Children in the cloud: Literacy groupware and the practice of reading
First Monday

Children in the cloud: Literacy groupware and the practice of reading by Eric M. Meyers, Lisa P. Nathan, and Casey Stepaniuk



Abstract
Through this paper we examine children’s literacy groupware, cloud-based reading management systems that combine digital reading collections with behaviour tracking and analysis, communication tools, and reader incentives. Children’s literacy groupware extends the notion of a digital library for children by providing value-added tools for teaching, monitoring, evaluating and encouraging young readers. We offer an analysis of two for-profit app-based systems that provide reading content and instruction for elementary age children in the United States and Canada. We question the influence of these systems on the practice of reading. How do systems for managing engagement with digital texts frame reading practice: the what, where, when and how of reading, including behaviours, attitudes and dispositions toward the practice itself?

Contents

Introduction
Positionality
Literature review
Children’s digital reading
Children’s books in the cloud: An evolution
Reading practices
Method
Findings
Raz-Kids: Reading for mastery and comprehension
Epic! Reading for pleasure
Discussion: Raz-Kids and Epic!
The quantified child reader
The isolation of personalization
Shifting responsibility
More of the same: Large homogenous collections
Generative ideas for designing practices
Reading practice as flexible
Reading practice as exploration
Reading practice as social and community driven
Reading practice localized
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Eight-year-old Nafiza skips home from school, grabs her mother’s iPad and heads to her room to start some homework before dinner. She logs in to her class reading system and selects the next book in her reading series. She first listens as the book app recites the text to her, then she reads the story independently. These two activities add 60 points to her “Stars” account. She completes a short comprehension quiz earning 150 more points. She selects the “Stars” section of the reading app and uses her new points to purchase adornments for her robot. After 15 minutes of browsing and comparing robot swag she decides upon a 300–point “nacho chip hat” filled with bright green guacamole. Finally, she reads the book aloud into the tablet microphone and sends the recording to her teacher, Mr. Hernandez. The next morning, Mr. Hernandez listens to Nafiza’s recording, checks her score on the comprehension quiz, and compares the amount of time she spent on the book and the time spent in the incentive area choosing robot bling. Mr. Hernandez can see that she is improving her comprehension quiz scores and is progressing well relative to her classmates. He advances Nafiza to the next reading level, but he is concerned that she spends the majority of her time in the system adorning her robot. He sends an encouraging note to Nafiza and one to her parents that reads, “Nafiza, Keep up the good reading work!” He decides not to mention the “guac hat”.

While the above scenario may not resemble the way you learned to read, it describes contemporary cloud-based reading instruction for many elementary age children in the United States and Canada. Raz-Kids (www.raz-kids.com), Epic! (www.getepic.com), and similar subscription reading services represent an emerging genre of children’s literacy groupware systems: cloud-based reading management software that combines collections of digital reading materials (including e-books, read-to-me books, and audiobooks) with behaviour tracking and analysis, communication tools, and reader incentives. Literacy groupware extends the notion of a “digital library” for children by providing value-added tools for teaching, monitoring, evaluating and encouraging young readers. The systems enable adult stakeholders (e.g., teachers, parents, caregivers) to manage the reading activities of anywhere from one to dozens of children simultaneously. With an increase in technology access at school and in the home, these systems are approaching widespread use in Canada and the United States. Raz-Kids calculates that over four billion books have been read using their system at home or in school (www.raz-kids.com). Epic! reports that their platform is used in over 70 percent of U.S. elementary schools (Maughan, 2016).

This paper reports on our inquiry into literacy groupware systems and raises critical questions concerning the influence of these systems on the practice of reading. This conceptual study is the first phase of a larger investigation of “child labour in the cloud” that is exploring how the use of networked, digital information systems that track the daily activities of children are influencing children’s practices in school and home environments, including reading, play, exploration, and socialization. The question we are interested in for this paper is not whether print or digital texts or collections of texts are “better” for reading. Rather, through this inquiry we ask how systems for managing engagement with digital texts mediate reading practice: the what, where, when and how of reading, including behaviours, attitudes and dispositions toward the practice itself. We focus on commercially available, digital reading systems targeted at nascent readers, children who are developing habits of textual engagement that may influence the course of their lives. Previous studies suggest that the mere presence of books in the home is an indicator of future school readiness (Woessmann, 2008), and that exposure to words is one of the key predictors of early literacy success (Hart and Risley, 2003). For these reasons, and many others, we argue that understanding the emerging role of literacy groupware systems in the life of the developing reader is a pressing area of concern.

 

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Positionality

This paper is written from the perspective of white, temporarily able-bodied, North Americans living in Canada. Two authors are faculty at a research university, one specializing in children and life-wide literacies, the other specializing in ethics and contemporary information practices. The third author is a graduate student, with a particular interest in reading, diversity, and children and teens. While our exploration of these systems is undeniably linked to our research and scholarly work, it is also tied to our family and community interests. A year and a half ago two of the authors received a notice from their child’s kindergarten teacher announcing that the entire classroom was participating in a literacy groupware system based out of the United States. Our dissatisfying search through the system interface to find answers to our initial questions motivated us to undertake this study.

 

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Literature review

To understand how literacy groupware systems affect reading practice we began by searching the scholarly literature for research in this area (education, educational technology, HCI, information science). We illustrate in this review that literacy groupware is the logical successor to twenty years of development in the area of children’s digital reading, first as stand-alone software, then as digital collections or libraries of reading materials, then as multi-touch, enhanced reading experiences, then as social platforms that aggregate and quantify both reading and the reader.

 

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Children’s digital reading

The majority of research on digital reading focuses on differences between physical formats (i.e., print vs. digital), often attempting to discern whether reading on screen vs paper affects reading skills (i.e., decoding: vocabulary, grammar and syntax) (e.g., Smeet and Bus, 2012) as well as changes to the learner acquired while engaging with text (i.e., the reading brain: comprehension, navigation, sustained attention) (e.g., Jabr, 2013). These are important questions as we integrate digital reading with the many literacy acts we engage in everyday, including reading news headlines, signage, cereal boxes, books and the myriad other places where text is found. That all reading will be digital is not likely anytime soon, while the e-reader and tablet markets are burgeoning (Zickuhr and Rainie, 2014), the print publishing industry still enjoys considerable success (Hyrkin, 2015).

What we have seen are dramatic changes to reading on screen in the last decade, yet the effects of those changes are still largely unknown. What research has indicated to date, is that e-readers are both influenced by and influencing what it means to engage in reading practice. As one example, consider the act of scrolling which is common with longer digital texts. Research suggests that scrolling is cognitively draining and leads to losses in deep processing and comprehension (Jabr, 2013). In the research literature on children’s reading, researchers focus significant attention on the efficacy of book apps compared to print books or less interactive e-books (Chiong, et al., 2012; Moody, 2010; Roskos, et al., 2011; Schons, 2011). Recent surveys of this research conclude that the book apps themselves can be highly engaging for young readers, but whether they are better or worse than other types of reading material depends almost entirely on the design of the book and the way in which the book is mediated (Smeets and Bus, 2015; 2013; 2012). In other words, how and when book apps are used — reading practices — influence the quality of reading experiences with new book formats. Research also suggests that enhanced e-books may have positive or negative affects for different kinds of users (Baird and Henninger, 2011; Kanatsouli, 2013; Yokota and Teale, 2014) and touch-screen interaction can offer opportunities as well as challenges for child users (McKnight and Fitton, 2010). For example, English Language Learners, or non-neural normative children, i.e., those on the Autism spectrum, may benefit from some interactive features (Hourcade, et al., 2012) while for other readers the non-narrative elements may detract from reading comprehension (Al-Yaqout, 2011; Bird, 2011; Buckleitner, et al., 2013; Chiong, et al., 2012; Itzkovitch, 2012).

 

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Children’s books in the cloud: An evolution

Our contemporary understanding of children’s e-book reading is conditioned by several decades of scholarship on the digital picturebook. With the development of Web-accessible content aggregation and delivery at scale in the late 1990s, digital libraries emerged as an alternative to individual CD picturebooks such as Brøderbund”s Living Books® and other animated e-book formats that were remediating the print picturebook for digital distribution (Unsworth, 2006).

Over the past 15 years, Druin, Bederson and colleagues have developed the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL), a project intended to make a broad array of texts for young people from many cultures and languages accessible via the Web and mobile devices (Druin, et al., 2001; Hutchinson, et al., 2007; Hutchinson, et al., 2006). The ICDL project pioneered new ways of organizing and retrieving children’s material within an online digital collection. The project has demonstrated the value of diverse materials to developing readers, leveraging its international collection of children’s books and drawing insights as to the unique ways in which young people conceptualize reading on the screen. This work further contributed to the field by valuing the child’s perspective on the development of system features as well as developing a role for the child-co-designer in the creation of reading interfaces (Druin, 2005; 2002). Several commercial interfaces for interactive reading have followed the lead of the ICDL, including Tumblebooks (www.tumblebooklibrary.com), an e-book reading collection adopted by public and school libraries across North America. The majority of these systems are subscription-based digital collections that increase the availability and choice of e-books for readers through consortial licensing and electronic distribution.

With the emergence of the iPad and similar networked, multi-touch tablets after 2010, e-books further evolved into book “apps”, an enhanced e-reading genre that incorporates animation, narration, games and other interactive components for a rich, multimodal picturebook experience. Designed for mobile operating systems, these stand-alone apps are software at their core, not simply a new document format (Itzkovitch, 2012; Sesame Workshop, 2012). Books apps can be individually purchased and downloaded, much as audiobooks or e-books, and are competitively priced at $US2.99–8.99 each without in-app purchases. Book apps have proven particularly attractive to parents of young children, as the narration and “read-to-me” features makes books accessible to pre-literate children and those learning to read (Moody, 2010; Roskos, et al., 2011).

Additional work has been attempted to make book apps social experiences through the use of in-device cameras and video conferencing tools (Raffle, et al., 2011; Follmer, et al., 2012). These system prototypes recognize the value of dialogic reading (Wasik and Bond, 2001), particularly for children who are not yet able to read themselves. The commercial service A Story Before Bed (http://www.astorybeforebed.com/) allows parents to record story readings for asynchronous sharing with family members. These social reading systems are designed to reduce the distance between young children and absent parents or extended family members during occasional book sharing experiences, but do not function as reading platforms for children who are independent readers.

Digital libraries and book apps are the logical predecessors to literacy groupware, but are different in several key ways. Digital libraries for children, such as the ICDL, were ad hoc collections of material that revolutionized the delivery and navigation of content via the Web, but largely stopped there. These systems lacked the value-added features that public libraries in many “fat countries” (Friedman, 2014) provide to readers, such as personalized recommendations through reader’s advisory, or support for developing readers. Book apps extend the interactive features of e-books, particularly for developing readers, but function as isolated literary experiences, failing to harness the potential of connectivity (both among readers and among books) even when texts are shared via telepresence. Children’s literacy groupware combines these two earlier innovations to create a networked reading system: an anytime, anywhere digital library, richly interactive features including games and incentives, as well as reader tracking and management components to facilitate value-added functions such as individual and classroom-level reader analytics, algorithmic recommendations, and multi-stakeholder data sharing and communication across reading contexts. What makes literacy groupware revolutionary is how these value-added functions combine to alter the practice of reading. A digital library may change what a child has access to and where, but tracking and reporting of that activity, and incentivizing specific patterns of reading at home and at school have additional implications. In the following section, we discuss how practice theory informs our examination of these systems and helps us envisage how children’s literacy groupware might frame and reconfigure the practice of reading in the future.

 

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Reading practices

“There are various approaches to practice research, but in HCI there is a common unifying goal to understand practices that are changing, where the change is often due to the introduction of information technology.” [1]

In our work we recognize that practices, including reading practices, take shape through ever-evolving assemblages of people, non-human actors, relationships, infrastructures, cultures, governance regimes, etc. For the purposes of this project we view practices as:

  • Grounded through history,
  • Realized through structures and institutions,
  • Influenced by the materiality of human bodies,
  • Simultaneously “held” in individuals’ minds and bodies and produced by individuals’ actions,
  • Requiring and constituting knowledge (i.e., the capability to act in meaningful and productive ways), and
  • Central to the interests and motivation in all human action (including power, conflicts and politics; paraphrasing from Kuutti and Bannon [2] who drew upon Nicolini, 2013).

We apply a practice framing to avoid privileging interactions between a single user and a device without giving adequate attention to the larger ecosystems through which the interaction is both mediated and mediating. We join others in acknowledging that practices are intersecting and shifting. No single element in an assemblage, including a particular tool, solely “determines” a practice. We posit that practice research is a generative orientation for this project because it prompts us to consider a range of influences to reading practice that may be sparked, but are not governed, by new digital reading systems.

 

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Method

We started with an environmental scan of commercial networked reading systems for children. We identified six major systems, including Capstone’s MyON (https://www.myon.com), Scholastic’s Storia (http://www.scholastic.com/storia-school), Reading Rainbow’s Skybrary (https://www.readingrainbow.com/skybrary-family), Bookboard (no longer available), Brainhive (http://www.brainhive.com), and Tumbleweed Press’ Tumblebooks (http://www.tumblebooklibrary.com). Other children’s publishers, such as Disney’s Story Central and Sesame Street, also offer subscription services for unlimited reading or book bundles for a single price. From this selection, we selected two for in-depth analysis, Raz-Kids (www.raz-kids.com) and Epic! (www.getepic.com). Raz-Kids and Epic! were selected based on the breadth of their collections, multi-stakeholder functionality, similarity in target audience, and breadth of use in the North American context. Although the way these services are marketed is quite similar, we quickly identified that they represent contrasting cases in their approach to literacy management. We explored these sites using a combination of content analysis (Herring, 2001) and close reading (Bizzocchi and Tanenbaum, 2011).

For each system, our research team spent approximately 35 hours testing the features and functionalities, explicitly considering the expectations, roles, interests, and responsibilities of children, parents and teachers (approximately 70 hours total across both systems). To inform our inquiry, we developed what we term a cross platform task-based analysis, using tables to keep track of the roles, types of activities, and features across the two systems, and testing the types of moves that worked across both. We simulated classroom groups with team members assigned to different stakeholder roles. We envisioned several usage scenarios, including idealized and deviant use, and played out these scenarios equally across systems, recognizing that they varied in feature sets and functionality. We also examined the company Web sites, end-user license agreements, and supporting documentation for the two services. We documented these investigations with careful note taking, screenshots that informed task comparison tables, and feature grids. We analyzed the data and developed key themes through a process of inductive coding (Miles, et al., 2014). As this was an exploratory conceptual investigation, we did not recruit participants or monitor the use of these systems by anyone other than members of our research team. All quotes we use are publically available through the sites as part of their advertising or policy documentation. We are optimistic that this inquiry and the conversations it initiates will assist us in future, participant-grounded investigations, with children, caregivers, educators and service providers, as our partners.

 

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Findings

For each of the two services examined in depth we provide rich descriptions of their features and functions as literacy groupware. We document the structure and use dynamics, price policies, stakeholder interactions, and data flows. We then discuss themes that cut across these two services, and the implications for the use of these technologies on reading practice.

 

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Raz-Kids: Reading for mastery and comprehension

Raz-Kids is an online reading system developed by Learning A-Z, an educational media company founded in 2002 (https://www.raz-kids.com/main/AboutRazKids/). Learning A-Z develops and distributes a wide range of products focused on developing basic literacy skills for K-5 students in the areas of reading, writing, vocabulary building and comprehension. The Raz-Kids collection includes over 800 leveled books in English and Spanish, available to readers through a Web browser on desktops or laptops, and on mobile devices through an app (iOS or Android). As an educational publisher, most of the material distributed through the Raz-Kids system is developed in-house and is not available in bookstores. Nearly all books in the collection can be played in a “read-to-me” format with narration and simultaneous text highlighting in addition to the e-book format.

Raz-Kids uses an outer space theme, and children enter through a portal that resembles a control array of a spaceship landed on a cratered moon. Clicking or tapping on a nearby lander takes readers to the “assignment” area where leveled books are displayed using cover icons in a grid pattern. The teacher sets the assignment, either choosing a default level (e.g., aa, A, B. etc.) or creating a custom set of books (mixing levels and/or excluding books). The reader may select any book in their assigned reading area, or choose a book of any level in the “independent reading” area if the teacher has not removed this option. Readers level-up automatically only when they have completed listening to and reading all the books assigned.

Children logged into to the system earn “stars” for listening to a book (10 stars) or reading a book (50 stars). At any point, a reader can visit the “Stars” area to select a robot or spaceship to customize. Customizations cost the reader between 100 and 3,000 stars (equivalent to reading and listening to between two and 50 books, depending on the selection). The price of each customization is displayed on a price tag, and the system makes a cash register sound when a reader “spends” her points. Readers’ choices are limited to how many stars they have accumulated. Points are persistently displayed in the upper right corner of the system display.

Communication among those using the system is limited. Teachers can send messages to the class, and using an embedded microphone, students can record themselves reading the book and send the audio to the teacher. Short comprehension quizzes accompany books in levels A-Q, and the teacher can view quiz scores in the student progress dashboard. Parents can also send text messages to their child. For students, awareness of other readers’ progress is not available; data flows only between the reader and teacher, and reader and parent.

Teachers or parents who sign-up for Raz-Kids receive unlimited access to the collection; however, the primary mode of engagement is through the teacher-structured class organization. Teachers purchase a one-year subscription for Raz-Kids for US$109.95, which permits 36 students unlimited access to the collection through the app or Web site, whether at home or at school. Teachers with a subscription can create profiles for their students, provide reading “assignments” for them (a set of leveled books), control access to system incentives, and track a student’s progress in terms of books read, time spent in the system, points earned, and time spent in the incentive area. Parents can gain access to their child’s reading data only by providing an e-mail address to their child’s teacher, who links the parent e-mail information to the student’s profile.

Raz-Kids focuses on reading as a means of developing literacy skills, specifically decoding and comprehension of text. Raz-Kids’ slogan, “The award-winning website where K-5 students go to read — anytime, anywhere!,” illustrates their explicit focus on the child reader as a student, levelled by grade. Reading is “assigned” by an adult and framed as the labour children must perform to master literacy. The emphasis on alphabetic levels of progressively more complicated texts stratifies children’s progress toward mastery and enforces a rigid hierarchy of expected upward progress. Furthermore, the lack of customization of the reading interface (every child’s dashboard is identical, and each level of reading material has identical features) gives the reading environment an institutional aesthetic, further reinforced by the standardized, formulaic nature of the materials in the collection. The service permits those engaging with the system, including teachers, with little ability to customize the manner in which children engage with the materials, reinforcing a pattern of reading behaviour established by the system. For example, the system default is that children must listen to each book and read it to complete their progress through a level. In other words, to satisfy the system, the child must listen, read, complete the comprehension quiz, then repeat this pattern for each book in the level, regardless of whether all three steps are necessary for comprehension. Listening, reading, and completing tests becomes a patterned chore accomplished to earn “stars”; the pleasure is in using these hard-earned points to purchase items for your robot or spaceship, something that is only peripherally connected to the act of reading. This can be changed, but only if the teacher goes through the extra steps of changing the default settings for individual books, creating a custom assignment for the student.

The extent to which reader data flows from those using the system to the parent company (Learning A-Z) for “system improvement” depends on the extent to which teachers fill out a given reader profile, in that many information fields are optional. The license agreement provides parents and teachers several options for restricting data flows, and parents or teachers can cancel the service and request student data be deleted at any time. Student data privacy is governed under the information policies of the state of Texas; those logging in from other locations are informed in the EULA that user data is stored in the United States and storage and use complies with the Family Education Privacy Act (FEPA) and Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA).

 

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Epic! Reading for pleasure

The developers of Epic! sought to design a tablet platform for children’s entertainment that was not focused on movies or games. In 2013, using venture funding and with support of publishing industry veterans, Epic! launched with a selection of several thousand books, with more added each month (https://www.getepic.com/about). The content is drawn from publisher’s catalogues, and thus more closely resembles what readers would find at a public library or bookstore, including common mass-market series books that many children and parents will recognize from HarperCollins, Penguin, Kids Can Press, and Disney/Hyperion. The service is available for Android, iOS and Kindle tablets, as well as desktops and laptops through the Web browser; however we found that there were inconsistencies in how the system worked across devices, particularly the browser-based version. The majority of books are in an e-book format (scanned books that resemble a printed page with a page-turn animation), with a smaller selection of audiobooks and “read-to-me” e-books with narration.

The Epic! interface closely resembles Netflix, and in fact the service markets itself as a “Netflix of children’s books”. Rather than text levels based on reading proficiency, readers have books recommended algorithmically based on age of the reader, gender, and interests expressed when the profile is setup by the teacher or parent, combined with reading and use history. Children browse among book recommendations in several categories (“popular”, “award winners”, or genres such as “fairy tales” and “adventure”). As they use the system, readers receive badges for achieving reading and usage milestones (e.g., “first book completed”, “five books read”, “reading seven days in a row”) and unlock rewards that they can apply toward customizing the interface or their profile avatar. As each book is read, both the reader and parent or teacher can see progress data, including how long the child spent on a given book, time spent in the system, and which badges were earned. Communication among those using the system is again constrained, but there are less restricted data flows among stakeholders related to a given profile; specifically, parents who have the home version have the same view as teachers using the educator version.

There are no comprehension quizzes, nor restrictions on reading levels for children, even if advanced search features include lexile rank (a measure of reading difficulty). Reading is framed in terms of exploration and enjoyment rather than assignments or tasks. Awareness of other readers is limited to seeing whether another reader has read a book, rated a book, or added a book to their favorites. Additionally readers can see when others have received a thumbs up rating, called an “Epic”. Readers give Epics to each other for one of the book activities listed above (read, rated or favorited). However, one cannot view other readers’ profiles, create reading circles, or public recommendation lists.

Epic! projects reading as a personally rewarding, enjoyable experience, one that is driven by a child’s interests. Recommendations are generated by a profile developed from the reader’s behaviour with the system and interests as selected by the teacher or parent who sets up the profile. Read-alikes (books with similar themes, style, or by the same author) are suggested as each book is finished. As such, it functions more like other media systems that generate user profiles to customize content recommendations including YouTube, Netflix, and Facebook. Epic!’s slogan, “A Library at Your Child’s Fingertips” speaks to the parent as the key stakeholder and decision-maker, evoking the image of the personal library, rather than the classroom or a public library. Another way the system defines itself is as an alternative to games, yet the site borrows the rhetoric and language of video games to keep readers engaged. The reader has significant latitude to customize the user profile, and with continued use, more options and customizations are revealed and unlocked. The incentive in using Epic! is in the collection of badges which you can showcase to other readers through your avatar.

Epic!’s privacy policy makes clear that parents and adults over 18 years of age are the sole suppliers of personally identifiable information, and the service will not knowingly collect information from children under the age of 13 years. However, the EULA states that aggregated data regarding reading behaviours of children are shared with publishers, and that third party sites and services may be linked to content within the Epic! app.

 

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Discussion: Raz-Kids and Epic!

While both systems we describe above are multi-platform reading systems focused on content delivery and tracking reader behaviour, they represent two ends of a philosophical spectrum regarding children’s reading. Raz-Kids is marketed primarily to schools and teachers, framing teachers as the primary stakeholder and the focus of many of the features, including the level of information shared by schools to the company. The service is purchased by teachers or schools at the annual cost of US$109.95/classroom (up to 36 profiles), and then made freely available to parents who login from home. Teachers act “in loco parentis”, providing consent on behalf of parents when setting up the reader profile, selecting books and managing access to incentives, and permitting access to parents only after parents make a request. Epic!, on the other hand, is targeted to parents who purchase the system for home use at US$4.99/month (up to four profiles), with a version of the service offered for free to educators (up to 36 profiles). Teachers have to limit their free use of the service to the classroom. The differing orientation of these two services affects the control that different stakeholders in a child’s reading development have over the information flows, the way data is managed and shared, and how the child reader is figured in relation to texts and reading.

In the following section we draw out themes from our analysis of Raz-Kids and Epic! that provide insights into the multiple ways that these systems are influencing and shifting reading practices.

 

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The quantified child reader

Despite differing philosophies, system affordances, and control structures, both Epic! and Raz-Kids develop a conceptualization of the reader based on predetermined, fixed and measurable qualities. Both of these systems deliver extensive data on system use to the adult stakeholders, parents and teachers, indicating reading achievement levels, histories, time on page, books read, minutes engaged with the system, etc., reducing the child to a set of metrics to be displayed and compared across a range of charts, graphs, and reports: the quantified child reader. We see this most explicitly in Raz-Kids, where the dashboard is designed to provide at-a-glance analysis of a child’s progress through the system’s levels, identifying areas of strength and weakness, and providing comparisons across a classroom of child readers. The dashboard includes links to institutionalized assessment regimes such as the U.S. common core standards. Even Epic!, with its emphasis on reading for pleasure, represents reading as a quantified act by providing parents with precise measures of system use. Parents are explicitly encouraged to interpret time on page as measures of reading. One of the testimonials on the Epic! site proclaims:

“All I can say is THANKS!! My daughter has read 553 minutes in the last 4 days with this app! Amazing!! I have shared it with her school in hopes they latch onto it as well!” — Kara W. (Epic! n.d.)

Yet, minutes spent in the system, pages flipped, and badges earned are system measures that risk reifying a fragmented view of reading. By quantifying the reader, the child’s experience is easily reduced to a number or set of numbers that can be analyzed, compared, sorted. It conditions institutions, teachers, parents, and children into understanding reading practices in terms of system metrics, which are always surrogates for the activity in question. Through our use of these systems we found how easy it would be for children to “hack” these profiles. There is an important difference between rhythmically “flipping” digital pages and decoding the text on the digital page for comprehension. For example, in Epic! a reader cannot complete a book or “finish” until a set amount of time has passed. The reader can flip through all of the pages in a book very quickly, and then wait on the last page until the icon tells you that enough time has passed and you can click “finish”. There are also the myriad ways that the experience of reading enhances our lives that are beyond quantified measurement. How does a system measure the ineffable, activities beyond decoding such as lingering on a page, daydreaming, asking questions, imagining alternative storylines?

 

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The isolation of personalization

While digital reading systems facilitate children’s ongoing engagement with texts without having to rely on adults after initial set-up, the act of co-reading is potentially undermined. Reading systems distribute the development of reading skill to the child in a potentially unmediated environment. With paper books, a child learning to read must do so with a parent or caregiver, sibling or friend. Thus, some level of care and attention are a part of the reading experience. In the digital reading system environment, a child does not need an adult’s time or attention to read a book or model the reading experience because by default, the book is narrated to them by the system. In addition, they do not need help with difficult words; viewing occurs on a single user device (tablet, laptop or desktop); and information about the text can be transmitted directly to the teacher rather than mediated by an at-home caregiver. The child does not even need adult verification that a book has been read to earn a “check mark”, badges, or points.

Ironically, in these networked groupware systems, learning to read moves from being an act that inscribes human relationships to one that is regulated and managed by algorithms. Children are rewarded for engaging with the system through the system’s allocation of points, badges and other incentives that differ from direct responses from a human being (e.g., parent, caregiver or teacher). For example, within Epic! if a book is read while logged into the parent’s profile, the reading will not count towards the child’s achievements. In current versions of these systems, the socialization of reading, learning from other’s mistakes, group care and peer engagement, motivation from seeing others reading, and the ability to discuss what is read, are lacking.

However, there is the ability of teachers and adult caregivers to view student data. These multi-stakeholder views allow for some level of communication between parents, teachers, students and facilitates ipsatic feedback (measures of personal progress, self-referential). However, the systems also cut off the potential for normative feedback, at least to the child and parent, by isolating students’ progress for the sake of privacy and protecting confidential information.

 

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Shifting responsibility

Through these systems responsibility and control over learning to read is redistributed amongst teacher, school, and family. Time teachers used to spend mediating reading practice in the classroom is shifted to the home environment and evening hours, essentially “flipping” the practice of reading. Although it is possible for tablets to be used in the classroom during the school day, few schools have one-to-one computing as the norm. The role of the teacher moves from reading instructor (engaging with groups of children and teaching them how to read) to being the data manager monitoring dashboards to evaluate how individual readers are progressing through the system. The system itself becomes the proxy reading instructor with rigid rules for how children engage with texts (e.g., listen, read, record).

Although it is not novel for print books to be sent home for evening reading practice, the expectation that children will have access to the technology necessary to engage the digital books within the reading system is new. Unlike the space limitations of a child’s physical backpack or a teacher’s book shelf, digital reading systems contain far more books than a child can read in a night, a week or in an entire school year, suggesting that the child’s labour of learning to read at home is never complete. There are pressures placed on children’s caregivers to provide both access and time to use these systems and only these systems, rather than supplementing with non-system reading material chosen by the child and/or the family. Spending time with these systems at home, learning to decode and encode text, mean that other types of reading may not happen in the home. If children do need help with a text within a reading system, parents become the mediators of children’s learning, with little if any pedagogical training in how to help their child navigate these systems. For example, we found that when a child reaches a level where Raz-Kids begins to offer comprehension quizzes, the child would need an adult’s mediation because the quizzes are too complicated for the reading level of the child.

 

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More of the same: Large homogenous collections

Digital reading systems may make it possible for children to access a great quantity of books, most notably more non-fiction texts than what are found in many homes or public library collections (Duke, 2004). Yet it is important to recognize the importance for growing children in seeing depictions that resemble themselves, their families, and their communities through the texts they are exposed to (Harper and Brand, 2010; Ross, et al., 2006). Small independent publishing houses that more often carry texts by and about socially marginalized peoples are not the ones populating these reading systems. In addition, many books in Raz-Kids are generally low quality in terms of both text and illustration, much lower than those found in public libraries where librarians take great pride in developing their collections (Horning, 2010). Early readers in Raz-Kids are short, eight pages and about 40 words. They are meant to provide an introduction to six to eight new vocabulary words as an exercise in decoding and lack the captivating draw of storytelling that people of all ages crave (Frank, 2010).

 

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Generative ideas for designing practices

The days of simply creating mass collections of children’s reading material for the significance of the collection are passed. What is valued in the contemporary data-driven media ecology is the bits of information generated by reading practice: data about how the collection is accessed, navigated, used and shared that can be collected and analyzed to inform new services and future media production. Systems such as Epic! and Raz-Kids represent possible futures for children’s reading and literacy instruction. We are already witness to the changes that digital subscription services have had on other kinds of media consumption practices in the home and workplace, including software, music, movies, television, news, and communication. The provocation is how do we build better, more “intelligent” reading systems that deeply enrich, rather than impoverish, the practice of reading? What would an ecological model of computer-mediated literacy development look like? Here we draw inspiration from scholars encouraging HCI practitioners and researchers to reconsider their work as designing practices rather than designing tools, as it is a generative framing that makes room for explicit considerations of the mutually constitutive nature of the tools we use along with individual agency, social norms, cultural understandings, institutions, policies, and infrastructures (e.g., Bidwell, et al., 2013; Wakkary, et al., 2013).

Below we suggest several ways literacy groupware can benefit from critical analyses of the practices they foster and reinforce, and how emergent patterns of behaviour may dovetail (or not) with preexisting literacy practice.

 

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Reading practice as flexible

As a literacy tool, these groupware systems are fairly rigid in their conceptualizations of reading. Adults are restricted by system defaults, such as those that restrict literacy practice to a routine of listen, read, quiz, and then repeat, and an oft-debated emphasis on the leveling of reading materials. If these systems are to serve the needs of teachers and readers in the most efficacious manner, they need to be flexible and accommodating of shifting power relationships, different developmental trajectories, routines, classroom compositions, teaching philosophies and stakeholder values. Raz-Kids in particular assumes that educators will solely structure, manage and analyze reading behaviour, restrict access to incentives, and share data (or not) with other stakeholders, including parents and the system designers. Yet, some teachers strive to provide children with the experience of making some of their own decisions about media. As children mature, teachers should have the option of providing students with greater agency in selection and crafting their own “assignments” and flexibility in how they engage with the text (e.g., time spent per page or per book). Returning to the fictional Nafiza introduced in our opening scenario, how could her active imagination be encouraged through creating her own reading assignments? How might the system make space for her to make choices, set different kinds of goals, ask questions, and share concerns about the texts she reads?

 

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Reading practice as exploration

Much of the emphasis in these systems is on management and control of young readers by adults. Even in a system that emphasizes the pleasure of reading, such as Epic!, by design, the adult account holder is the sole user of the system who can adjust a child’s interest profile. Furthermore, badges and incentive systems function as a “one size fits most” approach to encouraging engagement, and have little diversity or variation in how they are allocated. Instead, incentives are awarded algorithmically for accomplishing predetermined work within the system, and have little to do with the students’ interests outside the system. If children are to value reading, and we feel incentives are one way to encourage literacy, the incentives should be more closely tied to literature and literacy, and provide some means for the reader to develop rewards that align with their interests outside of the system. One interpretation of this suggestion would be to consider, Nafiza at the age of 12, earning points for reading a non-fiction text about sharks. Might the system enable her to design her own shark tooth badge? Nafiza’s teacher could have the option of assigning her extra points if the design includes an exploration and description of the awesome tearing qualities of the particular type of shark tooth used in the design. What if other readers could earn Nafiza’s badge?

 

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Reading practice as social and community driven

What is striking about the services we examined is how isolating they are for the reader, reinforcing the individualized, sequestered notion of reading. Even communication between reader and instructor is set up as dyadic, with only two people directly involved. Reading instruction in the classroom, however, by the very nature of the ratio of children to teachers, is social. Reading charts are public displays; reading groups engage with text together; peer engagement around books is expected and encouraged. Yet, currently two children cannot login to a digital reading system together, nor is there anything but scant awareness of other readers once a child is in a literacy groupware system. In contrast, contemporary public libraries go to great lengths to increase the social aspects of book selection, including user-generated lists, recommendations, and organization through tagging. Literacy groupware could leverage these cloud-based features of libraries (www.bibliocommons.com), social spaces such as Goodreads (goodreads.com), and review features of Amazon (amazon.com) to improve awareness of other readers and provide additional incentives for reader engagement. Returning to Nafiza, her growing interest in sharks and teeth might not only be noted by her parents and teacher, but also by a group of her peers who “gift” her with a list of reading suggestions they have collected (gaining points themselves) that expand on her curiosity by introducing her to other deadly aquatic predators and the world of poisoned stingers.

 

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Reading practice localized

Readers and adults have no way of making these systems “local”, to customize the content, patterns of interaction, or incentive structures to meet their geographic, national, or cultural milieu. The collections may be governed by licensing agreements (e.g., Epic! warns that some content may not be available outside the U.S.), but are largely the same for every user everywhere. This homogenized approach to reading privileges the large, corporate publishers and reinforces a kind of cultural uniformity, suppressing diversity and the idiosyncratic choices that make personal libraries unique and enduring. Permitting recommendation algorithms to recognize location as a factor in suggesting books would be one approach. However, to make these systems more local, diverse collections are required, so people of different races, ethnicities, languages and backgrounds would be able to see themselves in the collection. This recommendation is oriented to shifts in collection policy rather than solely on technological shifts. For example, adding picture books in Halkomelem developed by the Musqueam Indian Band to a collection for public school students in Vancouver would require policy agreements beyond those addressing copyright concerns (e.g., traditional knowledge rights). Additionally, incentive structures could be shifted to meet local educational standards or support national initiatives (e.g., learning about Indian Residential Schools or climate change).

We acknowledge that these groupware literacy systems are already a significant innovation in delivering content and analyzing the behaviour of readers, and that further design research in this space may have costs in terms of privacy and safety, software complexity, licensing, and collection development. However, we suspect there has been little input from children in the design of these systems. Future work with children as co-designers of literacy groupware would enhance the sense of reader agency by prioritizing the features that developing readers want to see in the systems that support their engagements with literature and literacy.

 

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Conclusion

Through this paper we examine the emerging genre of children’s literacy groupware systems and discuss the implications of this new form of access and literacy instruction for the practice of reading. These systems represent significant changes in providing e-reading materials to young people, facilitating anytime, anywhere access to thousands of books to meet a wide range of needs and interests. Literacy groupware also generates a wealth of data about reading behaviour that has the potential to radically change the way we teach and assess beginning readers. Using practice theory as a lens, we identified several current challenges with these systems and how they function to support early literacy development. In particular, we point out the pitfalls of “quantifying” the reading experience, which may isolate and objectify the reader, decontextualizing reading practice through a “one size fits most” approach, and shifting the responsibility of reading pedagogy from teachers to a digital reading system that is scaffolded by at-home caregivers. We suggest there are several ways literacy groupware can leverage flexible feature sets, social interactions, reader agency, and communities to improve upon existing designs. Although we offer both challenges and opportunities, we did not undertake this work in order to develop “solutions”. Rather we are attempting to provoke a conversation among users and designers of these systems concerning the types of reading practice we want to foster with our children.

A key part of our work is developing our methodological approach for leveraging practice theory in our understanding of reading practice as called out as needed in Kuutti and Bannon (2014). As they astutely point out, practice theory demands embedded, in-the-field research, not only talking to people, but engaging in the practice under investigation. The theoretical work we have conducted through this paper positions us well for future empirical work with child readers and the adults who support their emerging literacy practices. End of article

 

About the authors

Eric M. Meyers is Associate Professor and Chair of the Master’s of Arts in Children’s Literature Program at the University of British Columbia’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies.
E-mail: Eric [dot] Meyers [at] ubc [dot] ca

Lisa P. Nathan is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the First Nations Curriculum Concentration at the University of British Columbia’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies.
E-mail: Lisa [dot] Nathan [at] ubc [dot] ca

Casey Stepaniuk is a Master’s in Librarian and Information Studies student at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include reading, reader’s advisory, diversity, and children and teens.
E-mail: casey [at] uvic [dot] ca

 

Notes

1. Kuutti and Bannon, 2014, p. 3,550.

2. Kuutti and Bannon, 2014, p. 3,546.

 

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Editorial history

Received 15 December 2015; accepted 15 December 2016.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Children in the cloud: Literacy groupware and the practice of reading
by Eric M. Meyers, Lisa P. Nathan, and Casey Stepaniuk.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 2 - 6 February 2017
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6844/5845
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i2.6844





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