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Tech in the Early Years: Attitudes and intentionality

Tech in the Early Years: Attitudes and intentionality

September 12, 2017 | Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

This week Ron chats with Chip Donohue, Director, Technology in Early Childhood Center about intentionality and digital media use. Specifically, Donohue explores why while there can be systemic challenges to technology use in education and in our own families, ultimately we can have a positive relationship with our children, devices, and apps.

Chip DONOHUE: Now technology is used to support healthy interactions between children, between peers, between siblings, between adults and children I think is really the area I'm most excited about.

And that’s the Why – that's knowing why technology is the right tool at this time for this child, in this context, or why it isn't. You need to be as intentional saying No as you are saying Yes.

And we start to create this ecosystem around these devices that very positive, that empowers parents, that has teachers feeling good about themselves because they're being helpful to parents, and that ultimately benefits children at home and in the classroom. So that may sound ambitious but I think that's really the world that we're in. Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

Chip, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

DONOHUE: Thank you. Delighted to be here. SPREEUWENBERG: So, Chip, you're at the Erikson Institute in Chicago Illinois. Let's start off by learning a little bit about what the Erikson Institute is and what you do there.

DONOHUE: Sure. The Erickson Institute is a graduate school in child development. So child development [and] early-childhood education is really what we're all about. My roles there, I kind of wear multiple hats. I'm the Dean of Distance Learning and Continuing Education. So that has me… that's kind of the day job, has me focusing on how we deliver teacher preparation and other professional development at a distance and what other opportunities we provide for professional development. The work that's really been all-consuming and exciting in the last few years has been in my role as the Director of the Technology and Early Childhood Center – or what we call the Tech Center – and in that role we've really been looking hard at, What are the appropriate and intentional uses of new media digital devices with young children, and then more recently how are parents using these devices and how might early-childhood program administrators and teachers use these tools that we all seem to have in our hands to improve family engagement, to reach parents in new ways? SPREEUWENBERG: Okay, wonderful. So let's start off on the first one: the day job, as you call it. What’s the type of profile of people that might take classes or be involved in continuing education at the Erikson Institute?

DONOHUE: Sure. So our online degree programs really attract people who are in the field, who have a number of years of experience. The typical student who takes our online masters in early-childhood education has three to five years of experience and is currently working with children in some capacity – could be an administrator, could be a teacher or could be a social worker. Lots of hats that they wear. In terms of professional development we're really focused more directly at practitioners in the classroom. And we define early-childhood as birth-through-age-Eight. So lots of kinds of classrooms. More recently we've been thinking about informal learning settings like libraries and museums and how we reach educators in those environments. So our professional development is pretty broadly focused but always grounded in child development. Everything we do is about what we know about child development. So we think about technology first from that lens and then get to how we might use these tools. And I think our professional development offerings do the same thing. So we're very developmentally informed in our work and I think that gives Erikson a unique voice in the conversation. SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. And I was reading through some of your values, and one of them was high standards and excellence and I do see through a lot of your content on your website so I can only assume that that also applies to the curriculum of your professional development and graduate school programs. So that's wonderful.

Now let's get into your second role, the second hat that you wear, which is Director of the Technology and Early Childhood Center. So this is all about new media [and] digital devices. Maybe we can walk through some of this conversation in terms of some of the different stakeholders that you mentioned, and how technology impacts them or should be used by them. And since this is a podcast for early-childhood educators maybe we can start there with how they would use digital media, digital devices and any thought leadership from the Technology and Early Childhood Center on that.

DONOHUE: Sure. So when I think about classroom educators, early-childhood educators, home-based care providers – whatever setting people find themselves in working with young children – technology has always been a bit of a contentious issue. We really believe in relationships and face-to-face and hugging and holding babies and all of those things that we hold dear in early childhood. So it's important for me to help people understand that I continue to hold all those dear as well. And I'm looking for ways in which new technology might help us do that better, or might add to that and expand that. So it's getting teachers to think about their own technology dispositions and their attitudes toward technology first. How do they feel about it? And that conversation has really shifted during my career. Really now that most of us are walking around with smartphones in our hands we have embraced technology in our own lives and new ways. So the conversation about how we embrace that same kind of technology in the classroom is a different one than it used to be, where there was much resistance to this whole idea. So I think educators are embracing these tools but are still looking for help in figuring out, “What's the right tool? And when do I use it? And when is it appropriate?” And are still fearful that it may displace other things that they think are developmentally essential for kids.
And so again back to that core piece of advice from the Tech Center, which is start with what your essentials are and then build on that and add technology as a tool and a way to do that. And one of the tools that I think teachers have been particularly interested in recently in our work has been this notion of how you can communicate with parents and families in new ways because of the fact that they have those same kinds of devices in their hands. Are there new opportunities to connect with families? Are there new tools available to teachers and to parents that can help us share information about the child's development and learning? That can really engage parents in new ways and empower parents to feel more connected. Because parents are worried about this digital age as well and are not sure what to do about all of that in their own homes. SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, and it's a very good point you raise about attitudes and sort of looking at technology as a compliment to a lot of the face-to-face communications and relationships that, as you said, are super0duper important, and you never want to sort of take away those. What's the conversation with those educators out there that are still hesitant about technology and the more digital approach to communicating perhaps with parents and families? What’s the advice that you have for them, or what's the conversation with them like?

DONOHUE: It's a great question, and I always start with deep respect for wherever the educator is in their thinking about technology. Not everybody needs to be in the same place. Technology is not a new conversation in early childhood. Digital media is relatively new and it's come so fast and it's impacted the way we live so quickly that educators sometimes feel themselves kind of reeling from all of this and not knowing really where even the entry point is. Another thing, the mistake we've made in the field is we often embrace new technology but don't provide the professional development for the educators. So in other words we put the iPads in the classroom and then we're surprised when nothing interesting is happening because we really haven't prepared the educators. So the other advice I always give to educators is, Find some other teachers in your program that want to play with the technology, have some low-stakes time. Don't start with a parent engagement process before you know how to use the tool yourself. Don't bring the technology in in front of kids until you've had a chance to play and feel like you're a more competent and confident user of the technology.
I also say, Wherever you are today is fine, but what isn't fine in our profession is standing still. The world is moving rapidly and technology is moving rapidly, so you need to find your entry point. And if your entry point is the fact that you can't live without your smartphone – and maybe that's as good an entry point as any – but this is happening and this is already here, and these are already tools that are in young children's hands. And when we started our work in the Tech Center it was really with that awareness that these tools are already here. No one is going to un-invent the iPad; it's arrived. Doesn't it then fall to us as teacher-educators and as educators in early-childhood settings to figure out how to use it best? So it's not a it's not an “If” question; it's not about if we do it but when we do it, how we do it and in what ways we use technology to really enhance the child's learning experience or to enhance our communication with family. That's where the action is. And that’s excellent, excellent advice. And some of the same advice that we give to some of our customers as a software company working in early-childhood education is that that professional development and training and teaching side is equally as important as the technology or the tool itself.

Now you mentioned communication with parents and families as one of the tools that teachers are talking about and are using. So that's a good segue into this second stakeholder, which is parents and families. What role do they play in this?

DONOHUE: The parents and families are critical in this, and all of us navigating the digital age and healthy ways for young children. It's brand new for all of us. And I find that families are really struggling with knowing how much is too much, the screen time conversation comes up all the time, and we try to help parents understand the time. The number of minutes the child is using the device is one metric for considering its value. But we also need to look at the content and the context in which they’re using it, and the opportunities for interactions with others – with a peer, with a sibling, with a parent. So there are more layers to the onion on screen time than just time. And it used to be screen time was about how many minutes to the child watched television before you decided it’s turn the TV off. And that's not as simple anymore. There’s screens in so many places. So helping families feel confident, having their own media use plan I think is critical.

And educators can play an important role. We've been talking a lot about the role of an early-childhood educator in whatever setting – formal or informal – as a media mentor, someone who can help parents make decisions, know how to proceed well. But one of the cautions in all of that is we, really as adults – not just parents but all of us – need to look at our own media, behavior because the children are watching us. So they're learning how to use media in their lives by watching how we use it. And if what we're doing is just staring at the screen and having disrupted parenting opportunities or disjointed conversations because we have to take the text message or the e-mail then we're teaching children that that's how you use media.

So our big passion these days has been about empowering parents to take control of the media in their homes, and turn it off sometimes but be intentional about when it goes off. And if it's going to be a device-free dinner then it's got to be device-free for everybody, not just for the children. And just some simple strategies around using media well, living well with media in the digital age where, again, for parents it's not going to go away. It's here.

But I think teachers can play such a critical role. And so I would argue that in this family engagement / parent empowerment conversation, actually technology ironically gives us this amazing opportunity to have a rich conversation and to be a trusted source to parents. So if we can get parents using technology, learning about how to use technology by using it, using technology to communicate with us about their concerns, we start to create this ecosystem around these devices that’s very positive, that empowers parents, that has teachers feeling good about themselves because they're being helpful to parents and that ultimately benefits children at home and in the classroom. So that may sound ambitious but I think that's really the world that we're in. So I'm always trying to engage educators in that conversation about, How can you be a media mentor for the parents of the children in your care? SPREEUWENBERG: That's a great thought there. I never really thought about it that way, but it's almost an opportunity, as you say: a media mentor or like a thought leader for the parents. And that's really showing the parents as well that as early-childhood educators we’re well versed in everything related to early-childhood education, including technology. Yeah, and that's a very interesting position. Now on the final piece, the final stakeholder and of course the most important one, is the children themselves. What are the benefits? What are the risks of technology in early-childhood education when we're talking about children birth-through-age-Eight?

DONOHUE: So when we talk about very young children – infants and toddlers – we all have cautions about, Do they actually even need technology experiences or screen experiences? One of the things that's exciting to us is this whole movement around tangible tech around technology tools like simple robotics and other things that kids can play with, that are technology-based but aren't screen-based. And so that kind of helps with that screen time conversation. I think we go back to what we think is most important and then look for the connections to technology. So we talked about Lisa Guernsey a colleague of ours coined the phrase “the Three C’s,” which is “Content, Context and the individual Child.” And we think that's a great framework for educators to think about when they're making decisions around, Is this the right time to introduce technology or to integrate technology? We think about the whole child development because sometimes educators and parents think about technology as cognitive learning tools, and they certainly can be that. But they can be tools to support social-emotional learning as well, and ways to get children up and moving and support their physical development. So we really try to nudge educators who understand this whole child idea into thinking about, How does technology support the whole child?

I mentioned earlier this notion of essentials. So if there are things that we think are critical in a young child's life then how do we be sure that those don't go away? And if anything technology is used to enhance them, or more technology isn't the choice at that point. One of the things that we've talked about the most recently – and seems to be in the literature a lot – is the opportunity for young children to be media creators, not just media consumers. And I think this is a huge opportunity for parents and for educators to really think differently about the technology. It's not a passive viewing situation. It's not television that's just on and the child watches. There's opportunities to take a photograph, record their voice, send a video of what they've been doing and document their own learning. So this notion that we empower very, very young children to begin to tell their stories with media is really exciting, really rich.

And then of course I come back to what matters most all the time, which is relationships. And we know with very young children that the key to all of this is about a close relationship with a caring adult. And so how does technology enhance the relationship, encourage interactions, bring adults and children together? And if it doesn't – if it’s a barrier, if it’s in between the relationship – then it's not the appropriate use. And so back to this notion that… technology is great. But lots of things in an early-childhood environment are great, like art materials and blocks and other things that kids use. So this is no more special than any of the other materials that we have kids have access to. It needs some specific kinds of thinking because of its affordances. But when we can get adults to think about how to use this to enhance the early years then I think adults start to get excited about this possibility. And then we throw in the notion of enhancing their engagement in communication with families and it starts to be very compelling. SPREEUWENBERG: And it's also interesting to hear your approach to the conversation, which is the way that I think early-childhood educators do and should think about everything which is, “Why are we doing this?” What's the value in this? Is this helping in this context or in this situation? Is it just passive content or is there interaction and are they creating?” Which is all very important questions which we always need to be asking ourselves as early-childhood educators, as opposed to taking one or the other. We always want to be learning.

DONOHUE: I absolutely agree. And for me as a teacher-educator, intentionality is at the top of my heap of things that I want teachers to be able to do. And that's the Why – that's knowing why technology is the right tool at this time for this child, in this context, or why it isn't. You need to be as intentional saying No as you are saying Yes. And intentionality is hard-won. You have to spent lots of time with kids to become intentional as an early-childhood educator. But that's exactly right – we need to decide what's appropriate and be very intentional about whether this is the right tool for the right child at the right time. And I think that's liberating for teachers as well. It's not a catch-all; it's not a do-all; it's not the answer to all of our early-childhood needs or woes. It's just another tool, and they make decisions about tools every day. So they can make decisions about technology in the same way. SPREEUWENBERG: So Chip you're at the forefront of research and understanding of technology in early-childhood education. Where are we at on the whole in terms of understanding this and implementing technology effectively in an early-childhood education environment?

DONOHUE: It's a great question to ask, “Where are we now?” Given the pace of technology you could argue that we're falling behind every day and then we'll never catch up. I prefer to think of it as this emerging knowledge base. And when we start with what we already know about childhood development about early learning and tools for learning we actually aren't behind at all. We actually come well-equipped, and educators are well-equipped to begin this conversation. Do we need to learn more? Sure; we can always learn more. But do we have a platform to begin the conversation? I think that we do.

I think the area that I'm most interested in and passionate about – because we come from [the] Erikson Institute as child development people – is the social-emotional learning connection, and whether technology can be a tool that supports healthy social emotional learning and development for young children or whether it's a tool that interrupts. And of course there's never an either-or; it's not one or the other. But how technology is used to support healthy interactions between children, between peers, between siblings, between adults and children I think is really the area I'm most excited about. And it tends to be the area that educators aren't thinking as much about. If anything it's an area they're really worried about – “the technology use will isolate kids from each other,” when in fact we're finding just the opposite, and that screens and other kinds of technologies can really be invitations for kids to come together and to learn in rich ways with each other. So I think flipping that on its head.

But we've done some recent research into “What do we know about this?” and we don't know enough yet. So I would argue that where we're headed is the understanding of how technology fits into whole child development, and then how technology is woven into teacher preparation – pre-service and in-service – more effectively so that the teachers who are coming out of teacher preparation programs today are equipped to use the tools of today. And that's not always happening.

And so I think the whole field, from teacher-educators to administrators of programs to professional development providers, we need to up our own game if we're going to be media mentors to parents or we're going to mentor teachers so they can be mentors. Then we need to know what we're talking about and what we're doing. So I choose to see that as an opportunity. Let's have these conversations; let's push on this; let's learn from teachers in classrooms who are doing really interesting things with technology intentionally and share those examples in ways that we can improve practice across all settings. SPREEUWENBERG: That's great advice. And on the topic of advice, what advice would you give to early-childhood education programs who haven't yet sort of jumped in on the technology bandwagon yet and are a little bit more hesitant to move forward in that direction? Any advice that you would provide to them in terms of their thinking?

DONOHUE: For an early-childhood program, an administrator, a group of educators who are together kind of cautious or skeptical, my first advice is this idea of playgroups and getting together and trying stuff. Not just running into classroom application but having time together, thinking about how you use your own technology and how it influences the way you live your life and manage your life. So again, if you can't live without your smartphone then what does that teach you about the ways in which technology can be a useful tool for children? The third tip is just a word that I just said: It's a tool. It's a tool for learning, and while it can be a tool for teaching it's also a tool for learning. And I think sometimes educators are intimidated or threatened by the notion of technology being the teacher. And that's not what I'm seeing at all – I'm seeing technology being this amazing opportunity for children to explore and discover co-view with adults, to be jointly engaged in an activity with an adult. It’s a platform certainly for teaching, but it's a platform for learning as well.

So I guess in the long run my advice is, start with what you know about child development learning. Start with what you know about the particular children in your program and in your classroom. And then begin to think about, What are the ways you want to put your toe in the water? And that doesn't have to be an all-in moment. But I do think you need to start thinking about taking those first steps and trying something that feels safe and comfortable, being very reflective about it, being very critical about whether it worked or didn't work and how well it worked. So you really start a community conversation within your program around appropriate and intentional use of technology and become the experts within your program and be able to define, “This is the way we use technology here and this is why we use it that way here. We thought about it, we’ve tried it; we've used it with kids and this is our approach.” And I think that's very empowering. SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome advice. Chip, if I'm listening to the Podcast and I want to learn more about the Erikson Institute or technology in early-childhood education where should I go? What are some good resources?

DONOHUE: Erickson Institute is online at www.Erikson.edu, and the Tech Center is online at TECcenter.Erikson.edu. Both of those sites I think are good places to begin. If you come to the Tech Center site then you're also going to have a launching pad to lots of other resources, because part of our work has been to be curators of the best thinking that's out there. We're not the only thinkers here. So come here and learn about the latest research. Come here and see some “Show Me” videos that can show you what teachers are doing with technology today and how it works. So we'd invite you to be part of that community, and sign up for our newsletter and other ways in which you can get into the conversation.

But again, we're one part of the conversation. What we really love is connecting educators to the conversation broadly defined. So to us but through us, as well, to other people that are doing some really interesting work and to hear their voices. It can't just be pushing information out, right? We really want to hear from educators about what they're doing and what works well and what they're struggling with, and start a professional conversation around something that is very new to all of us but that we've got some excitement about and we think has great potential SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome, Chip. I love your approach to everything, which is, “Let's have a conversation. We're all learning. There's no there's no right, there's no wrong, and everybody's in different places.” So I really love that approach and I think especially for the early-childhood educators out there that's certainly something I think would resonate. Learned some great things myself here. I love the concept of early-childhood educators positioning themselves as media mentors, being thought leaders for the parents that they work with out there. And taking those steps to think about their attitudes toward technology and how that might be able to support them in their role and children in the classroom with their development. So thank you so much for coming on the show today, Chip, it's been so great having you.

DONOHUE: Thank you for the opportunity. Love talking about this and I’ve loved talking about this with you and your lessons learned that you just shared. SPREEUWENBERG: Wonderful. Thanks, Chip.
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