Before the pandemic, parents and ECE professionals were already skeptical about the role of technology in the classroom — and they never imagined they'd have to rely on it this much.
But after a year of school closures and distance learning, technology has earned its place in early learning (except where it hasn’t) and most ECE leaders are starting to realize how useful tech can really be.
From tracking student behavior to connecting with parents at the click of a button, technology has revolutionized the way early learning businesses work, communicate, and even teach.
The outcome? More streamlined ECE facilities that support teachers to do what they do best.
But not everyone agrees. For some, it’s just a waiting game until we can go back to basics and return to traditional processes.
The question folks are asking is: Do we really need to continue relying on tech into the future?
We’ve checked in with some of our favorite ECE experts to find out.
In this ultimate rundown of the role of technology in the early learning classroom, we discover what the real role of tech is in the ECE world today, how technology in the physical (and virtual) classroom has changed, and how it’s influenced teaching and learning since the pandemic began.
Ready to dive in? Let’s go.
Ready to build technology into your processes and give your teachers more time to teach?
Dr. Alice Sterling Honig is known for her incredible contribution to early childhood research.
As Professor Emerita of Child Development in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, Falk College, Syracuse University, Alice has authored and edited 12+ books, and more than 600 articles and chapters.
When it comes to the role of technology in the classroom, Alice says there are pros and cons.
“Taking photos of children’s work, such as clay or block creations, and of their harmonious cooperation, and their helpful, patient and generous prosocial interactions, is a wonderful use of tech to document the children flourishing in your care,” says Alice.
But despite the clear benefits, Dr. Sterling Honig cautions against the overuse of technology, which can have a detrimental effect on children’s health.
“Using tech as a ‘babysitter’ decreases the amount of intimate interaction with a child. Children need your full attention to feel understood and cherished and to feel that you really care about their unique selves. For example, if you use tech as a reading tool rather than sitting cuddled as you read aloud and share the picture book experience together, the young child won’t experience the deep visceral pleasure of shared book reading,” explains Alice.
“Using tech as a ‘babysitter’ decreases the amount of intimate interaction with a child.” — Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, Professor Emerita of Child Development, Department of Human Development and Family Science, Falk College, Syracuse University
If you haven’t already heard of Richard Cohen, it’s time you did.
International early care and education motivational speaker, consultant and creator of the wildly popular Zen and the Art of Early Childhood Education blog and Facebook group, Richard’s head (and heart) are firmly in the ECE world.
But for him, it’s just too early to answer the question ‘What will the role of tech be in ECE after the pandemic?’
“Many EC educators/caregivers have been forced to utilize distance technology with varying degrees of success — but we have yet to see the research on long-term effects on young children’s development and learning. So, to what degree technology may continue to be incorporated into EC programs after the pandemic still remains to be seen,” he says.
Richard believes that given the circumstances we’ve all found ourselves in since the pandemic hit, the uncertainty of everyday life needs to be dealt with before we can focus on these more nuanced questions around technology.
“The topic of tech in ECE is critical to consider in the long-term but, for me, premature, right now. It’s hard to predict the role of tech in our field when we don’t even know what our global ‘new normal’ will be like or the context in which it will occur. Once we have re-solidified the foundational role of caring, relationships, attachment and play for young children, it will be time to consider how to best utilize technology to support those goals” says Richard.
“To what degree technology may continue to be incorporated into EC programs after the pandemic still remains to be seen.” — Richard Cohen, Educational Consultant
Since Rae Pica started her ECE journey in 1980, she’s been pretty busy.
As an ECE consultant, blogger, online course creator, popular keynote speaker, and the author of 20 books, Rae has shared her expertise far and wide — including with Nike, Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues, and the Sesame Street Research Department.
For Rae, the role of technology in the classroom is clear: It should be non-existent.
“I don’t believe digital devices have any place in early childhood education,” she says. “Young children are active, experiential learners who acquire knowledge through all their senses — and digital devices don’t meet those needs. I’d like to see the early childhood classroom be at least one place where the little ones are free from technology.”
But despite Rae’s clear view, we live in a digital age — which is why she looks for practical ways not to prioritize active learning over technology, wherever possible.
“The ratio — no matter what the age — should lean toward less technology and more active learning. Even in virtual learning situations I recommend as much active learning as possible (I actually created a webinar called Active Learning in the Time of Covid). For example, there’s no reason a child can’t act out a list of vocabulary words, instead of simply staring at them on a computer. There’s no reason they can’t physically demonstrate quantitative concepts, or such science concepts as balance,” explains Rae.
“Young children are active, experiential learners who acquire knowledge through all their senses — and digital devices don’t meet those needs.” — Rae Pica, Early Childhood Education Consultant
Rae’s got plenty more to say on this and other ECE hot topics in her online courses, which you can learn all about here.
“Virtual learning has jumped by leaps and bounds this past year. Not only is it ever-present in bringing forth knowledge, but also in the enhancements that bring the learning to life. ECE classrooms are involving more webcams, pen pals, and distance learning than ever before. And children are all getting fast-tracked on learning various technology platforms, operating systems and ways people can still connect, even without being in face-to-face situations,” explains Jennifer.
But the fast-paced tech developments mean finding a balance between tech and social emotional learning is more important than ever.
“Best practice is to find a healthy balance between technology and social emotional connections. Although technology has been the answer for the pandemic, the need for physical contact and social emotional wellbeing remains at the forefront of everyone’s concerns now,” says Jennifer.
“We are social by nature, but savvy by necessity. Finding the balance between the two will be the challenge (and struggle) as the months and the next year or two progress.” — Jennifer Romanoff, Vice President of Education & Training, Lightbridge Academy
Cindy Terebush’s bio says it all: teacher, coach, consultant, author, public speaker, blogger, and even podcast co-host.
In other words, Cindy is an ECE powerhouse.
And she believes technology has a firm place in the classroom.
“Today, technology is being used to connect to students and families who are learning from home. Teachers can conduct live sessions with students, use apps to send information and activities home, check in with families, and save and share what children are creating,” she says.
For Cindy, the best thing about technology is the connections it can help to create.
“We’re fortunate to live in a time when connecting live with video is possible because it enables teachers and students to have conversations and build relationships. Some of the best connections are in small groups or 1:1 because they lend themselves to the most relationship building,” she says.
And it’s not just teacher-student relationships that benefit. Teacher-parent communication does too.
“We’ve also benefited from the apps that allow both teachers and families to message each other, share photos and videos. I can’t imagine what education would or, more accurately, would not have been if this pandemic had happened before all this technology existed,” says Cindy.
Looking to the future, Cindy knows tech is here to stay — and she’s hopeful.
“I’m hopeful we’ll realize that the use of technology in the classroom is something we have to support in the early childhood years. It wasn't going away before, and now it’s like we’ve been shoved 15 years into the future. Technology uses that might have happened slowly became an immediate necessity and it’s here to stay,” says Cindy.
But to keep on the right side of technology, there’s one thing to remember: To set standards so children actively work with technology.
“We need standards that prevent the passive use of technology. Technology and its use with early learners shouldn't be about just watching videos — it needs to be about doing. They need to be using their critical thinking skills and be actively engaged in activities that use technology as a tool. We want their thinking processes to be as stimulated as when we hand them a tool like a crayon, scissors, binoculars or magnifying glasses,” she says.
“Going forward, we need to think about how we can continue to use technology in ways that help children to be creative and communicate with others. That is the world they will be entering both in school and, eventually, in the workforce.” — Cindy Terebush, Early Childhood Education Consultant
Cori Berg went viral during lockdown when she set up ECE from the Heart, a Facebook group dedicated to supporting ECE pros during tough times.
The Executive Director of Hope Day School in Dallas now has almost 4K followers, with some of her live streams gathering over 15K views.
It’s clear Cori knows a thing or two about technology. 👌🏻
“Early childhood programs are in a pivotal moment for making decisions about the role technology will play in their communities and supporting the philosophy in regards to curriculum, administration, and parent education,” she says.
But at her childcare center, Cori prefers the traditional route.
“In my center we prefer to be tech free, serve children who have access to screens and keyboards at home, and focus on hands-on experiences. We want to support teacher’s focus on children and feel that screens can very quickly become a distraction — even if it is being used as a tool for communication with parents,” she says.
Although Cori steers away from technology in the classroom, she still believes tech has a place in ECE businesses.
“During the pandemic our social media platforms and messaging apps played a crucial role in connecting to parents and allowing them to see what we were doing in the classroom. One of the surprising pieces we found was how our social media snapshots allowed children’s extended family and friends to connect with the daily lives of our children. Knowing that these family members have supported our school and programming has been really heartwarming,” she says.
And through her work at ECE from the Heart, Cori’s seen how technology helped teachers connect with their communities during the pandemic.
“My center has been open the entire pandemic — although there were times we were open only for essential workers — so we didn’t have the experience of trying to host online learning for preschoolers. I applaud the teachers who worked hard to pivot to online to maintain connection. I actually heard a lot more stories about how difficult using technology was than how successful it was as a learning experience for young children. This matches up with what we could expect from our knowledge of child development. Young children can’t be expected to sit still, and they need the connection of real people in front of them,” she says.
Cori’s final thought is on her own experience growing up with (but mostly without) technology.
“I remember my own experience as a young child growing up on Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. Forty years ago, we played most of our days outside and may have a few minutes of television a day. No one had computers. A day full of nature, board games and dress-up with just a few minutes of tech was much more powerful and meaningful,” says Cori.
“I applaud the teachers who worked hard to pivot to online to maintain connections.” Cori Berg, Executive Director of Hope Day School in Dallas, and founder of ECE from the Heart
Founder and CEO of Professor Patty Cake Consulting, Dr. Erica Vernold Miller is an ECE pro with a ton of experience under her belt.
She believes the role of technology in the classroom is here to stay.
“Long gone are the days of burying our heads in the sand, ignoring and avoiding technology in early childhood classrooms. Technology is here to stay. Not only do families expect it to be used for home/school communication, but they also expect early childhood programs will give their children the foundation to build and grow their digital literacy as well,” says Erica.
For Erica, there are a ton of benefits to using technology in the classroom.
“Educational tools that integrate gamification and spark student interest have been found to enhance learning in ECE classrooms. While tools that can be used both at home and at school have not only been found to be very helpful in reinforcing instructional concepts, but have also been found to strengthen home/school communication,” she says.
And as mother to an early childhood student, Erica has first-hand experience of great tech.
“My son’s teacher signed him up for the Epic reading app and sent me a link, so I can see his progress online. Each week she identifies books from the online library that reinforces concepts she’s teaching in class. At school, my son has the opportunity to read the weekly books on his own or have them read to him by his computer. When he finishes a book, I’m notified and given the opportunity to send my son an online note congratulating him. At home, we can access his Epic library and read additional books related to the themes of the week. His teacher, in turn, can see what we are reading at home. Technology like this enables us to communicate online and helps to provide consistency to my son’s literacy instruction,” explains Erica.
From her experience at work and at home, Erica is a true tech advocate — and she believes the pros outweigh the cons.
“In 2020, technology bridged the gap between ECE programs and ECE students when the pandemic prevented students from attending ECE programs in person. Although uncomfortable at times, the adoption and integration of new technological programs has pushed ECE educators to expand on their existing skills to better meet the educational/technological needs of the digitally native ECE students and the families they serve,” says Erica.
“The last year taught all of us that technology is not merely a ‘luxury’ to have in our ECE classrooms — but rather a necessary instructional resource needed to facilitate learning and communication in every classroom.” — Dr. Erica Vernold Miller, Founder and CEO, Professor Patty Cake Consulting
Monica Stanoch, Quality Advisor at Wonderspring Early Learning is a dedicated ECE pro you’ll want to know.
For Monica, there are pros and cons to using technology in the classroom.
“On the one hand, technology has provided us with more opportunities for accessing professional development, connecting with parents, providing curriculum experiences inside and outside the classroom, and expanding teachers' knowledge and skills,” she says.
At Wonderspring, they take advantage of these benefits via a project-based learning approach that utilizes tech to document learning experiences.
“Wonderspring Early Learning utilizes a project-based learning approach in our preschool and pre-k classes. Documentation of learning is a key piece of this approach. Children can create artifacts that demonstrate the concepts and ideas that they have learned. Teachers and families can view this documentation as evidence of skill acquisition and gain insight on children's individual thought processes and creativity,” she explains.
And it’s not just documentation of learning that makes tech stand out for Monica. She also trusts in its ability to bring people together.
“In ECE, relationships are key. For us, tech-enabled experiences that provided opportunities for connection between children and their peers and children and their teachers during closures were the most valuable. Being able to see a teacher over Zoom or view a recording of their teacher reading a book are simple experiences that impact children and families in positive ways,” she says.
On the other hand, Monica has seen first hand how technology (or the lack of) can hold some learners back.
“Many of our families experienced challenges participating in alternate opportunities to in-person learning. The digital divide is real and has highlighted inequities in our communities. Before we can talk about best practices in virtual curriculum and quality of experiences, we need to grapple with the access to the technology,” she says.
Monica also believes technology can never replace learning through play and exploration.
“If we focus on the use of technology as a means of increasing academic readiness, we will no doubt find these tools lacking. Children learn through play, experiences and exploration. The extent that technology can support rich experiences outside of the classroom should be the focus of the future,” she says.
But despite these drawbacks, she says technology is here to stay and we need to utilize it in the best possible way.
“I believe we need to utilize technology as a tool for documentation. While the concern for the effect of screen time on children's development is valid, the children of today are living in a world where technology is part of the landscape. By focusing on the use of technology as a powerful way to capture individual children's learning and as a means of connecting with parents, we can embed the use of technology into the ECE classroom in meaningful and appropriate ways,” she says.
“Before we can talk about best practices in virtual curriculum and quality of experiences, we need to grapple with the access to the technology.” — Monica Stanoch, Quality Advisor at Wonderspring Early Learning
Love it or hate it, tech isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But wherever you sit on the technology in the classroom debate, one thing’s clear: you need to strike a balance between tech and non-tech teachings.
Here’s a quick checklist to get you started using technology in the classroom in a healthy way:
Ready to build technology into your processes and give your teachers more time to teach? Sign-up for a MomentPath demo today!