Researchers, educators, pediatricians and passersby warn parents against putting smart phones and tablets in children’s hands too much and too early. I dare you, though, to find a parent that has never given their child a smart phone or tablet to avoid a potential meltdown.
What should parents believe? Will too-early exposure to technology ruin their children or help them grow into the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? Interesting research is emerging that can help parents and educators understand the promise and pitfalls of using technology to support children’s early learning.
Technology is reshaping literacy development
Emerging research shows using electronic books and other media can enhance emergent literacy skills. Some of this research suggests well-designed apps and e-storybooks provide critical scaffolding to support developing readers. When designed well, e-storybook graphics and functions such as highlighting words when read aloud and showing virtual page turns enhance basic early literacy skills. Interactive visuals encourage pre-readers to use context clues to boost vocabulary acquisition. As any parent can attest, young children using apps quickly learn symbols for start, stop, pause and exit. There is indication that this learning transfers easily from one type of device to another and from one setting to another.
But research also shows some downsides to e-storybooks. To maximize early literacy development with electronic texts, parents, teachers and caregivers must interact with children and the texts the same way they would a print storybook. When adults engage with children; asking questions about the story, pointing to pictures and words as cues for meaning and letting the child “drive” the application the electronic experience is positive. However, when an adult is more concerned about using the application or e-storybook in the “right” way, the experience is frustrating for both parent and child.
Teaching 21st century learners with 20th century tools
The power of the technology we carry has transformed the way we access information as well as the way we document our interactions within the world. Over the course of a day a smartphone user will use applications and widgets to check the weather, send a photo or short video to a friend, look up directions to a restaurant and use Wikipedia to prove a colleague wrong. Why wouldn’t we try to harness this power to engage young children more deeply in learning? Yet, many schools are trying to teach 21st century learners using only 20th century tools. Even without costly software packages and legions of applications, a hand held device or tablet is an engaging and powerful tool. The devices feature imbedded applications that can be used in authentic ways to support and extend learning. Children can both use the device as a multimedia resource to develop literacy through photos, You Tube videos, the Internet, calculator and weather applications as well as create their own media through camera, video and recording applications.
It is imperative to give students regular access to the same tools we use every day to communicate, learn and create. Children should have the opportunity to use technology authentically to support and extend their learning. The era of weekly trips to the computer room to participate in disconnected simulations is over. It is time to embrace technology as just another supply in the classroom, no different than magic markers and construction paper.