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Roundtable on the Science of Digital Media and Early Learning

Published:  October 25, 2013
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On October 15, the New America Foundation and the Alliance for Early Learning in a Digital Age brought researchers together to examine what current science tells us about how and if young children learn from digital media -- and what begs more research. During discussions, participants jotted their insights on colorful post-it notes, such as those seen here.

With nearly 100,000 apps in the education category of the iTunes app store, and television still a huge part of children’s daily lives, the questions about how technology affects learning are more pertinent than ever.  At the New America Foundation last week, the Early Education Initiative sought answers to these questions at a first-of-its-kind roundtable discussion with dozens of media and early childhood researchers from across the country. 

The discussion, Digital Media and Early Learning: What We Know and What We Need to Learn, was organized in partnership with the Alliance for Early Learning in a Digital Age, a consortium of institutions that included the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, PBS, Sesame Workshop, and The TEC Center at Erikson Institute. The Grable Foundation of Pittsburgh funded the event.

Our primary aim was to use findings from recent research to trigger deeper conversations about technology and young children. Here at the New America Foundation we see a need for germinating new policy ideas, birth through age 8, that recognize how technology and media are shaping early experiences and ensuring that children from low-income and disadvantaged families are getting the best learning opportunities possible. The Alliance is committed to exploring the potential of technology to support quality early learning experiences and school readiness. Both organizations want to make sure that our missions are rooted in findings from evidence-based research. (It should be noted that the work of the National Association for the Education of Young Children has been quite helpful in informing these goals. NAEYC worked with the Fred Rogers Center for several years to develop the NAEYC Position Statement on Technology and Interactive Media in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children From Birth through Age 8.)

To start the ball rolling, discussion centered on two questions:

  1. What do stakeholders (parents, teachers, media makers) need to know that they don’t know?
  2. What are the future directions for research?

The answers are many, but an overarching theme of the day, brought forward by researcher after researcher, was the importance of making distinctions betweenmindful vs. mindless media use. When digital media, whether e-books or television shows, are used intentionally and designed with children’s learning in mind, they can promote children’s learning. When used mindlessly – one example was an “always on” television – media could distract children from important play patterns and social interactions that help them develop social-emotional, cognitive skills, and habits of mind. 

The event was not public (sorry, there is no archived video), but we hope to showcase some of the research in future writings and would love to engage with other organizations and researchers who have an interest in this area. Here are a few of the big take-aways and new questions:

  • Parents need to know that, just as with books, using media together with their children leads to more learning. Parents should be jointly engaging with games, books and videos by talking about them with their children or using the media as a springboard for singing, playing and learning together.
  • For screen-based media, the content on the screen really matters. Researchers are discovering various “active ingredients” that promote more learning, such characters who children build relationships with, elements that promote guided play and avoidance of distractions. 
  • The use of the media depends greatly on children’s interests and needs, and families’ needs, backgrounds and cultures; rules and regulations for media use should not ignore that.
  • Media makers need to recognize the needs of different families and communities, such as those that do not primarily speak English.
  • Providing access to quality media and quality media environments requires engaging parents in a diversity of settings, including public libraries.
  • Young children are capable of creating their own messages and expressing themselves through the media.

In the coming year, we will continue to follow the work of the Alliance and of the many researchers who are exploring these issues. Many questions at the roundtable spoke to the need for a new research agenda, which the Alliance is interested in fostering. New America will host a public forum in the spring to illuminate how these issues should be considered throughout local, state, and federal early childhood policies. Stay tuned!

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