Digital early childhood – DigiLitEY meeting in Bologna

The DigiLitEY COST Action held its 5th project meeting in the form of a very interesting conference in Bologna on 31 August and 1 September 2017. Eszter Salamon, President of EPA was invited to join the project, more precisely a Think Tank on developing a campaign targeting parents to promote and support responsible parenting of young children in the digital age, a times when the smallest of children using digital technologies is part of everyday life. The note below is more impressions than a proper conference report, but hopefully it will still help the message to reach its target – parents as well as professional educators.

The project meeting was a good opportunity for the Think Tank to meet again and make a huge step towards the tool for parents. You will be able to read about it in detail, and also access the tool via our blog once it is mature enough to be shared with the general public.

There were a number of very interesting presentations and keynote speeches during the meeting, although they were research presentations probably a little too technical for a non-professional audience. Their findings, however, are interesting and should be available for all parents wishing to explore the world of their children, so one of the tasks ahead – we have discussed it with members of the Think Tank – is to digest research evidence into something that will fulfil average parents’ needs.

All presenters reinforced the fact that digital technologies are indeed present in the lives of toddlers as well as older children, the generations of their parents all use some or many digital devices. A comparative study by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC) shows that even within a year, from 2015 to 2016 penetration and habits of using devices have changed, for example this year witnessed a boost in smart TV ownership and an interesting shift from tablets to smart phones as people’s favourite device. However, there have not been significant changes in parenting practices, mostly postponing mediation to later years, considering social media and social media only risky.

At the same time research also shows that the now nearly proverbial divide between school and real life starts in early childhood institutions. It is not only that these centres are not equipped with digital technology, but what is more worrying, teachers working there may have never touched devices toddlers are already familiar with. In one of the presentations teachers were categorised according to their openness towards digitalisation, the best of them being open to be taught by toddlers how to use technology, the worst ignoring the interests of children, including their popular culture favourites, such as Minions. This teacher behaviour has been well known to all parents of older children when teachers have been ignoring children’s favourite reads or hit music, but it was a surprising finding for early childhood.   

There were some interesting presentations and good discussion about reading and the role of e-books in the lives of small children. Many people still advise parents to start with paper books, but research evidence shows interactive e-books can have a higher impact on learning outcomes if they are used well. The largest challenge for parents seem to be to not over-challenge the child, for example by listening to a story and playing a game at the same time. Evidence presented show that for those children who are not yet familiar with letters, e-books are more beneficial, while for those with some traditional literacy level, there is no difference between e-books and traditional ones.

Playful learning was a re-occurring topic throughout the event, and thus it was a good opportunity to link this engagement with another one, Playfutures. One of the keynote speakers, Nicola Yelland, when emphasising the importance of playfulness, also underlined that even adults learn much better if it happens playfully, and digital technology offers ample opportunities for this. The same can be learnt much more deeply and in an enjoyable way at an earlier age, too, by using technology within traditional cognitive skills development, such as learning basic numeracy.

In conclusion it can be said, that although digital luddites as well as those calling attention to risks only seem to be gaining ground and media presence, this is our best option to offer our children the education they need. One of the speakers reminded everybody of the story of the Spinning Jenny, emblem of the industrial revolution. Changes for the better always win, but why not help a smooth transition and help the switch happen quicker.   

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