Technology has a trickle-down effect. While baby boomers may have been the first generation to adopt computers and the internet, for instance, it didn't take long for their teenagers to surpass the parents' expertise. It was only a few years ago when parents questioned whether or not their middle-schooler should have access to a smartphone; now the devices are ubiquitous in elementary school. In fact, many children between ages 4 and 7 are consumed by their tablet while strapped in their car seat.
Griffith University researcher and author Robyn Levenia Zevenbergen calls it the " "technology constructed childhood." " Young learners are very different from those who came before them, even as recently as five years ago. While there is still a debate over whether young children should use technology for educational purposes, the reality is children are used to using technology.
So now the question lies in finding which strategies and tools best fit with the individual developmental needs of our youngest students, says Anna Baralt, director of educational technology at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, Florida, and an ISTE member.
" "While empirical research is still limited, especially in the area of early childhood education, anecdotal literature notes many emerging trends," " she says. Among those findings: Using technological tools increases motivation and student engagement, fosters opportunities for collaboration and problem solving, promotes the development of media and digital literacy skills and provides opportunities for students to be active participants in their learning.
Students choose how to engage
According to Baralt, the greatest benefits of educational technologies lie in their flexibility and how those technologies can be used to support the individual learning differences found in the typical classroom.
" "Take the iPad," " she says. " "There are hundreds of quality educational apps with built-in levels that can provide learning experiences that fit into each child's zone of proximal development." "
Just as importantly, technology plays a significant role in driving the young student's learning process. Technology gives the child the chance to make her own decisions about how to engage in learning.
Finally, Baralta adds, technology gives educators a way to document what and how the student is learning. " "Audio, photo and video capabilities allow for students to create and share their knowledge with individuals within and beyond the classroom walls." "
In that vein, touchscreens have been a game-changer when it comes to introducing technology to the PK through second grade set. They are easier to operate with small fingers. Children who aren't reading yet are able to operate functions based on pictures, or they learn the meaning of the different directional buttons.
Touchscreens have also changed how parents share technology with their young children at home, says Boni Hamilton, author of " "IT's Elementary! Integrating Technology in the Primary Grades." " " "Kids get much more introduction to technology at home, especially if there is a touch screen, than they do in school." "
In the classroom, Kim Oliver Burnim, a member of the ABCmouse.com Curriculum Board and the 2006 National Teacher of the Year, says teachers are turning to technology like interactive light boards, tablets and technologies that activate student knowledge.
" "I know a lot of teachers who, when teaching a very specific subject, will look for a video or a game that demonstrates the subject or skill," " says Oliver Burnim, a National Board Certified teacher and former National Board for Professional Teaching Standards board member. Teachers are also turning to technology to enhance center-based learning. " "Centers are very big in early childhood education, and technology is another center they use." "
Identifying the opportunities
Although Hamilton warns against the temptation to allow technology to be a babysitter for younger children, she believes that tech provides a lot of amazing learning opportunities, both at home and at school, when used properly.
For the PK-K age group, for example, technology offers online interactive read-aloud opportunities. The students can hear stories and see the voice/print match, something that will encourage beginning reading skills. " "They can discover that text goes from left to right, top to bottom of the page, if they are reading in English," " says Hamilton. This all leads to recognizing individual words that make up the story.
In a school setting, young children can listen in groups of two or three to a three- to five-minute story on the computer. It may not be individual attention, but the children are interacting with one another, which is a positive step. " "A child alone with a computer will not learn in the same way two children at a computer will learn," " says Hamilton. Working in pairs or teams is good for language development, cooperative skills and problem solving. There are programs in reading, math and other subjects that encourage the children to work together to figure out answers.
" "When technology is used in an interactive way, valuable skills can be gained for these young children," " Hamilton adds.
Encouraging creative skills
Reading, writing and math aren't the only valuable skills younger learners develop using education technology. Nurturing the creative side can be a big plus for teachers to get to know their students.
" "Drawing can be a window into a child's thinking," " says Hamilton. " "The touchscreen allows for a variety of creative outlets." "
And encouraging creative endeavors means introducing young children to a digital world beyond keyboards and touchscreens. " "I was excited when I saw a kindergarten class that had access to digital cameras, video cameras, voice recorders and MP3 players," " she says. " "The children had free use of those tools when they had something they felt needed to be captured for the benefit of others." " When these children learned the alphabet song, for example, some of their classmates recorded a performance of the piece.
" "Because the technology is embedded into the curriculum, it is embedded into what they are learning, and they are using it to demonstrate what they know," " Hamilton says. " "That's an invaluable use of technology." "
An innovative market
Technology is also embedded in the everyday lives of young children, a fact that has created a new niche market.
" "Spend a day observing families," " says Baralt. " "What do you see kids doing?" " Yes, some are reading at the library or running around in a park, but many of them are watching videos on a tablet or playing games on a parent's phone while accompanying mom or dad on errands.
" "Technology and digital media are shaping the values and beliefs of our culture," " she adds. " "They are also shaping our children and how they learn from the world around them. These experiences outside of school are very powerful and are permeating into our schools. Educators are challenged to bridge the gap between home and school." "
This need to close that gap is leading to tremendous innovation in digital learning, and in turn, in products and services to encourage digital learning for the youngest school children.
Entrepreneurs and established educational companies are developing websites and mobile apps especially geared for younger children, as well as more engaging resources for teachers and parents, according to ISTE member Zachary Katz, senior vice president of corporate development with ABCMouse, a global education initiative of Age of Learning Inc. There are more than 100,000 education apps for children in the Apple App Store, Katz says, and that doesn't include apps available on other platforms.
His own company sponsors independent research studies and has found significant positive impacts on learning outcomes.
While there are many resources that focus on literacy and math skills, Oliver Burnim says you can't discount the social and emotional benefits of these digital tools for younger children. Educational technology provides the ability to engage children in learning in ways never before presented. It gets them excited about learning and improves their focus and attention before they ever step foot into a classroom.
Plus programs that keep the children active and engaged and enhance literacy and math skills are a valuable tool for disadvantaged youth. That's why organizations like Age of Learning offer educational technology learning resources for free so anyone who has access to an internet connection — at home, school or the public library — can use the tools.
The screen-time debate
Young children and screen time has been a hotly debated topic in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was the first to publish any guidance on the topic when it commented in 2007 and again in 2012 when it provided further data on computer use and television watching.
More recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children ages 3 to 18 should have no more than two hours per day of any type of screen time. Because many children spend their free time involved in screen-time activities, should educators take that into consideration when engaging young children in technology-based activities in school, as well as homework assignments for first- and second-graders?
Baralt comes down on the side of remaining cautious and thoughtful about decisions involving screen time. Citing Lisa Guernsey's book " "Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child," " Baralt says it is important to follow the three Cs: content, context and child. Parents and teachers should focus more on the content of the educational technology and how it can extend the child's thinking and play activities, how it is integrated into the overall educational process, and finding the type of technology best suited for a child. Also, not all technology will require screen time, such as digital cameras and oral recording devices.
Katz agrees with this approach, adding that screen time has taken on a different meaning as educational technology takes more of a forefront among early childhood education. When evaluating the amount of screen time, it's important to consider the type. Interactive screen time, where the child is involved with playing an educational game or active learning, is much different than passive activities, like watching television or a video on a tablet.
For all of the positive advancements in educational technology for the PK-2 group, Hamilton admits there are a lot of missed opportunities, primarily in providing multilingual skills. Children of immigrants are asked to master the unfamiliar school language, while the language they speak at home is ignored. With technologies like MP3 players and online language programs, Hamilton says schools could help both the child and the parents learn the new language while keeping connected to their original language.
" "You could send audio recordings of books on MP3 players home with the children and encourage the parents to follow along," " she says. " "The child gets to learn the new language before they are put on the spot at school, and at the same time, the parent also learns the language." "
Young children are already familiar with technology because they use it before they ever walk into a classroom. Hamilton tells of a student in one of her classrooms who taught her and other adults how to use Skype. The child used the communication software every day to talk with a grandparent living far away. " "He was very frustrated because it took us a long time to learn," " Hamilton laughs. " "He said we weren't very good." "
Introducing educational technology in the classroom will be a fluid experience for both student and teacher — taking the devices that are cool and fun to use and turning them into an exciting and beneficial learning experience.