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Call to Action

“When evaluating and recommending technology for use with early learners, consideration should be given to how the child is using the technology, including the quality of the content, the context for its use, and the involvement of adults and peers.”

-Early Learning and Educational Technology Policy Brief

This brief provides guiding principles and suggestions for families and early learning practitioners on how to use technology with young children. While the brief draws upon the most recent research available, there is still much to be learned when it comes to the impact of early learners’ use of technology. The Departments encourage researchers, developers, and administrators to continue to pursue important research questions in this area and to develop policies and products that ensure the best uses of technology in early learning that services the needs of families and early educators. To this end, we offer the following recommendations:

Researchers

The Departments encourage researchers to conduct rigorous studies on the following topics so that additional research-based guidance can be provided to families and early learning educators.

  • Longitudinal studies are needed to better understand how young children use and learn with technology and interactive media and its short-and long-term effects. This includes research to understand developmental shifts in children’s use of technology at different ages and that maps the trajectory of children’s learning and technology use over time, as well as the interaction between technology use and health related behaviors, including diet and physical activity.
  • Research is required on how much time children should spend with technology at different stages of development; this research should clearly distinguish between active and passive use and take into account content and context.
  • Research is required on the impact of the use of new technologies such as mobile and handheld devices, particularly on the impact on children’s cognitive and social development. Some areas of potential research include the impact of the speed of digital games and the effectiveness of new interactive features.
  • Research is required on young children’s use of emerging technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and digital robots.
  • Research should include how parents can best facilitate children’s media use.
  • Research is needed on the use of technology-based interventions and assessment tools with young dual language learners; differences in access to and use of technology by parents and children and how they associate with children’s learning and development; the role of culture and language in the development and use of technology and technology-based interventions and assessments; and how the use of e-books for bedtime stories and children’s affects sleep patterns and development.
  • Research should be conducted on how early educators can use technology to better provide educational experiences for children. This includes using technology-based assessments to assess children’s skills and outcomes and using the data from those assessments to inform classroom interactions and instructional practices.
  • Research is needed on how early educators make decisions about what technologies and what content to use and how to train and provide ongoing support for early educators in implementing technologies, including evaluating the impact of technology-based professional development interventions on the interactions and practices of early childhood educators.
  • Research is needed on the development and implementation of technology-based interventions or curricula that are designed to address children’s school readiness skills (for example, early math, language and literacy, and social behavioral skills).
  • Research needs to be conducted to assess the educational claims of media producers that use internal studies to guide families and early educators on their technology purchases. Though over 80,000 apps claim to be educational, there is little research around what works, making it difficult for parents and early educators to know what is quality, appropriate, and effective for each individual child.56
  • The research process for studying technology should use a variety of methodologies, including rapid, design-based iterative testing. Research in this area can lag behind development of new technologies because of the amount of time it takes to design and implement studies.
  • Research is necessary to aid in the development and study of the effectiveness of technology for children with disabilities, including the development of apps to help children access play or communicate. This research needs to include children with a wide range of disabilities, including those with developmental delays.
  • Research should include studies on the effectiveness of assistive technology devices that would inform research and development that would lead to improved devices.

Developers

Ideally, media and app developers should work closely with learning scientists and child development experts to develop content that is research-based. They should also work with researchers and practitioners to study efficacy once the content has been released and engage in a continuous improvement cycle to improve efficacy over time. Developers should present findings from research their products and on websites, including the methodology and results used to draw conclusions. Developers who are not aware of the foundations of cognitive science, instructional design, or the learning sciences can miss out on opportunities for high-impact design and ways to systematically build in features from effectiveness data collected from users that can help them improve their product. They should also apply the principles of UDL to make their applications accessible. For more information, developers can read the Ed Tech Developer’s Guide or learn about grant opportunities from the Institute for Education Sciences, including grants for educational technology, special education technology, and small business innovation research.

Administrators of early learning programs

Because children from birth to 8 years old can receive care from multiple adults and in more than one setting, there is a need to ensure that information on using technology effectively with early learners is given to anyone who cares for children in this age range. According to Uses of Technology to Support Early Childhood Practice, the most common barrier to successful implementation of technology in early childhood classrooms is staff technology literacy. Teachers in early learning settings are particularly in need of training and support, since early childhood programs are often underfunded and professional development on the use of technology is rarely a top priority. Teachers need adequate professional development and access to support services to successfully use technology in the classroom. Administrators can also make families aware of resources to increase home access, including Everyone On, ConnectHOME, and Lifeline.

One recommendation in the Uses of Technology to Support Early Childhood Practice report is to incorporate technologies that practitioners are familiar with to ensure that technology is used in a developmentally appropriate way for early learners.57 While program directors of early learning programs with limited budgets may be reluctant to invest in technology, it is critical that they recognize technology as an important investment they need to make informed decisions. In addition, administrators of early learning programs should consider developing a modernization plan that includes an early learning and technology audit.

What Should Be Included in a Technology Audit?

A technology audit should include “an assessment of broadband access and the availability of digital tools to support teachers in early learning programs, documentation and promotion of professional development opportunities, a tally of financial commitments made to technology-supported early learning programs, and recommendations for redirecting existing assets from less effective programs.”58

Conclusion

When evaluating and recommending technology for use with early learners, consideration should be given to how the child is using the technology, including the quality of the content, the context for its use, and the involvement of adults and peers. With the plethora of new technologies and the active ways they can be used, families and early educators should take a more nuanced approach than simply thinking about screen time limits and evaluate the content, context, and their child’s development to determine what is appropriate in each circumstance.

Early learning settings should strive to ensure that technology, when used, is applied in ways that promote children’s learning and healthy development. In early learning environments, technology should be used to increase accessibility for children with disabilities and dual language learners, and to strengthen relationships with peers and adults.

Whether in early learning settings or at home, appropriate use of technology should support deep cognitive processing and intentional, purposeful learning that promotes the healthy development of children. Equipped with this knowledge, early educators and families are encouraged to use their judgment of what works best for their individual child, understanding the quality of content and context of use matter.

Finally, technology should be used strategically, thoughtfully, and safely by early educators at all times and incorporated along with other valuable classroom materials in early childhood learning environments.


  1. Guernsey, L. & Levine, M. (2015) Tap Click Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  2. Hernandez, M.W., Estrera, E., Markovitz, C.E., Muyskens, P., Bartley, G., Bollman, K., Kelly, G. & Silberglitt, B. (2015), pages 7-8
  3. Tap, Click, Read. (n.d.) Early literacy in the digital age: a modern action plan for states and communities. Retrieved from http://www.tapclickread.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2016.07.26_NA_TCR_CommunitySteps.pdf

Early Learning and Educational Technology Policy Brief (Back to Main)


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