A Q&A with Chip Donohue and Roberta Schomburg

A year after the Rogers Center and the National Association for the Education of Young Children
(NAEYC) released Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children From Birth through Age 8, we talk with two experts about what excites them about using technology with preschoolers.

Rogers Center senior fellow Chip Donohue is Dean of Distance Learning and Continuing Education and the director of the Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at the Erikson Institute. Roberta Schomburg, also a Rogers Center senior fellow, is Associate Dean and Professor of the School of Education at Carlow University.

Barbara Ray: What role does digital media play in early childhood education today?

000018638677XSmall-347x346Roberta Schomburg: I think we have to realize that digital technologies are the new literacy. But just as we don’t expect preschoolers to be reading yet, in terms of digital literacies we have to understand that we’re not expecting little children to be doing what school-aged kids are doing with these technologies.

With an adult at their side using these tools, kids can get more comfortable and learn what they can do with the tools. That will be useful in learning later on.

Chip Donohue: Kids are growing up with digital tools all around them, including in informal learning sites. Practitioners in classrooms are looking for guidance in using these tools, and we have work to do to make the field comfortable with this. Some see technology as very different from the personal approach that we think of when we think of early childhood education. But rather than stopping technology’s use in the classrooms, we should instead use it to enhance what we’ve always done in these classrooms, not supplant it. We wrote the [Rogers Center/ NAEYC] position statement to provide guidance because we thought there was a place for technology in young children’s lives.

BR: Is there anything we should be cautious about in introducing these tools to young children?

RS: We have to make sure they’re developmentally appropriate and not used as just drill and practice experiences for kids. The rule of thumb is that if we wouldn’t give children paper and pencil tasks because they weren’t ready for that, then we shouldn’t give them an electronic worksheet. And always, they should be used in interaction with an adult—showing them how things work, vetting it in a language experience activity, enriching their vocabulary and the structure of language.

We have to keep in mind that this is a new literacy. We’ve moved from oral culture to a print tradition, and now we’re moving into digital technologies. Just as those prior shifts expanded our worlds, this too expands the possibilities. I think we have to look at how to take advantage of digital technology without losing the relationships and conversation and interaction with real materials.

BR: What are the fears or concerns about young kids and technology? And who is more concerned, parents or teachers?

CD: Both are concerned but for different reasons. In early childhood, what we hear is fears that technology will replace creative play and art and those kinds of things. There are concerns that kids will stop going outside to play or become socially isolated. They’re also not sure what to do with technology or which technology they should have in a classroom.

Parents want to see their kids use technology to learn, so they can be prepared and competent, but their fears lie more in how to regulate technology. How do I turn it off? They are looking for help on how to be the media manager at home—a home that now has multiple screens and multiple devices. Gone are the days when they had only one screen—the TV—to worry about.

Parents’ concern about screen time is based on traditional definition of passive viewing, as it applied to television. We have 30 years of research on TV and kids, but we know almost nothing about the effect of multiple touch devices or how kids might interface with five screens a day.

[R]ather than stopping technology’s use in the classrooms, we should instead use it to enhance what we’ve always done in these classrooms, not supplant it.

RS: Many people are concerned about digital technology replacing those things we know are important for children’s development. But if we continually think about balance, so we make sure we allow time for kids to be active and engage with other kids and play with building blocks and paint, and think about digital media as just one more set of materials for kids to engage with, then we’ll be OK. Making sure we keep that balance is critical.

BR: What’s promising or most exciting about these digital tools?

RS: What I find really exciting is the ability of kids to begin to understand what technologies do. They can take a picture of something and with their teachers connect it to a computer and move the photo around. They can do some digital tinkering—be involved in the process of learning and making some mistakes.

Interestingly, because teachers aren’t always experts with technology, they let kids tinker. They’re experimenting and the kids are experimenting right along with them. That’s key to developing them into adults who will have the creativity and innovation and the grit to be successful.

CD: I agree. The sense of being in control of their own learning and making choices about that, even at a very young age, is powerful. With this technology, kids are in control of what happens. That is important in terms of being an independent and confident learner.

For me, the game changer was the iPad and other devices with touch screens. For the youngest kids, touching screens is fun and compelling—you’re making things happen. It’s a natural invitation to kids. It’s also a barrier-free entry for kids; there’s no learning curve for operating a mouse or a keyboard. Kids can jump right in. We spend a lot of time worrying that technology is isolating for kids. But we’ve been handed this gift of the iPad. There’s something about that screen that draws other kids to it and we ought to take advantage of that.

RS: It’s amazing to watch kids who now don’t have to manage the eye-hand coordination to move a mouse. They’re initially drawn because they’re experimenting with cause and effect—they can make something happen with these. That’s very appealing. It’s like a busy box we give babies, only in a digital form. That’s a game changer.

CD: Mobile technologies [phones, tablets] also have really opened up the possibilities—a device that goes where the learning is, that’s powerful. I don’t have a hard time getting excited about what that could mean for a learning process and engaging children collectively.

BR: How do we get beyond our fears of this technology?

CD: Discovery and engagement—every childhood educator would agree that those two things are important. So I think we can manage the resistance around technology if we see it as a tool. It’s not on a pedestal as something more special. The key is to match a tool to the individual child, and teachers know how to do that.

BR: What questions should research be asking about kids and technology?

The lag between research and practice is always big, but in this digital age, when we don’t even know what the new tool will be a year from now, the gap is even more challenging.

CD: I’m interested in research that is helping us see the upside to digital media. Those who work with young kids see teachers reenergized because of what they can do with digital tools. They know that something is going on here. Getting research to validate what we suspect is true will help advance the best of digital media. We also want to know how to promote engagement between children and adults to avoid being socially isolating. Or what kinds of things are most compelling at various ages? Is there a point where it’s not appropriate any more?

Of course, just because we lack the research doesn’t mean we can’t get started. Teachers can be researchers too. We can find teachers who use these tools in amazing ways so we can understand their potential. The lag between research and practice is always big, but in this digital age, when we don’t even know what the new tool will be a year from now, the gap is even more challenging.

RS: I think one of the biggest challenges is to set a research agenda because currently that agenda is all over the place. We have some literature that looks at the effects of screen time, but I think that’s a distraction. Yes, TV is the most popular technology we think of now. But we have to start thinking of a broader approach to development in terms of what kids can learn with these technologies and what skills they can learn as producers of media themselves.

Some of the new advances are in the fields of special education where people are looking at ways that specific apps or technology can help kids develop skills that they’re struggling with, such as making eye contact with a figure on a screen. Some of these things might have potential and some might not, so I would love to see research on this.

BR: How has your thinking evolved since you began working in this field?

RS: Probably a couple ways. In the past, and to some extent now, so much of what was out there was inappropriate and involved passive viewing. I have real concerns about that. So because there wasn’t much out there that was really worth engaging kids in, I probably didn’t see that much value. But as technologies changed, one of the hooks for me was when I began to see kids trying to figure things out using technology. My dad was a scientist so this idea of experimenting was exciting.

I first saw the possibility in 1998 in Italy, at the world-famous Reggio Emilia preschools. The kids were visiting a city block, learning about the buildings there because they were creating a replica with blocks. They’d come back and create some images on the computer and see the buildings in 3D. They could see how it was all related, and it provided kids with different kinds of skills: experiencing the real buildings, coming back and creating an image, and then getting perspective via mapping. That opened my eyes to the possibilities.

CD: My work with technology and kids began in the Apple 2 days in the early 1980s. I’ve seen a lot of technology come and go, and I’ve seen a lot of it pushed off in the corner and covered up with a blanket because we don’t take the time to help teachers learn to use these tools. I saw it then, and I see it now. It’s a broken record, but still true. And then we’re shocked that they don’t use technology in the classroom. We run the risk of the iPad being in the corner under a blanket if we don’t take the time to help teachers feel confident about what they already know and apply that to technology.

BR: How do we train adults (either parents or educators) to use these tools to their fullest?

The next wave is helping teachers think critically about what they choose to use in the classroom and how best to integrate it into the classroom.

RS: Most adults are not as experienced or as trusting in technology, so we need to provide more opportunities for them to play around, and they’ll learn it by doing.

We also have to set the tone that it’s OK to experiment alongside kids. Adults are learners too—when adults show kids they’re learning too, kids feel more engaged. Adults don’t have to know everything; it’s not possible in this age when everything moves so fast. Our kids are always going to face having to figure out new things so it’s good to model experimenting together.

BR: What didn’t you see coming?

CD: I didn’t see coming the fact that we’d have the same conversation again and again. I guess I thought we’d solve this issue of whether technology has a place in early childhood education. The fact that we still hear resistance from the field says to me that we have a ways to go yet.

BR: Who are you watching? What’s the next wave of technology?

CD: One of the things I’ve had the pleasure to be involved in with Warren Buckleitner [editor of Children’s Technology Review] are app camps where we bring app developers together to think about what’s good in app development and then researchers help them raise the bar on what’s appropriate for little kids. It’s exciting to watch developers who are embracing that and working to bridge the gap between what they do so well and the things they don’t know about child development and how kids learn.

There’s an awakening that the products will be better if they’re more thoughtful about this—and really understand how kids learn. They’ve been concerned all along, but I’m seeing a deeper level of engagement that suggests we’re not on separate teams here.

RS: The next wave is helping teachers think critically about what they choose to use in the classroom and how best to integrate it into the classroom. There’s now so much technology to choose from. When there were fewer options, people felt comfortable trying this or that. Now adults don’t know where to start. So we have to be careful in identifying what is quality. How do we select digital materials to meet our goals? How do we do that carefully and intentionally, and what standards do we use? Otherwise we’re going to be drowning in stuff.

For more watch Donohue and Schomburg in this video from last year’s Fred Forward Conference:

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