Early Learning | October 2012 Digital Edition

12 Best Practices For Moving Young Learners Forward With Technology

News flash! Young children like technology! Early childhood programs can reinforce safe and appropriate usage by being intentional with their policies and instructional practices.

This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's October 2012 digital edition.

No doubt you have seen parents in a store, on an airplane, or in a car pass their mobile device (smartphone, handheld device, tablet) to their toddler or young school-aged child to entertain and contain them for some period of time. Some people have termed this the "passback" effect--an intentional use of the device as pacifier to keep the kids quiet and occupied so that the parents can focus on driving or shopping, or making it painlessly through a trans-continental flight. 

Schools have had their own version of the passback method for years, putting a computer or two in the back of the room and letting students who "behave" or finish their work early use the computer as a reward. Happily, many districts are moving away from the passback approach to K-12 technology use, instituting 1-to-1 computing practices that integrate technology seamlessly and appropriately into curriculum and instruction.

Early childhood experts say that schools need to be similarly intentional in how they use technology with young children, especially as new mobile devices and advanced touchscreens rapidly make their way into preschool programs. As technology consultant Gail Lovely argues, "the first use of a device often dictates its longer-term use. We cannot afford to let the passback practice undermine more powerful integration of technologies with young learners."

Here, Lovely and early childhood consultant Deb Moberly each share six best practices for teachers and for district policymakers to move technology use with young children forward--ensuring that "passback" will be a thing of the past.

6 Important questions to ask before choosing apps for early learners

by Gail Lovely

I am a big advocate of using touchscreen mobile devices with young learners, especially those with built-in cameras. There are so many developmentally appropriate ways to incorporate these responsive, child-friendly tools into early learning. For example, if the goal is to work with colors and shapes, having students move about their environment capturing real-world examples is a powerful learning activity. Mobile technologies also allow students to share and discuss their learning, whether through a live demonstration or an audio recording annotating student work.

It is important to select apps based on power, purpose, and appropriateness and not merely price. Some things are worth paying for. Avoid in-app advertising, in-app purchases, and also in-app "upgrade opportunities" as these can distract and confuse young learners (defined here as ages 2 to 8). And finally, as you consider what apps to buy for students, I cannot overemphasize the importance of professional development so that teacher-users to have time to explore the tools and their possibilities for use. 

1. Does the app let you customize content?
Look for apps that are customizable. Write My Name by Injini, for example, allows for personalized content--like the names and faces of students, specific word lists, or locally specific vocabulary--so that the content can be changed for different children.

2. Does the app give you a return on investment?
The effort put into learning an app should continue to provide benefits to the user--student or teacher--over time. For example, with an art app like Art Set, users can begin very simply, but as they master its toolset, they can apply its capabilities to different learning tasks with increasing sophistication. Thus, over time the app's utility increases--unlike some games that just play themselves out.

3. Is there appropriate support for young learners?
Curriculum-rich apps with promise should include scaffolding to help keep young learners moving forward with purpose. Toontastic is a writing tutorial with step-by-step support (including audio) yet it doesn't lock young learners into too much constrained work.

4. Does the app keep the student's interest?
Sometimes apps are good because they address dry learning tasks in a novel way. Math Doodles is really "just" a math facts practice app, but it is embedded within a problem solving experience that includes number systems (Roman numerals, binary, and Chinese as examples) and other types of math including money, fractions, and geometric shapes to add a bit of spy-like decoding to the experience. 

5. Can you export the student's work for sharing or evaluation?
Apps like Explain Everything allow for saving work to the device's camera roll, as well as to Dropbox, Box, and other cloud-based file management/storage systems. Students are quick to learn to save their work to the account so it can be accessed or used elsewhere (and also for backup in case of device failure or user error).

6. Does the app provide access to unavailable resources?
One vital role for apps is to supplement a school's physical resources with virtual ones such as musical instruments, science experiments, math manipulatives, picture books, and more. Device-based resources can be a great way to extend what is locally available. I have seen kindergarteners create their own band with device-based and classroom-based instruments; the music wasn't great, but the collaboration and cooperation was a wonder to see and hear.

6 Key principles on technology use for early learning programs

by Deb Moberly

In January, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at St. Vincent College issued a joint position statement on the use of digital tools in early childhood programs. The organizations' intention is to offer research-based guidance to early childhood programs on "the opportunities and the challenges" of using technology and interactive media with children from birth through age 8. The position paper outlines six "key messages" to help early childhood educators and policymakers understand and communicate principles to ground technology use with young children.

1. When used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.

Technology tools for early learning must be used within a developmentally appropriate framework of practice that also takes into account the social and cultural context of the children's lives. The position paper defines "effective uses" as those that are active, hands-on, engaging, and empowering; give the child control; provide adaptive scaffolds; and "are used as one of many options to support children's learning."

2. Intentional use requires early childhood teachers and administrators to have information and resources regarding the nature of these tools and the implications of their use with children.

NAEYC and the Rogers Center believe the use of a digital tool should "extend the opportunity for learning and development." Examples of extended learning opportunities include assistive technologies; technologies like digital portfolios that enhance children's communications with their families; and technologies that give children a sense of mastery, such as a book of their dictations.

3.Limitations on the use of technology and media are important.

Early learning programs should consider the screen time recommendations from public health organizations for children from birth through age 5. (See, for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics.) Limitations on use should include time spent in front of a screen at the school, home, and other places as well as the kind of content that a child is exposed to, including "undue exposure to violence or highly sexualized images."

4. Special considerations must be given to the use of technology with infants and toddlers.

The organizations recommend "prohibiting the passive use" of non-interactive technologies (television, video, DVDs) in programs for children under age 2, and discouraging the same passive use for children ages 2 through 5. Furthermore, the use of interactive technologies with children younger than 2 should be limited to those that support "responsive interactions" between children and adults.

5. Attention to digital citizenship and equitable access is essential.

Educators must not only foster critical thinking and questioning in children when they use technology, but teachers must also model such digital citizenship, which includes use that is safe, healthy, and socially positive. Digital citizenship necessarily includes "working to assure equitable access to technology and interactive media experiences" for all children.

6. Ongoing research and professional development are needed.

Because of the rapidly changing world of technology, teachers and caregivers need continual information and resources on how to "effectively select, use, integrate, and evaluate technology and interactive media tools in intentional and developmentally appropriate ways."

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