Early Education Plays Role in Bridging the 'Digital Divide'

For Release

March 3, 2014

A new RAND Corporation report issued today outlines issues that educators, policymakers and others must address to make better use of technology in the modern classroom and help close the “digital divide” that separates low-income students and their more-advantaged peers.

The report details the importance of early childhood education and the value of technology literacy — the ability to use computer-based devices, software, and networks — at an early age.

“Technology literacy plays an important role in a child's ability to succeed in school and later life,” said Lindsay Daugherty, the report's lead author and an associate policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “But even as society's access to digital technology grows, many children in low-income families have lower rates of access and are less likely to use technology for educational purposes.

“This puts them at a distinct disadvantage early in their lives and means they have fewer opportunities to learn, explore and communicate digitally,” Daugherty said. “These kids have fewer chances to develop the workforce skills they will need to succeed in later life.”

The report, sponsored by the PNC Foundation, details how incorporating technology into early childhood education may help address the digital divide.

Early childhood education has been shown to play an important role in addressing skill gaps for disadvantaged children. Integrating technology into early childhood education means that children may have access to a wider range of opportunities for learning. They will have the opportunity to build basic technology literacy and learn to use technology effectively for educational purpose, according to the report.

Furthermore, technology can provide an additional set of tools to address skill gaps in other areas, such as reading and math skills, motor skills and socio-emotional skills.

While some studies increasingly show the positive influence of educational technology in early childhood education, other studies have not found positive results. One explanation for mixed evidence, the report finds, is that the impact of technology in early childhood education is likely to depend on how it is implemented.

“Schools need high-quality Internet connectivity, developmentally appropriate computer software, and smart and portable devices if they are to support disadvantaged students' learning in early childhood,” said Rafiq Dossani, a report co-author and a senior economist at RAND. “But equally important, they need teachers able to guide students as they use technology, especially since children from low-income families tend to have fewer opportunities at home. Schools may also help orient parents on the appropriate use of technology for the education of young children.”

Educators nationwide have recognized the potential value of technology in education, and many districts are moving toward regular integration of technology. Some large school districts, most recently the Los Angeles Unified School District, are pushing for policies where every child is provided a computer or tablet.

As soon as 2015, most states will move to computer-based standardized testing. However, while K-12 and higher education providers are broadly adopting and integrating technology, the movement of technology into early childhood settings has been slower.

RAND researchers outline five key questions that educators must address to make better use of technology in early childhood education:

  • What is the goal for information and communication technology in early childhood education?
  • How do we define appropriate use of technology in early childhood education?
  • Once defined, how do we support effective use through devices, connectivity, software, and other components of information and communication infrastructure?
  • How do we ensure that early childhood education providers are prepared to address the digital divide?
  • What relationship should parents and families have to the integration of technology into early childhood education?

In conjunction with the report, RAND will host a forum on May 20 at its Pittsburgh, Pa., office for education policymakers, researchers, teachers and early education advocates to discuss issues outlined by the work. Expert speakers will include Jerlean E. Daniels, former director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and Lori Takeuchi, director of research for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

The report, “Using Early Childhood Education to Bridge the Digital Divide,” can be found at http://www.rand.org/education/projects/t-is-for-technology.html. Other authors of the report are Erin-Elizabeth Johnson and Mustafa Oguz.

The PNC Foundation, which receives its principal funding from The PNC Financial Services Group, supports organizations that provide services for the benefit of communities in which it has a significant presence. The foundation focuses its philanthropic mission on early childhood education and community and economic development, which includes the arts and culture. Through Grow Up Great, its signature cause that began in 2004, PNC has created a $350 million, multi-year initiative to help prepare children from birth to age five for success in school and life.

RAND Education is a leader in providing objective, high-quality research and analysis on all levels of education from early childhood through adult learning.

About the RAND Corporation

The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.