The Evolving Classroom – Part 2

by Shikha Das Shankar ~ Sep 20, 2018

Technology in classroom

In the first part of our evolving classroom series we saw how our child’s classroom is changing into a tech-enabled environment that is adopting new tools for learning, innovation and creativity.

In the past, we welcomed a desktop on the class teacher’s table, or a computer lab in every school, and made computer literacy part of every school’s curriculum. Technology’s insurmountable growth is now bringing in another wave of transformation in the classroom.

The future is heading towards open classrooms where desks and chairs are being replaced with beanbags and bouncy balls, whiteboards with LCD smart boards, and pen and paper with iPads and laptops. 

Technology is helping the growth of experimental schools too, that are breaking the norm of awarding grades and scores to children, and creating classrooms based on their skills instead of age. Technology in education is aiding the growth of customized learning, where educators provide child-specific learning modules, ensuring the child learns from his inherent skills rather than rote memory.

As we see our child’s classroom metamorphosing into a robust learning environment, we must accept that technology is a gateway to success for the next generation. There has never been a more exciting time for education than now.  We look at four technologies carving its way into K-12 classrooms of today. 

Immersive Technologies

Roughly broken down into augmented, virtual and mixed reality, holography and telepresence, immersive technologies allow users to integrate virtual content with their physical environment thus diminishing the difference between a user’s real environment and that of virtual content. Demand for immersive learning tools are rising in K-12 schools because of this technology’s ability to offer blended reality that goes beyond the confines of a classroom. For example, VR allows students to take virtual field trips across the world, and participate in virtual dissection to get a comprehensive look inside a human body. This technology is fostering greater collaboration with peers in the classroom and allowing more project-based learning. 

Cloud Computing 

Cloud computing is helping take learning beyond brick-and-mortar schools, breaking the norm that a student and teacher need to be face-to-face in order for learning to happen. Information, mainly in the form of homework, class discussions and assignments are delivered consistently and securely over a cloud network. Digital libraries and Google Classroom are popular examples of cloud computing’s strong potential for teachers and students.

3D Printers

A powerful tool in discovery and learning, a 3D printer brings to life anything that a student can visualize, catapulting his spatial reasoning skills to the top. Preparing a model of a dinosaur for a science project or an object for show and tell, if the mind can conjure an image, the 3D printer can turn it into reality. Already an essential tool in many engineering and architecture schools across the globe, this engaging technology will be hugely beneficial for grade school students as well since it positions every student as an inventor and keeps learning exciting. 

Game-based Learning/Gamification

Gamification of the classroom means creating fun, game-like scenario to achieve curriculum objectives. Digital games provide two important learning components to a student—collaboration and problem solving. Since digital games are highly interactive, they bridge the gap between learning and imagination, and increase the ability of a child to assimilate challenging concepts. Teachers are also using gamification, mainly in the form of learning apps like Duolingo, Socrative and PlayBrighter, to assess students —award them upon winning a game and provide constructive feedback when they don’t. 

The question around technology and schools has changed from “should we use technology in the classrooms?” to “what kind of technology should we use in a K-12 classrooms?” And this is a crucial step in the right direction. 

Sadly, the fate of “dog ate my homework” excuse seems to be up in the air (cloud).

Shikha Das Shankar is a freelance storyteller. Multitasking dragon slayer mom. Happy hiker. When not writing, she loves hiking with her favorite trio—the son, the daughter and the husband or cooking her favorite foods in her de-stressing zone, the kitchen.

The Evolving Classroom – Part 1

by Shikha Das Shankar ~ Sep 13, 2018


Mothers start to develop knots of stress, and get their jollies too, around early August, as ‘back-to-school’ signage and dark black arrows lead them to the end of their local Target store. Another school year is here, and you give credit to yourself for starting prep work early, only to realize that the ‘yellow plastic folder with prongs’ is already out of stock. And is there a headphone on the supplies list for your first grader? Why?

The dust starts to settle on the back-to-school preparations with classroom open house or meet-and-greet, and finishes with the first-day-send-off pictures posted on social media.

Barely two weeks into the new school year, and notice how the PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association) of your child’s school is updating it’s social media page regularly to keep us posted on miscellaneous school activities and events. A SignUpGenius online collaborative sheet, requesting volunteers for the year’s first bookfair, awaits your attention.

Paper reminders and agendas are co-existing with apps and social media to facilitate communication between parents, students and teachers. Class teachers are actively integrating technology to communicate with parents. A common example is an app called Remind, which teachers use to send important reminders to parents like class photos or school field trip dates. Another app called Bloomz is geared more for building a virtual parent-teacher community. Moderated by the class teacher, the app allows her to post in-classroom pictures, invite parents for classroom events, and initiate discussions between parents.

Wade through your child’s classroom and you realize how different it is from the one you remember from your memory. A media center with laptops, desktops, and digital projectors are prominent in every classroom, starting from as young as kindergarten.

Digital technologies and eLearning tools have been seamlessly incorporated within a child’s daily class routine. He has multiple opportunities during the day to come face to face with technology, either completing daily tasks or using free time to practice reading or math skills.

Tests are conducted electronically, teachers provide links to online practice sheets and reading materials, and audio reading software and iStation (software for reading, comprehension and logical reasoning based games) are options during choice time. Remember the headphone on the supplies list? It is certainly worth being on the list.

It is also nearly impossible to miss your child’s grade, report card or attendance as most school districts now have a centralized family portal where this information is uploaded periodically on a secure network. And we haven’t even begun to talk about how technology is integral to learning at middle and high school.

The vision for technology adoption at schools across the world hinges on a crucial fact that skills required for success of our children in the changing world cannot be acquired by traditional forms of learning like blackboard and paper alone. While it is imperative that rudimentary forms of learning remain, in order to cultivate future-ready skills like collaboration and critical thinking, schools have been working comprehensively toward establishing technology at the core of its curriculum.

Even though technology is starting to find its rightful place in classrooms globally, opinion leaders feel the adoption has been sluggish, with a need to ramp up how technology is being leveraged for children and teens.

In his book, ‘The Global Achievement Gap,’ Dr Tony Wagner talks about the seven ‘survival skills’ necessary for students to be successful in today’s global knowledge economy. These skills include critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks, agility and adaption, initiative and entrepreneurship, effective and oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination. He goes on to talk about issues facing the school system today and how it needs to change.

Can technology help reduce the ‘knowledge gap’ and shape skills necessary for success in the 21st century?

The learning demands of tomorrow need to be fulfilled today. And that effort begins at school. In the next part of our two-part series we take a look at how technology can help children attain future-ready skills and what changes to expect in our child’s dynamic classroom.

Shikha Das Shankar is a freelance storyteller. Multitasking dragon slayer mom. Happy hiker. When not writing, she loves hiking with her favorite trio—the son, the daughter and the husband or cooking her favorite foods in her de-stressing zone, the kitchen.

The case of the fleeting face

by Priyanka Raha ~ Sep 06, 2018

I assure you this is not a thriller story, but it certainly is a thrilling story of passing time, a story of a face that has grown over summer, and a story of a face that waves bye from a school-bus window.

This is that time of the year when school starts. Unofficially it is the end of summer. The first day of school brings with it a deluge of emotions. Kids are excited (or not) to get back to school, mostly to catch up with their friends. Parents end up having mixed emotions – slightly misty-eyed seeing their child transition to another grade level. At the same time, they are glad that there is no more chauffeuring around across town to different camp locations. You don’t have to accept it if you don’t want to, but it sure is nice to have some time back to yourself.

What the first day of school also brings is a social media feed of first-day-photos. Parents want to capture this moment when their child is starting a new year at school. It is exciting to catch those early morning fresh faces with shiny new shoes and a shiny new backpack, and share them with friends and family. Technology provides an amazing platform here. It takes less than a minute to snag a picture with your phone and share it with your loved ones. It truly feels amazing to have your community as an ally in your moment of pride and joy.

I love sharing these pictures and seeing these pictures from friends I know, pictures of kids who were pre-schoolers with my kids and are older now. But lately a few things make me nervous, like having signs of school names and other details on the picture. So I made a list, of things that we should remember while posting pictures of our kiddos on social media.

No school names

Fellow-parents, let’s be careful about what and how we post the first-day pictures. Providing the school’s name, address or any other sensitive information is non-ideal. Keeping personal information about your children away from strangers will keep them safer. I know that retrieving information about the school is not too difficult, there are many ways one can derive that, but why provide that information on a platter, right? So, please don’t.

Remember your privacy settings

Remember, that little text called ‘privacy settings’ on your social media profile. Pay attention to your privacy settings and make sure that you share your pictures only with the people on your network. There is even an option to make your post available to specific people if you want to. Like I mentioned before, technology is an amazing platform to share your moments of happiness with friends and family. But then, let’s do the sharing with just friends and family and not strangers.

No neighbor kids’ photos

This is an absolute no. You should not post pictures of your neighbor’s kids without consent from the parent. Your child may be best friends with him/her but only the parent holds the right to decide whether or not the photos can be shared publicly. You might argue that it is not public sharing since you have the privacy settings in place and you are sharing it only among your friends. Note that your friends are not friends to your neighbor. Let’s be sensitive to each other’s privacy. You have every right to demand this in return as well. If you are not okay with it, do not hesitate to mention that you would not want to share your kids’ pictures on your neighbor’s social media profile.

Discuss social media posting

I love all the good things that social media has brought with it but I am also very big on good  practices and safe behavior on the digital medium. If your child is old enough, I encourage you to ask her if it’s okay for you to post her picture on your profile. Mention that this means all of her Mommy’s friends can see the picture. This will set up a good foundation for social media etiquette for your kid in the future. Believe me, she will be on there someday, so teach her how, start today. Explain why it is important to pay attention to privacy and mutual consent for social media sharing.

Live the moment

This is my favorite one. In a strange way, this has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with capturing the moment. Speaking here from personal experience, I was not able to take a picture of my third grader as he got on to the bus. The morning got busy (no surprise there). I barely managed to give him a hug, then he sprinted off and then he was gone. I stood there wondering, I should have planned my morning better. But my point is if you had a similar morning, let me tell you it’s okay. If you have a well-documented beautiful first-day picture, it’s marvelous and if you don’t it’s equally marvelous. Capturing the moment is fantastic but sometimes just living the moment is quite great too.

You and I are in this together!

We are doing great!

Hooray to the beginning of another fabulous year!

Technology and Trends that parents find useful today

by Shikha Das Shankar ~ Aug 30, 2018

Parenting is inherently wrought with challenges, and many believe that the unprecedented rise of gadgets and gizmos, and the internet, render parenting more strained than ever. 

While the challenges will remain, there has been a significant crack in the belief that technology is detrimental for children. Guidelines for responsible use of technology are being formulated at schools, concept of digital mentoring is being encouraged, and parents realize that raising children in the digital age should not be done in fear or with apprehension but by modeling healthy digital usage.

What is also noteworthy is how technology has made several parenting woes a thing of the past, at the same time it has brought some new concerns to be worried about. Parents find themselves leveraging technology to engage more with their children, be more experimental toward teaching their kids new skill sets, and what’s more, are able to grab a coffee when you least expect it. Read on to know how.

Video monitoring and streaming

A cursory glance at the baby video monitor to see your baby still in deep slumber is a moment of nirvana for every mom. A reason to make herself another cup of coffee, finish another chapter of a book or even run another load of laundry. The global baby monitor market was estimated to be USD 929.4 million in 2016, out of which the revenue for audio and video monitors are 50.6%. Real-time communication between child and parent seems to be the key driver for high adaption of this technology. Baby monitors have been around for a while but the recent versions that stream on your phones and have motion detection provide a sense of security and peace of mind unfathomable before. Definitely a popular choice for parents who spend time away from home or in need of some ‘me-time’ while at home with kids.

Voice-enabled devices

If you have been reading our ‘I, Alexa’ (and other voice-enabled devices) series, you already know these AI-enabled devices are here to stay. No more worrying about scratched music cds that have seen rough handling by children eager to use them as flying saucers. Alexa will play music peppy enough to get the kids dancing indoors. Meaningful conversation about football teams between your child and Google’s HomePod? Yes, please. Want a giggle? Try asking some knock knock jokes to Siri. While these devices have raised concerns about etiquette and mannerism around a machine, with some mindful parenting, children and parents are learning to accept these machines as a fun and interactive part of life.

Social media

As social media became a place to congregate virtually, more and more parents found it easier to make friends, express emotional pleas previously written only in personal diaries and seek support from people across the globe. And it is this virtue of social media that helped tackle everyday parenting woes like choosing the best diaper rash cream to coming out of the closet and talking about postpartum depression. Fretting over a parenting problem is being replaced with using social media to express concern or post a query only to be pleasantly flooded with suggestions, virtual hugs and recommendations in return. Brag posts, vent posts and picture perfect parenting snapshots do make social media a slippery slope in many ways, but it has become an extension of us nonetheless. Trust us, ‘#momfails’ and ‘#toddlertrouble’ are here to stay.

Language learning apps

Repetition and continued exposure to language are two important factors in learning a language. So when a wave of e-learning language apps, equipped with both these attributes, as well as an interactive platform, surfaced in the digital world, it found many takers. More and more parents want to expose children to new languages from a young age and find great options among a gamut of language apps for children. Through these apps, parents have the option to conveniently and affordably introduce their children to learning different languages in a fun and interactive way, which previously was a laborious task. Read our story about some popular language learning apps if you are looking for a start in that direction.

Shikha Das Shankar is a storyteller. Multitasking dragon slayer mom. Happy hiker. When not writing, she loves hiking with her favorite trio—the son, the daughter and the husband or cooking her favorite foods in her de-stressing zone, the kitchen.

What can ‘Digital Foreigners’ teach us about technology?

by Priyanka Raha ~ Aug 16, 2018

child and grandparent
digital foreigner

I believe we are all familiar with the term ‘Digital Natives’ and ‘Digital Immigrants’. Made popular in 2001 by Marc Prensky, a renowned American writer and speaker on education, the scope of these terms have definitely evolved since then. Marc himself once mentioned that “The most important thing to realize is that this is a metaphor. It’s not a distinction or a brand, it’s extremely fluid.”

I am extending that fluidity of these definitions to define the generation that came before us, as digital foreigners. The wikipedia defines a digital native as a person that grows-up in the digital age rather than acquiring familiarity with digital systems as an adult. The latter is what defines a digital immigrant. That’s us. Digital foreigners are adults who know how to use a computer or own one but have not substantially used it in their daily life. They are our parents. This is a generation that survived without google, so please have utmost respect.

Both my parents own a smart phone and a laptop and can work their way around the systems, for the most part. Since we live in two different continents, Skype and WhatsApp are ways how we stay connected. But that has happened after a one-too-many phone calls of guided conversations on how-to-navigate a chat client.

This year my parents are spending the summer at my house, my kids are getting their much needed quality and quantity time with their grandparents. My kids are also getting royally spoiled but that’s a story for another day. For now, if I think about discussions just around technology between my kids and my parents, there are quite a few interesting conversations that I run into.

It goes without saying that our parents are the first ones who hold our hands and teach us about life. Our lessons on life come from them. But when it comes to technology most of the times the tables turn and we find ourselves providing tips to them, about managing the digital world. Even with the flow of information happening the other way, I can assure you there are so many things that we can learn from our digital foreigner parents about technology.

The joy of giving back

It seems like a lofty expression but if I can reiterate the fact about turning the tables as mentioned above, it is extremely rewarding to be able to help my parents figure out an app download or how to set up an online account. Seeing my mom figuring out Apple’s multi-touch or Facebook’s messaging is exciting. I have watched my parents read to my kids and at other times my kids explain the Minecraft world to them, and I have thought to myself, ‘there is that joy of give and take at play here’.

By teaching we learn

It is not a secret that the best way to grasp a concept is to explain it to someone else. The unfamiliarity of certain concepts around technology, in fact, leads to meaningful questions from our previous generation. And in the process of providing those answers we learn more. It is important to note that most of these questions come from an experience of having lived a full life and having understood what being social means without worrying about social media. Combing through the whys and hows leads to discovering the ways the world worked before, like not being able to play any song of your choice while on the go. I think this provides the next generation with a perspective that helps them appreciate, a little bit more, the world they live in.

A new type of quality time

Exploring the digital world together not only helps us learn more but it also opens up new avenues for connection. The other day I walked in from work and found my four-year old explaining the story of PJ Mask to my Mom and Dad. For those of you who do not know it is a kids’ show about three friends who fight bad guys at night, that explains the ‘PJ’ in the title. My goal is not to take away time from other fun activities that grandparents do with their grandchildren, but what if besides all the things that they always did, like playing ball or riding a bike, we have discovered new ways to bond and communicate.

So, next time your parents are baby-sitting, ask your kids to explain how a tablet works or better even to narrate the latest show. See what happens!

Be tech-savvy safe this summer

by Shikha Das Shankar ~ Aug 09, 2018


An app tracks your teen’s driving habits, shows his location and rates the trip. A browser designed for middle-school children blocks inappropriate content on the web. An oil company in Uganda invests in developing an app to teach local kids about road safety. A single click turns your phone into a road safety beacon during your evening cycling session.

The rap about technology being unsafe and making our lives more vulnerable does the round frequently. But if we look beyond the flak, technology is the tool that provides a solution to combat the risks that exists today. When we bring positive aspects of technology coupled with our mentoring and guidance to the younger beloveds in our lives, we give wings to their imagination, empower them to think differently and help them stay safe.

Digital technology tools are prevalent in our lives more than envisioned decades ago and a key aspect of its evolution is how it helps us be safe. Safety starts at home, right from the time our kid develops her pincer grip and we teach her not to pick up those dirty peas from the floor. The job gets more complex as children grow older and here’s where technology can help.

For those of us busy making the best of summer by teaching our kids how to swim, ride a bike, code or spend time traveling, we bring you a list of apps that will help create awareness of common dangers around us, travel safely and reinforce ways to stay safe at home or outdoors.


The developers say the name is exactly what the app is — a kid’s strap with an app. Tie and scan a cheap and funky Kidsstrap to the child’s wrist, download the app and you are ready to go on your exciting summer break with more peace of mind than ever before. Busy vacation resorts and amusements parks elevate parents’ worries about kids getting lost. So devices like these can potentially go a long way in keeping children safe.

GoodYear Crossroad Safety

Goodyear, a known name in the automobile parts industry, brings an app to teach preschoolers and kindergartners about road safety. How to safely cross at construction sights, railway crossing or at traffic lights are taught to kids through an interactive setting and fun graphics.



Ease your or your child’s flying fears or satiate his curiosity about aviation with this app that acts like your personal pilot. The app was authored by a trained pilot and aerophobia expert, and has helped overcome flying-anxiety for many people. Weather updates, expected turbulence, real-time commentary on wind conditions such as opening of landing gears or wing flaps are part of this detailed app for reluctant air travelers. All of this and much more is available on flight mode setting on your phone throughout the duration of your flight.

Safety for Kids

It is challenging to explain to young children how to react should an emergency situation occur. The Safety for Kids app introduces children four and above to twelve safety lessons, explaining what steps to take if emergency situations like getting lost, fire, earthquake, tsunami etc might occur. The app is interactive, wordless and role-play based with relatable, real-life settings. This app works effectively as a resource for both parents and teachers of children up to 8 years.


Red Cross Accident Prevention and First Aid

Developed in collaboration with the Red Cross society for kids in the age range 6-8, this educational app emphasizes that the best way to stay away from unpleasant surprises is by preventing them in the first place. The app teaches children how to prevent accidents, steps to take in case of emergency and basic first aid techniques. Available in twelve languages and presenting eleven everyday scenarios that are potentially dangerous, this resource is wonderful for both teachers and students.




Shikha Das Shankar is a storyteller. Multitasking dragon slayer mom. Happy hiker. When not writing, she loves hiking with her favorite trio—the son, the daughter and the husband or cooking her favorite foods in her de-stressing zone, the kitchen.

I, Alexa – The Final Piece

by Priyanka Raha ~ Aug 02, 2018

Engage with kids in digital interaction

Yes, we have been lately obsessed by the effects of interaction with voice activated digital assistants on kids. Last week we spoke about the not-so-explicit effects of Alexa on kids. This is the third and final piece of our series ‘I, Alexa’. Please note that for our discussion, Alexa is a representation of all digital assistants.

In this piece we explore ways to prepare kids for a world that they will actually live in. We need to teach them the perpetual things, like good manners and the new things, like the truth about Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

As the digital voice assistants are becoming an integral part of consumer device usage, millions of parents have suddenly been forced to grapple with this new parental dilemma of defining boundaries on the usage around kids. Already 20 percent of U.S. households have some kind of smart speaker and research says, that percentage will rise to 55 percent within the next four years.

AI driven assistants are not 100 percent child proof, at the same time they are not the big bad wolf either. Beyond any doubt, it is important for us as parents to consider certain ways to define interaction between our children and the Alexas of today. After all, parents are gatekeepers for their children’s online experience, not just for our Alexas and Cortanas but for all digital devices.

Here are some of the things that we can do to make sure our children have a healthy growing environment amidst our Alexas. While this is not a comprehensive list, it certainly is a place to start.

Don’t Be Rude

While interacting with our humanoid helpers, as parents we run into the courtesy conundrum. Should our kids say please to Alexa or is it okay to call her an idiot? I think either is an extreme and the key is balance here.

Repeating pleasantries to Alexa can lead to over-humanization of Alexa, which in turn can blur the lines between animate and inanimate objects. With increased penetration of voice activated systems in our daily lives – from smart homes to smart cars, it is on us to help children conceptualize virtual assistants in a healthy way.

I think, for the same reasons that you don’t go kick a door after you bumped into it and got hurt, you don’t abuse Alexa.

The rule is simple here.
“Don’t be bossy pants.”

Limit the Time

One of the challenging aspects with Alexa is that it is available for use 24×7. Being screen-less you cannot really put it away. Being screen-less has its upsides of not having to stare at a screen or be sedentary.

“These devices certainly offer more engagement and interaction than just passively watching a TV”, mentions Solace Shen, a psychologist at the Cornell University. “But that interaction is still impoverished compared to talking to a parent or a teacher.”

It is imperative to remember that at the end of the day Alexa or Home Pod is a digital device. Like any other device of technology it is a great tool for learning but it is not a replacement for human interaction. In general, it helps to think of these devices as tablets. We have to make sure that there is a balance between the time kids are interacting with the systems versus interacting with humans, doing physical activities and getting enough rest.

Keeping that in mind, there can be certain times during the day when we can avoid interacting with Alexa. Our questions, however inquisitive they are, can wait until we finish our conversation with real people or playing ball with our friends.

So it is okay to say,
“Alexa, stop. We are having dinner now.”

Engage In The Dialogue

“One solution for families with smart speakers is to stay intentional about deepening their relationships through intentional, loving interactions”, says Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington.

Alexa can sing lullabies to children, remind them of bedtime and provide positive reinforcement when kids say please. But a machine cannot know a child the way a parent does.

As parents we need to be aware that Alexa is a passive system. If she doesn’t have the answer to a question, jump in and suggest other ways of attaining that knowledge. Digital assistants are amazing tools to gather information but don’t let them implicitly teach children that knowledge is easily attainable.

As immediate adults in the vicinity of Alexa we can enrich the dialogue by asking our own questions or mixing it up and asking the kid a few questions. If we are not around when the kids are talking to Alexa (and that is totally okay), we can certainly follow-up afterwards to see how they have been using it. It can be a very nice conversation starter as well, something different from asking, ‘How was school today?’

So do not just watch your kids interact with Alexa,
“Be an active part of the Alexa interaction.”

Alexa, Can I watch TV now?

by Priyanka Raha ~ July 26, 2018

Good digital citizenship habits

Last week we talked about the importance of niceties when interacting with Alexa.  And if you read that article you know that Alexa is a representation of all voice activated A.I. systems. Should we say all of her cousins in the same family. 

Technological evolution is happening so fast that it has left us – parents, educators and concerned adults feeling a bit unbalanced. We haven’t had a chance to gather long range data about the impact of interaction with Alexa on kids. 

Psychologists and A.I. experts are working round the clock to decipher, as much as they can, the effects of humanoid helpers in our lives, especially in young kids. Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has done research on how children perceive the humanoid helpers. Parents shouldn’t worry about their child treating their friends like they do Alexa, at least not in a direct way. 

The consequences are slightly more subtle and complicated than that.

Indulgence Dilemma

Alexa complies to requests without delay and at all times during the day. Interaction with the virtual assistant leads to instant gratification over continuous conditioning – when you are subjected to a given scenario repeatedly how you respond becomes habit even outside the situation. But that has been true for all technological gadgets, right? What is interesting about Alexa is that she does this 24-hours a day and through a screen-less voice activated system. This means she is available to be controlled by toddlers who have not yet learnt to operate a hand-held digital device.

Are we amplifying our kids’ tirade of ‘I want it now’?

Anthropomorphize Alexa

A slightly deeper concern is about imparting human-like features to our virtual assistants. Manners and etiquette teach our kids a sense of respect for the sensibilities of other people. In encouraging our kids to say ‘please’ are we suggesting that Alexa needs to be respected for  doing something that we asked her to do? Does that mean that Alexa has rights, and that one of these rights is to say ‘no’? 

Are we teaching our kids that machines have sensibilities?

Robotic Nicety

Here is another thought – telling children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to machines inculcates a robotic or mechanical like lifelessness to the rendition. I am afraid to say, I find the argument compelling that teaching kids to treat a piece of software, however intelligent that is, like you would treat people opens up questions about differentiating animate and inanimate objects.

Are we, in the process, teaching our kids to run through the polite words like courtesy routines without the importance meaning, effect or purpose?

None of the above is of course the intent of bringing in a humanoid helper into the house. Having a virtual assistant is powerful, fun and certainly the future. I am not for reversing the wheel ever. What I want for my kids is a world where they can thrive and not just survive. 

If you have been reading our blogs, you know this by now that we, at PopSmartKids, are all for mentoring and not monitoring. This is true for every aspect of growing up, and this is especially imperative when it comes to navigating the increasingly quasi-digital world around us.

If we let Alexa teach our kids good habits, can we let our kids ask Alexa any of the following questions.

Alexa, Can I watch TV now?

Alexa, Is it bedtime yet?

Alexa, what is 12 times 24?

If your answer is no, then where do we draw the line? What is allowed and what is not? Also, the big question is how should we decide that?

Next week we are going to make an attempt to answer some of these questions or at least discuss some of the ways that we can help our next generation apprehend the human-humanoid interaction.

Watch this space next week.

I, Alexa

by Priyanka Raha ~ July 19, 2018

Should you say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ to Alexa?

Good digital citizenship habits

I say Alexa because I am so used to hearing it a number of times during the day at home but really this could be for any digital assistant that you may have – Google home, HomePod etc. So if you are reading this simply replace Alexa with your assistant of choice. 

Now let’s talk about how we interact with our digital assistants

This is a 3-part series. In part one, I want to talk about if we should be polite to our digital assistants? Should you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to Alexa?

At home my kids have a lot of fun asking Alexa a ton of questions:

Alexa, what is the weather today? 

Alexa, what are volcanoes? 

Alexa, sing Believer.

They love how she can magically burst into a song and be a know-it-all or mention whether it’s going to be sunny. For the most part, she does a good job of complying to all of these requests. The irony hasn’t been lost on me that I am referring to Alexa as ‘she’.

Now there are more than a few occasions when it’s not an ideal scenario. We hear ‘I am sorry, I don’t understand the question’. Apparently this is Alexa’s most uttered phrase. In a nutshell, this happens when Alexa didn’t understand the words either because there was noise interference or due to the lexicon. I am not going to dive more than that into why that is or what are the ways that this can be avoided.

I am here to discuss what happens after Alexa has spoken those words.

Here is how it goes after that. My kids would blurt out one of the following phrases.

‘Oh come on.’

‘Alexa, you don’t know anything.’

‘Mommy, she is not very smart, is she?’

And the extreme (I think) is – ‘Alexa, you are dumb.’

I would retort back saying, ‘That is not a nice thing to say!’

My kids would promptly remind me that Alexa is not a person, so it is okay. Is it though?

Kids learn behavior through repetitive conditioning and practice. Will they remember to not say these things if they run into a similar scenario in a more social layout? Will they remember to interact responsibly over an email or social media in the future? Will this affect in a not-so-positive way in inculcating good digital citizenship habits? 

I know we are probably far away from a scenario of humanoids walking around amongst us with indiscernible features and functions to us humans. But we are certainly getting closer and closer to having more virtual assistants becoming infused with our homes, cars and accessories. I think empathy should be an obligation in the digital world, especially when we are interacting with our humanoid helpers. It is up to us adults to help children conceptualize virtual assistants in a healthy way.

Amazon is certainly playing its part in this quest. It has recently launched a kids version of Alexa, they are calling it Echo Dot Kids. It is powered by kid-friendly content, easy-to-use parental controls and can call kids to dinner or tell them it’s bedtime. What is remarkable is if kids add please to their question, Alexa adds positive reinforcement by mentioning, ‘By the way, thanks for asking so nicely’

This is all very encouraging, it really is. But does this mean that we as parents or educators can rest easy and have no role to play? Experts at the crossroads of pediatrics, psychology and A.I. say there is a lot we don’t know about how virtual assistants might affect young, developing minds and the effects are more subtle than saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

Wait, it is not all bleak. I certainly love my Alexa and my kids think she is pretty cool, except for when she doesn’t understand but that is the beauty of A.I. – she will get better. For now, as parents we can take proactive steps to help children better understand and interact with our Alexas. 

Next week, I am going to dive deep into the delicate nature of what are the not-so-explicit effects of the likes of Alexa, Siri and Cortana in our lives. 

Stay tuned!

Are digital apps helping overcome the language barrier?

by Shikha Das Shankar ~ July 12, 2018

Digital Apps that foster engagement

An overcrowded, concrete classroom with rows of children sitting on wooden benches and repeating sentences is my earliest memory of learning a language. The monotony of the daily classroom exercise made it seem like children were chanting instead of learning. This technique of imparting language skills was a manifestation of the audio-lingual method of learning based on repetition and memorization of sentences until the student can use it spontaneously. Understanding grammar or use of a native language was not part of the learning process.

Decades later, learning multiple languages has become common, easier and thankfully, fun. Hundreds of eLearning platforms and smartphone apps enable you to learn a language in the comfort of your home. Duolingo, Mosalingua, Busuu and Memrise are just a few popular language-learning apps for adults. The popularity of digitally learning a language brought with it a wave of language-learning apps for children too; an area I am now treading my way around quite unexpectedly.

Our family is bilingual, and all of us switch between speaking English and Hindi, a language commonly spoken in India, with ease. I thought my job was done as far as teaching languages was concerned. The school along with some support from us at home would take care of it. I was in for a rude shock when my husband’s new job relocated us to a city in south Florida after seven years in the Seattle area. This cross-country move was more like an upheaval in our lives and was a lot of hard work but we were ready for most of it.

What we were not ready for was that in this predominantly Spanish-speaking area, not knowing the language was beginning to be a hindrance. Never did I think that my kids would be unable to talk to other kids in the park because of the language gap, or that I would have to use hand actions to explain my question about garbage collection to my neighbor. All preschools in the area are bilingual, people complimented my daughter’s unicorn headband in Spanish, and I got looks of bewilderment when I said, “I don’t understand what you are saying”.

Spanish is the default language here and learning it became priority.

My intention was to introduce my kids to the new language in a fun and interactive way. The digital space is a treasure trove for learning resources for children and language apps have far exceeded expectations. So I was certain an app or two from the plethora of language learning apps would be useful.

The apps we have used are engaging and easy to use for the kids as well as grown-ups. We are hooked on to Endless Spanish and Gus on the Go. The kids (and I) have been quick to pick up many words and sounds. Later on, the option of a more comprehensive app like Rosetta Stone which uses voice-enabled technology to help perfect your accent, or Studycat, which combines conventional learning techniques along with fun games, will help us advance in the learning process. 

Whether they are able to learn to read, write or talk in Spanish exclusively by the use of digital technology remains to be seen. For now the apps have set the ball rolling in the right direction by creating interest and building familiarity with a new language, which makes for a good start. 

So when it comes to living in this multilingual new world, is digital learning technique the way to go?

Shikha Das Shankar is a storyteller. Multitasking dragon slayer mom. Happy hiker. When not writing, she loves hiking with her favorite trio—the son, the daughter and the husband or cooking her favorite foods in her de-stressing zone, the kitchen.