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Context Is Everything: Reimagining Edtech for Early Learners By Evo Popoff and Daimen Sagastume Michelle Kang, Chief Executive Officer, of NAEYC

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Foreword By Michelle Kang, CEO, NAEYC Children and technology have been an ongoing source of debate among parents, educators and caregivers for many years. Many parents believe their children spend too much time in front of a screen and, according to a 2020 study, feel that technology has made parenting harder. These feelings have also extended to the classroom — particularly in preschool and elementary school — where educators historically have been challenged by the role of technology in programs. These attitudes may be shifting, however, with parents increasingly finding value in technology when used appropriately and with some elementary schools embracing technology in their classrooms. Yet, concerns about screen time and too much technology continue to lead to a reluctant acceptance of technology in many other early learning classrooms. As noted in guidance published by our organization, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), we agree that responsible use of technology by our nation’s youngest learners — including limiting screen time, particularly for children under 5 years of age — is critical. We also know that when we get it right, technology can be a powerful tool to support all young learners and enable healthy collaboration between families and educators. That said, it is critically important that we get it right, because the technology is here to stay. But getting it right with regard to tech tools isn’t always easy, nor has it been identified as necessary — in particular for busy school leaders

and educators who are trying to navigate an increasingly crowded edtech landscape. The fact remains that these considerations, although crucial to decision-making, can run counter to the fundamental differences between early learners and adolescent and adult learners that are central to the developmental sciences. Simply put, the tool that’s most effective for middle or high school students probably doesn’t best meet the needs of early learners, even with an age-appropriate interface. Joyful, inclusive and connected learning – as detailed in NAEYC’s foundational text Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP) — are the core design principles this paper explores, offering a good starting point to any conversation about technology and early learners. While we know these principles can benefit students of any age, when it comes to early learners, these must be nonnegotiable components of their learning experience. Additionally, because of developmental differences, inclusive design, and the role of parents and families vary greatly between young learners and older learners. For this reason, we start with the urgency of understanding why it is also important for edtech providers to get this right — because early learning program leaders and school districts can only make informed decisions based on what is currently available. Early learning software developers must engage with productive and developmentally specific questions including:

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Do our solutions support joyful, active learning?

Do they foster relationships between students and connect “online learning” with relevant real-world activities?

Are they solely providing ways to communicate with families, or are they actively inviting families into their child’s learning?

Have they made assumptions in the design of their solutions that don’t acknowledge the vast variability that exists with our nation’s youngest learners?

Does the solution address equity and support the growth and development of young children without regards to access?

We know that tech can do many things and that much of that possibility has yet to be explored. As new emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and speech recognition are poised to unleash a new wave of K-12 edtech solutions, it’s critical that all of us — educators, developers,

funders — become far more intentional and nuanced in how we develop, purchase and use edtech with students at different stages of development. Learning science must drive supply and demand and the experiences that we want our students to have. Nowhere is this truer than in early childhood and elementary education where, for far too long, older learners — even adult learners — have shaped our ideas about edtech. This paper invites a muchneeded conversation about edtech and early learners as a precursor to defining a new segment of the K-12 edtech market: one centered on the needs of elementary students and educators. It’s a conversation that we have been having at NAEYC for some time and a conversation that we are thrilled to partake in. After all, we owe it to all children to offer them the best first learning experiences filled with joy and wonder. And technology — but not too much.

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Executive Summary Historically, there has been reluctant acceptance of edtech for early learners: while its benefits are clear, parents worry about too much screen time, educators may be concerned that the technology interferes with social interactions, and researchers worry about its developmental impact on children. As such, while the edtech sector has seen dramatic innovation and growth, elementary classrooms have oftentimes been left with tools initially designed for older students that fail to meet the full needs of their students. As attitudes shift and more early educators embrace technology in their classrooms, there is an opportunity to reimagine edtech for elementary learners. By unpacking the history of edtech adoption and highlighting the key role of learning science in designing developmentally appropriate edtech, this paper presents a new framework for edtech — rooted in three key principles to guide the sector at large:

Promote joyful, play-based learning: Edtech tools should spark curiosity, creativity, and hands-on exploration, while balancing screen time with offline activities.

Facilitate connected learning: Tools should enable collaboration between students, teachers, and families by streamlining communication and sharing of student work.

Support inclusivity and accessibility: Following universal design for learning (UDL) principles, edtech should empower all young learners by reducing barriers and providing multiple ways to engage.

The goal of this paper is not to provide an exhaustive treatment of a complex topic but rather to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about edtech in early education. Importantly, it is also not without bias. This paper was commissioned by an edtech organization that supports PK-6 learning, and we hope readers consider it in that context as they consider how technology is used in elementary classrooms.

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Contents About the Authors






How We Got Here: Edtech in K-12 and Elementary Learning


Learning Science and Early Learners


The Affordances of New and Emerging Technology


Reimagining Edtech for Early Learners


Principle 1: The Importance of Joyful Learning


Principle 2: Connected Learning: The parent, student, family


partnership in early learning 22

Principle 3: Inclusivity and Divergent Learning Looking ahead: Hold fast to the means — not just the ends


Additional Resources


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About the Authors Evo Popoff is a senior vice president at Whiteboard Advisors. Named State Policy Maker of the Year by the State Education Technology Directors Association, he previously served as chief innovation and intervention officer and assistant commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Education, where he oversaw the state’s education technology and school and district improvement efforts. Prior to joining the department, he led the development of education technology products and school improvement solutions in collaboration with district and state leaders and educators. Before beginning his career in education, Evo practiced law at McDermott, Will & Emery, where he worked on labor and employment, antitrust and general corporate issues. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Chicago and a Juris Doctor from The George Washington University Law School.

Daimen Sagastume is a director at Whiteboard Advisors, where he specializes in advocacy and growth enablement across the K-12 education space. He comes to Whiteboard Advisors after five years at Emerson Collective, where he managed the education philanthropy investment portfolio, in addition to incubating a seed stage ed-tech company, Uppercase, which aims to democratize access to the best teaching knowledge in the world. Daimen is a graduate of Stanford University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology — an ode to his pre-med aspirations before discovering his deep passion for educational equity.

For more than 20 years, Whiteboard Advisors has collaborated with the most transformative organizations, individuals and investors in education. Our diverse team of educators, wonks and storytellers brings in-depth understanding of policy, technology and practice to bear on cuttingedge research, powerful writing, and the design of communications and advocacy campaigns that challenge the status quo. Whether we’re working with startups or the most established organizations in education, we’re passionate about taking breakthrough ideas to scale.

Seesaw is trusted and loved by 25 million educators, students and families worldwide and is the only elementary Learning Experience Platform that offers a suite of award-winning tools, resources and curriculum for teachers to deliver joyful, inclusive instruction. Through interactive lessons, digital portfolios and two-way communication features, Seesaw keeps everyone in the learning loop by providing continuous visibility into the students’ learning experience to support and celebrate their learning.

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Acknowledgments We’re grateful to the education leaders who helped inform our perspective and contributed their insights to this paper: Amanda Galvin, Assistant Director of Instructional Technology, North East ISD Alissa Mwenelupembe, Managing Director, Early Learning, National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Chair of Learning through Play, Vice President at the LEGO Foundation Dyane Smokorowski, Coordinator of Digital Literacy, Wichita Public Schools Joseph South, Chief Innovation Officer, International Society for Technology in Education Kyla Haimovitz, Director of Education Technology, Digital Promise Lisa Guernsey, Director, Learning Sciences Exchange, and Senior Fellow & Strategic Advisor, Education Policy Program, New America Maggie Picket, Senior Technical Assistance Specialist, CAST Margery Mayer, Former President of Education at Scholastic, Board Member, Cambium Learning, Metametrics and Teachers Pay Teachers Michael Horn, Co-Founder and Distinguished Fellow, Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation Michael Preston, Executive Director, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop Michelle Jones, Director of Instructional Technology, West Aurora School District Michelle Kang, Chief Executive Officer, National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Sara Trettin, Senior Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of Education Sharon Shewbridge, Director of Instructional Technology, Virginia Beach City Public Schools Tara E. Courchaine Fox, Chief Research and Development Officer, CAST Thomas C. Murray, Director of Innovation, Future Ready Schools Ximena Dominguez, Executive Director of Learning Sciences and Early Learning Research, Digital Promise

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Introduction Walking into an elementary school classroom can be a unique experience for adults who aren’t early educators — or educators in general. Typically, there is a lot of activity: Children engaging with books, blocks, learning materials and each other as they explore and create representations of their world. An elementary classroom can also be noisy. Conversations are enthusiastic and animated as students engage with one another or the teacher, and there isn’t an inch of wall that remains uncovered by a lively bulletin board or rich examples of student work. Amidst the bustle, there are also deep and meaningful relationships on full display. In most elementary environments, students spend their whole day engaging with the same teacher and with a consistent group of their peers or classmates. In the best-case scenario, the classroom becomes like a second home for them, offering a safe community and the feeling of belonging. This experience is in stark contrast to most adults’ ordinary day. Although most adults may remember certain aspects of being in school, their most recent memories of learning are likely in high school, college or through an employer, typically focused on task accomplishment and deliverables. In addition, their social interactions tend to be more structured with agendas, course syllabi or management tools. And there is technology — a lot of technology — from email and office tools to online courses that adults use in their professional lives.

we have been largely hesitant to accept the idea of wide-scale use in classrooms for good reason — mostly that it’s still fairly new and remains untested on any kind of long m-term scope.11 Looking past the bright colors and simplified user interface of most edtech tools in elementary classrooms, there are stark similarities with the tools used for adolescent or adult learning. Most learning applications and platforms are largely focused on task completion, response to questions and delivery of content to students. Too often, the primary objective is measuring student performance on tasks (correct answers) and reporting those outcomes to teachers, parents and administrators (and sometimes students). When considering the many differences between adult and elementary learners, the fact that the technology they use isn’t equally varied — to reflect their unique experiences — is worth exploring. Notably, in a recent Seesaw survey of elementary educators, over 70% of teachers reported that the edtech tools they use in the classroom don’t adequately meet early learners’ needs.

While technology can be found in elementary classrooms, most often it is not as common as in higher grades or the adult workplace. While the pandemic may have solidified some role for technology for elementary learners, as a society

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How well do you believe the majority of current educational technology is tailored for early learners? 757 responses

9.4% 25.2%

By unpacking the trajectory of edtech adoption over the past few decades, this paper will explore a vision for edtech for early learners grounded in the types of learning experiences that all stakeholders — parents, educators, administrators, researchers and students — want to have. To accomplish this, the paper posits a number of questions: •

What do the developmental and learning sciences tell us about the types of learning experiences we want students between age 4 and 10 to have?

What are the affordances of technology — and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) — that can support (and not create barriers to) these learning experiences?

What are the key attributes and design principles that should inform the ways edtech tools for elementary learners are developed, purchased and used?



Very well, it is tailored for their needs Somewhat well, but more could be done Not so well, it is often just a modified version of tools for older grades Not well at all, early learners require a very different approach

This paper does not intend to imply that the tools being used in elementary classrooms are not serving a purpose; to the contrary, there are many beloved elementary edtech tools that drive positive student outcomes for which they were designed. Instead, through interviews with educators, thought leaders and researchers, this paper will attempt to answer these questions and, in the process, present a new way for educators, decision-makers and parents to think and talk about the core tenets in reimagining edtech for early learners. Additionally, this paper explores the potential for existing and new tools to better support early learners by creating a vision for edtech in elementary education — one that is unique and separate from the ways older learners and adults use edtech.

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How We Got Here: Edtech in K-12 and Elementary Learning The last decade has witnessed an explosion in the development of edtech tools for K-12 classrooms. Given the number of tools created — and the investment in those tools — it seems reasonable to ask: Why do most elementary teachers believe the tools they use don’t meet the needs of students in their classrooms? First, as noted by Michelle Kang, chief executive officer for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and Kyla Haimovitz, director of education technology at Digital Promise: It’s difficult to develop good software tools for young learners. Collecting feedback from end users is a critical step in successful product design, a task that can be very challenging when your end user is a 6-yearold. Edtech developers often build assumptions about their end users — their prior knowledge, facility with technology or literacy levels — into their solutions. But making assumptions about young learners can be problematic: While some children may have had extensive experience with technology, others have never touched a device. Similarly, a developer can’t assume that every child is literate, because many are in fact still learning how to read. Moreover, developing tools that take into account not only the end user — the 6-year-old using the app — but their families and educators, who are critical to their successful early learning experiences, adds further complexity to an already difficult process. “The challenge in developing effective tools for young learners is common for dynamic systems with multiple key stakeholders, like early education, where the end user — the student or teacher — is

only one participant in a community of peers, parents and administrators,” noted Michael Horn, co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. “Human-centered design can work well for tools that focus on a single enduser, but developers need to adopt different approaches that incorporate human-relationships and communities for dynamic use cases like elementary classrooms.” Second, historically, there has been a reluctance — particularly among parents and educators — to use technology with young learners. For the better part of the past decade, parents and educators have voiced concerns about too much screen time and that technology interferes with social interactions, while researchers worry about its developmental impact on children. These attitudes shifted somewhat during the pandemic as parents and teachers, in particular, began to appreciate the potential value of edtech when used appropriately for all children — including those in early elementary grades. As noted by the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine, “increased exposure to digital technologies [by parents] during lockdown facilitated new or different ways of engaging with digital resources that were perceived to support children’s learning and development.”2 Along with the challenges in developing tools for this age, the reluctant acceptance of edtech for early learners may explain in part why, to date, educators haven’t developed an effective way to think or talk about edtech for elementary learners

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and why they feel the tools they do have don’t fully meet their needs. One final possible explanation rests in the role that tools — initially designed for adult learners — have played in K-12 education. Education technology is not new. From the advent of the chalkboard and mass production of the modern pencil in the late 1800s and early 1900s to the emergence of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, the tools we use in classrooms continue to evolve. While the technologies may change, most tools follow a relatively consistent trajectory: originating as resources for adults before eventually finding use in the classroom. As Horn noted, “There is a track record of higher education imposing its technology on K-12 systems that don’t apply to all students, particularly younger learners.” In the early days of software development, a number of applications such as PLATO and Logo were developed, largely by researchers at universities, to support instruction in K-12 classrooms. However, device upgrades and the development of the internet introduced wider-scale adoption of new tools that were initially developed for use in higher education and adult learning. “When we were launching our district’s online programming in 2009 and 2010, we looked at learning management platforms — at that time Blackboard was the main option — that were initially developed for higher education,” noted Thomas C. Murray, director of innovation at Future Ready Schools. “While we decided the [learning management system] platform could work for our secondary students, the tools simply weren’t appropriate for kids in our elementary schools and weren’t designed for the types of active, engaged learning we wanted to see in those classrooms,” he continued.

Over the last decade learning management systems (in particular) have evolved to claim a larger market share in K-12 education and have become nearly ubiquitous. “There is a strong desire among K-12 administrators to simplify and streamline — to find a single platform to meet the needs of every learner at every grade level,” Murray continued. “Learning management systems have adapted from their adult education roots to attempt to become all things for all learners in K-12 education, but it isn’t clear that you can do that while still meeting the very different instructional needs of learners at different grade levels.” With the challenges of — and reluctance to — developing edtech for young learners, it is not surprising that many elementary teachers find the tools they use are insufficient for their needs. With these ideas in mind, there is no better place to begin than with the central question for any educator, administrator or family member: What are the learning experiences that are vital for children to have in elementary classrooms? This question must be addressed to begin to explore the ways in which technologies — both existing and emerging — can support and enhance these critical learning experiences.

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Learning Science and Early Learners Learning science is a research practice or body of knowledge that supports or influences certain instructional approaches as best practices.3 As with most things, the idea of best practices looks different depending on what developmental stage students are in. Consider the hypothetical elementary classroom from the introduction. It’s loud, boisterous and bustling with activity. While most adults might look at this scene and see chaos, a developmental scientist will see a robust and rich learning environment. Learning at any age is a social activity — relationships matter — and adults and children alike learn better through active, hands-on experiences. But, as Joseph South, chief innovation officer at ISTE, noted, “While we often act as if relationships and active learning are not important for older learners, we can’t get away with that with younger children– they haven’t been conditioned yet to be solitary, passive participants. If it’s not active, they will reject it.” When we look at the science of early or elementary learning, there are a few things that stand out in comparison to the way older students learn. 4 Indeed, the findings from learning and developmental science provide clear guidance that can inform the types of learning experiences that enable learners to thrive in elementary school and beyond:

Joy and Playful Learning The research on the importance of joy in early learning and its impact on student academics is clear: “School enjoyment as young as age 6 is positively associated with later academic achievement.”5 Equally important, research also demonstrates that play is critical for supporting overall student well-being.6 And as explained in research compiled by the LEGO Foundation, exposing children to joyful experiences is critical to unlocking the benefits of playful learning.7 So, play and active learning should be key components of students’ elementary school experience as a way to promote “self-regulation and language competence” while also supporting learning in general. 8 To reimagine what playful learning can be, it’s helpful to think about play on a spectrum, as shown in Figure 1.9 At the heart of this idea, unsurprisingly, is context: Who is involved? Who is directing the play? What (if any) learning objective is present? All these questions help guide knowledgeable educators to think more strategically about leveraging how children naturally learn. Playful learning is not only about engaging kids or having fun; playful learning provides students with active, hands-on opportunities to learn, whether the outcome is an intentional, explicit learning objective or one students discover on their own. These experiences should also be fun and engaging and, when done right, should foster a student’s lifelong joy of learning.

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Figure 1: Play Spectrum Showing Three Types of Playful Learning Situations (NAEYC) Adapted from Zosh et al. 2018 Free Play (Self-Directed Play)

Guided Play


Initiated by:




Directed by:




Explicit learning goal:




*Here, we refer to “serious games” as outlined in Hassinger-Das et al. 2017, in which the game has a learning goal.

Self Directed vs. Isolated Learning Developing a child’s independence and empowering them to become a self-directed learner is a critical goal of early education.10 Teachers should encourage students in elementary classrooms to explore the world around them and engage in productive struggle to develop independence and their own selfconception as learners. However, encouraging self-directed learning at this age does not mean parking a child in front of a computer for them to navigate an online course or playlist, which is often how self-direction can look for older learners. For one, younger learners need more scaffolding by a teacher or guardian than older students, underscoring the importance of relationships and learning communities for young learners. At this age, children learn with and from everyone: their teachers, their peers in their classroom and their families at home. This also speaks to the importance of the home-school connection, particularly in the elementary grades. The Center for Educational Policy Studies Journal offers this insight as well: “it’s well established

that parental involvement is correlated with school achievement of both children and adolescents. In particular, elementary school children gain greater academic, language, and social skills when parents are involved.”11

Creativity and Divergent Thinking Learning at any age should aspire to include the “four C’s”: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication. 12 More specifically, elementary classrooms should help foster the divergent thinking that is critical for creativity and that children typically begin to lose as they age. 13 This isn’t surprising given the urgency placed on grades and test scores and on getting the “right answer” in most traditional school settings. As noted in several interviews for this paper, for elementary students, it’s far less important to get the right answer than it is for them to explore and engage in productive struggle. Moreover, skills like creativity and curiosity are among the most coveted skills in today’s job market and are likely to remain as employers seek employees who are able to adapt to a rapidly changing world of work.14 The ability to think about a problem with

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creativity, and from multiple perspectives, begins with having the space to develop these skills. Asking early learners to focus on task completion or on providing the right answer —whether using technology or not — can stifle divergent thinking as well as the four C’s described above. While these pillars of early learning are important at all levels, they look quite different from what most older learners need in their environment to optimize learning. These differences also translate to the instructional materials and educational technology deployed at different grade levels. Teachers wouldn’t hand a high school science textbook to a first-grade student even if reading levels were adjusted for a 6-year-old. Likewise, high school teachers don’t need to give detailed daily explanations to parents about what their students are learning.

Amanda Galvin, assistant director of instructional technology in San Antonio at North East ISD, works with elementary teachers and students, and offers a perspective on the importance of choosing a platform that’s specifically built for elementary learners, instead of a one-size fits all approach. “When you choose a platform that’s more intuitive for younger learners, it promotes creativity, critical thinking, and active learning with technology tools, not just ‘tech babysitting,’” she asserts. “An early learning tech tool should provide foundational skills development, and should be removing barriers to learning.”

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The Affordances of New and Emerging Technology If elementary learning experiences should be connected, joyous, inclusive and focused on establishing meaningful relationships, it is reasonable to ask what role technology has — or should have — in elementary classrooms. Over the last three decades, technological advances including the internet; mobile technology; big data and analytics; and most recently, AI have completely transformed the world. While these technologies have inevitably impacted K-12 education, educators and families have not always embraced their presence in the classroom. According to Bo Stjerne Thomsen, chair of learning through play and vice president at the LEGO Foundation, “there is a growing divide that exists in K-12 education. We see this with current discussions around AI, between those who believe that new technologies are problematic and should not be used or have limited use in classrooms, and those who believe these technologies will revolutionize education.” One reason for this, at best, begrudging acceptance of technology in education may come from attitudes about screen time, particularly when it comes to young learners. But another possible reason may be that edtech has not fully delivered on its potential. As Michael Preston, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, noted “for years, proponents of edtech have made claims about the transformational potential of technology in K-12 education, but for the most part, that promise has yet to be realized.” As Preston and others note, the fault does not lie with the technology itself but in how edtech tools have been designed and developed.

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In discussing the evolution of technology and learning over the past 20 years, Sara Dewitt, senior vice president of PBS Kids Digital, noted that “technology—when used properly—holds the potential to remove barriers between kids and their learning experiences. There is an incredible opportunity presented by emerging speech technologies, based on artificial intelligence, to support early learners by empowering them and putting them in control of their own learning.”15 Just as the mouse and touch screens removed barriers between young children and learning opportunities through technology, new technologies may open up new learning experiences that further empower young learners. As controversial as some of the newer AI tools have been in the context of a school setting and with many educators concerned about the way these tools will damage learning processes, there

are an equal number of educators pointing out the opposite: There is a place for AI as a tool among other tools in the classroom. Thomsen, who is working with Sal Khan (of Khan Academies) on principles to address AI in education, similarly confirms that early work they have done with generative AI systems — such as ChatGPT — indicates that it can actually support creativity in students and teachers. According to Thomsen, “AI has the potential to support divergent thinking and problem-based learning, making difficult [teacher] prep easier. It could provide adaptive scaffolds for open-ended student exploration.” Ultimately, the question isn’t whether technology should be a part of elementary classrooms but rather how we design learning experiences and tools that make the best (and most developmentally appropriate use) of technology to support teachers and student learning.

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Reimagining Edtech for Early Learners

We need a shift in mindset when developing tools for young children. It’s essential to consider the actual use case and how technology supports it. This perspective results in a different approach to tech design, focusing on active learning experiences rather than sheer engagement metrics. Ximena Dominguez Executive Director of Learning Sciences and Early Learning Research, Digital Promise

The idea that early learners are different in their needs isn’t groundbreaking. We know it inherently when it comes to traditional learning content — publishers create specific content, curricula and textbooks for early learners, middle school students and high school students. But edtech often takes a one-size-fits-all approach, offering watered down tools that fail to meet elementary students’ distinct learning needs and elementary educators’ teaching needs. As South, of ISTE, notes, “This is perhaps one of the greatest crimes we commit with edtech in K-12 education: the indiscriminate repurposing of technologies for uses and, perhaps more importantly, for end users they were not designed for or intended to support.” Selecting edtech tools for elementary learners — and developing those tools in the first place — is about much more than semantics, pictographic passwords, and simplified and/or more colorful user interfaces. As Dyane Smokorowski, coordinator of digital literacy for Wichita Public

Schools, suggests, “When most people talk about edtech for early learners, it’s all about the bells and whistles — but they always forget that there’s a philosophical shift required in the ways edtech is deployed and used for younger children.” With this context in mind, the following three key principles provide a starting point to guide the development of edtech tools and their evaluation and selection by elementary educators and district leaders.

But edtech often takes a one-size-fits-all approach, offering watered down tools that fail to meet elementary students’ distinct learning needs and elementary educators’ teaching needs.

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Principle 1: The Importance of Joyful Learning “Play promotes joyful learning that fosters self-regulation, language, cognitive and social competencies as well as content knowledge across disciplines. Play is essential for all children, birth through age 8.” — NAEYC16 Over the past two decades with the urgency and legislation surrounding test scores and school funding, many school programs have gone in the opposite direction of play. Children are sitting for longer and having less movement and outdoor activity. In many places — often where students are more at risk of experiencing learning gaps — teacher and student expectations are sky high, with little margin for error. So, how can we reimagine edtech tools to support learning through play while ensuring students’ balance their time learning online with how they learn offline? Playful Pedagogy: When considering childhood pedagogy, Ximena Dominguez, executive director of learning sciences and early learning research at Digital Promise, offers an important perspective: “It doesn’t have to be a dichotomy. It doesn’t have to be either playful or educational. It can be both. But designing edtech that is both engaging and consequential for learning requires a coordinated effort to bring together various perspectives and areas of expertise into the design process, including the expertise of practitioners.” Dominguez underscored the critical role of educators in facilitating those experiences for young learners. But the idea behind playful learning can be off putting for some. When we speak about joyful learning, it’s not meant to only highlight whether a learning experience is engaging or “fun.” On this topic, Margery Mayer, education consultant and pioneer in the development of research-based educational technology, provided an insightful

point: “Joyful learning is about more than just fun and games. While edtech can provide engaging experiences for kids, real learning happens when they’re able to take concepts from the digital world and apply them through hands-on, tangible activities. Simply piecing together a puzzle on a device does not necessarily equate to retained knowledge. But if that digital experience is thoughtfully connected to real-world, creative play and exploration, it becomes a launchpad for deeper understanding and skills.” Furthermore, Dr. Sharon Shewbridge, director of instructional technology at Virginia Beach City Public Schools, and her staff have contemplated this concept. “We recognize that you can’t just take a higher ed learning system and expect it to work with 5-year-olds,” she explained. “The interface has to be different—how many button clicks to get somewhere, the ease of reporting back—all of it changes when designing for early learners. These tools need to blend creativity, learning, and problem-solving in an ageappropriate way. We want to give them tools that empower independent creation and learning from an early age.” Playful pedagogy requires balancing digital and analog experiences thoughtfully. As Dominguez noted, joy and learning are not mutually exclusive — with intentional design, edtech can promote both. Mayer and Shewbridge provide examples of how to thoughtfully connect digital play to hands-on learning. The key is coordination between stakeholders to create playful learning experiences that are developmentally appropriate and lead to meaningful educational outcomes.

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Online and offline learning: Elementary school students typically aren’t developmentally ready to spend a lot of time learning on screens. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Educational Technology published guidelines on the use of edtech tools with early learners (ages 0-8), emphasizing the importance of technology used to promote novel and social learning experiences — and to better facilitate connections between school and home.17 So, in reimagining these tools to be built with intention for elementary students, it’s critical to strike the balance between learning offline and online. Thinking about tools for early learning means taking time to think through the use case. How will the tool be used? By the student? By the teacher? To practice a skill? Or for recording to document and communicate progress? The balance of online to offline learning is different for early learners than it is for older students — so much so that at the earlier grades the online tools must serve to complement offline learning. This often means a greater role for an educator with the workflow and the use of tools whose structure truly informs this functionality. An example of this might be the classroom teacher using technology to capture artifacts of learning to document strengths and challenges as students are more self-directed.

Key Questions for Decision Makers •

Does the tool allow for open-ended play, creativity and student-directed learning?

Does the online learning connect meaningfully to physical classroom activities?

Does the online component inspire curiosity and questioning that leads to offline inquiry?

Do the offline activities allow for experimentation, tinkering and hands-on application of online concepts?

Using tech tools in early learning environments doesn’t necessarily mean student use — teachers can also use tools to help streamline their own processes (documentation, communication, etc.). And when students are online using these tools, we work to ensure that the purpose of the tools aligns with the learning experiences we want them to have.

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Principle 2: Connected Learning: The Parent, Student, Family Partnership in Early Learning “The tech use, the learning management system, should be about the student demonstrating, communicating, collaborating; so they can share what they are doing.” Dr. Sharon Shewsbridge Director of Instructional Technology | Virginia Beach City Public Schools To understand early learning and elementary education is to understand the crucial partnership between school and families. Recognizing the unique role of parents as partners in early childhood education, where they are considered their child’s first and best teachers, aids in all stakeholders working together toward one goal. In fact, there is detailed research confirming that a strong school-home connection can have a significant impact on learning and academic success.18 As such, early learning edtech platforms need to not only provide parents with information but actively engage and include them in the learning process.

“When co-designing edtech for young learners, we must consider more than just the students themselves. The adults supporting children’s interactions with edtech — families and educators — are a critical part of the children’s ecosystem. Powerful edtech tools are those that provide children with unique learning opportunities and serve as catalysts for rich dialog with peers and adults.” Digital tools can also offer a window into what students are learning and working on each day —whether that’s by student-curated portfolios, private teacher messages with links or videos to show work, or whole-class announcements.

Early learners need to be engaged in the type of playful, joyful learning that we know helps them to thrive. It’s also true that elementary teachers want to be able to share that joyful learning with families to help them understand where their children’s progress is. Here is a place where edtech tools are evolving to be an authentic connection between school and home. Platforms that are built for elementary students should inherently be built for this connected dynamic. As Dominguez confirmed, when we think about what edtech tools should look like for early learners, context is everything.

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Connected learning is about more than parents receiving information about what happened with their students in class. “Parents want to be part of the conversations about their child’s learning,” explained Maggie Picket, senior technical assistance specialist at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). “They have known their child since birth and understand the barriers that may cause a breakdown in their learning experience as well as the things that excite them.” Given the importance of the family connection at this age, Picket stresses the importance of streamlining communications between schools and parents by “providing one location or system where these conversations can take place, rather than multiple apps or platforms where things can get lost.” Dr. Shewbridge also weighed in on this idea: “My kindergarten and first-grade teachers were adamant they needed a tool that would facilitate communication with families. They wanted to easily share student work samples and minimize paperwork sent home and knew

features like parent commenting and student audio recordings of reading would enhance collaboration. By keeping parents continuously engaged and included in their children’s learning, it ensured they would feel like valued partners during conferences and throughout the year.”

Key Questions for Decision Makers •

Does the tool facilitate communication and collaboration between students, teachers and families?

Can parents easily view student work samples and provide feedback?

Are there options for teachers to share announcements, updates and resources with families?

Can the tool generate student portfolios or progress reports for parent-teacher conferences?

Joyful, inclusive and connected learning—as detailed in NAEYC’s foundational text, Developmentally Appropriate Practice—offers a good starting point to any conversation about technology and early learners. While we know these principles can benefit students of any age, when it comes to early learners, these must be nonnegotiable components of their elementary learning experience. Michelle Kang, CEO of National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

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Principle 3: Inclusivity and Divergent Learning “An inclusive learning experience also has to take into account parents, home environment and what is meaningful and interesting to children; the full spectrum of their learning experience.” Bo Stjerne Thomsen Chair of Learning through Play, Vice President | LEGO Foundation Children in early grades (like most grades) do not necessarily develop at the same rate and also have a wide range of developmental needs and backgrounds. They are working toward the same set of goals but will not achieve mastery or proficiency at the same rate as the children around them. As Picket describes “inclusivity in education goes beyond just considering individualized education plans (IEPs) or disabilities. Especially at a young age, we can’t assume what children bring into the classroom. We often see decisions made for district-wide systems, but a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Each child’s background and needs are different.” As such, the edtech used for early learning must ensure that learning experiences are inclusive and truly meeting students where they are. According to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework developed by CAST, inclusive learning environments proactively build in flexibility to accommodate learner variability. For young students, this could involve presenting information through visual, auditory and tactile modalities or by using hands-on games, manipulatives and experiential learning to empower children to engage with content through their preferred channels. As Michelle Jones, director of instructional technology at West Aurora School District in Illinois, noted, “Technology should allow students to demonstrate learning in different modalities based on strengths/needs rather than fixed requirements.” Edtech can provide equitable opportunities for students to participate in learning. In the

elementary grades, supporting students with diverse needs early can ensure they are set up for future success. Tools that can accommodate English language learners, learners with an individualized educational plan, learners with dyslexia, learners who are sensory impaired, and autistic learners empower teachers to effectively support all students without experiencing tech fatigue.19 Because assumptions cannot be made about learners’ abilities, tools must be designed to remove barriers that may get in the way of a student and their learning. As Picket concluded, “[In early learning], the concept of inclusivity is foundational. It’s crucial for creating a joyful and connected learning environment. Inclusivity isn’t just about adapting to different abilities — it’s about meeting each child where they are in their educational journey.”

Key Questions for Decision Makers •

Does the tool follow UDL principles?

Are there multiple ways for students to engage with content and demonstrate knowledge?

Are support features like text-tospeech, translations, and visual aids available as needed?

Does the tool provide options for support and accessibility based on individual needs?

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Looking Ahead: Hold Fast to the Means — Not Just the Ends Edtech, as we know it, is a relatively new industry. The importance of the first part of this term “ed,” representing the word “education,” cannot be understated — especially when it comes to early education. Dominguez reminded us of this: “Inclusivity should be a crucial goal for edtech, extending beyond early childhood. To be more inclusive, technology should leverage children’s and families’ experiences, context, and stories. This requires centering families in the design process and creating clear roadmaps for tech development.” Put differently, tool development must take into account the end user — students, teachers, and families — and what’s relevant and meaningful to them. Learning at this early stage of life is inherently joyful. It’s when we interfere with the natural

way that children learn that it can become stale and stagnant. When the question of reimagining edtech for early learners is raised, the loudest voices should be insisting that teachers don’t need tools to replace what they are doing; they need tools to make what they are doing more meaningful, more connected and more inclusive for the children that already infuse joy and play into everything they do. The edtech industry at large must lean more on the “ed” and less on the “tech,” measuring success by the connection, joy and inclusivity their tools provide rather than the number of downloads an app has. True learning at this stage can be harder to measure but is worth far more than a download represents.

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Additional Resources “Guiding Principles for Use of Technology with Early Learners” | U.S. Department of Education Technology and Young Children: Preschoolers and Kindergartners | NAEYC Technology and Young Children: School-Age Children | NAEYC “Using Technology to Enhance Early Childhood Education” | Edutopia “Incorporating Technology into Instruction in Early Childhood Classrooms: a Systematic Review” | Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders

“The Evolution of Technology in K-12 Classrooms: 1659 to Today” | EdTech “Field Guide to Learning Management Systems” | American Society for Training & Development “Twenty Years of Edtech” | EDUCAUSE Review “The Evolution of Edtech—Will Your Company Make the Grade?” | Forbes “Applying the science of learning to EdTech evidence evaluations using the EdTech Evidence Evaluation Routine (EVER)” | NPJ Science of Learning

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Endnotes 1

Kucirkova, Natalia, Garvin Brod and Nadine Gaab. “Applying the science of learning to EdTech evidence evaluations using the EdTech Evidence Evaluation Routine (EVER).” NPJ Science of Learning, 2023.


Lewis, Kate L, Steven J Howard, Irina Verenikina and Lisa K Kervin. “Parent perspectives on young children’s changing digital practices: Insights from Covid-19.” Journal of Early Childhood Research, March 2023. https://www.ncbi.



“The Science of Learning.” Deans for Impact. https:// 3

“The Science of Early Learning: How Young Children Develop Agency, Numeracy, and Literacy.” Deans of Learning, 2019. thescienceofearlylearning.pdf 4

Morris, Tim T., Danny Dorling, Neil M. Davies & George Davey Smith. “Associations between school enjoyment at age 6 and later educational achievement: evidence from a UK cohort study.” NPJ Science of Learning, 2021. https://www.

“The Science of Early Learning: How Young Children Develop Agency, Numeracy, and Literacy.” Deans of Learning, 2019. thescienceofearlylearning.pdf\ Đurišić, Maša and Mila Bunijevac. “Parental Involvement as a Important Factor for Successful Education.” CEPS Journal, 2017. Zimmerman, Eli. “The 4 C’s of Learning in a Connected Classroom.” EdTech, July 17, 2018. https://edtechmagazine. com/k12/article/2018/07/4-cs-learning-connected-classroom 12

“RSA ANIMATE: Changing Education Paradigms.” RSA, Oct. 14, 2010. watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U 13

“Future of Jobs Report 2023.” World Economic Forum, 2023. Jobs_2023.pdf 14


“Responsible Innovation in Technology for Children.” UNICEF, 2022. 6

“Learning Through Play: What the Science Says.” Learning Through Play. explore-the-research/the-scientific-case-for-learningthrough-play

Popoff, Evo. “Can Speech Recognition Help Children Learn to Read?” SoapBox, 2022. https://www.soapboxlabs. com/blog/announcing-our-new-whitepaper-can-speechrecognition-help-children-learn-to-read/ 15

“Principles of Child Development and Learning and Implications That Inform Practice.” NAEYC, https://www. 16


Maxwell, Kelly, Sharon Ritchie, Sue Bredekamp, and Tracy Zimmerman. “Using Developmental Science to Transform Children’s Early School Experiences.” Issues in PreK–3rd Education, 2009. https://firstschool. UsingDevelopmentalScience.pdf

“Guiding Principles for Use of Technology with Early Learners.” U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. earlylearning/principles 17


Zosh, Jennifer M., Caroline Gaudreau, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. “The Power of Playful Learning in the Early Childhood Setting.” NAEYC, 2022. power-playful-learning

Topor, David R., Susan P. Keane, Terri L. Shelton and Susan D. Calkins. “Parent Involvement and Student Academic Performance: A Multiple Mediational Analysis.” Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 2010. PMC3020099/ 18


“Why Act Early if You’re Concerned about Development.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 6, 2023. 19

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