Many low-income children lack the same access to technology as their more-advantaged peers. This Perspective explores the role of early childhood education in ensuring that low-income children can access technology and learn how to use it.
“T” Is for Technology FAQ
The role of information and communication technology in early childhood education (ECE) settings is always evolving. Experts continue to conduct more research in this area, policymakers and educators will pursue different ways of integrating technology into ECE, and new devices and applications will enter the marketplace.
At the time of this study, RAND experts unpacked some of the most pressing questions surrounding the issue.
- What do you mean by “digital divide?”
- Why might it be important to introduce technology in early childhood education?
- What concerns have been raised about technology use among young children?
- What role does government play in reducing the digital divide in early childhood education?
- What role can families play in reducing the digital divide?
- What do educators need to know about reducing the digital divide?
What do you mean by “digital divide?”
“Digital divide” refers to the lack of access to information and communication technology among low-income households. Without such access, children from these households may not keep pace in terms of digital literacy—the ability to use computer-based devices, software, and networks effectively. This could have learning and workforce repercussions in an increasingly digital world.
Why might it be important to introduce technology in early childhood education?
Technology use is becoming increasingly prominent in both K-12 settings and the workplace. The Common Core State Standards set out a number of expectations in the area of technology use, and the majority of students will soon be tested on computers. In 2009, 74 percent of elementary school teachers and 69 percent of secondary school teachers reported using a computer “sometimes” or “often” in classroom instruction. Technology is also becoming more prominent in the workforce; by 2003, more than half of all Americans were using a computer in the workplace.
Early childhood education is often a time for preparing students with the basic skills they need for K-12 education, so digital literacy may be another area in which early childhood education could help prepare young children. While building basic digital literacy, technology can be used as a tool to build skills in other areas, including reading and writing, motor skills, and socio-emotional skills. Studies have begun to show promising impacts of technology in these areas.
What concerns have been raised about technology use among young children?
There are several important concerns about what is developmentally appropriate. Some have argued that over-exposure through excessive “screen time” can impact cognitive functioning for young children. Others are concerned that technology use will take away from other useful activities in the classroom that contribute to the social, physical, and educational development of young children (e.g., by replacing games that build social skills and promote physical exercise).
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that children under the age of two should have no screen time and that screen time for children of all ages should be limited to two hours a day.
In addition, it is important that technology use be active; students should interact with the device regularly rather than observe passively. It is important for adults to guide children toward learning and ensure that exposure to digital technologies is not excessive.
What role does government play in reducing the digital divide in early childhood education?
The U.S. government has traditionally focused on ensuring access to digital technologies for children from low-income families in K-12 settings. Initially, the government sought to ensure the availability of devices in schools and public libraries. More recently, the government has focused on bandwidth access in schools. Policymakers have proposed a number of initiatives to make bandwidth access more affordable to low-income families, such as the 2010 National Broadband Plan. However, these do not specifically target parents of young children.
What role can families play in reducing the digital divide?
Families are critical to improving learning from digital technologies at home. It is important for parents and other family members to be aware of the uses of different devices and applications. Families can use the Internet to access software applications and provide support when the family's children use the applications.
However, research shows that parents of low-income families are less able to afford such technologies and are less well-oriented on appropriate applications. A 2011 Census Bureau Survey found that 86 percent of households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more owned at least one computer and had Internet access, compared with just 50 percent of households with incomes below $25,000. Another study found that 35 percent of lower-income parents have downloaded educational software for their child, whereas 75 percent of higher-income parents have done so.
Early childhood education providers often work closely with families to support the learning of young children, with a particular focus on supporting parents of low-income children. To ensure that all families are prepared to support children, early childhood providers may supplement devices and software owned by the family and open up opportunities for parental participation through digital means. In addition, teachers can model effective technology use to ensure that parents are equipped to provide support in the home.
What do educators need to know about reducing the digital divide?
As digital technologies become increasingly integrated into ECE settings, the role of teachers as knowledge facilitators for children of low-income families will become increasingly important. A teacher's ability to properly facilitate technology use has been shown to be an important determinant in whether technology leads to positive impacts on learning.
While children from wealthier families have the advantage of educated parents who tend to spend considerable effort on introducing them to the digital world, children from low-income families may not have this advantage. Teachers can help bridge this gap.
To be an effective facilitator, teachers must understand the use of technology, be trained on appropriate software applications matched to the capabilities of the children, and be trained and supported to provide the guidance needed to introduce children to digital technologies.