how children learn and grow.  With that focus in mind, the Handwriting is Fun! blog is proud to bring you a series of posts that will share insights from Occupational Therapists that reflect their views on and visions for our students’ learning experiences.  Our first article, written by Eleanor Cawley, M.S., OTR/L,  is an enlightening discussion of the initial attempts of researchers to collect data on the benefits of using technology in learning, as well as the elements that apps provide that enhance learning for our students.  I know that you will find her information useful.


iPad Angel or Devil


Learning and Retaining through Technology

by Eleanor Cawley, M.S., OTR/L





Nothing can compare to learning face to face from an excellent teacher. With the increasing demands of the Common Core and state testing, many teachers and parents today are turning to technology as a learning tool. PBS Learning Media (1) conducted a survey in 2013, of the 503 web-based interviews conducted with Pre-K-12 teachers in the United States, nearly three quarters [73-74%] reported technology allows them to reinforce and expand on content, motivate students to learn and respond to a variety of learning styles.

Pre-teaching, teaching and re-teaching are terms that initially come to mind when beginning to explore the world of technology in learning. I would like to just clarify those concepts, as I have experienced them, in the most basic terms. Pre-Teaching is introducing the topic or key concepts to the student prior to actually teaching the material. In my personal experience, pre-teaching can be as simple as exposure to the material by reading a chapter before going to class or even just guessing at definitions, much like when you were in OT school and the first class looked at the student’s knowledge of the profession, i.e., “What is OT?” Some teachers like to ‘pre-teach’ while others feel it disrupts the flow of the lesson. In a class that is alternately assessed, pre-teaching can be a matching activity, matching the new word to a picture, for example. Teaching is the actual imparting of knowledge, instructing students in the ideas and concepts contained within the lesson. Re-Teaching is as simple as it sounds, to teach the ideas and concepts again, sometimes in new or novel ways. When re-teaching, the materials may be presented in different ways, for example, using straight vocabulary then expanding into a word search by definition or a crossword puzzle.

A really good example of using an app for a skill that an OT works on in a school-based setting, and what Katherine Collmer is expert in, is handwriting. I do not propose that handwriting can be learned through an app only that certain handwriting skills can be reinforced through an app. There is nothing like using pencil and paper, feeling the drag of the pencil, moving through, learning and understanding the directional concepts of letter formation, learning how to meet the writing line and many other components of the handwriting skill. An app cannot use hand over hand or modify pencil grip as needed. What the right handwriting app can do is reinforce letter formation [starting the letter at the top] and writing on the line. Another great thing an app can do is collect and share data. Believe it or not, an app can collect data on how long the student practiced, how many questions were completed and how many questions were correct out of the total number of questions. Apps, such as the Touch Math series, will collect data on the number of trials to gain a correct response to a specific question, generally up to three trials.

Many apps have the ability to customize practice to an individual-to create customized lessons. BitsBoard [Free] and BitsBoard Pro [$9.99] are great examples of this customization capability. The BitsBoard series allows the teacher or therapist the ability to add curriculum materials, such as vocabulary. The teacher or therapist can then choose from up to 20 game based learning activities to pre-teach, teach or re-

BitsBoard Match Up
BitsBoard Match Up

teach the material. Depending on the student, the teacher can choose activities such as Match Up, Bingo, Word Search, Spelling Bee, Pop Quiz and many more. A score is generated at the end of each activity which can then be e-mailed to the teacher, therapist or the parent. In my experience, once students understand what that score means, they often want to do more and increase their score, much like playing a video game. Each of these activities can be customized as to the level and type of prompting. This becomes one method of differentiated instruction for the individual learner.

Continuing on with the concept of using apps in learning, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in association with The Sesame Street workshop published a document called Learning: Is There an App for that? Investigations of young children’s usage and learning with mobile devices and apps. (2)  This document identified Key Opportunities and Key Challenges in mobile learning. Key Opportunities include “anywhere, anytime” learning, reaching underserved children in low income communities and developing countries, promoting and fostering collaboration and communication, more natural fit within various learning environments, personalized learning experience. The Key Challenges include surmounting cognitive, social, and physical challenges, the potential for distraction or unethical behavior, physical health concerns, and data privacy issues, cultural norms and attitudes, lack of widely accepted mobile theory of learning, diversity among mobile devices and internet access, poor design of some mobile technologies adversely affect usability and distract children from learning goals. In my opinion, apps are very concrete. Either the response was correct or it was not. In addition to the challenges identified in the report, eye hand coordination and postural control can be significant factors in accuracy of response when it comes to using tablets with apps.

In many ways, technology becomes a motivating factor in learning. Julie Alex, a 2nd grade intern at Easterly Parkway Elementary in State College, PA, stated, “I need to remind myself that the children I am teaching are growing up in a world where technology plays a big part. Students today do not know anything different. It is a way of life for them. They are not afraid to try new things on the computer, or think it may be too complicated. They just do it.” (3)  Ms. Alex reported that 16 out of 18 [n=18] students remembered more facts after completing a presentation on the computer using PowerPoint. She also reported that 16/18 students remembered more facts that they had included in their presentation and that 7/18 students remember additional facts from the research that they had conducted that was not included in their presentation. While this is a small study, I feel that this is a well conducted study with pre and post surveys to the students and their parents. An important component in her study explored the motivation of her students, after learning how to use the program and completing the presentation, 100% of her students reported that it was fun to create a presentation, were proud of the work that they had done and enjoyed sharing their work with others.

Dr. Susan B. Neuman, Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and Professor of Early Childhood Literacy Education at NYU, released findings on an App called Learn with Homer. This was a small [n=18] blind and randomized study conducted at seven Head Start programs in Brooklyn. According to this report, 4-5 year old children using this app for 15 minutes per day [without the assistance of a teacher] for 6 weeks over the summer increased school readiness skills by 74% over those children not exposed to the app as assessed by pre and post testing using the TOPEL [Test of Preschool Early Literacy]. (4)  Although I personally feel that this study needs to be repeated in a number of settings with a more varied student population, this is significant in terms of understanding the power of technology in learning.

Learn With Homer
Learn With Homer

Technology is relatively young and I believe still in it’s infancy with regard to education. Much of the current research has been through the survey model and not through randomized trials which is why the Learn with Homer research is so significant. Some educators embrace technology while others are kicking and screaming when asked to add technology to their curriculum. Either way, technology is here to stay with over 1.5 million apps in the App Store, 1.6 million Android apps, with Amazon and Windows apps trailing behind. (5)  Laptop computers whether they are PCs or Macs are getting lighter, more portable and more flexible with the addition of a convertible laptop [converts from a laptop to a tablet]. Smart phones and Google Glasses makes technology even more portable. We have come a very long way since the introduction of the iPad but we still have a long way to go with much research to conduct.




Eleanor CawleyEleanor Cawley is an occupational therapist with many years of experience in the pediatric sector and specifically in transitioning students from high school to post high school.  Much of her practice focuses on using technology when lower tech strategies fail to meet the needs of her students. She is the author of Using Rubrics to Monitor Outcomes in Occupational Therapy and The Student Interview.  You can read her work on her blog site and contact her at eleanorot@gmail.com.



 [1] http://www.pbs.org/about/news/archive/2013/teacher-tech-survey/
[2] http://www-tc.pbskids.org/read/files/cooney_learning_apps.pdf
[3] https://www.ed.psu.edu/pds/teacher-inquiry/2007/alexjinquiry0607.pdf
[4] http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12244516.htm
[5] http://www.statista.com/statistics/276623/number-of-apps-available-in-leading-app-stores/

Author: otchic

Hi! I am a pediatric occupational therapist with a passion for handwriting! I have dedicated my practice to the assessment and remediation of children's handwriting skills and the education of teachers and therapists in handwriting development and remedial strategies.

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