Digital Media in Early Childhood? Not Without Trained Teachers and Guidance for Parents


11.21.11 | The New America Foundation’s Lisa Guernsey says the role of caring adults in the lives of young children is too often in the background of debates over whether digital technology has a place in teaching and learning for the preschool set.

The crucial role that parents, families and teachers play is too often left out, notes Guernsey in this thoughtful piece at the Huffington Post.


Photo by Mike Oliveri.

“There is no recognition of how much learning happens when adults get involved and expose children to the wonders of the world and then, using the growing range of tools at their disposal, help children seek answers to questions about what they have seen and experienced,” she writes.

Pointing to a new report from the Digital Age Teacher Preparation Council that aims to provide a “blueprint” to advance the use of effective digital media in teaching and learning (see Spotlight’s coverage of the report here), Guernsey says there is agreement that teachers should be leading the “how, if and when” of technology use in pre-K, kindergarten or early grades classrooms.

As we’ve noted, it’s hard to find examples of what active learning with technology looks like for this age group, and Guernsey points to several examples from this report that are inspiring—from using online games in hands-on science investigations to expanding young children’s authorial voice by reaching new audiences online and reflecting on the works of their peers. [More examples of innovative technology use in early education are included in a story I wrote last year.]

Importantly, Guernsey’s post also surveys the research about what we know about the use of technology in most early education classrooms today, which unfortunately looks very different from the innovative examples above:

A 2010 survey of NAEYC [National Association for the Education of Young Children] members showed that while 61 percent of classroom teachers are using computers “sometimes” or “everyday” with children, only 45 percent have an Internet-connected computer in their classroom. (The survey’s respondents were predominantly based in child care centers and preschools.) The survey wasn’t constructed to illuminate how teachers have used those tools - there’s no way to know whether these teachers showed children multimedia content linked to the day’s activities or whether software was harnessed to help children create projects.

One of the few other pieces of research is a 2009 study in Pediatrics on TV use in child care. It showed that children who attend programs operated out of a person’s home watch TV for 2.4 hours per day on average, compared to 0.4 hours when they attend child care centers.

The Digital Age Teacher Preparation Council, which first convened in January 2010, has found reason to be concerned. It reports on “major disconnects between the potential of technology and what actually happens in most classrooms.” (Full disclosure: I was invited to provide input at one of the meetings.)

“Although some teachers are taking on the challenge of learning how to incorporate technology into the classroom on their own initiative,” the report says, “they are in the minority and typically have access to a strong social network of support.”

The Teachers’ Preparation Council report lays out important goals like planning, collaboration, training, research and development, and ensuring that technology infrastructure exists. To these Guernsey adds, “help teachers help parents.”

Parents, Guernsey rightly points out, are desperate for guidance in this area. And they need help choosing appropriate technology and understanding how to use it with their children, while wading through marketers’ claims and fear-based media stories.

We know that the most important learning for young children comes from relationships. And if our children are going to be using these technologies in healthy ways that realize its promise for learning - it has to be with the direction and support of the adults in their lives.

More guidance is expected from the National Association for the Education of Young Children in the coming months, which is scheduled to release its updated technology policy in early 2012.

“I get nervous when people just close the door on technology in preschool,” Guernsey told me recently. “There’s an opening of windows onto new worlds that can occur when you have a computer there - a YouTube video or a Skype chat with other preschools in Sweden or Singapore. These are especially magical moments that can happen with young kids—especially when they just don’t get that otherwise.”

Plus, in a new podcast from Zero to Three, “Turning On or Tuning Out: The Influence of Media on Young Children’s Development,” you can listen to Ellen Wartella, professor of communications and psychology at Northwestern University, discuss recent research in this area. Wartella is one of the leading scholars on the role of media in children’s development. Here she discusses how parents can use what we know from the research to make good decisions about media use for their kids.

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