technology in education

Why kids under five must start learning to code

There’s a lot of pressure to learn coding in primary school to develop 21st century computational skills. But I think we should start in preschool.

Schools and governments recognise the need for teaching 21st century skills. We can see the evidence for that in the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics. But just as we teach preschool children the fundamentals of reading, we must now include computational thinking and coding.

While many early childhood services may have digital technologies, how they are presented and taught to young children, requires more focus and perhaps, upskilling of educators.

In my research we use cubettos. These are simple wooden square box robots with a smiley face that come with coding boards with colourful plastic pieces which make the robots move. We also uses bee-bots, small plastic bee-shaped robots with simple programming buttons on their backs, and blue-bots, clear cased bee-shaped robots that respond to commands sent from a computer or iPad.

I have been exploring how children learn to use them, and how educators support their use, as an extension to my PhD research. With 3-5 year olds, they realise that the pieces you put in the coding board, or the buttons you push, make the robots move in particular ways, and you can start explaining how they move and why they follow our commands.

Learning the basics of robotics at this age will set the foundation for primary school learning. It’s a great introduction to pre-maths, algorithms, counting and problem-solving: they learn this is the ‘recipe’ that moves the robots along.

While some early childhood education services have some robots to play with, what’s missing is the opportunity for richer learning that these devices offer.

Some educators will have a blue-bot or bee-bot and they might push the buttons to create a code for the children, but they’re not necessarily taking the next step to explaining the concept of coding.

The aim for my research is to think about the best way to equip educators to teach coding to pre-schoolers through play, for example whether it will be creating an instruction manual or workshop or something else.

Screens and play

Another aspect of technology is the use of screen technologies among the 3-5 year old age group, both real and replica or broken, which I call ‘imaginative’ technologies. Children want to use real technologies in play, but imaginative technologies are the next best thing. Children today live in a digital world and, given the opportunity, will readily use technology to meet their play needs.

Through my research, which has included interviewing 84 educators in the New England region alongside my colleague Dr Marg Rogers, I have found some educators are reluctant to incorporate real technologies into their classrooms for use by very young children.

Some educators and parents believe early use of technology will reduce their child’s creativity and imagination. Others encourage it. I have found with people holding such strong views, discussions on the subject can be a minefield.

Many services don’t provide real technology for children. They might use an iPad or camera, but it’s very controlled and directed, and the children are not given enough time with the technologies to develop skills and to learn.

The anxiety around using screens could also be further compounded and confused by current national guidelines on screen use.

National guidelines out of step

The current national guidelines recommend children under two are not exposed to any screen time. But this is really out of sync with home or modern life. So, it’s an interesting question for technology researchers like myself – do we follow the guidelines and not give technology to children? But children see technology and in their imaginative play, they want to copy what adults do.

They see people on phones, taking photos and typing on computers from an early age. How can you then have a ‘home corner’ in early childhood education centres that don’t have any of that? How many restaurants take orders on a phone or iPad? How can children re-enact what goes on in a restaurant without technology? Same with a doctor’s surgery or a supermarket. Technology is everywhere.

In a new research project, I will ask children aged 3-5 what they want in their imaginative play spaces and if they can make (out of recycled materials), what they need to in order to have an imaginative play space reflective of the real thing. For example, having iPads in a restaurant to take the orders or look up recipes. I believe real technologies also need to play a larger role in early childhood education.

And I don’t believe we can stop children accessing technologies.

I think it’s a bit disrespectful to not let children use technology in their play. How does it compute in their brains that technology is everywhere in their world, but they are not allowed to use or understand it? It must be confusing for them. I have found, educators need to support children’s technology use in positive ways. I’d like to see non screen-based coding, and iPads with select apps chosen for the learning that’s possible, including to document their own learning, in the preschool years.

Children need to learn how to use technologies and when it is appropriate to use them. Hopefully further research will help to guide the provision of technologies and guidelines for its use, support children’s ethical behaviour and reduce some of the discomfort educators and parents feel around the inclusion of working technologies in children’s lives.

Jo Bird is a senior lecturer at the University of New England, Armidale. Her PhD explored children’s use of digital technologies in imaginative play and the educators’ provision of the various devices, both working and imaginative. Her research interests include children’s play, the use of technologies by both children and educators and early childhood leadership. She loves presenting, both her research and inspiring others to use technologies in creative ways with children and to recognise their leadership worth.

Decelerated curriculum is here. It’s about engagement not more swipe and like literacies

Capturing student attention is often framed as the driver of technological innovation in universities. However, using more screens rarely results in a deeper investigation of ideas. Instead, it can promote quick swipe and like literacies.

Instead, we need to deploy strategies that slow down engagements with ideas, texts and knowledges so students find spaces to think critically, engage with deep knowledge and reflect. I call this a decelerated curriculum.

The screen age

Screens now percolate our physical environment, from ATMs and Eftpos machines, through to digital billboards, and art installations. Most of us carry at least one screen around with us. The ubiquity of the screen makes interaction with environments, people and places more complex and creative. The potential of this interactive experience is harnessed by clever ideas, such as QR codes for example, that effortlessly integrate online and offline consciousness.

These types of functional interactivities are what many educators are attempting to use to transform education from what is popularly decried as out-dated 20th century chalkboard and duster teaching to a flexible framework for mobile learning.

Multiplying screens in the world of university students

Students today have grown up with the internet. They typically own multiple devices, and have a diversity of internet, web and app-based literacies that work outside the tried and tested vocabularies of traditional education. Lectures and tutorials are decried as outdated and out-of-touch to the needs of these multitasking students. Traditional educational forms are too slow and mundane for jacked-in, digi-literate users.

Universities do indeed need to adapt. There is a place for wireless educational interactions and spaces populated with screens and touch interfaces, that offer multiple points of interaction with social media, learning management systems and flexible information management tools. Curricula and syllabi can offer the latest apps, Ted Talks, MOOC opportunities, and interactive testing, all in the service of capturing the attention of these highly mobile and fragmented digital natives.

It’s not the screens that matter

In an idealised education students learn at their own pace, in authentically interactive environments. Teachers ideally collaborate with them, using technology, to create a learning environment that is tailored specifically for them. Most importantly, this deployment of technology is coded to function as the catchall of that most difficult and mysterious of all educational challenges, student motivation.

The technology is seen provide the bridge between teacherly expertise and student interest. Teachers won’t need to worry about student engagement because the right app, programme, or interface will service those needs. As long as it is online, digitised and device ready, the students will be engaged.

However, what this approach belies is the fundamental problem of attention management. More screens do not capture attention, they fragment it. Students accelerate across their screens moving from platforms via different windows, gleaning information and processing at speed.

What is needed is the space and time to slow down from these interactions. It is through slow consideration of ideas that expertise is able to grow and percolate. It is not acquired, downloaded and archived. Education is as much about the student growing as a person as it is about them learning to process information into knowledge. This requires time, development and maturity.

The decelerated curriculum

What is needed is a decelerated curriculum. This is not a syllabus that nostalgically returns to the old ways of teaching and learning. Nor is this a radically new way of thinking. But the focus on using more screens to capture attention subverts the strongest potentials of education, to cultivate thinkers rather than scanners, critiquers rather downloaders, innovators rather than likers and swipers.

Our students already have an accelerated literacy. The point of education is not to provide more of what they already know, but to offer diverse experiences that make them effective learners, critical citizens and reflexive adults. This means asking them to slow down, to experience the world from a different perspective so that they make relevant and engaged choices.

How to decelerate

Moving towards a decelerated approach to teaching and learning means asking students to focus their attention on one idea or one task for an extended amount of time. It involves building their scholarship from information management into reflexively activated knowledges. Teachers may use a number of strategies to scaffold the disciplining of attention and mobilisation of contemplation. The objective is not to get to the answer or write the essay in the most efficient and effective manner, but to ponder the problems and potentialities in a question, topic or idea over time.

This process may also involve elements of digitisation and screen-based interactions, but done so in the service of amplifying the time focused on an idea. A semester long research project, for example, at first year level can introduce students to depth in investigation and demonstrate respect for knowledge. It can ask them to use their devices in ways that offer an intensified digital presence with a database, research task or required reading. This can be balanced by offline work that slows their interaction with texts so they cannot swipe or click through to new material. In doing so, teachers are teaching attention, focus and scrutiny by allowing students the space to think.

Students now face a number of demands as a result of a changing and highly unstable working environment. Getting the right education while accumulating high levels of debt is stressful. Many are being trained for jobs that may or may not exist when they graduate their degree. Universities are facing increasing competition under the demands to capitalise on business outputs. Digitisation is being framed as a way to excite students and streamline university processes.

It is indeed a time of great change, but I believe students do not need more screens. They need a decelerated curriculum in order to manage the screens they have and learn in more deeply relevant and effective ways.

McRaeLeanne McRae has been teaching international students at undergraduate and postgraduate level for over fifteen years. She is an expert in popular cultural studies and proficient in curriculum design and delivery with innovative approaches to pedagogy.

Leanne specialises in popular cultural studies, creative industries, mobility studies, pedagogy, postwork theory, and postcolonialism. Leanne is currently a lecturer and course co-ordinator in Internet Studies at Curtin University.