Sara Mead -
January 24, 2008 - 7:00pm
Cutting edge technological innovation isn’t typically the first thing that comes to mind when we think about early education. Many of the things we associate with young children’s learning—caring adult-child interactions, alphabet blocks, the caterpillar-in-the-jar—are decidedly low-tech. For better or for worse, early education seems like one area unlikely to be revolutionized by the kind of technology-driven productivity increases that are transforming modern life.
But things aren’t always as they seem—and that’s certainly true of technology and early education. A new generation of technology-driven innovations in professional development, assessment, and curriculum and instructional materials have real potential to improve the quality of early education teaching and learning.
Consider the example of www.freereading.net, which offers a research-based, forty-week early literacy intervention for kindergarten and first graders. The curriculum, along with a rich variety of supplemental resources and activities, is available for free on the internet. The State of Florida recently approved www.freereading.com for use in its public school classrooms. By using this free “open source” curriculum instead of a costly commercial textbook, school districts can free up funding for other activities that improve the quality of early education, such as professional development or more customized supports for struggling students. Teachers add their own ideas and activities to the site’s resource bank, disseminating effective practices to a broader audience and building a professional community of early educators online. Moreover, the internet allows www.freereading.com to offer resources ordinary textbooks can’t—for instance, videos that allow teachers to watch and learn from effective teachers implementing literacy activities.
Online video sharing has tremendous potential to improve professional development for early educators. My Teaching Partner, created by researchers at the University of Virginia, is another website that provides resources for early educators, including an activity bank, video examples of high-quality teaching, and a 36-week language and literacy instruction program. MTP also uses videoconferencing and online video sharing technology to provide individualized coaching and professional development for teachers. Teachers record video of themselves teaching and send it to a coach, who evaluates the video and edits it to provide feedback and help the teacher evaluate her own practice. Teachers and coaches discuss the video and set goals for improvement via videoconference, and the coach can direct the teacher to resources and videos in MTP’s online library that address skills she needs to improve. Online videosharing and videoconference technology provide an efficient way for a limited number of trained coaches to provide professional development and support to many teachers in far-flung locations.
Teachers use handheld computers to assess students and customize instruction to individual needs.
Teachers can also use technology to help customize instruction in the classroom. Teachers in Montgomery County, Maryland
, use handheld computers to monitor students’ achievement on a real-time basis, map students’ abilities back onto aligned state literacy standards, and plan instruction to meet students’ needs. A growing number of school districts nationally use similar handheld devices to administer one-on-one and observational assessments
of young children’s learning—a task that this technology makes far less burdensome and time-consuming for teachers.
Technology holds particular promise for early education because it enhances teachers’ ability to customize instruction to individual students’ development. Young children’s development is highly variable, and while early educators must work to bring all children to the same high standards by the end of third grade, doing so effectively requires customizing instruction and support to each child’s unique developmental progress. Technology, such as Montgomery County’s handheld computers, or www.freereading.com and MTP’s activity banks, can provide teachers analysis and resources that help them better customize instruction to where students are developmentally. This makes teachers both more effective and more efficient. That’s important because early education is a labor-intensive industry, and technology that makes labor more productive is highly beneficial.
Technology is no replacement for the core of quality early education—verbally rich, emotionally supportive interactions between children and adults. But technology can help improve teachers’ ability to create those types of interactions, and it can help them better align them with standards and customize them to children’s needs. That’s quite an accomplishment.
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