Now that digital technologies—and touch-screen tablets in particular—are finding their way into preschool and kindergarten classrooms, educators are faced with multiple questions about if, how, and when it is best to introduce them to young children. On September 3rd, the U.S. Department of Education brought together nearly 60 people from across the early childhood field to think through what would be of most help.

At least three needs became apparent throughout the day: Educators and parents need  succinct, research-based messages about what works best. Teachers and leaders need professional development on how to skillfully integrate technology into their teaching. And the app marketplace needs markers of quality informed by the science of child development.

The roundtable strategy session, hosted by the Office of Early Learning and the Office of Educational Technology, drew in experts from across the country, including developmental scientists, family engagement specialists, education school faculty, public media leaders, and philanthropic foundations.

It opened with remarks from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who stressed the importance of helping young students who do not have the advantages of more well-off peers who are using technology to learn and create. “The stakes are high but the opportunities are amazing,” Duncan said.

Kwesi Rollins, director of leadership programs for the Institute for Educational Leadership, called on participants to consider technology in the context of the relationships between parents, educators, and community groups that are on the ground working with children everyday–particularly,” he said, “in communities that may need a little more help.”  

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center and New America (Michael Levine and I) provided a brief presentation to show how the field has become more sophisticated about technology use over the past few years—but has much more work to do. [Slides to come soon.]

For example, the technology position statement from The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Roger’s Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media is guiding an increasing number of PreK-3rd educators, and new Screen Sense guidelines from Zero to Three are making an impact on how professionals and parents work with and care for infants and toddlers. Both statements emphasize that if and when digital media is to be used, be sure that it promotes joint engagement between children and adults, and among children with each other, to stimulate conversation, language development, and on-and-off-line exploration. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which is known for its blanket statement of “no screens” before age 2, also puts its focus on the importance of social interaction.

[Much of this guidance is discussed in the forthcoming book by me and Levine, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, which describes what it will take to harness technology appropriately and improve the odds for literacy learning for the next generation, especially for children without access to mentors and resources. The field needs to become more intentional and forward-thinking in helping educators and communities create environments that enable new literacies. The website, launched last week, provides more details.]  

A new set of reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources is also available to help the field:  Uses of Technology to Support Early Childhood Practice was published by the Administration for Children and Families last spring.

With these resources out there, several questions of the day centered on communication and outreach: Are educators and parents aware of these resources? Could the U.S. Department of Education play a role in dissemination and guidance? Could the guidance be boiled down into short, pithy statements that could take hold in classrooms, libraries, and households?  Some groups, such as Abriendo Puertas, are trying to reach parents with one-page “tech tips” (here in English and here in Spanish). Common Sense Media, an advocacy organization and website that rates children’s media, has also provided bite-sized “screen time” guidance for parents. What might be the equivalent for educators, and how might they guide new professional learning opportunities?

And meanwhile, could the app stores be nudged into marking their products in a way that could steer parents and educators to better resources?  For example, the Department of Ed has already published a guide for developers focused on the K-12 market.

Although the Obama Administration will be ending in less than 18 months, evidently it is not prepared to wind down yet. Libby Doggett, director of the Office of Early Learning, and Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology, are actively seeking ideas and advice on how to make a difference on these issues in the coming year. The Sept 3 event sparked conversation on Twitter at #earlytech. Join in there if you have thoughts on how experts, stakeholder organizations, and federal agencies can help.

[Cross-posted Ed Central]

Lisa Guernsey

Lisa Guernsey is Director of the Learning Technologies Project and Director of the Early Education Initiative in New America’s Education Policy Program.