1. Researchers pinpoint ‘attention disengagement’ lag as cause for impaired driving when talking on cell phone

    June 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Iowa press release:

    We all know that talking on a cell phone impedes your driving ability. But new research from the University of Iowa is helping us understand how even a simple conversation can affect your brain’s ability to focus on the roadway.

    UI researchers used computerized experiments that tracked eye movements while asking subjects to answer true or false questions. Respondents who answered the questions took about twice as long to direct their eyes to a new object on the screen than those not required to respond or who were asked no questions at all.

    The experiments mimic a scenario in which a driver is using a cell phone or having a conversation with a passenger, says Shaun Vecera, professor in the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and corresponding author on the paper, published online June 5 in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

    It’s the first study known to examine attentional disengagement as the possible cause of poor driving while using a cell phone.

    “What this study suggests is the reason you should be cautious (when talking on the phone while driving) is it slows your attention down, and we’re just not aware of it because it happens so fast,” Vecera says.

    The delay is about 40 milliseconds, or four-hundredths of a second, which may not seem like a long time. But that delay compounds: Every time the brain is distracted, the time to disengage from one action and initiate another action gets longer.

    “It’s a snowball effect,” Vecera says, “and that’s what contributes to the problem, because eventually you’re oblivious to a lot that’s around you.”

    There’s little dispute cell phone use — whether texting or talking — is hazardous for drivers. The U.S. National Highway Safety Administration reports that in 2015, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving drivers engaged in cell phone conversations, texting, and other distractions.

    That’s why a growing number of states — Iowa included — have either limited or banned some uses of a cell phone while driving.

    Research has demonstrated cell phone use reduces a driver’s field of vision, creating a cone-like field of view akin to tunnel vision. Other studies have suggested using a cell phone while driving places a mental burden, or “cognitive load,” on drivers, making them less likely to detect and react to the appearance of a new object.

    Vecera and his team wanted to explore why the brain was burdened with something as simple as having a conversation. After all, why would talking on the phone affect your ability to pay attention to the road?

    Engaging in conversation, whether on the phone or with someone in the vehicle, “seems effortless,” Vecera says. But it’s far more complex than one would think. The brain is absorbing information, overlaying what you know (and what you don’t), and then preparing to construct a thoughtful reply.

    “That’s all very effortful,” Vecera says. “We do it extremely rapidly — so rapidly we don’t grasp how difficult it really is.”

    In a study published in 2011 in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Vecera and colleagues documented that older adults with poorer mental and visual abilities took longer to switch their attention from one object to another than older adults with diminished vision only. In his current study, he hypothesized that younger, healthy individuals asked to answer questions while training their eyes on objects would mimic the older adults with cognitive decline.

    The experiment was simple enough. The participants answered a series of true or false questions, termed “active listening,” while researchers used high-speed cameras to track how rapidly their eyes located and fixed on a new object that appeared on a computer screen. Other groups either were asked a question but were not required to answer (“passive listening”) or were not asked a question.

    Among the simple questions was: “C-3P0 is the name of a tall golden robot, and he was in the popular film Star Wars.”

    Among the more difficult questions was: “The Magna Carta was written as a legal proclamation, subjecting the king to the law.”

    It took nearly 100 milliseconds, on average, for participants answering questions to disengage their vision from one object and locate and fixate their vision on a new object that appeared on the screen.

    “Active listening delays the disengagement of attention, which must occur before attention can be moved to a new object or event,” Vecera says.

    In addition, the eye movements of participants asked to answer both simple and difficult questions also lagged. Researchers believe that’s because the brain needs to be engaged when actively listening, no matter how elementary the topic of conversation.

    The solution? Don’t talk on the phone while driving, Vecera says.

    “There’s no evidence that I know of that says you can eliminate the mental distraction of cell phone use with practice or conditioning,” he says. “But that is an open question that should be studied.”

    Benjamin Lester, a UI graduate who majored in psychology and former post-doctoral research scholar at the UI, is the paper’s first author. The U.S. National Science Foundation and the Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center funded the research.


  2. Study finds internet withdrawal increases heart rate and blood pressure

    June 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Swansea University press release:

    Scientists and clinicians from Swansea and Milan have found that some people who use the internet a lot experience significant physiological changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure when they finish using the internet.

    The study involved 144 participants, aged 18 to 33 years, having their heart rate and blood pressure measured before and after a brief internet session. Their anxiety and self-reported internet-addiction were also assessed. The results showed increases in physiological arousal on terminating the internet session for those with problematically-high internet usage. These increases in heart rate and blood pressure were mirrored by increased feelings of anxiety. However, there were no such changes for participants who reported no internet-usage problems.

    The study, published in the international peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE, is the first controlled-experimental demonstration of physiological changes as a result of internet exposure.

    The study lead, Professor Phil Reed, of Swansea University, said: “We have known for some time that people who are over-dependent on digital devices report feelings of anxiety when they are stopped from using them, but now we can see that these psychological effects are accompanied by actual physiological changes.”

    There was an average 3-4% increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and in some cases double that figure, immediately on termination of internet use, compared to before using it, for those with digital-behaviour problems. Although this increase is not enough to be life-threatening, such changes can be associated with feelings of anxiety, and with alterations to the hormonal system that can reduce immune responses. The study also suggested that these physiological changes and accompanying increases in anxiety indicate a state like withdrawal seen for many ‘sedative’ drugs, such as alcohol, cannabis, and heroin, and this state may be responsible for some people’s need to re-engage with their digital devices to reduce these unpleasant feelings.

    Dr. Lisa Osborne, a clinical researcher and co-author of the study, said: “A problem with experiencing physiological changes like increased heart rate is that they can be misinterpreted as something more physically threatening, especially by those with high levels of anxiety, which can lead to more anxiety, and more need to reduce it.”

    The authors go on to speculate that internet use is driven by more than just the short-term excitement or joy of the technology, but that over-use can produce negative physiological and psychological changes that may drive people back onto the internet, even when they do not want to engage.

    Professor Reed said: “The individuals in our study used the internet in a fairly typical way, so we are confident that many people who over-use the internet could be affected in the same way. However, there are groups who use the internet in other ways, like gamers, perhaps to generate arousal, and the effects of stopping use on their physiology could be different — this is yet to be established.”

    Professor Roberto Truzoli of Milan University, a co-author of the study, added: “Whether problematic internet use turns out to be an addiction — involving physiological and psychological withdrawal effects — or whether compulsions are involved that do not necessitate such withdrawal effects — is yet to be seen, but these results seem to show that, for some people, it is likely to be an addiction.”

    The study also found that the participants spent an average of 5 hours a day on the internet, with 20% spending over 6 hours a day using the internet. Additionally, over 40% of the sample reported some level of internet-related problem — acknowledging that they spend too much time online. There was no difference between men and women in the tendency to show internet addiction. By far the most common reasons for engaging with digital devices were digital communication media (‘social media’) and shopping.

    Previous studies by this group, and many others, have shown short-term increases in self-reported anxiety when digitally-dependent people have their digital devices removed, and longer-term increases in their depression and loneliness, as well as changes to actual brain structures and capability to fight infections in some.

    Professor Phil Reed said: “The growth of digital communication media is fuelling the rise of ‘internet’ use, especially for women. There is now a large amount of evidence documenting the negative effects of overuse on people’s psychology, neurology, and now, in this study, on their physiology. Given this, we have to see a more responsible attitude to the marketing of these products by firms — like we have seen for alcohol and gambling.”


  3. Can parents’ tech obsessions contribute to a child’s bad behavior?

    June 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan Medicine – University of Michigan press release:

    Fatigue. Hunger. Boredom.

    Those are often on the list of reasons parents mention if their child whines, has tantrums or acts out.

    Researchers are now asking if such negative behaviors could be related to something else: parents spending too much time on their smartphones or tablets.

    A small study from University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Illinois State University found that heavy digital technology use by parents could be associated with child behavior issues. The findings were published in the May 2017 online issue of Child Development.

    Researchers analyzed surveys completed separately by both mothers and fathers from 170 two-parent households. Mothers and fathers were asked about their use of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other technology — and how the devices disrupted family time (a disturbance that lead author Brandon T. McDaniel coins ‘technoference.’) Interruptions could be as simple as checking phone messages during mealtime, playtime and routine activities or conversations with their children.

    Might a few stolen moments used to check a couple text messages have a deeper effect?

    While more research is needed, the study suggests it might: Even low or seemingly normal amounts of tech-related interruption were associated with greater child behavior problems, such as oversensitivity, hot tempers, hyperactivity and whining.

    “This was a cross-sectional study, so we can’t assume a direct connection between parents’ technology use and child behavior but these findings help us better understand the relationship,” says senior author Jenny Radesky, M.D., a child behavior expert and pediatrician at Mott. “It’s also possible that parents of children with behavioral difficulties are more likely to withdraw or de-stress with technology during times with their child.”

    But she adds “We know that parents’ responsiveness to their kids changes when they are using mobile technology and that their device use may be associated with less-than-ideal interactions with their children. It’s really difficult to toggle attention between all of the important and attention-grabbing information contained in these devices, with social and emotional information from our children, and process them both effectively at the same time.”

    McDaniel, who designed and carried out the study, says researchers hope to learn more about the impact of increasing digital technology use on families and children.

    “Research on the potential impact of this exposure lags far behind,” says McDaniel, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University.

    “It’s too early to draw implications that could be used in clinical practice but our findings contribute to growing literature showing an association between greater digital technology use and potential relationship dysfunction between parents and their children.”

    Parents in the study were asked to rate how problematic their personal device use was based on how difficult it was for them to resist checking new messages, how frequently they worried about calls and texts and if they thought they used their phones too much.

    Participants also were asked how often phones, tablets, computers and other devices diverted their attention when otherwise engaged with their children.

    On average, mothers and fathers both perceived about two devices interfering in their interactions with their child at least once or more on a typical day. Mothers, however, seemed to perceive their phone use as more problematic than fathers did.

    About half (48 percent) of parents reported technology interruptions three or more times on a typical day while 17 percent said it occurred once and 24 percent said it happened twice a day. Only 11 percent said no interruptions occurred.

    Parents then rated child behavior issues within the past two months by answering questions about how often their children whined, sulked, easily got frustrated, had tantrums or showed signs of hyperactivity or restlessness.

    The researchers controlled for multiple factors, such as parenting stress, depressive symptoms, income, parent education as well as co-parenting quality (how supportive partners were of each other in parenting their child), which has been shown to predict child behavior.

    The study joins other research and advocacy groups contributing to a larger debate about technology and its effect on child development.

    Some professional societies, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Zero to Three, recommend “unplugged” family time. But they haven’t tested whether lessening or changing digital technology use during parent-child activities is associated with improved child behavior.

    McDaniel and Radesky advise parents to try to carve out designated times to put away the devices and focus all attention on their kids.

    Reserving certain times of the day or locations as being technology-free — such as mealtime or playtime right after work — may help ease family tensions caused by the modern blurring of outside worlds with home life, they say.

    “Parents may find great benefits from being connected to the outside world through mobile technology, whether that’s work, social lives or keeping up with the news. It may not be realistic, nor is it necessary, to ban technology use all together at home,” Radesky says. “But setting boundaries can help parents keep smartphones and other mobile technology from interrupting quality time with their kids.”


  4. Consumers see much greater risk than reward in online ads

    May 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release:

    Personalized ads now follow us around the web, their content drawn from tracking our online activity. The ad industry has suggested we’re OK with it — that we see benefits roughly equal to perceived risks.

    A study by University of Illinois advertising professor Chang-Dae Ham says otherwise, suggesting the industry may want to reconsider its approach.

    The perception of risk is much stronger than the perception of benefit,” Ham found in surveying 442 college students on how they coped with what is known as online behavioral advertising. “That drives them to perceive more privacy concern, and finally to avoid the advertising,” he said.

    The study appears in the May issue of the International Journal of Advertising.

    Previous studies have looked at various aspects of OBA, but Ham said his is the first to investigate the interaction of various psychological factors — or mediating variables — behind how people respond to it and why they might avoid ads.

    “The response to OBA is very complicated,” he said. “The ad avoidance is not explained just by one or two factors; I’m arguing here that five or six factors are influencing together.”

    Ham examined not only interactions related to risk, benefit and privacy, but also self-efficacy (sense of control); reactance (reaction against perceived restrictions on freedom); and the perceived personalization of the ads.

    He also looked at the effect of greater and lesser knowledge among participants about how online behavioral advertising works. Those with greater perceived knowledge were likely to see greater benefits, but also greater risk, he found. Similar to those with little perceived understanding, they tilted strongly toward privacy concerns and avoiding ads.

    Ham’s study of online behavioral advertising follows from his interest in all forms of hidden persuasion, and his previous research has looked at product placement, user-generated YouTube videos and advergames. But OBA is “a very special type,” he said, in that it elicits risk perceptions and privacy concerns different from those in response to those other forms.

    The study conclusions could have added significance, Ham said, because research has shown that college-age individuals, like those in his study pool, are generally less concerned about privacy than those in older age groups.

    If his findings are an accurate reflection of consumer attitudes, Ham said they could represent “a really huge challenge to the advertising industry” since online behavioral advertising represents a growing segment of advertising revenue.

    Ham thinks advertisers, in their own interest, may want to make the process more transparent and controllable. “They need to educate consumers, they need to clearly disclose how they track consumers’ behavior and how they deliver more-relevant ad messages to them,” he said.

    Giving consumers control is important because it might keep them open to some personalized online advertising, rather than installing tools like ad blockers, in use by almost 30 percent of online users in the U.S., he said.

    With little understanding of online behavioral advertising, and no easy way to control it, “they feel a higher fear level than required, so they just block everything.”

    It’s all the more important because the technology is only getting better and more accurate, Ham said. Tracking systems “can even infer where I’m supposed to visit tomorrow, where I haven’t visited yet.”


  5. Customized, frequent emails show promise in aiding tobacco cessation

    May 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Cancer Society press release:

    Smokers who received frequent, tailored emails with quitting tips, motivational messages, and social support had cessation rates rivaling that of the most effective medication available for cessation, according to a new American Cancer Society study. The study appears in Tobacco Control.

    New communication technologies have the potential to provide more cheaply the same kinds of social and other support that have previously proven effective in tobacco cessation. Telephone counselling has been shown to be effective for treating tobacco dependence, but its reach is low. Other modalities using internet and smartphone technologies to deliver evidence-based cessation treatment at the population level have begun to expand and have shown promise.

    For the new research, authors studied the use of email, which has the advantage of being read daily or near-daily by most individuals. Email can also provide substantial content within the email, eliminating the need to access a specific website, and with the popularity of mobile phones and tablets, can be read on the go. Emails can also be tailored to address unique characteristics of the recipient.

    To explore whether emails could be effective in cessation, researchers led by J. Lee Westmaas, Ph.D., strategic director of tobacco control research at the American Cancer Society, recruited 1,070 smokers who were planning to quit. They were randomly assigned to receive one of three email protocols: 27 tailored cessation emails; 3 to 4 tailored emails with links to downloadable booklets; or a single non-tailored email. All emails included links to quitting resources. To measure success, abstinence was assessed one, three, and six months post-enrollment by asking whether participants had smoked in the previous seven days.

    Across all three follow-up times, the mean abstinence rate was highest for smokers getting the custom emails (34%), followed by receiving three or four emails (30.8%), and a single email (25.8%). Results were independent of baseline cigarettes per day, interest in quitting, whether there was a fellow smoker in household, and the use of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) or varenicline, a drug also approved for smoking cessation.

    “The overall quit rate for the main intervention group is about equivalent to the abstinence rates achieved by the most effective medication for cessation,” said Dr. Westmaas. “It appears that the personalization in the emails and their frequency – initially every day then tapering off — gave people the assurance that someone cared about them, and wanted them to succeed. They were receiving daily or nearly-daily guidance about how to deal with issues that come up in their quit attempt, made possible by a relatively simple computer tailoring algorithm.”

    Dr. Westmaas believes the program can be adapted to target particular groups that show disparities in smoking and the health effects of smoking, and plan to conduct a pilot study to help guide an intervention aimed at low socioeconomic status smokers, a group with higher smoking rates.


  6. Building a better ‘bot’: Artificial intelligence helps human groups

    May 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Yale University press release:

    Wireframe head and printed circuit. Digital illustration

    Artificial intelligence doesn’t have to be super-sophisticated to make a difference in people’s lives, according to a new Yale University study. Even “dumb AI” can help human groups.

    In a series of experiments using teams of human players and robotic AI players, the inclusion of “bots” boosted the performance of human groups and the individual players, researchers found. The study appears in the May 18 edition of the journal Nature.

    “Much of the current conversation about artificial intelligence has to do with whether AI is a substitute for human beings. We believe the conversation should be about AI as a complement to human beings,” said Nicholas Christakis, co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science (YINS) and senior author of the study. Christakis is a professor of sociology, ecology & evolutionary biology, biomedical engineering, and medicine at Yale.

    The study adds to a growing body of Yale research into the complex dynamics of human social networks and how those networks influence everything from economic inequality to group violence.

    In this case, Christakis and first author Hirokazu Shirado conducted an experiment involving an online game that required groups of people to coordinate their actions for a collective goal. The human players also interacted with anonymous bots that were programmed with three levels of behavioral randomness — meaning the AI bots sometimes deliberately made mistakes. In addition, sometimes the bots were placed in different parts of the social network. More than 4,000 people participated in the experiment, which used a Yale-developed software called breadboard.

    “We mixed people and machines into one system, interacting on a level playing field,” Shirado explained. “We wanted to ask, ‘Can you program the bots in simple ways?’ and does that help human performance?”

    The answer to both questions is yes, the researchers said.

    Not only did the inclusion of bots aid the overall performance of human players, it proved particularly beneficial when tasks became more difficult, the study found. The bots accelerated the median time for groups to solve problems by 55.6%.

    Furthermore, the researchers said, the experiment showed a cascade effect of improved performance by humans in the study. People whose performance improved when working with the bots subsequently influenced other human players to raise their game.

    The findings are likely to have implications for a variety of situations in which people interact with AI technology, according to Christakis and Shirado.

    For instance, there may be an extended period in which human drivers share roadways with autonomous cars. Likewise, military scenarios may include more operations in which human soldiers work in tandem with AI. There also are myriad possibilities for online situations pairing humans with AI tech.

    “There are many ways in which the future is going to be like this,” Christakis said. “The bots can help humans to help themselves.”


  7. Study suggests economic status and reactions to issues may be inferred from position in social networks

    May 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the City College of New York press release:

    New big-data analytics by a City College of New York-led team suggests that both an individual’s economic status and how they are likely to react to issues and policies can be inferred by their position in social networks. The study could be useful in maximizing the effects of large-scale economic stimulus policies.

    A team led by City College physicist Hern´an A. Makse was legally granted access to two massive big datasets: all the phone calls of the entire population of Mexico for three months and the banking information of a subset of people. All the data, approximately 110 million phone calls and 500,000 bank clients, was anonymous with no names.

    “It is commonly believed that patterns of social ties affect individuals’ economic status, said Makse, whose research interest includes the theoretical understanding of complexity. “We analyzed these two large-scale sources — the telecommunications and financial data of a whole country’s population. Our results showed that an individual’s location, measured as the optimal collective influence to the structural integrity of the social network, is highly correlated with personal economic status.”

    The social network patterns of influence observed mimicked the patterns of economic inequality. For pragmatic use and validation, Makse and his colleagues carried out a marketing campaign that showed a three-fold increase in response rate by targeting individuals identified by their social network metrics as compared to random targeting.


  8. Live interactions with robots increase their perceived human likeness

    May 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the International Communication Association press release:

    Most human interactions with robots come from behind a screen. Whether it’s fiction or a real-life interaction, rarely are we put face to face with a robot. This poses a significant barrier when we look towards a future where robots will be part of our everyday lives. How do we break down this barrier? A recent study by researchers at the University of Koblenz-Landau, University of Wurzburg, and Arts Electronica Futurelab, found that people who watched live interactions with a robot were more likely to consider the robot to have more human-like qualities.

    Constanze Schreiner (University of Koblenz-Landau), Martina Mara (Ars Electronica Futuerlab), and Markus Appel (University of Wurzburg) will present their findings at the 67th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in San Diego, CA. Using a Roboy robot, participants observed one of three experimental human robot interactons (HRI); either in real life, in virtual reality (VR) on a 3D screen, or on a 2D screen. The scripted HRI between Roboy and the human technician was 4:25 minutes long. During that time, participants saw Roboy assisting the human in organizing appointments, conducting web searches and finding a birthday present for his mom.

    The data analyzed revealed that observing a live interaction or alternatively encountering the robot in a VR lead to more perceived realness. Furthermore, the kind of presentation influenced perceived human-likeness. Participants who observed a real HRI reported the highest perceived human-likeness. Particularly interesting is that participants who were introduced to Roboy in VR perceived the robot as less human-like than participants who watched a live HRI, whereas these two groups did not differentiate in regard of perceived realness.

    Usually, experimental studies interested in HRI and participants’ evaluations of humanoid service robots — due to limited resources — need to fall back on video stimuli. This is the first study using participants’ evaluations of a humanoid service robot when observed either on a 2D video, in 3D virtual reality, or in real life.

    “Many people will have their first encounter with a service robot over the next decade. Service robots are designed to communicate with humans in humanlike ways and assist them in various aspects of their daily routine. Potential areas of application range from hospitals and nursing homes to hotels and the users’ households,” said Schreiner. “To date, however, most people still only know such robots from the Internet or TV and are still skeptical about the idea of sharing their personal lives with robots, especially when it comes to machines of highly human-like appearance.”

    “When R2-D2 Hops off the Screen: A Service Robot Encountered in Real Life Appears More Real and Humanlike Than on Video or in VR,” by Constanze Schreiner, Martina Mara, and Markus Appel; to be presented at the 67th Annual International Communication Association Conference, San Diego, CA, 25-29 May 2017.


  9. International study suggests social media behaviour is influenced by culture

    May 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Vaasa press release:

    Even though we think ourselves as global citizens, we still differ in terms of how we behave online and what motivates our behavior online. A new doctoral study in the field of international marketing by Agnieszka Chwialkowska from the University of Vaasa, Finland, reveals that the cultural values and practices are still very much influencing the way consumers use different social media platforms when engaging with their favourite companies.

    Chwialkowska has compared social media sharing, liking, commenting and tagging in Finland, Poland and United States.

    “The consumers in the United States use company social media content to express themselves and enhance their image, whereas Finnish and Polish customers engage with company content that helps them keep in touch with their friends, and thus mainly share content that will benefit their connections,” says Agnieszka Chwialkowska.

    The consumers in Finland, Poland and the United States differed also in their engagement methods. While Finns and Poles were merely just clicking “like” and “share,” the U.S. respondents were also tagging and commenting. All in all, the U.S. consumers were engaging with company social media content more frequently than respondents in the other two countries.

    The age does not matter

    Chwialkowska studied both young generation of social media users and working professionals and debunked the myth that older consumers use social media differently. Her research shows that while users above 30 years old use social media less frequently, spent less time there, and have generally less online connections than young adolescents, the key motivations underlying their online behaviors remain the same.

    Chwialkowska’s research offers many implications for companies present on social media. Knowing users’ motivations helps them better understand their responses to marketing communication and design the content that consumers will be willing to share with their online friends.


  10. How Pokémon GO can help students build stronger communication skills

    May 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Iowa State University press release:

    Technology continues to change the way students learn and engage with their peers, parents and community. That is why Emily Howell, an assistant professor in Iowa State University’s School of Education, is working with teachers to develop new ways to incorporate digital tools in the classroom, including playing games such as Pokémon GO.

    The focus of Howell’s work is two-fold — to give students equitable access to technology and help them build multimodal communication skills. That means not only using technology to consume information or replace traditional classroom tools, but experimenting with new forms of communication, she said. Instead of having students read a book on a tablet or use the computer to type an assignment, they need to learn how to create and upload videos or build graphics and maps to convey their message.

    Howell’s suggestion of having students play Pokémon GO to build these skills may seem a bit unconventional. However, after playing the smartphone game with her own children, she saw how it could help students with writing and research in ways that align with Common Core standards. Howell says engaging students through Pokémon GO, a game many are already playing outside the classroom, also generates interest and connects students to their work.

    “It is important to give students authentic choices that really have meaning in their lives,” Howell said. “We need to encourage them to develop questions, research the answers and then share that information in writing.”

    For example, a common assignment is to have elementary students write an essay on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — a task students can easily explain, but not a genuine question many have, Howell said. Pokémon GO, like many video games, provides players with limited information or what Howell describes as “just in time learning.” As a result, players have questions about how to use certain tools or advance to the next level.

    Playing the game with her own children, Howell watched their enthusiasm in researching and finding the answers to these questions. They were even more excited to share their knowledge with her and their grandmother, who was also playing the game. In a paper published in the journal The Reading Teacher, Howell explains how teachers can have students identify questions about Pokémon GO, find the answers and present their findings in different formats.

    Using different modes of communication

    Pokémon GO incorporates different modes of communication — gestures, visuals and directions — which makes it a good fit for the classroom, Howell said. Players see the character on their phone, the character is integrated into a map and the player controls catching the character. Pokémon GO illustrates the need to understand multimodal text, which reflects how we communicate with others, she said.

    “We don’t just send a text or email; we have a live chat or video conferences. Anytime teachers can find something that students are already doing, and comes in multimodal form, they can harness that interest and teach students about the tool’s potential,” Howell said.

    Even more than conventional tools such as a paper and pen, teachers must provide a framework for using digital tools. Howell says students need to understand conventional literacy skills, but also learn how to upload files or design elements on a page that are not in a linear progression.

    “It’s not just giving students the technology and letting them play, it’s really guiding that interaction so they can express meaning,” Howell said.

    Providing a safe, online forum

    To make the assignment even more authentic, Howell suggests giving students an outlet to share their work with people outside of the classroom. Many school districts create secure, online platforms where students can share work with family and friends and receive feedback. Knowing that others will view their work helps students develop writing styles for different audiences, not just their teacher, Howell said.

    “It makes the assignment more authentic and helps with motivation and understanding the purpose for writing,” she said. “It has academic as well as social benefits.”

    Howell received a grant from the Center for Educational Transformation at the University of Northern Iowa to help elementary teachers in Iowa integrate technology into their writing lessons. The goal is to engage students in writing so that they are using digital tools to create content, rather than strictly consume information.