Pandemic-Response Webinars Offer New Pointers on Early Ed and Tech

Blog Post
Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash
May 18, 2020

A big question of the past decade is now of pandemic proportion: What is the best way to harness technology to support at-home learning for the littlest learners?

Over the past month, several organizations have hosted free webinars to help educators, administrators, and parents of young children figure this out.

Given that using screens with young children can raise strong feelings, there are no simple answers. As I’ve written and talked about in multiple forums, simply banning screens or setting one-size-fits-all time limits doesn’t reflect the findings from peer-reviewed research on how to use tech with kids. Instead, the Three Cs—taking stock of the Content, the Context, and the needs of the individual Child—can help ensure that children learn from what they see and that screen-based interactions are supporting and not replacing important social interactions.

But aligning with the Three Cs is just the beginning. Parents are seeking pointers to specific videos, games, and apps, as well as advice on how to ensure that compelling off-screen activities are part of the picture too. And teachers and librarians are searching for ways of connecting with and distributing materials to households (whether videos and ebooks, or handouts and art supplies) so families can keep building enriching learning environments for their kids.

Fortunately, the last months’ worth of webinars have provided an opportunity to share ideas and accelerate learning among adults about how to harness technology for help not harm. Below is a sample of those webinars and some top-level take-aways, with links to watch the recordings. (I had the privilege of being part of some of these webinars, and more are coming -- stay tuned!) In addition, see below for links to key guidance from national experts on how to use technology with young children and families.

ISTE’s Early Learning Network webinar series

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) includes more than 1700 educators in its Early Learning Network who share lessons on using technology to support learning for kids from ages three to eight. Since March 30th, the ISTE-ELN, as it is known, has hosted nine webinars on topics such as play-based learning with apps, media literacy, STEM, robotics, and using tech to make stronger connections with families. I provided an overview webinar on April 2nd about how principles for high-quality early learning can be applied during this crisis. In last week’s webinar, Chip Donohue, the former director of the TEC Center at Erikson, talked about using tools like text-messaging to connect with families, adding that using technology should be about building channels of two-way conversation with families; it “should be something you do with parents, not to parents.” (See slide below.)

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Early Edge webinar: Best Practices for Engaging Young Children and their Families through Technology

Early Edge California, an organization that advocates for policies to advance high-quality early learning programs from birth to age eight, hosted a special webinar about using technology to support quality at-home learning during the crisis. I provided some frameworks for thinking about technology that go beyond narrow “child-facing-the-screen” scenarios for tech and instead extend to siblings and parents who may be learning and playing together around media, online and off, as well as the new ways that parents and teachers can communicate. Speakers also included leaders from PBS Digital Kids, PBS Education, and the Early Learning Lab, and two California educators. Early Edge is also running a series of webinars, in Spanish and English, that provide professional development to educators, such as a recent webinar on reading books aloud with infants and toddlers

Webinar for children's and youth services librarians on “Navigating Screens”

A three-year project called Navigating Screens, which is a joint research project of the University of Wisconsin, Drexel University, and the University of Oklahoma, now seems more relevant than ever. Last week in a webinar run by Niche Academy titled “Libraries as Community Hubs for Teaching Positive Screen Media Practices,” viewers got an overview of the project and pointers to tutorials for librarians and others who work with families on making choices about media. Based on research with 51 parents and 24 professionals in three states, the project suggests methods for supporting families in culturally-relevant ways, going beyond overly simple advice about time limits and providing three frameworks for creating open-ended and individualized approaches to talking with families from different backgrounds about how they use media in their homes.

The Navigating Screens researchers have also created this one-page tipsheet for parents with guidance on using tech during COVID-19. The project is funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Please note: The webinar is free, but you will need to create an account using your email address and selecting a password. (Also related to librarianship: the Association for Library Service to Children, a branch of the American Library Association, has developed an award for Excellence in Early Learning Digital Media that provides suggestions for families of high-quality videos, interactive media, and ebooks.)

Conversations with Common Sense: A National Town Hall for Parents

For a deep dive on how to help young children and parents handle the stress of this crisis, see this event moderated last week by Anya Kamanetz, co-host of NPR’s Life Kit podcast, author of The Art of Screen Time, and former New America National Fellow. Kamanetz, herself a mother of a 3-year-old and an 8-year-old, led discussions on how to encourage playful learning at home and help parents be responsive to their kids’ needs. The event was co-hosted by two lead organizations:, which launched a Navigating the New Normal video to help parents and is offering free content through the National Head Start Association and FirstBook, and Common Sense Media, which has partnered with multiple organizations to launch Wide Open School, which showcases content from publishers, nonprofits, and education and technology companies.

Upcoming: Underconnected Yet Eager to Learn: Confronting Digital Inequities

On May 26 at 3 p.m. ET, don't miss the next #LearningTuesdays webinar hosted by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. I'll be moderating a discussion that examines the current state of digital inequity in the United States and starts to unpack what this crisis means for early learners and their families. Speakers include Vikki Katz, co-author with Victoria Rideout of Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Lower-Income Families, and Joshua Stager, general counsel at the Open Technology Institute at New America. More speakers to be announced soon.

General guidance and resources (published before the pandemic):

Several articles published in Young Children over the years are very helpful in gaining insights into activities that can be conducted using different types of digital media with young children. (Here's one on e-books, for example.) Listed below are several frameworks and resources aimed at ensuring that time with digital media is well-spent and is enriching and engaging for our kids.

  • Screen Sense, a set of research-based materials from Zero to Three
    • Including the E-AIMS model for choosing media content for children. (E-AIMS stands for the need to look for Engaging materials, that lead children to be Actively Involved, that are Meaningful, and that promote Social interaction.)
  • NAEYC's Position Statement with the Fred Rogers Center, on Young Children and Technology
    • This statement, published in 2012, has become a landmark document for helping educators to make decisions about technology use, recognizing the importance of quality, developmentally appropriate content and of co-viewing and joint media engagement with parents/adults/family members.
  • The U.S. Department of Education's Early Learning and Educational Technology policy brief (which is based in part on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, NAEYC, and others)
  • Checklists on Integrating Technology, from Education Development Center, with versions available in Spanish and Chinese
  • Tap, Click, Read, the website that accompanies the book I wrote with Michael H. Levine, includes a section full of downloadable PDFs to share with educators, education leaders, parents, and grandparents. Several of these PDFs provide specific examples of how to use digital media to support a child’s home language development and to encourage children to be creators instead of consumers. Resources also help families think about how the Three C’s can be applied to their households to help foster early literacy skills of all kinds, manage the way media is used in their homes, and develop critical thinking skills in using media.

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Digital & Media Literacy Digital Media and Learning Birth Through Third Grade Learning