Six Questions for the EdTech Field to Think About When Designing for the 0 to 8 Set

When studying media for early learning, researchers must keep equity at the forefront, says Shelley Pasnik.

Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology, was one of a group of media creators, scholars, and educators who met in Pittsburgh in early June for the 2014 Fred Forward Conference. Experts discussed how to help children build consistent, positive, and meaningful connections with human beings and new media. 

Maya Angelou—memoirist, poet, and frequent “Sesame Street” visitor—died last month. Maya_Angelou-300x226Perhaps receiving less attention, a day later the National Center for Education Statistics released “The Condition of Education 2014,” its yearly rundown of how US classrooms are faring. Among other figures cited in this year’s report, we learn that more kids are living in poverty than when we entered this century.

In 2000, 1 in 7 children lived in poverty. Today, that figure is 1 in 5.

Although the difference between these two ratios is millions of children, it is the change within local communities where we begin to comprehend and feel the numbers. For me, it’s the bus stops. In my hometown in Medford, Oregon, school bus stops used to be exclusively in front of homes in residential neighborhoods. Now, we see buses stopping on the banks of the local creek where displaced families are living in tents.

Meanwhile, much has happened technologically since 2000: Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary; the buzz word “gamification” came and went; for-profit Kickstarter campaigns, such as LeVar Burton’s for “Reading Rainbow,” have performed fundraising backflips; many of us not only became smitten with smart phones and tablets but happily outsourced our memories to them.

So vast is the amount of money pouring into educational technology—$2 billion dollars is expected in 2014—that NPR’s “Marketplace” has bankrolled a new series, “Learning Curve,” tracking spending trends and what’s beneath them.

Maya. Media making. Money. These have no direct causal or even correlational links. Instead, the links I am hoping we make together are moral and financial ones.

For several years, I’ve had the honor of overseeing a team of researchers tasked with evaluating Ready to Learn, a federal program that invests in families by investing in public media. Likewise, through a pair of grants from the National Science Foundation, we are engaged in R&D efforts with crackerjack production (WGBH) and research (EDC and SRI) teams called Next Generation Preschool Math and Science. It’s been my job to see to it that taxpayer dollars—millions of taxpayer dollars—are spent wisely in the name of early learning media research and production.

Here’s where I’ve landed: equity. We absolutely must use all we know to create equitable learning opportunities, making sure 5 in 5 children have a chance to flourish.

As a broad community of researchers, producers, and child advocates, I’d like us to double-down on our pursuit of bold, imaginative questions and seeing the answers to these questions through. No doubt every person working in the field of early learning can generate a list of questions worth asking; here are some of the questions I had the opportunity to pose to those attending this year’s Fred Forward Conference:

1)   Who are the Alison Gopniks of economically, culturally, and linguistically inclusive study designs? From her acclaimed book, “Scientist in the Crib,” to her popular TED talk, she’s brilliant. And, as she has acknowledged, her work points to additional lines of inquiry as her studies frequently involve children living in affluent Berkeley, California. We need to elevate the profiles of researchers working in a wide range of communities.

2)   How do we use social media and other digital tools to boost early childhood educators’ professionalism, societal profile, and sense of agency? We must stop perpetuating stale stereotypes that portray early educators as untrained day care providers. Rather, we need to recognize that the 1.8 million early educators are dedicated professionals—yet make on average only $22,000 a year.

3)   How do we interrupt the glut of games being developed that simply replicate in digital form what already exists and works well in analog? This includes counting and 2D shapes when it comes to math—and letter recognition when it comes to literacy. What’s the game mechanic that supports prediction, an essential science reasoning building block? WGBH is hoping to tackle this with the tablet-based activities they have under development, but there’s plenty of room for producers who want to tackle the real complexities of early learning.

4)   What’s the companion to the Picky Teacher Database from the Children’s Technology Review that will show teachers and parents how to be an effective mediator? Adults with mediation dexterity are able to support the learning trifecta for young children: content knowledge, skill building, and academically productive talk. Discourse, though, cannot be reduced to literacy. We need practical illustrations of how to promote math and science discourse—as well as art and spatial reasoning discourse. The Fred Rogers Center Early Learning Environment (Ele) certainly heads in this direction, and the last round of Ready to Learn research generated some accessible science and literacy video vignettes. However, we need additional resources that offer parents and teachers mediation models that show—and not just tell—caring adults when to pose open-ended questions and how to extend screen play with hands-on explorations.

5)   How can production and research emphasize peer and kid-to-adult interactions? We need smarter data feedback systems that incorporate collaborative and group play—not progress trackers that strip away social engagement and family relationships by focusing solely on an individual child’s performance. We must build on the long-standing commitment to meeting children where they are—developmentally, cognitively, emotionally, and socially—rather than monitoring a string of isolated academic tasks.

6)   Can digital platforms help kids develop noncognitive skills that other resources can’t? Consider things such as “joyful tenacity,” the wonderful phrase Frances Judd of Mrs. Judd’s Games coined at this year’s Fred Forward Conference when describing her approach to research-based design. What does this mix of pleasure, productive frustration and persistence look like? Do parents and teachers know how to foster joyful tenacity? What about producers and researchers? If so, I say let’s all do that—and pronto.


Photo: Sesame Street Screenshot

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