Elementary Technology Adoption | Q&A

From Toys to Learning Tools: 5 Questions with Gail Lovely

According to Gail Lovely, technology can be valuable even to the youngest learners, though caution is required to make sure the tools are appropriate for their abilities.

Research out of Carnegie Mellon, the University of Illinois, and multiple other institutions is just beginning to uncover the transformative effect of digital devices on the education of young children. Yet introducing these into the classroom can become a real distraction and a burden on the teacher--unless certain components are in place. The effective use of technologies in a classroom of little learners requires patience, strategy, and excellent technological resources.

Gail Lovely, a former teacher and administrator, consults for schools and districts to help them improve the relationship between teacher, learner, technology, and curriculum--particularly for early learners. In this interview Lovely shared her insights on the technologies that are making a difference in the classroom and what restrictions she places on the resources she recommends.

Lovely will be speaking at three sessions at the FETC 2011 conference, being held Jan. 31 through Feb. 3, 2011 in Florida: "Tech for Tots: Using Technologies to Enhance Early Learning," "Using Technology to Support and Encourage Beginning Readers," and "What's Out There and How Can I Find it Without Losing Anymore Sleep."

THE Journal: What trends are you seeing in elementary technology adoption?

Gail Lovely: For a long time much of elementary technology adoption was a "trickle down" approach: New technologies were purchased for the "top end" of the school, and the older technologies filtered down to the lower grades. As technologies have improved and matured, there seems to be some growth in using really great new technologies in planned, intentional deployments in the early years. The availability of touch screen technology, better sound and graphics at a lower cost, and other technological "breakthroughs" have made this more feasible. Smaller more powerful technologies such as portable and handheld devices have found powerful niches in early learning as well. The ease of multi-touch interfaces for little fingers will undoubtedly provide new, exciting integration of technologies with little learners.

THE Journal: Just how young are we talking here--and what skills need to be in place developmentally for that early learner to be able to participate?

Lovely: Very young people are using technologies outside of the classroom. It is not unusual to see toddlers using their parents' mobile phones to play games, communicate with others, and the like. In school settings I see technology use just beginning to blossom in the early years--3- to 5-year-olds--as we adults begin to see powerful learning opportunities held in these devices. Young learners can easily manipulate a touch-screen device. The use of keyboards is sidelined, and there is a simple interface that even very young learners can use.

THE Journal: When introducing digital resources into the classroom with early learners, where should the effort begin? What's the initial focus?

Lovely: Using technology to empower young learners and provide new ways to learn and explore is really important.... This is not about busywork. Initially, what's important are teachers and other adults using technology and modeling it as a tool for learning, thinking, and doing. Young learners in our schools already know technology as a toy. We need to begin the shift to technologies as tools. Making, doing, and creating are keys. We need students to be creators and producers, not just consumers. Making "storybooks," creating artwork, and recording voice or music are great places to start. All of these require little or no keyboard interface, as these learners are often pre-literate or pre-writing at least.

THE Journal: Won't it be a bit chaotic in the classroom if some kids are doing the computer thing while others are doing more traditional activities?

Lovely: Well, if you ever taught little learners you know that managed chaos is part of the classroom, even if technologies are not involved; but, actually, engaging learning activities are engaging to young learners, and some technologies can be used in extremely engaging ways. Imagine a group of 4- or 5-year-olds who are working on a certain phoneme taking pictures of things that have the sound they are studying and then sharing those images with their peers and their parents. Picture young learners creating digital stories using images and voice without need for keyboarding or even written language, but with the capability of written language for those who are ready. A well selected activity can immerse and engage.

One of the downsides is if we use technologically inappropriate tools with young learners. If we do that, we set up them up with a negative personal approach to using technology as a tool going forward, much like how some children think they're not good at math, and they hate math very young, not because they're not good at math, but because they've have a bad experience with math. So we have to be careful about how we select the tools and the resources and activities with really young learners.

I know that the American Academy of Pediatrics and others have talked about limiting screen time, and I think that's more about passive use, like watching television or passively watching a video on the computer. I don't see a lot of value-add to that. When they talk about screen time, they're talking about popping the kid in front of a video as a babysitting tool, as opposed to something in the classroom, which should be much more active and engaged, not passively consuming.

The other potential negative is adults who inadvertently or unintentionally think that technology can be a replacement for some of the really important physical things. Just because you can have virtual blocks on the computer doesn't mean that's really better than real blocks. So we have to be cautious about being intentional in our use.

I don't worry about any physical concerns that we heard about in the past because the amount of technology use in a school setting in early learning is so small. We're not going to have carpal tunnel from using a touch screen or eye problems because they don't spend hours and hours doing anything in school.

THE Journal: What do you look for in the digital resources and tools you recommend for use by early learners?

Lovely: Digital tools and resources for young learners must meet some specific characteristics: reading level that matches target users (including support for not-yet-readers), no advertising, and containing appropriate curriculum content that also encourages conversation and discussion.

Lovely will be speaking at the FETC 2011 conference in January and February 2011 in Orlando, FL. Further information can be found on the FETC's site here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.