Children must be central to our thinking about digital technology

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The title for this year’s Oxford Education Society Saturday school was not quite right, says Natalia Kucirkova

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Natalia Kucirkova argues that the real question is not whether digital technology is good or bad, but how to integrate it with traditional resources

Early literacy and digital technologies: friend or foe? is a tired dichotomy and Professor Jackie Marsh made it clear right in her opening presentation that we need to move beyond binary choices. Instead, as one teacher commented, technology is here, it won’t go away and we need to ‘get on with it like with rain on a rainy day.’

There was a general agreement that the question of whether technology is good or bad for young children is essentially beside the point, and that the real question is how we can effectively integrate digital with traditional resources. Here, the answer is not so clear-cut.

Researchers have been slow at developing systematic understanding of the potential of technologies in early years, making it difficult for practitioners and parents to embrace technologies in a way that would enrich their practice.

Many studies have been conducted in environments different from school realities, providing fragmentary evidence of what works or might work. In addition, there is a clash in the nature of questions being asked by researchers and practitioners: while researchers focus on processes and dynamics responsible for certain kinds of learning outcomes, teachers want some simple and immediate answers.

While researchers stay away from product-centric research questions, teachers are desperate for some research-informed guidance on which technology to invest in, which app, which device works for what and how to align it with specific curricular objectives.  

Another issue teachers have to grapple with is the lack of appropriate training environments. For instance, there is a lack of professional development for early years educators focused on the use of new technologies. Moreover, the activities and kinds of engagement promoted by the extant curriculum are at real disjunction with the kinds of activities mediated by new technologies.

Teachers and parents are also concerned that children are interacting with technology which divides instead of connects their home-school lives. There are few examples of schools which would capitalise on technology as a possible virtual bridge between home and school.

These concerns were reflected in the conversations held by the practitioners, designers and academics who gathered at OES Saturday school. There were profit and non-profit stakeholders, parents and professionals, young students and retired teachers, all bringing a different perspective on ‘digitalised early years’.

The quality of insights and levels of understanding generated by this cross-generation, cross-discipline nature of discussions illustrated one crucial point: that the only solution for advancing the field is through connecting ideas. There will always be more questions than answers but to start, we need to keep the rich, collaborative dialogue.

It is only through collaboration that we can strengthen the ties between academia and software designers and between teachers and policy-makers. We all need to work together to ensure that apps released on the market fulfil criteria of effective interaction, and support edutainment practices. To develop a robust framework in pedagogy terms, we need to join forces, accept humble, pedagogically-sound theories and jointly search for answers to complex questions.

Part of a collaborative stance is also accepting that we need to involve the voices of children in the process of app design, research or classroom deployment.  If we keep children at the centre of our thinking and work, we are more likely to see synergies in children’s digital and non-digital experiences and our common commitment to support both.

Natalia Kucirkova, KTP Associate for The Open University and Booktrust

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