Early Childhood Education

Technology and Early Childhood Education


Broadly defined, technology in early childhood education includes a variety of media: computer-mediated software programs, video/audio learning instruments, robotic building kits, and electronic toys. Technology can be used as stand-alone classroom-based learning material in the form of a technology curriculum or can be integrated into other classroom curricula. Technology can also be used at home to supplement and augment children’s experiences in the classroom.

Advances in technology provide new potentials in classroom learning, and make possible new ways for peer social interaction to take place inside and outside the classroom. As such, the body of research in technology and early childhood education has multiple foci, including the impact of technology on early cognitive development, personal-social development, language and literacy, numbers and mathematics.

Educational technologies that are used in early childhood classrooms to enhance classroom learning can be categorized into the following four groups, depending on the pedagogical goal of the tool and the design features of the software:

• computer-assisted instruction (CAI),

• intelligent tutoring systems (ITS),

• constructionist learning materials,

• and computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL).

While technologies developed within these four paradigms all have the goal of enhancing children’s cognitive development, they differ in their theoretical stance of how that goal is reached. Computer-assisted instructional instruments (such as computer software that teaches numbers and vocabularies) take a drill and practice approach, whereas intelligent tutoring systems, which could be either computer software or electronic hardware in form, iteratively adapt their inherent, computerized educational curriculum to match the ability of the student users. Both computer-assisted instructional instruments and intelligent tutoring systems are usually stand-alone learning materials that may or may not require close supervision from teachers or adults.

Constructionist learning materials are technological tools that allow children to become designers and creators of their own personally meaningful computer- based projects. These tools are often open-ended and serve children to start developing technological fluency as well as to reflect about their own thinking and learning. Finally, computer-supported collaborative learning instruments provide means for communication and collaboration among students and between students, parents, and teachers. Technological tools developed within both the constructionist and the computer supported collaborative learning paradigms are usually open-ended educational tools meant to be integrated into the classroom curriculum, and therefore the content areas to explore with those tools is flexible and can be determined by the teacher. In contrast, software developed within the CAI and ITS paradigms involves content already produced by the designer of the computational tool.

A large body of interdisciplinary research on technology and early childhood education has been conducted in the past three decades. Early research efforts focused on the impact of technology on children’s cognitive and academic development. In early childhood, for example, research has shown the benefits of CAI type drill and practice software in assisting children to complete counting and sorting tasks. Beyond simple drill and practice, technologies, especially computer simulations, have also shown potentials for supporting children’s mental actions, or mental object-manipulation tasks, such as rotating objects or identifying patterns. Through simulations, both on the computer and through electronic hardware and toys, technology affords the ability to concretize abstract cognitive tasks that were previously thought to be unreachable for young children.

Constructionist types of technological environments, such as Logo, or the language of the turtle, were developed by Seymour Papert and his colleagues in the 1960s. These materials are now widely used in early childhood classrooms. Research has shown the benefits of these experiences, for example, when young children learn how to program a computer while exploring powerful ideas about mathematics. New types of robotic technologies allow children to manipulate technology in the same way they play and learn with pattern blocks or other manipulative toys frequently used in the early childhood setting.

Using technology in early childhood classrooms can also help foster peer collaboration among students and promote positive social development. Research has shown that working with technology, especially computer-related educational tools, instigates new forms of collaboration among students, such as helping and instructing behaviors, discussion, and cooperation. Technology can also be a medium through which interaction between children with special needs and their peers can be facilitated. Several types of technology are specifically designed to promote social interaction among student users. Computer supported collaborative learning tools are purposefully set up to promote communication and peer learning among young children by encouraging group work and sharing. With proper instructions from teachers, children can use CSCL tools to learn to collaborate, to problem-solve, and to work on tasks that may be otherwise too difficult to do alone.

However, different types of technology foster different levels of social and personal development. The literature has raised concerns for technologies that do not promote positive interactions between children and computers and among children using technology in the classroom. Some uses of technology, while effective in promoting cognitive development, may not be ideal for social and prosocial development. For example, although technologies that promote drill and practice may foster self-efficacy and promote turn-taking and sharing, they may also engender competitiveness in children. Moreover, using technology as a standalone tutor without proper and planned integration with classroom curriculum may result in isolation among students and hinder peer collaboration and learning. The integration between technology and classroom curriculum and management is vital to the successful use of technology in early childhood education classrooms

Technologies that effectively facilitate social interaction also promote language and literacy development. Activities around technologies that support interactions among student peers by encouraging peer learning, peer teaching, and cooperation inevitably become venues for language-rich exchanges. At the computer, for example, research has shown that children speak twice as many words per minute than at other non-technology-related play activities such as play dough and building blocks. The abstract and open-ended nature of many educational technologies, such as computer simulation software or electronic and robotic construction kits, has been shown to effectively engender imagination, creativity, and language exchanges that are rich with emotion and interpersonal understanding. However, as with any other benefits of using technology in early childhood education, effective use of educational technologies as a tool to promote literacy and language development depends greatly on the curriculum used along with the technology. While even stand-alone drill and practice computer software can help children read and strengthen their vocabulary recall, the impact of technology is greatest with regard to language development when it is also used to facilitate peer interaction rather than as a replacement for teachers or tutors.

Therefore, educational technology should not be seen as a stand-alone tool to be set aside in the classroom. Effective use of educational technology requires a well-planned and supported technology-classroom integration. Although educational technology has been traditionally seen as a tool to provide cognitive and academic exercises, educational technology also requires adult attention to ensure that it is used in a way that does not interfere with children’s peer and teacher- child interactions. However, when properly introduced to the classroom, technology can be a great asset to early childhood education in facilitating children’s cognitive, personal-social, and language development. See also Constructionism.

Further Readings: Bers, M., I. Ponte, K. Juelich, K. Viera, and J. Schenker (2002). Teachers as designers: integrating robotics in early childhood education. Information Technology in Childhood Education, AACE 123-145; Bers, M., R. New, and L. Boudreau (2004). Teaching and learning when no one is expert: Children and parents explore technology. ECRP 6(2); Clements, D. H., and B. K. Nastasi (1992). Computers and early childhood education. In M. Gettiger, S. N. Elliott, and T. R. Kratochwill, eds., Advances in school psychology: Preschool and early childhood treatment directions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 187-246; Papert, S. (1991). What’s the big idea: Towards a pedagogy of idea power. IBM Systems Journal 39(3-4); Genishi, C., P. McCollum, and E. B. Strand (1985). Research currents: The interactional richness of children’s computer use. Language Arts 62(5), 526532; Koshmann, T. (1996). CSCL: Theory of practice of an emerging paradigm. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Marina Umaschi Bers and Clement Chau