September 25, 2013

Digital applications can enable or limit, say authors of ‘The App Generation’

News and Information

Cover of "The App Generation" by Howard Gardner and the UW's Katie Davis/There’s often “an app for that” these days, but for young people such digital shortcuts can be as limiting as they are convenient, says the University of Washington co-author of a new book titled “The App Generation.”

Katie Davis, assistant professor in the UW Information School, collaborated on the book with Harvard educator and author Howard Gardner. Their work, she said, asked the question, “How are kids today different from kids 20 years ago, and to what extent can we attribute those differences to digital media technologies?”

The researchers conducted extensive research and reviewed existing literature relating to important spheres of young people’s lives: identity, intimacy and imagination.

They interviewed about 200 young people in New England and Bermuda, held focus groups with educators and others with long experience working with youth, and spoke with 20 young women who had written blogs as teenagers. They also conducted in-depth analyses of fiction writing and artwork by middle and high school students over the last two decades, documenting changes content, structure and how the young writers and artists referred to technology.

“Our research points to the emergence of what we’re calling an ‘app mentality’ where young people increasingly come to see the world in terms of a collection of apps,” Davis said. To find information or communicate with peers, “they look toward technology first, embodied by the app as a central metaphor.”

But many apps are narrow in focus and scope, performing but a single, circumscribed task. Davis said young users can come to feel such “cut-and-dried,” app-provided answers are the only ones worth knowing, “and that the ones they can’t answer are maybe not worth asking.”

She said young users of technology can become “app-dependent” by relying too much on such narrowly focused tools. The authors propose striving instead to be “app-enabled” by choosing and using more flexible, open-ended digital tools that engage the imagination and encourage creative thinking.

“When one is app-enabled, technology is used as a springboard for new experiences,” Davis said. “It does not dictate the form these experiences take.”

The authors cite an app called “Digicubes” as an example of enabling rather than limiting its users. The app allows users to explore its world in their own style and toward their own ends. Gardner and Davis note, however, that even such open-ended apps can be used in limiting ways.

Davis also relates app-dependence to a trend that emerged in their adult focus groups, where educators pointed to a decrease in risk-taking behavior — “in putting yourself out there in relationships, in the comfort of exploring who you are.” Digital media may not be directly responsible for this trend, but the ease of filtering one’s actions and interactions through a screen, she said, can be seen to support it.

The question of enabling versus dependence-causing apps plays out in education as well, the authors note. Rather than encourage creativity and exploration, many early educational apps reflect the constrained, schoolroom-style inquiry of the pre-app era. Davis and Gardner view this as a missed opportunity in danger of becoming baked into the system for years to come.

“I think that overall this book is a call for us all to pause for a second and reflect on how we are using — and being used by — technology,” Davis said. “And then to figure out how to use technology to become the people we want to be.”

Gardner is a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Research for the book was funded by the James and Judith K. Dimon Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

The App Generation” will be published in October by Yale University Press.

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For more information, contact Davis at 206-221-7741 or kdavis78@uw.edu.

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