Bridging the Digital Divide: A Forum on Using Technology in Early Childhood Education

In the spring of 2014, RAND and PNC Grow Up Great co-hosted Bridging the Digital Divide: A Forum on Using Technology in Early Childhood Education, which connected policymakers, researchers, educators, parents, and technology representatives in order to discuss five key questions about integrating technology into early childhood education.

This forum, along with other relevant literature, informed the publication of a series of issue papers—each one tackling a key question.

Expert Speakers

Jerlean E. Daniel, consultant, former director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children

Jerlean Daniel retired from her former position as executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the nation's leading organization for promoting high-quality early childhood education for children from birth through age eight. She is currently an early childhood education consultant. Prior to joining NAEYC, Daniel served as chair of psychology in education and associate professor in the Applied Developmental Psychology Program at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education after serving as assistant professor in the School of Social Work. For four years, she was on-air faculty for Heads Up! Reading, a project sponsored by the National Head Start Association and the Council for Professional Recognition. Daniel currently serves on the advisory council for PNC Grow Up Great; the board of the Fred Roger's Company; and the U.S. Census Bureau's National Advisory Committee. Previously, Daniel served on the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Advisory Committees on Re-Designation of Head Start Grantees and on Head Start Research and Evaluation. She also served as a member of an advisory committee on Early Head Start; the NAESP Foundation Task Force on Early Learning; New Standards Project on Speaking and Listening for Preschool Through Third Grade; and the Allegheny County Early Childhood Initiative. Daniel is the author of a series of articles on transitions for infants, toddlers, and children with difficulties in child care; and childrearing practices and children's names in the African-American community. She has been frequently quoted in national, regional, and local media outlets. Daniel was a child care center director for 18 years. During that time, she served at various points as a board member, secretary, and president of the Pennsylvania Association of Child Care Agencies; president of the Pittsburgh AEYC; and governing board member and president of NAEYC. Daniel holds a B.S. in political science, an M.S. in child development, and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Pittsburgh.

Chip Donohue, dean of distance learning and continuing education, Erikson Institute

Chip Donohue is dean of distance learning and continuing education at Erikson Institute in Chicago, where he leads the development of online master's degree, certificate, and continuing education programs. He is also the director of the Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at Erikson. The TEC Center empowers early childhood educators to make informed decisions about the appropriate use of technology with young children by strengthening their digital media literacy and ability to intentionally select, use, integrate, and evaluate technology in early childhood settings. The TEC Center is a founding member of the Alliance for Early Learning in the Digital Age, along with the Fred Rogers Center, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, PBS, and Sesame Workshop. Donohue is a senior fellow of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College, where he co-chaired the working group that revised the 2012 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and Fred Rogers Center joint position statement, Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8. In 2014, Routledge and NAEYC will publish a book edited by Donohue, Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years: Tools for Teaching and Learning, which features contributions from thought leaders working at the intersection of child development, early learning, teacher education, research, children's media, and technology for young children. In 2012, Donohue received the first Bammy Award and the Educator's Voice Award as Innovator of the Year from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. He earned his Ph.D. in early childhood education and instructional technology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Michelle Figlar, executive director, Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children

Michelle Figlar is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), a local affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The PAEYC serves a ten-county region in southwestern Pennsylvania with more than 1,400 members. Since joining PAEYC in 2006, Figlar has worked with regional leaders to grow membership, create programs that enhance professional development and NAEYC accreditation, and develop a coordinated plan for early care and education advocacy efforts. She serves as a member of the Pennsylvania Early Learning Council and the Pennsylvania Early Learning PA Campaign. In addition, Figlar serves on the board of the Education and Policy Leadership Center and Jeremiah's Place. She also serves as an adjunct instructor for the University of Pittsburgh. Before returning to her hometown of Pittsburgh, Figlar served as an early childhood program manager for the Office of Early Childhood, Invest in Children Initiative in Cleveland, Ohio. She was chosen as a Head Start fellow in 2003 and has had opportunities to work with the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) and the National Head Start Association (NHSA). Figlar also served as a Head Start director, a preschool special education teacher and a VISTA volunteer.

Illah R. Nourbakhsh, director, Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab

Illah R. Nourbakhsh is professor of robotics, director of the Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab and head of the robotics master's program in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. His current research projects explore community-based robotics, including educational and social robotics and ways to use robotic technology to empower individuals and communities (PDF). The CREATE Lab's researchers lead diverse projects: the application of GigaPan technology; international scientific, citizen science, and educational endeavors; ChargeCar, a community-based effort to convert gasoline cars into locally customized electric vehicles; Hear Me, a project that uses technology to empower students to become leads in advocating for meaningful social change; Arts and Bots, a program for creative art and robotics fusion in middle school; Message from Me, a new system of communication between pre-K children and their parents to improve home-school consistency; and BodyTrack, an empowerment program that enables citizens to capture behavior and health factors, and find ways to improve their well-being. In 2004, Nourbakhsh served as robotics group lead at NASA/Ames Research Center. He was a founder and chief scientist of Blue Pumpkin Software, Inc., which was acquired by Witness Systems, Inc. Nourbakhsh earned his bachelor's degree, master's degree, and Ph.D. in computer science at Stanford University and has been a faculty member of Carnegie Mellon since 1997. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences named him a Kavli Fellow. In 2013, he was inducted into the June Harless West Virginia Hall of Fame. He is co-author of the second edition MIT Press textbook, Introduction to Autonomous Mobile Robots. He is author of the newly published MIT Press book for general readership, Robot Futures.

Katrina Stevens, education consultant and journalist, EdSurge

Katrina Stevens is an education technology writer and consultant. She writes for EdSurge, a media organization that covers educational technology and seeks to help educators and parents find the best tools for their children. Stevens has advised education technology companies at all stages of development, as well as schools implementing new programs. She has extensive experience designing curricula; conducting differentiated professional development; designing, reviewing, and integrating education technology; writing and managing grants; project and program management; and developing teachers and leaders in both public and independent school settings. She has more than 20 years of teaching and administrative experience. In her previous position as the pre-K-12 English language arts (ELA) and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) supervisor in Baltimore County Public Schools, Stevens coordinated multiple curricular, professional development, and implementation programs to prepare teachers and the 107,000 students in the district for the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. She also served on the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) committees to design the new Maryland curriculum framework and the Maryland STEM Standards of Practice. She continues to serve as a designer and reviewer for MSDE and Maryland Public Television. Stevens also co-founded an educational technology company that focused on customized professional development. Before her work in Baltimore County, Stevens served as deputy director for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) in Bermuda, where she designed and implemented an island-wide acceleration and enrichment program and laboratory school for talented students. Before that, Stevens worked in independent schools as a department chair, dorm dean, and teacher. She writes regularly for SmartBlog for Education and for her own blog, Education Matters. Stevens co-founded and moderates #edtechchat and also serves as a Startup Weekend Education global facilitator.

Kaveri Subrahmanyam, professor, CSU Los Angeles

Kaveri Subrahmanyam is a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles and associate director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Los Angeles (UCLA/CSULA). In 2013, she was a recipient of the CSULA Outstanding Professor Award. She studies the cognitive and social implications of interactive media use. Subrahmanyam is a nationally recognized expert regarding the effect of interactive media on children and adolescents. She conducted one of the first training studies showing the effects of computer game use on spatial skills. Subsequently, she studied the developmental implications of chat rooms, blogs, social networking sites, and virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life), with a focus on the development of identity and intimacy. She is currently studying the relationship between digital communication and well-being, the cognitive implications of digital media and multitasking, as well as the relationship between bilingualism, executive functions, and multitasking. Subrahmanyam has published several research articles and book chapters on youth and digital media and has co-edited a special issue on social networking for the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. She is the co-author (with David Smahel) of Digital Youth: The Role of Media in Development. Subrahmanyam is a consulting editor for Developmental Psychology and is an associate editor for the International Journal for Research on Cyber Behavior and Learning. She is also on the editorial boards for the Journal of Media Psychology and Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. Subrahmanyam earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Lori Takeuchi, director of research, Joan Ganz Cooney Center

Lori Takeuchi is senior director and research scientist at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, where she oversees research projects, partnerships, and publications. A learning scientist by training, Takeuchi conducts research on how children use digital media across various settings, and the implications these tools hold for learning and development. Takeuchi conceived of the Cooney Center's Print vs. E-books, New Coviewing, and Networked Participation initiatives, and is currently leading the multi-institution Families and Media Project. She has delivered national keynotes and published reports, book chapters, and journal articles about her research with the Cooney Center. Takeuchi designed and produced science simulations and visualization software for companies, including BBN Educational Technologies, Logal Software, and WorldLink Media. Takeuchi began her career managing the Instructional Television Department at Thirteen/WNET. She holds a B.A. in communication from Stanford University, an Ed.M. from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

Jane Werner, executive director, Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

Jane Werner has more than three decades of museum experience, including 23 years at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, where she currently serves as executive director. Werner leads a team responsible for all aspects of the museum's mission and vision, exhibits, public programming, funding, and operations. The museum received the 2009 National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for its work in the community and was named one of the top ten children's museums in the country by Parents Magazine in 2011. Prior to her tenure at the there, Werner worked for the Franklin Institute Science Museum, the Carnegie Science Center, and the Buhl Science Center. She ran her own exhibit design firm whose clients included the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, the Franklin Institute, and the Scientific Discovery Museum. Jane is currently president of the Association of Children's Museums. She sits on and is past president of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council Board and New Hazlett Theater. She is on the advisory boards of the Maker Education Initiative, Carnegie Mellon University's Studio for Creative Inquiry, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Forbes Fund, Kids and Creativity Working Group, Fred Rogers' Center, and Winchester Thurston School. She has also served on the American Institute of Architects and Rudy Bruner Design Award national juries. Werner was a fellow at CMU's Studio for Creative Inquiry, attended the Getty Leadership Institute, and is a graduate of Syracuse University. She received the Association of Science-Technology Centers' 2007 Leading Edge Award for Experienced Leadership in the field, the 2012 Westmoreland gold medal for Museum Leadership, and the 2012 YWCA Woman in the Arts Leadership Award. Werner was also named a 2013 Pittsburgh Businesswoman Leader.


Throughout the forum, participants focused on five key questions that must be addressed when integrating technology into early childhood education (ECE). Click “Show more” to view related questions for each.

What are the goals for technology use in ECE?

  • To what degree should efforts to integrate technology into early childhood education focus on building digital literacy skills (i.e., basic familiarity with the tools) versus using technology to build skills in academic areas, such as mathematics and reading?
  • What should the goals be for ensuring sufficient access to technology? What should the goals be for ensuring that technology is used effectively?
  • What consideration should be given to differences by income or demographic divides in the goal-setting process?

How do we define developmentally appropriate technology use in ECE?

  • Is screen time the appropriate measure for limits on technology use? What other measures may be suggested, and why? Does the answer depend on the family's income class? Should all screen time considered equal? Do children from poorer families face higher risks in this regard?
  • How might online and offline learning be combined in the ECE classroom to benefit children from disadvantaged families?
  • What has been conclusively determined about developmentally appropriate use of technology? Where is additional research most needed?
  • Are there learning activities for which technology use is particularly suited (e.g., literacy, math)? Are there learning activities for which technology may be particularly suited to help children from low-income families bridge the digital divide?

Once defined, how do we support developmentally appropriate technology use through devices, software, connectivity, and other components of technology infrastructure?

  • Should the financial resources of governments, industry, and nonprofits be focused on expanding access to children from low-income families? Or would those resources be better spent on initiatives that promote effective use of technology?
  • Should schools be in the business of providing students with technologies, such as tablet computers, that, when used appropriately, could be developmentally beneficial to children from low-income families?
  • How can investments in devices, software, and educational infrastructure best help bridge the digital divide between lower-income and higher-income households?

How do we ensure that ECE providers are prepared to integrate technology appropriately, intentionally, and productively into ECE settings?

  • What different skills does a teacher need to successfully implement technology in an ECE classroom? How might these skills be different for early childhood providers who primarily serve children from low-income families?
  • What constraints do teachers face (e.g., time, costs, skills)?
  • What types of training and professional development opportunities or other activities might be useful in helping prepare teachers for technology integration? How might these activities be different for teachers who primarily serve children from low-income families? How can we address the issue of ongoing professional development when technology changes rapidly?
  • What are some of the innovative roles teachers can play in the facilitation of technology with children of low-income families?
  • What role does support from administrators and colleagues play in the effective use of technology in the ECE classroom? How can sharing professional experiences and collaboration between educators be encouraged?

How can parents and other family members play a role in the use of technology in ECE?

  • Should technology in ECE be used as a means of addressing digital divides in home access? If so, how might technology use be targeted to address these divides (e.g., by providing free online software usable from home)?
  • How do we address parental concerns about their children's screen time and engagement with different technology devices and software? Do the answers differ if the parents belong to low-income groups?
  • Can ECE providers help to support good parenting strategies and effective patterns of technology use to address the digital divide at home in educational technology use?
    • Should opportunities be made for families to interact with technology inside the classroom to support effective facilitation of student use?
    • Can some of the professional development opportunities for ECE providers be extended to include parents in order to encourage effective use of technology in the home?
  • In what ways could technology improve parental involvement in their child's education? How can technology be used to improve communication between providers and families, or to provide opportunities for classroom involvement to parents whose schedules are not flexible?