Harnessing Digital Technology as a Pedagogical Tool in Early Childhood Education

Harnessing Digital Technology as a Pedagogical Tool in Early Childhood Education

Children today are born into a world where digital technology is omnipresent and permeates all areas of their lives (O’Neill, 2018).  Yet one area which appears hesitant to embrace technology and harness the possibilities it can provide is the early childhood education sector (ECEC). 

Here in Ireland, the Department of Education and Skills (DES) has developed a digital strategy for primary and post-primary schools. This is fortified by a national support service which provides training and resources to support teachers in successfully incorporating technology in their educational practice. However, the DES has stopped short of recommendations for technology to enhance learning for children in ECEC and has instead recommended further research in this area (DES, 2020). 

Internationally, the European Commission has stated that 26 out of 38 countries included in their 2019 report are incorporating technology within their ECEC educational guidelines.  Ireland is not included in that list of 26 (European Commission, 2019).

From passive to active use of technology

Current research has found that young children are already proficient in digital technology use by the age of 3 years old (Marsh et al, 2015).  In addition, further research findings from the Growing up in Ireland longitudinal study report that technology is the most favoured form of play for 9-year-old children, more popular than reading a book or even playing with their friends (ESRI, 2021).

When considering technology, devices such as smartphones and tablets initially come to mind, but what if the foundations were laid at the ECEC stage for thinking about technology as much more than streaming animations, social media, and games?  An opportunity exists here for the introduction of technology as a developmentally appropriate pedagogical tool for ECEC children, many of whom are already technologically proficient, to open up the possibilities of technology for more than the aforementioned passive activities.  This knowledge could inform and expand children’s engagement with technology right through their educational lives.

Examples of active uses of technology

From an accessibility perspective, it is important to acknowledge that ECEC settings may have varying degrees of access to technology.  For example, access may be limited by resources, practitioner training, or funding, however, there are ways to incorporate technology which are both affordable and accessible and do not require a large investment.

Some simple methods for active uses of technology with ECEC children might include:

  • Examining bugs under a digital microscope.
  • Simple robotic sets.
  • Reflecting with children using photographs, video, and audio clips of them and their play.
  • Engaging with another setting as online “pen pals” via email or even video conferencing.
  • Invite parents who have an interesting job or story to tell into the setting via video conference.
  • Microphones for children to interview each other and listen back together.
  • Use an online tool such as Google Drawings to collaborate on artwork with family or with another setting.
  • Silent videos for children to narrate and act out.
  • Email and pictures from home – favourite food, my room, my favourite toy.
  • Search for recipes and order ingredients online, then cook together.

 

The future of technology in ECEC

Photo by Giu Vicente on Unsplash

But why stop there! Imagine the possibilities of the future and how they could have been so useful for children during the COVID-19 pandemic.  For example, so many children missed out on their final year in ECEC and the associated social and emotional preparation for their transition to primary education that would have been provided. 

What if augmented or virtual reality technology had been mainstream and accessible during that time.  Children could have engaged in a virtual walkthrough of their new primary school environment and had a meet and greet with their primary school teacher and even classmates. This may sound like a somewhat futuristic idea for ECEC, but who would have imagined 30 years ago the technologies which exist today? Such technologies may be expensive now, but like all new technology, surely they will become more affordable over time.

Moving forward, a 2021 report on the uses of technology in ECEC, both pre- and post-pandemic, has highlighted the need for policies and procedures to be developed to provide appropriate guidance for increased utilisation of technology within ECEC pedagogical practice (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2021).  This is reflective of the current lack of direction on technology within the ECEC curriculum in Ireland’s Aistear curriculum and Síolta quality frameworks. Although notably, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) are currently engaged in a project to update the Aistear curriculum framework which will hopefully address this gap in an Irish context.  The OECD (2021) has also recommended the provision of practitioner training and the development of age-appropriate tools to further support the effective incorporation of technology in ECEC pedagogical practice. Of course, there are practical concerns that must be considered, such as ensuring that a balance is struck between engaging with technology for pedagogical use and avoiding an excess of screen time, as suggested by Finnish pedagogues (OECD, 2021). Additionally, we must ensure that the ECEC curriculum does not become dependent on technology so that those who do not have equitable access to technological tools are not disadvantaged. However, such issues further underpin the importance of developing and providing relevant training for ECEC professionals, appropriately embedding technology within the curriculum and quality frameworks, and considering the possibilities of technology in broader terms beyond merely smartphones, tablets, search engines, and streaming apps.

 

Paula Walshe

Paula Walshe

ECEC Trainer and FET Assessor

Paula Walshe is an ECEC trainer and placement assessor in the further education and training sector and a freelance writer. She currently holds a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and will complete her studies for a Master’s Degree in Leadership for ECEC in 2022. Paula has extensive ECEC experience in both pedagogical practice and ECEC management. You can learn more about Paula’s work at her website (www.thedigitalearlychildhoodeducator.ie), where she writes a weekly blog on current topics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and provides useful professional and academic resources for students and professionals in this sector.

LinkedIn: Paula Walshe

Twitter: @digitalearlyed

Instagram: @digitalearlychildhoodeducator

Paula and an ECEC colleague have also established a Twitter page @ECEQualityIrl – a community of professionals sharing ideas and knowledge on all things quality, pedagogy, and professional practice in ECEC in Ireland.

References and Further Reading

Department of Education and Skills. (2019). Digital Learning Framework for Primary Schools. Dublin: Stationery Office. https://www.dlplanning.ie 

DES. (2017). Síolta the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education. Dublin: Early Years Education and Policy Unit. https://siolta.ie/manuals.php 

DES. (2020). Digital Learning 2020: Reporting on practice in Early Learning and Care, Primary and Post-Primary Contexts. Dublin: Stationery Office. https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/c0053-digital-learning-2020-reporting-on-practice-in-early-learning-and-care-primary-and-post-primary-contexts/ 

ESRI. (2021). Growing Up in Ireland, National Longitudinal Study of Children: The lives of 9 year olds of cohort ‘08. Dublin: ESRI. https://www.esri.ie/publications/growing-up-in-ireland-the-lives-of-9-year-olds-of-cohort-08 

European Commission. (2019). Key Data on Early Childhood Education and Care in Europe – Eurydice Report 2019. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/national-policies/eurydice/content/key-data-early-childhood-education-and-care-europe-–-2019-edition_en 

Marsh, J. 2014. The Relationship Between Online and Offline Play: Friendship and Exclusion. In Children’s Games in the New Media Age, edited by A. Burn and C. Richards, 109–134. London: Ashgate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303572020_The_relationship_between_online_and_offline_play_friendship_and_exclusion

National Council for Curriculum Assessment. (2009). Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework. Dublin: NCCA. https://ncca.ie/media/4151/aistear_theearlychildhoodcurriculumframework.pdf 

O’Neill, S. (2018). Technology Use in Early Learning and Care: A Practice Dilemma. ChildLinks: Children and the Digital World, Barnardo’s, Issue 3, 2018. https://shop.barnardos.ie/products/ebook-childlinks-children-and-the-digital-world-issue-3-2018 

OECD. (2021). Using Digital Technologies for Early Education during COVID-19:  OECD report for the G20 2020 Education Working Group. Paris: OECD Publishing. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/using-digital-technologies-for-early-education-during-covid-19_fe8d68ad-en 

Managing Digital Learning during COVID-19 and Beyond

Managing Digital Learning during COVID-19 and Beyond

It is undisputed that Covid has had a massive impact on education and the way it is delivered, both in the UK and internationally. Whilst there have been a number of papers on the ways in which teachers have innovated during this time, and the impact this has had on their workload and mental health, there has been little on how school leaders and their senior teams have taken a strategic overview of online and blended learning. This post takes a look at a funded research project and explores why this area is so important for school leadership, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

The recent pandemic has led to unprecedented challenges for school leadership teams and their staff. Almost overnight, they have had to create policies and working practices in a very short timeframe. One leader reported that a strategy meant to take three years had been achieved in three weeks!

In England, secondary schools have been shut down for the duration of two lockdown periods for all but the children of essential workers. Evidence from our pilot project suggests that school leaders have not only changed policies and practices but in many cases, their vision for education. The project, leading school learning through Covid 19 and beyond: online learning and strategic planning through and post lockdown in English secondary schools, investigates how senior leaders strategically planned for online learning – before, during, and after the pandemic. Our sample includes interviews with 70 senior leaders from English secondary schools, along with a questionnaire sent out via project partners to 4000 schools, and an analysis of 200 school websites.

 

level I – this is the lowest level of digital planning, in which technology is used passively by particular teachers in particular subjects to support learning. This level is termed – substitution. Level II this is where traditional pedagogy is adapted for online, this level is termed – augmentation. Level III – modification – this is where strategic thought is given to the design of online learning and enhancements that add value are implemented. Level IV – strategic planning for online learning – this links to a whole school or departmental approach.
Figure 1 : Strategic Planning for Online learning: Level 1 to 4, adapted from Puntedura, 2021.

Our project classifies the different levels of strategic planning for online education, via an adapted version of Puntedura’s (Puentedura, 2010), SAMR Model, in which the lowest level of planning is termed substitution, the second level is termed augmentation, the third level is termed modification, and the final and most advanced level is termed strategic planning for online learning. (See figure 1). It adopts a strategy as a learning approach which we have used successfully in previous projects relating to educational leadership and management (Baxer & Floyd, 2019; J.  Baxter, 2020; J Baxter & John, 2021).

Challenges

Analysis of the pilot project suggests some key themes that are emerging in both qualitative and quantitative data. It is clear that school leaders made some substantial changes to the management of online learning in the period between the first lockdown in March 2020 and the second principal lockdown in the winter of 2020/ 2021. For example, school leaders reported considerable issues with hardware and connectivity, particularly during the first lockdown. Evidence suggests that they have subsequently been creative in acquiring these elements, ensuring that learners were properly equipped to engage with learning during lockdown two.  

One of the major categories that has emerged within the study is well-being and care: this in terms of both teacher and learner welfare. School leaders appear to have placed the well-being of their staff and learners first and foremost. They report considerable stress amongst staff, and challenges in relation to learners, particularly those with particular learning needs, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This aligns with the findings of a report by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Leaders have also reported the considerable investment of time needed in building the competencies of parents and carers. This has offered both challenges and opportunities with engaging parents more fully in the learning processes of their children. Communication with parents and learners, and not least in managing online teachers and teams, was also a challenge. Yet again, out of the crisis, there appears to have been some considerable learning taking place, with senior leaders speaking to SEN students and their carers, in some cases on a weekly or even daily basis.

Leaders report that one of the most important tasks during lockdown has been establishing a baseline for effective teaching. Some schools cut down on curriculum to focus on the essentials. Sorting out policies and protocols with staff, governors, and unions, has taken up a great deal of management time, but respondents largely feel that it has been a worthwhile task going forward.

Opportunities

There is considerable evidence of pedagogical innovation and creativity, particularly during the second lockdown when school staff were taken less by surprise. Leaders report evidence of new ideas being tried and tested by teachers, free from the normal constraints. They also report new roles being created as a result of an enhanced focus on digital learning. For example, a new head of digital strategy and innovation at one multi-academy trust; a new head of digital training and development for both teachers and parents in the same MAT.

There is also evidence that some senior leaders are beginning to view education in a different way: one head of a multi-academy trust had already brokered a relationship with Apple to move the whole curriculum online. New and innovative practices adopted during Covid, born out of necessity, are reported as now being ‘business as usual’. An example of this is parent evenings – once held face-to-face and often poorly attended, particularly in schools in challenging areas – which have been much more successful online. Several school leaders state their intention to continue this practice and extend it to governor meetings and, in some cases, staff meetings too.

 In terms of quality assurance, this is one area that presented school leaders with their biggest challenges. But from the second lockdown onwards, some schools had already introduced strategies for peer observation of teaching, virtual learning walks, and other innovations to promote and sustain good practice. Some respondents reported using online engagement statistics to measure learner engagement.

One particularly interesting area reported by one senior multi-Academy trust leader: a number of teachers and headteachers across over 15 schools reported that quieter pupils, those who didn’t normally respond well in class, had engaged far more fully with lessons when delivered digitally. This is a potentially intriguing area that could be taken forward concerning introverted students and their more extroverted peers.

Going Forward

The central part of the framework links to well-being and access to learning in the next concentric circle moving outwards, is trust, communication, data privacy. The next concentric circle contains four quadrants, four aspects of digital learning in secondary schools: one – design differentiated learning experience for all students; two – build competencies of teacher students parents and carers; three – collaborate in multilateral strategies with teacher voice at the core; four – develop the digital environment with a combination of approaches. Outside the circle are for headings these headings indicate that the subjects are overarching in relation to the other quadrants of the circle: pedagogical innovation, flexibility and partnership, resources and infrastructure, equity ability and inclusivity.

The pilot research has revealed some interesting findings that will be taken forward into the main phase. It has also resulted in a theoretical framework for our research. This is illustrated in figure 2.

As can be seen in the framework, we place well-being and access to learning central to the future development of digital innovation in secondary schools.

The second part of our framework includes:

  • designing a differentiated learning experience for students
  • the importance of building the competencies of teachers, students, parents, and carers
  • collaboration in multilateral strategies with teacher voice at the core
  • developing a digital environment via a combination of approaches.

We look forward to continuing our reporting on the project, which will give rise to a free online course for school leaders hosted on the Open University’s open learning platform.

 Further details of our project, or to take part, see our website at: https://www.open.ac.uk/projects/leading-online-learning/

 or follow us on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/Covid_EduLeader

References and Further Reading

Baxer, J., & Floyd, A. (2019). Strategic narrative in multi‐academy trusts in England: Principal drivers for expansion. British Educational Research Journal, 45(5), 1050-1071.

Baxter, J. (2020). Schemes of delegation as governance tools : the case of multi academy trusts in education under review.

Baxter, J., & John, A. (2021). Strategy as learning in multi-academy trusts in England: strategic thinking in action. School Leadership & Management, 1-21. doi: 10.1080/13632434.2020.1863777

Jewitt, K., Baxter, J., & Floyd, A. (2021). Literature review on the use of online and blended learning during Covid 19 and Beyond. The Open University The Open University

Dr Jacqueline Baxter

Dr Jacqueline Baxter

Associate Professor in Public Policy and Management The Open University Business School

Dr Jacqueline Baxter is Associate Professor in Public Policy and Management and Director for the Centre of Innovation in Online Business and Legal Education (SCILAB). She is Principal Fellow of The Higher Education Academy, Fellow of The Academy of Social Sciences and Elected Council Member of Belmas. She is outgoing Editor in Chief of the Sage Journal Management in Education (MiE) Her current funded research projects examine the interrelationship between trust, accountability, and capacity in improving learning outcomes; and the strategic management of online learning in secondary schools during and beyond Covid19.

Dr Baxter is based in the Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise at the Open University Business School.

She tweets @drjacqueBaxter and her profile can be found at: http://www.open.ac.uk/people/jab899. Her latest book is: Trust, Accountability and Capacity in Education System Reform (Routledge, 2020).

Dr Katharine Jewitt

Dr Katharine Jewitt

Research Fellow and Educational Technology Consultant at The Open University

Dr Katharine Jewitt is a Research Fellow and Educational Technology Consultant at The Open University. Katharine works across four faculties (Faculty of Wellbeing, Education & Language Studies, Faculty for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, Faculty of Business and Law and The Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnership) and teaches at access, undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Professor Alan Floyd

Professor Alan Floyd

University of Reading

Alan Floyd is a Professor of Education and his research and teaching activity focus on two substantive areas: educational leadership and doctoral education. Specific areas of interest include:

  • Academic leadership
  • School leadership and Multi Academy Trusts (MATs)
  • How people perceive and experience being in a leadership role
  • Distributed and collaborative leadership
  • Leadership development
  • Career trajectories
  • Identity Insider research and associated ethical issues
  • Supporting doctoral researchers