Extending the Experience: Digital Promise’s Approach to Toddlers and Technology - Early Learning Nation

Extending the Experience: Digital Promise’s Approach to Toddlers and Technology

Every parent does it. We let our young children use the iPad while we fold laundry or take a quick shower. “It’s easy to feel guilty,” acknowledges Ximena Dominguez, Digital Promise’s co-executive director of Learning Sciences, “but allowing children to use technology is okay, as long as there’s a healthy approach to it.”

Her organization combines research, practice and technology to ensure that America’s historically excluded learners have access to the resources and experiences they need to eventually lead lives of “well-being, agency and economic security.”

Early Learning Nation magazine spoke to Dominguez about developmentally appropriate learning activities, and how technology and media can strengthen playful, collaborative and socially rich early learning.

Mark Swartz: What does the research tell us about using technology with young learners?

Ximena Dominguez: A substantial body of research suggests that technology and media can be powerful tools to strengthen and extend early learning, if they are designed intentionally, and with the input of educators, families and children. Digital tools and media, for instance, can extend children’s hands-on learning by providing individualized scaffolding within developmentally appropriate and playful game-like activities, and by embedding meaningful storylines and serving as catalysts for rich conversations.

Technology and media can also allow children to visualize or experience phenomena that are harder to see or not available in their local environment, to record observations and data via photos or videos, and to engage in [1] embodied learning. When I review new digital tools, I often ask, How does it extend or strengthen (rather than replace) hands-on learning? Does it invite children to explore, deepen their learning, discuss and collaborate?  

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Swartz: We often see little kids on an iPad while the parents are trying to get work done. We all overdo it sometimes because we just get overwhelmed, but we know there’s a downside. If you were going to talk to a parent of young children, what advice would you give?

Dominguez: I am sure this question resonates with many parents; many of us allow our children to use technology when we need to attend to other things at home. Assuming children have had other opportunities for hands-on play and conversation, time with technology is okay, especially if parents are able to vet the technology ahead of time to ensure and converse with children about their experience.

Swartz: What does that look like?

Dominguez: I often encourage parents to think of technology the way we think of other tools for learning. For instance, think about books; we wouldn’t just pick any book and start reading it to our children. Most often we skim the book ourselves first or get a recommendation from someone we trust. We do these things to make sure the book is appropriate, relevant to what we’d like our children to learn and likely to be interesting to our children.

The same can be true with technology. As parents, we can vet it and just like we do with books, we can also have later conversations about it if we are unable to engage with it at the same time.

Swartz: A lot of technology claims to be educational. How do we verify those claims? 

Dominguez: When I come across a new resource, I try to find out who created the technology and what the stated purpose is. Did the team include educators? Do they intend to provide a playful experience, promote learning or both?

I then explore the resource a bit to see what their process for doing so is like. For instance, if they are promoting learning, how does the resource give children feedback? I also pay close attention to the behaviors being modeled and encouraged and how characters are represented.

Swartz: How do you reconcile the aims of educational technology companies with the needs of educators and families?

Dominguez: This is something our team has been actively working on in the area of early STEM. Over the past decade, we’ve led a couple of National Science Foundation-funded efforts that bring together researchers, designers of media, educators in public preschool programs and families from historically excluded communities to co-design resources to support early STEM teaching and learning.

As you review apps for children in your classroom to use, consider the following questions:

  • Does the app provide useful feedback to children?
  • Does the app provide children with opportunities that can extend (rather than replace) what they learn at home or school?
  • Does the app allow children to practice a skill in a productive and engaging way?
  • Is there guidance and information for adults to support children as they use the app?

From Using Technology to Support Early Science Teaching and Learning (NAEYC)

Initially we learned that designers and researchers struggled to find the balance between education and fun; designers were often focused on engagement and researchers often focused on learning. Either alone was not ideal, and attending to both was indeed possible as long as goals were woven carefully and intentionally into the design process.

Swartz: What’s the most important part of co-design? 

Dominguez: The resources have to leverage the assets of and address the needs of educators and families. Families want to see themselves represented in the resources. Families and educators alike want to make sure the resources help children learn, develop and thrive.

Inclusive co-design processes help ensure that the resources developed are likely to be used, and help children engage in learning in ways that are meaningful and relevant to their everyday life and community.

We recently completed a National Science Foundation-funded early STEM co-design effort with partners at GBH, which resulted in the creation of Early Science with Nico and Nor—a suite of hands-on and digital resources to promote early science, engineering and mathematics across home and school.

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Earlier, you mentioned embodied learning. How does technology invite children to engage their bodies?

Dominguez: Technology and media can invite children to move as part of the learning process. Some apps may invite children to move around a space to locate objects. For instance, children may need to move to find or make shadows.

Our team is working with MathTalk, a group of educators and edtech designers in Cambridge who are designing virtual reality resources to support early math skills such as measurement. In one of their emerging apps, children can use the iPad to measure distances in physical spaces with a selected object in the digital space. Children engage in embodied learning as they try to answer, How many panda bears would fit in this yard?

Swartz: Where are the greatest opportunities for progress?

Dominguez: A lot more work is needed around the design of digital tools to promote early collaborative learning. So much of the technology developed to date for early learners takes a one-to-one approach. Given the socially rich nature of early learning approaches, digital tools that can provide unique opportunities to promote learning in collaborative or group settings are very much needed.

[1]  Embodied learning involves the whole body. One example is to have kids toss bean bags while counting.

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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