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Educators’ attentive use key to maximizing ICT benefits in early years education

© UNESCO/Marilyn Jeffrey

20.06.2014

by Polyxeni Evangelopoulou, Stockholm

In today’s world, ICT has become an important component of our life. In this context, internet access and exposure to video-games, computers and mobile phones at a very young age are rising globally. This change has been recognised by both researchers and policy makers and attempts have been made to investigate the potential of ICT to support early childhood education effectively through a variety of functions. Several researchers claim that ICT carries the potential to support education administration and management, student access to quality education, professional development of teachers and development of locally relevant content. But to what extent could ICT be beneficial as a learning tool for children in the early years (0-8 years of age)?

Creative and innovative applications of ICT have been used as important potential tools by both parents and early childhood educators in order to provide support for children’s early learning at home and within early year settings. Although there are certain critics against the introduction of ICT in early childhood education, a number of studies have shown that ICT, when used responsibly, can actually support children’s learning by offering beneficial opportunities in the areas of language and communication, emergent literacy and reading readiness, mathematical thinking, creativity, and positive attitudes towards learning. Besides, for many children, who need additional support in order to participate effectively in classroom settings, such as children with disabilities and children from culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds, ICT can provide a technological solution to overcome some of their impairment and be included in appropriate and meaningful learning opportunities facilitating their inclusion in the society.

Siraj-Blatchford and Whitebread (2003) consider it important that young children begin to develop technological literacy, which is defined as a new form of literacy that is increasingly considered to represent an essential element in any broad and balanced curriculum for the 21st century. Much of the literature argues that children can begin to develop ICT literacy and ICT capability as part of their early childhood experiences. For example, when children in their early years use computers at home and learn to handle successfully the desktop and the computer mouse or to produce and print their digital creations, they become better acquainted with the technological knowledge they will need in order to be prepared for our digital society.

According to Papert (1996), one of the earliest advocates for ICT for children from even the 1960’s,  computers open opportunities for new forms of learning that are far more consistent with the nature of young children than that of the majority of older people. In that sense, ICT tools are the technical tools that can help children tell and listen to stories, draw or create something, interact with other people etc.

Immediate positive reinforcement is another advantage that computers can offer for children’s learning. Through appropriate educational programmes and video games, children are allowed progress to a higher level of difficulty and motivated to continue their learning, depending on the quality of their learning outputs of the previous level..

Related to this, the American National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) proposes that well-designed early childhood software should not only engage children in creative play, problem solving and conversation, but also provide an opportunity for assessment while leaving the child in control.

ICT can also support children to weave together words, pictures and sounds, thereby providing a variety of ways for children to communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings, as well as foster the development of writing and reading skills by e.g. listening to an electronic book, linking pictures with written words and sounds etc.

When studying the effects on mathematical thinking and problem-solving, Clements (2002) mentions different studies showing that computer tasks can actually be more beneficial for pre-schoolers in counting, sorting and numeral recognition than those taught by a teacher. He also stresses that through computer tasks or properly chosen computer games young children can develop an increased ability to monitor their comprehension and problem-solving processes, make choices and decisions and improve their critical thinking skills. Additionally, UNESCO’s IITE (2010) explains how ICT extends an opportunity for preschool children to learn contemporary mathematics by giving them a chance to act in visualized mathematical micro worlds.

While there is little clear evidence about the impact of using ICT in the early years, many authors argue that early childhood educators should be aware of the potential benefits and risks of integrating ICT in early childhood education and be provided guidance in identifying the most appropriate applications of ICT. In order to encourage discussion, creativity, problem-solving, risk-taking and flexible thinking, ICT integration demands a play-centred environment and well trained early years educators, who are skilled in the appropriate uses of ICT with young children.

Specifically, UNESCO (2010) states that the only efficient way to eliminate or minimize the effect of safety concerns regarding the integration of ICT in early childhood education is to focus on the “teacher’s responsibility to appraise proper forms of ICT critically and employ them to support creative play and expression, not only through the selective and supported use of particular software applications, but also through the use of a range of different forms of ICT”.

In other words, an attentive, thorough and knowledgeable integration of ICT across curriculum is the best answer to most of the concerns. The question is not anymore whether young children should use ICT or not, but rather how educators and parents should integrate ICT effectively into early childhood education in order to enhance children’s learning and development.

References

Clements, D. H. (2002). Computers in Early Childhood Mathematics. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, vol. 3, 2.

Siraj-Blatchford, J., & Whitebread, D. (2003). Supporting information and communications technology in the early years. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Papert, S. (1996). The Connected Family: Bridging the digital generation gap. Atlanta, Georgia. Longstreet Press.

UNESCO (2010). Recognizing the Potential of ICT in Early Childhood Education- Analytical Survey. UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education, Moscow.

Polyxeni Evangelopoulou is a preschool educator. She holds a M.A. Early Childhood Intervention (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) and a M.Sc. International and Comparative Education (Stockholm University). You may contact her through email: p.evangelopoulou@gmail.com

Note: The opinions expressed in the articles included in this newsletter are those of the authors and editors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of UNESCO, nor of any particular Division or Office.