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From the Screen to Paper: The Idea of “Transfer” as Applied to Tablet Technologies

I’ve been studying educational apps for years at this point, and one nagging thought I continually have is transfer. To me, transfer means that the skill(s) a student learned by using an app can then be applied, or transferred, from the tablet to authentic or paper-and-pencil tasks. When I first started thinking about this idea, I was reading a young adult novel on a tablet while preparing for a class. As I was reading, I kept thinking, or maybe reminiscing, about reading a paperback version of the novel. Yes, the letters and words on the page were the same (the page numbers weren’t, but that is a different topic), but the feeling was different. The way I transacted, engaged, and read the text was different. It felt kind of sterile to me. Since that moment, I have returned to reading paperback novels, but that started my thinking about transfer and educational apps. When I now think about transfer in relation to educational apps, I think about two different types: The transfer of physical skills and the transfer of mental skills.

  • Transfer of Physical Skills. Consider this scenario for a moment: You are a preschool teacher or a teacher of young students (e.g., Kindergarten or first grade), and you are teaching handwriting skills. The school has provided tablets and a variety of educational apps designed to support students’ handwriting development, such as Alphabet Tracing, Ollie’s Handwriting and Phonics, and Cursive Practice. Each of these apps requires students to trace letters using their fingers or a stylist, and they use “drill-the-skill” repetition-based exercises to teach and reinforce student learning of handwriting. After your students have gained “proficiency” of some level in tracing letters on their tablet, you give them each a piece of paper and a writing utensil. You then instruct them to write the letter A, B, C, etc. In this moment, your students struggle with holding the writing utensil appropriately, positioning the utensil on the paper, applying the correct amount of pressure, and the motor movements needed to guide the utensil over the paper so it results in the letter being written correctly. The question then becomes, what did your students learn from tracing letters on their tablet? They likely learned what a letter is supposed to look like and how to trace it on their tablet, and that is it. They did not learn how to write the letter on a piece of paper. Thus, the skill did not transfer.
  • Transfer of Mental Skills. Now, consider this scenario: You are a reading teacher of students who are reading at or below grade level. Your principal has charged you with using tablets and educational apps to increase your students’ reading levels. In response, you researched and decided to use the HMH Close Read, Inference Ace, and One Minute Reader apps. All of these educational apps are designed for your students to read a text and respond to it in some manner. As students work with these apps, you track their progress – either through emailed reports or in-app tracking sheets – and you’re pleased with their work. At a certain point, you feel ready to transfer your students from the reading exercises used by the educational apps to hardcopy texts. To do so, you decide to conduct a close read with your students on a passage that is on par with your students’ reading ability. As you go through the close-read activity, you notice that none of your students are annotating the text. Rather, they are reading it carefully. Plus, they are answering the questions and completing the post-reading activities with high accuracy rates. However, they are not physically touching the text. In this case, it could be argued that the transfer of mental skills did happen.


In the two hypothetical scenarios above, the students were able to transfer the mental skills (e.g., the concept of writing a letter and the reading comprehension skills) but they were limited in completing the physical aspects of the task (e.g., holding and using writing utensils to form letters and annotating the text). This then becomes the catch: Can apps be used to prepare students for the literacy demands placed on them by both the digital and traditional worlds? As technology continues to become more ubiquitous, the considerations outlined above must be made. To reduce reading and writing to tasks that happen on a tablet device is not authentic; however, to base all our teaching and learning in paper-and-pencil tasks is not authentic either. If we are to use educational apps effectively, we must ensure that the skills students acquire from them can be transferred across the different worlds in which they will and do exist.