Expert views : ‘i’ or ‘nay’

THE iPad may be well on its ascent to the education hall of fame, but Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng, the president of Malaysia’s Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Council, is not buying into the trend.   “I’m a little concerned when I see young children using the iPad as so little research has been done on the amount of radiation they are exposed to while using one. I have seen young children reading from it, but I think they’re interested simply because it is a novelty to them. I’m not sure if it really facilitates the learning process,” Dr Chiam says, adding that she certainly prefers more traditional modes like books.   “The over-dependence on gadgets defines the limits of social development in children. The real danger is when we think that such tools can replace parents and people,” warns the head of the ECCE Council under the Government’s Economic Transformation Programme.   She argues that technology lacks the human factor that is crucial for child development. “Research has shown that in order for neurons (an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information by electrical and chemical signalling) to connect, physical interaction between human beings has to occur. Electrical devices do not produce the same effect.   “Another thing is, you can’t get facial expressions from a virtual device; facial expressions actually help promote the connection of neurons, which support brain development,” she explains.   Though she disagrees with utilising the iPad as a learning tool for children, Dr Chiam acknowledges its positive effects. “It does support the cognitive development in children although it fails to address other areas such as the physical, social and emotional aspects. Parents should make it a point to spend time with their kids to ensure a more holistic development.”   A simulated environment is also unhealthy for the physical development of kids, she reminds. “When a pseudo-environment takes the place of real-life activities that entail physical interaction and imagination, physical development is compromised.”   Yen Seaw Yoke, the principal of UCMAS, a Kuala Lumpur-based education facility that specialises in programmes that support children’s brain development in abacus and mental arithmetic, also prefers more conventional learning tools.   Yen, who deals with children aged three to six, says: “Children typically learn the alphabet at ages three to four and start to understand full sentences from four to five.”   She does not encourage using the iPad as a learning facility. She reckons it lacks the human touch. “For example, there is no one to correct them if they make any mistakes. It’s also bad for the eyes. Books make better learning materials for young kids.”   At her centre, Yen uses placards and projectors with her pupils. They have computer lessons once a week.   Sarah Tan, principal of Madeleine Kindergarten in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, has a different take on the subject.   “I think any method or instrument that can interest kids in learning is a good thing. An iPad would, of course, interest most kids to see what is being taught,” she says.   The preschool for children aged between three and six conducts lessons with the SMART Board, an interactive wide-screen whiteboard with multi-touch capabilities.   “It’s akin to a giant iPad that lets us do stuff like write notes and put up pictures. I think getting them to deal with technology at a young age is a good start for the children in these technology-driven times,” she notes.   But Tan admits that she isn’t sure about the long-term effects of using electronic gadgets such as the iPad. “It is not entirely affordable for all families. Plus, kids can become more demanding and that can be a burden to the family.”   Educational psychologist Kenneth Phun Thean Ming, who is the head of the psychology department and senior lecturer from the Faculty of Behavioural Sciences at HELP University College, Kuala Lumpur, is optimistic about the iPad’s role as a viable learning instrument.   “The iPad is a wonderful vehicle that infuses fun with learning. The magnitude of interactive apps that have been created for educational purposes also stimulates the learning process because it offers a multi-sensorial experience for the learner,” he explains.   “Toddlers are generally able to recognise symbols and understand that they represent specific meanings, by age two to three. But the learning process is also influenced by mental and emotional factors.   “The level and duration of engagement they have with their learning materials or techniques enhance the learning experience so it is possible for children to learn faster if they are constantly engaged in something they find enjoyable.”   Phun believes that engaging the use of sophisticated learning facilities at a young age offers an early foray into the world of technology, which is a skill that no child can do without in this day and age.   But he hastens to add that “uncontrolled usage of any electrical device can lead to possible addiction problems as well as vision-related deficiencies due to poor viewing habits”.   “It can also lead to an over-reliance on technology, which shuts out interaction with the ‘real’ world. As such, this could result in alienation from society and exacerbate social dysfunction.”   With its plethora of kid-friendly apps, the iPad, without a doubt, makes a nifty, easy-learning facility whose interactive and glossy audio-visual features are among its selling points.   But as the adage “every rose has its thorn” goes, it is worth noting the limitations and potential perils the iPad could pose, especially in areas concerning the physical and social development of young children.   In the case of electronic device usage, parents would do well to remember that too much of a good thing can sometimes be bad … as Albus Dumbledore of Harry Potter fame says: “Use it wisely.”