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The iTot Challenge: Getting Young Children Ready in the Jetsonian Age

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As President Obama discusses our State of the Union with a much needed focus on innovation, education and investment in America's future, let's focus on one area that is ripe for radical change: how digital media can be used for education and hands-on, lifelong learning beginning right from the start.

We need to focus more attention on the potential long-term effects of a major investment in the early years, especially in building an entirely new learning equation for the children who will graduate in 2025. New studies and stronger investments in children under 10 are needed because relatively little research or breakthrough program development has been done on the preschool and middle-childhood periods, which scholars in child development, behavioral and cognitive psychology, and neuroscience have pointed to as critical for all that follows.

Last month, we released a new report intended to get this conversation started. Focused on the explosion of mobile media in young children's lives, Learning: Is there an app for that? found that young children love smart phones, can navigate their use seamlessly and can be engaged by their parents in playtime activities just about anytime, anywhere. This study also found that parents are still skeptical about the educational value of apps, even though well-designed ones can teach key literacy skills, especially to those children who ordinarily struggle. In fact, some of the apps tested for the recent study gave a very significant, albeit short term boost to children's vocabulary learning.

Right now, experts, parents and educators are confused by the aging down of the media blizzard: can they control the wave of digital input while preparing students for success? While experts such as the American Academy of Pediatrics caution against media consumption in the early years, most parents are trying to combine good sense with the practical realities of modern life and informal experimentation. Like most adults immersed in our "digital century," parents are modeling a predictable response: if you can't beat them, join them!

Most parents of kids under six are engaged in what cultural anthropologists and media observers are calling the "pass-back" effect -- those precious moments of relief when a parent hands their digital device to a child on a car ride, standing in the check-out line, or at the doctor's office. Many are engaged in role reversals as they learning from their children how to play video games or check-in on Facebook. Are these new interactions a key learning moment to savor and support or a profound waste of time?

Parenting and early education challenges in the iTot age are even more important when viewed in a larger context: nearly one-third of all young children in the U.S. are, according to kindergarten teachers, not ready for school when they enter. Moreover, less than 15 percent of African-American children are proficient in reading by the end of the fourth grade -- a scandalous data point that reinforces the fact that the U.S. track record in overall achievement has been standing still in the past two decades while other nations have soared past us. In fact, one of the key findings of a report to be released by the Sesame Workshop and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center this March suggests that while the technology gap between low and middle income children is closing, a new type of "participation gap" -- perhaps even more worrisome -- is growing. Children raised in lower income households are more likely to fall further behind their wealthier peers on both traditional and "new literacy skills" as they use less sophisticated modes of inquiry when they use digital resources. These skills can be modeled and taught by engaged parents, well trained teachers and other caregivers.

A good part of the lack of progress can be attributed to the fact that we, as a nation, have simply failed to keep up with effective ways to improve classroom productivity. Most educators lack strong guidance from research on how best to use, limit or combine current approaches with the new technologies.

They are sadly locked in a time warp. For instance, most preschools do not use technology widely or wisely. Many have lacked the resources to modernize. But let me be clear: this is not the practitioners' fault. Usable information about the benefits and pratfalls of modern technologies is scarce and the profession is seriously undervalued.

The recent studies and the disappointing lack of progress against national education goals leads me to suggest several steps President Obama, national and state leaders should consider to jump-start innovation in early learning and development. Substantial federal and state investments in the past decade have led to only sluggish gains in early learning benchmarks. It is time for our nation to seriously assess and integrate the digital tools and new teaching practices that have the potential to promote the types of skills and knowledge demanded by employers in the 21st century. Digital media, well deployed, can have enormous educational impact almost immediately. Over the next five years, let us:

  • Fund digital research and development to invest in what works
    We need to invest in our national research agencies to find out what works. We should examine the specific educational benefits of digital media and the impact of adult scaffolding on children's digital experiences, and assess what works best for children from different backgrounds and with different learning profiles.
  • Establish a Digital Teacher Corps

    Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. Most practitioners are unskilled in embedding new media in powerful instructional practices. A Digital Teacher Corps should be established to work in the lowest-performing elementary schools in order to train teachers to help students learn to read by transforming information for discovery and problem-solving.
  • Create "a place in every community"

    Building on models like New York City's School of One and Club Tech of the Boys and Girls Clubs, it is time to create a place in every community where children can gain confidence in their literacy and interactive technology skills. Each state should establish at least one digital partnership elementary school as a model and demonstration site. These schools should be laboratories for testing different digital approaches to learning and assessment, as well as for testing different ways to break down the barriers between in- and out-of-school learning.
  • Modernize public broadcasting
    Public broadcasting initiatives should not be "wiped out" by budget recessions. Rather they should be re-focused to advance more experimentation for educational impact, life-long learning and job preparation. Existing programs such as Ready To Learn should be expanded to focus on recent advances including practical experimentation with new formats such as games, 3-D simulations and social network communities that will engage children in both literacy and digital skills. Educational media companies should also make available publicly-supported productions to educators at low or no cost via the Internet and new communities of practice.

When it comes to the digital environment that permeates younger and younger children's lives today, we live in the age of the Jetsons. But when it comes to our understanding the impact of ubiquitous digital habits on children's learning, our research enterprise is more like the Flintstones! As the President will argue this week, ongoing American global leadership requires a renewal of our long admired creativity, communication and innovation skills. A new, more balanced diet, leveraging the untapped potential of digital media, can help jump start the effort to ensure a brighter future for all of our children.