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Top ways to choose and use tech in early education

Proper early childhood education technology use is critical

early-educationMaking sure that young children benefit from technology isn’t quite as simple as handing a child a mobile device with age-appropriate apps. But using a series of questions and requirements can help ensure that technology in early childhood education environments makes a big impact.

Research has already established some key steps to better early childhood technology use, and ensuring that technology resources and software meet certain requirements can enhance young students’ experiences and learning.

Technology tools are just like paper, blocks, or crayons–they’re materials from which teachers can select to facilitate learning and play.

(Next page: Steps for evaluating early childhood tech use)

Part of what makes the use of technology tools educational is what children do with the tools, said Fran Simon, chief engagement officer for the consulting firm Engagement Strategies and cofounder of the Early Childhood Technology Network. Focusing on verbs and actions can help early childhood educators ensure that young children are engaged in active and interactive technology experiences.

Avoiding technology use for technology’s sake will ensure that technology experiences in early childhood education environments are impactful.

“Technology is not always the best choice,” said Karen Nemeth, founder and lead consultant for Language Castle and cofounder of the Early Childhood Technology Network. “Teachers should look at their teaching and learning goals and choose what will help them meet those goals. Sometimes technology will be the best choice, and sometimes it won’t.”

For instance, they should be able to sort through the vendor hype. “Technology is meant to help the teacher plan, intentionally, to add more to the lesson, in terms of content,” Nemeth said. “If the main attraction is it being ‘cute,’ that would be a red flag.”

Analyzing claims is important. “Does it meet the level of rigor [in the classroom]? Look for software that offers children motivation,” Simon said.

Early childhood educators can discern what children are actually doing with technology by determining if children are media creators or consumers. Children are consumers of media when they absorb it for entertainment or learning, such as reading eBooks, researching online, playing games, or watching videos. Children are creating media when they create and edit videos, take photos, develop presentations, produce digital art, or write stories.

This isn’t to say that one is better than the other, but early childhood education classrooms tend toward creation versus consumption, Simon said.

Nemeth offered three considerations when it comes to making decisions about using software in early education:
1. What do you want the children to learn? What are your learning objectives, what is the right tool to meet those objectives, is the interaction meaningful, and does it fit in with the unit or project?
2. Is there balance? Is the app, software, or website best for a large group, small group, or an individual? Is it teacher-directed or child-initiated? Is it open-ended or concept- or skill-focused? Is it collaborative or independent?
3. Does it offer usability and instructional design? Is the software, app, or website flashy and distracting or is it just appealing enough? Do the graphics sand sounds engage without distracting? Is it free of ads or enticements, is it recommended by trusted sources, and is it easy for children to navigate? Does it provide feedback to guide children, and it is interactive with meaning, or is its purpose merely for fun?

Digital tools make sense when they are meaningful, have pedagogical value, are engaging, are interactive, and are productive. Educators should ask if technology enhances students’ experiences or distracts them from learning in each situation.

It is not hardware or software, apps, or websites that make technology experiences educational–it is the intention, implementation, and synthesis behind them, Nemeth said. Quality early educational technology tools allow children to “do,” and to make something happen, and they allow teachers to facilitate learning.

Simon and Nemeth outlined recommendations to guide early childhood technology implementation:

  • Integrate technology throughout the day
  • Make technology tools available throughout the room
  • Use technology for opportunities that foster relationships with children and adults
  • Provide opportunities for autonomy
  • Make sure adults are available to support learning–technology shouldn’t be a babysitter
  • Integrate technology throughout special events, including before, during, and after
  • Integrate technology when children go home

Simon and Nemeth discussed their guidelines during an edWeb webinar, and their own matrix for evaluating early childhood technology use can be found here.

Laura Ascione

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