School & District Management What the Research Says

How Can Video-Conferenced Lessons Affect Learning for the Youngest Students?

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 07, 2020 4 min read

Preschool and early elementary teachers face some of the greatest unknowns when dealing with remote learners during the pandemic. There has been very little research on very young students learning remotely, but emerging research on video lessons could provide clues for educators working to stem learning loss.

One new analysis in the journal Child Development finds that children ages 6 and under scored, on average across tests and learning domains, half of a standard deviation higher if they had been taught information via face-to-face instruction compared to video. To put that in context, if young children learning through video performed at the 50th percentile on a given assessment, those learning in-person would be performing at the 69th percentile.

Researchers Gabrielle Strouse of the University of South Dakota and Jennifer Samson of Queens University of Charlotte analyzed the effects of video lessons on children ages 6 and younger across nearly 60 studies (though it did not look specifically at differences by children’s gender, race, or socio-economic backgrounds). While there has long been evidence that young children do not learn as much from video as face-to-face instruction, some research has suggested only infants and toddlers show a significant deficit from video.

The researchers found that while the video-learning deficit did shrink by about half for children over age 3, it remained significant, at about a quarter of a standard deviation learning loss for preschool-to-1st grade children. Strouse noted that there has been less research specifically on the effects of video instruction among preschool-through-grade 1 children—something likely to change as thousands of schools across the country are forced to grapple with remote learning in early grades

“I think that there are some things, like working memory skills, that play a role in how we take in and process and use information, and those things develop with age. And we also get better at dealing with learning obstacles,” Strouse said. “But there are also some conceptual obstacles in learning something in video and understanding how that transfers to the real world.

Some separate studies have suggested that children who see themselves interacting on a video may be better able to transfer what they learn on video to real life. But Strouse and Samson found children showed just as much of a learning gap from using live and pre-recorded video. And this and other studies also suggest that young and even older students and adults may interpret online learning tasks as “easier” than the same lessons in person and can tend to dedicate less effort to them.

“Early studies tended to have a one-way [video] feed, and they didn’t have back-and-forth communication between both parties; the person was demonstrating something that would be recorded and delivered to the child in real time, but they did not necessarily look for what the child was doing or making feedback,” Strouse said. “So it’s really, really different from the type of Skype and other video stuff that we have today. But we found that [modern interactive] video did not decrease the size of the deficit. ... I think that the jury is still out on video chat.”

There may be ways teachers can boost the effectiveness of video instruction, however. A separate 2016 study of slightly older students, ages 7 to 10, found that students learned significantly more from speech and language instruction when it was accompanied by gestures—and the benefit was significantly stronger for teachers on video than live. However, the study found no effect from using gestures in math instruction

Separate guidelines developed by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the director of the Infant Language laboratory at Temple University, and Jennifer Zosh, the director of the Brandywine Child Development Lab at Penn State University-Brandywine, recommend that for digital-based lessons and programs, educators should focus on “E-AIMS,” or content that is:

  • Engaging, which includes both interesting children in the material but also reducing distractions, such as excessive links or buttons on a screen that can capture a child’s attention.
  • Actively involves the child, in ways that are challenging enough that the child has to think and puzzle through questions or tasks;
  • Is meaningful, such as lessons that incorporate stories, familiar characters and activities from the child’s daily life; and
  • Social, incorporating time for the child to interact with peers and the teacher.

“Sometimes research on video deficits gets misinterpreted as saying young kids can’t learn from video, and that’s not the case,” Strouse said. “It’s just that they don’t learn as efficiently; maybe they will need more repetition or more practice in order to be able to overcome that difference. ... And at least for young children, having someone in the room with them who supports them, like a parent who helps them [while learning via video], can make a big difference.

A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2020 edition of Education Week as How Can Video-Conferenced Lessons Affect Learning for the Youngest Students?

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