This week I attended the 39th annual convening of the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, FL, and while 39 may not be a particularly “auspicious” year in most cases, this was nonetheless an interesting and forward-leaning conference.
While EdTech conferences have been around for decades, until recently early learners (and those who teach them) have often been left out of conversations around EdTech exposure and integration. This year’s FETC marked a notable change in this trend. With a dedicated track of sessions, presentations, and demonstrations specifically focused on tech for children aged 3-6 years old, the FETC organizers put forth a more inclusive vision of the future of education technology.
Early learning educators–curriculum designers, preschool directors, child development administrators, and preschool teachers–came together to communally confront the issues inherent in utilizing technology with young learners. By sharing best practices, learning about emerging technologies, and developing strategies to discern the what and when of technology usage, these educators are embracing the opportunities and challenges of teaching kids who were born into a digitally enhanced society. These FETC attendees and presenters were clear that best practices for ed tech in the early learning space are not about time with or on a device. Rather, as Jennifer Bruce, Communications Director at Montclare Children’s School in New York City explained, “It’s about teaching our students new ways of thinking. We want our preschool students to engage in problem-solving, reasoning, critical thinking and collaboration.”
Educators such as Jennifer are looking for tools that give students experiences that develop these skills through play–children’s natural way of interacting with the world. Sasha Wilson, Director of Education at Montclare Children’s School also noted that “Children inherently play. They want to know what things can and cannot do. When you give them new tools, they naturally just play and explore with them. They aren’t afraid of failing or not knowing what to do with it.” The early learning educators at FETC wanted to take advantage of this natural curiosity in their students in creating opportunities to think sequentially and find creative solutions to roadblocks or obstacles. These educators came to FETC seeking tools that stay true to the natural instincts of young children, are developmentally appropriate, keep students engaged, and are easily deployed by a teaching force with a broad range of technology comfort.
Emerging Technology Tools for Early Learners Highlighted at FETC
Several products that enable open-ended exploration and creativity for early learners were showcased during the conference. Many of these focused on making often-abstract concepts like coding or design thinking tangible for young children. They provide opportunities for students to create rather than simply consume digital media. Gail Lovely, who organized the Early Learning Track, explained that “Many of these tools require kids to learn through trial and error, often not getting it right on the first or second try. They support kids being comfortable with failure as part of the learning process, and they then learn to have their mistakes inform future tries.” Digital technology enables repetitive effort quickly and safely, with productive corrections reinforcing and rewarding persistence. The following five tools were some of the best examples of these traits that I saw at FETC.
- Kibo from KinderLab Robotics: Young learners often love to play “pretend”, role play, and direct productions with friends and adults. Kibo is a robot partner students can direct by coding via the use of tangible, wooden pictogram blocks to provide directions. Digital technology without screen time for kids aged 4-7 years, this robot kit and its extensions are based on research of language and cognitive development.
- Book Creator: While marketed for students Kindergarten and above, preschool educators at FETC highlighted students love for, and learning from, this application. The production is done with a digital interface and the final result is a physical book. Young students love to tell stories by flipping pages in books long before they know their letters; this application has found fans by enabling early learners to make their own combinations of text, pictures and video.
- Bee-Bot & Blue Bot: Combining the fun of activity rugs, the joy of pushing buttons, and engagement of robots these learning tools are a big hit in the early learning community. Providing robots shaped like bees, accessories, and endorsed curricula for structured play in a self-contained and Bluetooth enabled version that capture students through motion, light and sound. The company also offers a “pro” version shaped like a turtle that is a race car enabled with LOGO programming.
- Root: Though geared toward older kids, this digital reader, writer, speaker, light emitter and whiteboard on wheels is much more than a robot, and has inspired a growing user community of younger kids. Appearing and moving like a school in a Roomba this product has over fifty sensors and accessories.
- Q-Ball: Talking and throwing are two favorite activities of kids in all communities. This “throwable wireless microphone” can be used in individual, small group, and whole group settings. Able to be used as a talking stick to focus conversations in a classroom or as a “voice” for the most introverted students, this product is engaging young audiences across the country.
FETC 2018 has made clear that the clarion call to ensure that today’s students are prepared for a global, digital future has been extended to include our youngest learners. Parents and educators realize that today’s preschoolers are growing up in a world that rewards problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and persistence, and that requires the use of digital tools. Early learning educators are eager to find ways to build these skills with their students. It is clear, however, that they are committed to staying true to children’s natural inclination toward exploring the world motivated by pure curiosity, play, and exploration. The FETC showcase illustrated that vendors, and an entire marketplace, are beginning to create tools and products to fill this need. The practice of developing curiosity, technological expertise, and global readiness in the high school graduating classes of the 2030s has begun.