Fall 2022 Newsletter

Alumni Profile: Heather Kirkorian ‘07PhD

Heather Kirkorian smiling
Heather Kirkorian ‘07PhD

Improving childhood learning using interactive media

Heather Kirkorian, Laura M. Secord Chair in Early Childhood Development and Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison began her career as a developmental psychologist at UMass Amherst under the mentorship of Professor Emeritus Dan Anderson. They explored the effects of educational media on childhood learning and attention, seeking out ways to make programming more beneficial.

Kirkorian’s interest in education and psychology arose from personal experiences. “I had seen a lot of people close to me in my life struggle in school, and I thought there must be ways to make this experience easier for them or design learning in a way that is more inclusive,” she states.

For her dissertation, Kirkorian studied a group of participants made up of one-year-olds, four-year-olds, and adults as they watched an episode of Sesame Street. She used eyetracking, a technology that employs special video cameras and software to track eye movements. Kirkorian found that younger viewers had more scattered attention than adult viewers—there was more variation in what they looked at and it was harder to predict where they would look next. The results implied that infants and children observed and comprehended video differently than adults.

One of the most interesting collaborative projects she undertook at UMass partnered her with Anderson and John Richards from the University of South Carolina. The project examined how infants and toddlers pay attention to video, utilizing a measure of heart rate to assess their engagement level. The results indicated that children 18 and 24 months old (but not younger) engaged more with normal, comprehensible TV than a TV show that was scrambled. This study revealed that infants probably do not understand TV until at least 18 months old.  

Projects like these taught her to not be afraid to leverage new technology to gain a better understanding of how children learn. Her experience at UMass also gave her a lot of hands-on experience performing research with families and young children.

child points at icons on tablet screen

In Kirkorian’s Cognitive Development and Media Lab at UW–Madison, one avenue of her team’s research considers how children learn from in-person lessons versus video or interactive media like apps, games, and eBooks. The scientists test various types of touch screen interactivity to find out which types of experiences (e.g., videos versus games) are best for which children (e.g., those with more versus less media experience or working memory capacity).

In some studies, Kirkorian found that two-year-olds are more likely to learn from an interactive experience (like using a simple app) than an observational one (watching a video). There seems to be the potential for interactive media to teach young kids who might not be responding to video.

Kirkorian has also begun a new line of research focusing on family media ecology—the content and context of child and family media use. Her team is looking at how this ecology is associated with parental mental health and family well-being. Data is collected from participating parents through micro surveys completed several times a day, as well as more detailed time use diaries recorded at day’s end. The team also employs a passive sensing app to track how often and for how long smartphones are being used in the home.

The team is especially interested in the quality of media being used—for instance if educational TV or apps were used, and if the content was age-appropriate or made for adults. Another important factor is what is happening in the background as children are using media.

So, can interactive media be beneficial to childhood learning? “I think one of the big potentials for interactive media is that unlike television, it can be adaptive and personalized. There are efforts being made to track how well kids are doing, for example in an educational app, and adapt the level of difficulty or the type of lessons a child gets based on their history and prior knowledge,” says Kirkorian.

Heather working with a child on a tablet gameAdaptive technology can give teachers an effective way to create individualized plans for their students. This is a big change from one-size-fits-all lessons taught to an entire class.

One way educational tech can be particularly supportive is by bridging the gap from home to school. Making a game available to a child at home that compliments what they're doing in school can help them improve in certain subjects. Kirkorian notes that having a caregiver give tips and real-life examples to younger children during app use can greatly aid their comprehension, “making that connection from the kid’s life to what’s on the screen.”

But are apps for everyone? Kirkorian says initially children will need to develop a certain level of fine motor skill to complete touch gestures. Also, having a general familiarity with touch screens and continued practice with a particular app will give a child the experience they need to get the most out of it.

A child’s cognitive ability and cognitive control can also determine what type of lesson would best suit them. For instance, a child with poor inhibitory control may not have the patience to learn an interactive game. In this case, a video lesson might be more constructive while the child is still developing those cognitive skills. Kirkorian’s team found in several studies that the working memory capacity of the child predicts how well they learn from screens.

Overall, it can be very helpful to create a personalized plan for a child’s education. Matching needs at home with needs in the classroom can greatly enhance their learning.

Check out these resources for finding appropriate content for kids:

Common Sense Media

PBS Kids