Education Week Multimedia Tool Shows Good Technology Use in Pre-K Through 3

By Benjamin Herold — January 15, 2015 5 min read
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Many teachers and parents now know that parking a young child in front of a screen—be it a television, computer, tablet, or smartphone—for extended periods of passive digital-media consumption is not a great thing to do.

But what constitutes good use of educational technology in the early years?

That’s the question Digital Education tried to answer for this year’s Education Week Quality Counts report. Here’s what we came up with (click on the image to open):

The goal was to produce a user-friendly tool that would let educators and caregivers really see for themselves what effective technology use looks like in grades Pre-K through 3. To do that, we turned to Belmont Hills Elementary in Pennsylvania’s 8,200-student Lower Merion School District, taking a grade-by-grade look at how the school is working to turn new ideas into a classroom reality.

Now, it’s important to say right up front that some experts—and many parents—don’t want young children exposed to any technology or screen time. Here’s a concise summary of why, courtesy of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

But many in the early-childhood and digital-media fields say the question is less about if technology will be present in early-childhood learning spaces, than about how all the technology that is already there is going to be used.

In one form or another, that’s the perspective of organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, Common Sense Media, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative. As part of our tool, we tried to concisely summarize years’ worth of research by those groups—and hours’ worth of interviews with their leaders—into a few bite-size nuggets for our readers.

Broadly speaking, Belmont Hills elementary (and one of its primary Pre-K feeders) are trying to do what these experts suggest: start with very limited uses of technology with your youngest students. Focus on promoting healthy relationships and rich adult-child interactions. Slowly build to incorporate tools that promote development of specific skills. Make sure you are supplementing, not replacing, face-to-face human instruction, peer interactions, play, and physical activity. Grow into helping students use technology as a tool for exploring the world, creating their own content, conducting their own research, and connecting with others. (For an in-depth summary, see the position statement on technology and young children issued by the NAEYC and Fred Rogers Center in 2012.)

Nobody is claiming that Belmont Hills is perfect. Many would probably like to see more inquiry-based teaching and technology use at the school, even at an early age. And the school’s use of a rotational blended-learning model is sure to give pause to some.

But we believe the school offers a realistic look at good ed-tech use that everyday educators and parents might feasibly expect to see in their schools.

Take, for example, the 3rd grade at Belmont Hills. Teacher Jason Jordan uses laptops and a software program called Garage Band to get students documenting and reflecting on how their reading fluency improves over time:

In first grade, meanwhile, teacher Elizabeth Armater has students using a classroom set of iPads and a variety of apps.

Some readers will probably look at a room full of 6- and 7-year olds reading alone on digital tablets as a poor substitute for reading together with their teacher and classmates.

That was my initial reaction, too.

But both Armater and Jennifer Goldberg, the Lower Merion district’s elementary technology specialist, stressed to me that it’s not a matter of either/or, at least if the technology is being used correctly.

Take, for example, the lesson described above on Educreations, a screen-casting and voice-recording app for creating video-guided lessons.

While Armater worked with students on the other side of the room, 6-year old Ella Schmeidler read independently. Five years ago, she’d have been doing the same thing. But now, as Ella read, she also listened over headphones to her teacher’s voice (recorded earlier using the app’s screen-casting capabilities), reading along, offering prompts, and asking questions. And at the same time, on her screen, she saw not only the pages of the book, but notes and prompts Armater had made to help Ella and other students make connections between the book’s words and images, understand key points, and more.

And the kicker: Armater had produced three different versions of the Educreations lesson, so each student reading along on their iPad got an experience tailored to their individual skill and reading level.

“The iPads would never replace a teacher. But it does give a teacher the opportunity to do multiple things at once,” Goldberg said.

That’s the type of classroom technology use that has many people excited about the potential of digital tools to help teachers pay more, not less, attention to their students.

But getting there takes time, patience, and vision, as well as an informed sense of what’s developmentally appropriate for children of different ages.

One big key, especially for the youngest children, is making sure that any technology that is used is integrated into a well-rounded experience for children.

For example, consider the way the Bala Cynwyd School for Young Children, a private preschool that feeds Belmont Hills, uses an iPad app as part of a multifaceted, “multisensory” approach to helping children learn to form letters.

On that note, I’d love to open up a conversation. Let us know in the comments and on Twitter what you think.

Photo: Kindergarten teacher Carrie Mink works with her students at Belmont Hills Elementary in Lower Merion, Pa. - Jessica Kourkounis for Education Week.

Videos by Jessica Kourkounis for Education Week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.