Bringing the Tech Revolution to Early Learning

Why do I advocate for “early tech”? I’ll give you three good reasons: my granddaughters Ella, Clara, and Zayla. I’ve seen the way technology has helped them to take charge of their own learning and opened doors to subjects and activities that really catch their interest.

It’s nothing short of amazing to think about how far we’ve come in the past ten years. Our children – and our grandchildren – pick up a device and instantly know how it works. They shift seamlessly from a hand-held device to a laptop or desktop and back again.

Whether we’ve seen it firsthand in our families, read about it in the papers, or heard about it from our friends and co-workers, we know that technology can be a great tool for early learning. That’s why America’s early learning community – and anyone who wants to help build a brighter future for the next generation – must make smarter use of these cutting-edge resources, provide better support for the teachers who use them, and help ensure that all our young children have equitable access to the right technology. “Early tech” can be an incredible tool to increase access and quality, when we understand how to use it for good.

Today, devices can not only bring the world to our students, but they also can bring what children create to the world. Kids can generate their own media through digital still and video camera and recording applications and, if they want, share it with students around the world. Our kids have the power to learn so much from their own creativity – creativity that technology supports and encourages.

In short, technology can spark imagination in young children, remove barriers to play and provide appropriate learning platforms as tools for reflection and critical thinking. It also offers children the ability to reflect easily by erasing, storing, recalling, modifying and representing thoughts on tablets and other devices.

As an educator, I’m excited by the almost limitless potential of really good technology to teach children new skills and reinforce what they already know. Tablets, computers, and hand-held devices, like smart phones and mp3 players, can be powerful assets in preschool classrooms when they’re integrated into an active, play-based curriculum. The National Association of Educators of Young Children, a leading organization that promotes early childhood education, agrees: technology and interactive media should be used intentionally to support learning and development.

What’s more, recent research has found that when used properly, technology can support the acquisition of what are called “executive functioning skills,” such as collaboration, taking turns, patience, and cooperative discussion of ideas with peers.

Technology can also dramatically improve communication and collaboration between each child’s school and home. With the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, teachers can connect with parents, updating them about student’s academic progress or providing information about an upcoming school event.

While we know its power to transform preschool classrooms, systemic and cultural barriers have prevented the early learning field from fully embracing technology. Preschools often have limited funding and few good hardware and software choices. At times, early learning teachers and directors have actually had less exposure to technology than their students have. They fear that technology won’t be developmentally-appropriate and that devices will distract students from rich, play-based classroom experiences. Teachers have told me they are daunted by the task of selecting the right apps and devices.

We need to change this way of thinking – and the systems behind it.

We need all early learning centers to have broadband access like that provided to schools. As the ConnectED Initiative works to ensure all schools and libraries have the infrastructure to take advantage of learning powered by technology, we also need to make sure all Head Start and community-based preschool programs are included, so our youngest children can take advantage of these tools.

Center directors, school principals and other early learning leaders must step up and lead by example, facilitating the successful use of technology, particularly in preschool settings. Teachers shouldn’t – and can’t – be alone in this endeavor. They need fearless principals and administrators who will advocate for pre-service and in-service learning that supports teacher understanding of how to use technology in early learning settings.

At the same time, we need more models of how technology works in early learning classrooms. Technology strengthens and deepens classroom instruction. It can extend and support a child-centric, play-based curriculum just as other manipulatives  do, including wooden blocks, magic markers or a classroom pet – but in a format that can be accessible far beyond the classroom. But, in order to make effective use of these new strategies, teachers need to see them in practice – and that currently isn’t happening in enough places.

We need research that helps identify effective technology tools to support learning – and we need this research to be completed on a timely basis. A study that takes three years to complete doesn’t help educators and parents make informed decisions today. We need more places like The Joan Ganz Cooney Center to help us understand the challenges of educating children in a rapidly changing media landscape.

We also need easier ways to find the best tools and apps. We need more programs like Ready To Learn, which has adapted its former TV-only content to new platforms and is now available to all families and children across the country.

And last, but certainly not least, we need more funding for early learning. When Congress passes legislation to implement and fund the President’s Preschool for All proposal, we will have the financial resources to drive the tech revolution that we so urgently need in our early learning system.

We have, quite literally, tens of millions of reasons for taking action in all our precious children and grandchildren. Each and every one of them deserves a great start in life – and that’s exactly what “early tech” helps to provide.

Libby Doggett is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education

7 Comments

  1. I agree that more technology needs to be integrated into the early childhood classroom but I think it is important to make sure that it is engaging and developmentally appropriate. It is so tempting to pull up a Brain Pop video or play a nursrey song video from Youtube on the Smart Board and plop it in your lesson plan then call it a day. I am gulty of this. I am learning as a student in my ECE courses that this is not the way to go. I would be interested in getting some training on integrating technology in the classroom in more creative ways than just the examples I gave above.

  2. Don’t wait for universal prek to be voted in. Pass a bill that will help fund early care technology for licensed centers across the USA. Support & train existing early care centers. Thank you!

  3. I absolutely support what you are saying here but unfortunately the people reading the grants at the DOE are not on board with you. I submitted a grant three years ago to put i-pads in the hands of pre-school kiddos and the reviewers said it was frivolous. The tools that are available are amazing and only getting better all the time. I too am scared for our lower income families. I am also worried about what these kids will experience when they come to school with mad skills because they have had access to a device at home and than placed in a traditional teacher-led instructional setting. These devices and apps are game changers. It’s extremely exciting and scary at the same time!

  4. For me the issue is guidance to the best resources. Apps that get real and sustainable results and are still fun and engaging for youth. I’m interesting in every subject area from PreK to 5th grade.

  5. In New York State the Preschool for All monies, and Smart schools monies look like they will not be available to programs such as the Main Street School at NSEEP, a public school 4410 program. We currently have a standards based special class integrated program with data to support our research based curriculum. Our state monies will fund Universal PK and Headstart. How do we obtain funding for other types of programs?

  6. You’re absolutely right. If we don’t, supply these families with early learning tech tools, we will only increase the gap between rich and poor kids–and it will be become even harder for the poor to succeed in school.

  7. Technology is great, but the fact of the matter is that kids like my own (professional family) will get the technology they need from home. The technology investment needs to be with our poverty families. There are so many early learning devices that can help promote literacy and math skills of toddlers and Pre-K aged kids. We supply these families with cell phones, so why can’t we supply rechargeable early learning tech tools?

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