Earlier this month (May 20, 2014), a group of 45 scholars, policymakers, practitioners, and funders gathered at RAND's Pittsburgh office to examine the use of technology in early childhood education and efforts to address the digital divide.
Technology plays an increasingly large role in education and the workplace, and digital literacy is becoming critical to life success. But despite rapid growth in the use of technology, many children in low-income families in the United States cannot access and use technology in the same ways as their more-advantaged peers.
This puts them at a distinct disadvantage early in their lives and means they have fewer opportunities to learn, explore, and communicate digitally. As a result, these children have fewer chances to develop the workforce skills they will need to succeed in later life.
Early childhood education may present an opportunity to address the digital divide, and to provide all students with new opportunities to learn through technology by exploring, interacting, communicating, and creating.
The forum, sponsored by the PNC Foundation, focused on several key issues underlying successful integration of technology into early childhood settings, including the goals that should be established for technology use, the infrastructure that is needed to support effective technology use, and the role of teachers and parents in facilitating technology use.
Specifically, the group examined five key questions:
- What are the goals 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?
Discussions throughout the day featured presentations and panels with eight expert speakers, profiles of three innovative interventions underway to support effective use of technology with young children, and roundtable discussions during which the early childhood experts delved deep into the policy options.
Expert panelists called for a shift in the conversation away from the contentious debate about whether technology is a threat to traditional learning, and toward a discussion of how and when technology can be used to complement other learning activities in the early childhood classroom.
Key themes of the day included the view of technology as simply one more tool in a teacher's toolbox; the need to rethink screen time as the key measure of appropriate use; and concerns that if implemented without appropriate supports, technology in early childhood education could actually increase the digital divide.
There was a call for continued discussions and interactions between stakeholders to ensure that all are working toward the same goals, with a particular focus on efforts to involve teachers and the technology industry.
This fall, RAND will release a series of issue briefs that will highlight many of the findings from the forum and the larger body of literature. For more information on the forum and larger project, please visit “T” Is for Technology: Early Childhood Education and the Digital Divide.
Lindsay Daugherty is an associate policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.