Educational technology and media are here to stay. The landscape of devices, tools, and resources is overwhelming, with over half a million apps currently listed as educational. There are no universal standards for what makes an app educational, and there is little evidence demonstrating educational effectiveness of the media. Moreover, there is scant research guiding decision-making or support considering why and when to use digital resources for learning.

In early childhood, these considerations are crucial because young children are spending an average of more than two hours each day using digital media, and these same children learn best through interactions and hands-on explorations, which makes selecting digital resources that preserve and enhance these features of learning especially important. Educators and caregivers need assistance deciding what to use and then how to implement these resources to reap potential educational benefits.

When selecting digital resources, use these three criteria as your guide:

Appropriate content: The content in the media should reflect target learning goals and what is being learned or practiced in the classroom. Additionally, ask these questions:

Sound pedagogy: The resource should demonstrate high-quality pedagogy and principles of accessibility, including audio and/or video features that support written text; characters that speak directly to children and/or respond to their specific actions; opportunities for trial and error and other strategies for solving problems; flexibility for multiple ways to engage with content; difficulty that adjusts based on performance; features that motivate continued engagement and learning, like unlocking new content when certain benchmarks are achieved; prompts for children to connect the content to learning off the screen; and opportunities to play with others. In addition, ask yourself the following questions:

Cultural responsiveness: The resource should represent the students and their experiences, and include language options aligning with languages spoken in the classroom. Ask yourself the following questions:

Once appropriate digital resources are selected, they can be treated like any other educational resource. Introduce the resource, set expectations around use, and integrate the resource into hands-on experiences that come before and after it in a learning sequence. Furthermore, use the resource as a source of conversation and further questions that extend knowledge to other areas of the curriculum and children’s lives.

For example, most families and early childhood educators know of PBS Kids as a trusted and free educational media resource for young children. It can be used as more than educational entertainment. The federal Ready to Learn program ensures that PBS Kids shows, games, and apps are developed with a learning framework in mind and that they meet specific learning goals.

PBS Learning Media has compiled video clips, episodes, games, and apps into lesson plans and interactive learning resources, organized by topic, age, and learning targets to make finding appropriate resources and knowing how to integrate them into the curriculum easier. Similarly, a caregiver-facing page gives ideas for play-based learning together at home using the digital resources as the launching point.

Let’s imagine you are starting a unit on spatial thinking in your classroom and want to introduce children to directional words, landmarks as reference points for finding locations or navigating a space, and maps and diagrams as ways of representing larger spaces in miniature form. You might use a lesson plan based around a video of Molly of Denali that introduces diagrams and the language of directional words and landmarks, or talk about maps and spatial relationships using these video clips and a treasure map game from Peg+Cat.

These video clips and digital games can be introduced in whole group discussions, and then pairs of students can engage in the hands-on or digital games and activities that allow for talking about what is being learned. Students can work together on the active puzzling, strategizing, and planning required to create and use maps and diagrams. Extending this learning to the home, you might share this map-making activity with families that launches from an Elinor Wonders Why episode.

In this example, the digital tool meets our three criteria. The content drove decisions around the selection of resources. The video clips were used to introduce target concepts, digital games were used to apply and practice the concepts, and then a hands-on activity was used to connect learning at school to the home, all of which aligned with high-quality pedagogy. All of the selected resources are free and available in multiple languages, representing varied people and cultures. Furthermore, using public media that families can access at home allows for characters, narratives, and content to bridge the gap between learning environments.

Selecting and using digital resources is no different than selecting and using any other educational tool or activity with a child. The adult making the selection is attending to the child or children in front of them, noticing their budding skills and interests in relation to specified learning goals, as well as finding ways to engage them in appropriate learning that also builds connection and extends learning across settings.

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