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Dr Natalia Kucirkova on effective use of tech in early years

Date: 21 October 2015

At October's researchED Tech event, Natalia Kucirkova introduced emerging evidence on both the positives and limitations of using touch-screens in early years.

Her full slides on the topc can be downloaded from the resources seciton of the website (link opens in a new window).

Dr Natalia Kucirkova (FHEA, CPsychol) is a Faculty member at The Open University, Educational Futures. Among her research interests is the use of learning technologies in the early years, a topic she's spoken about twice at researchED conferences. Here are some examples of the work she's been doing into this field, plus links to find out more:

Which digital books work best in the classroom?

The argument over whether children's digital books count as educational storytime or just screentime has been going on for a while. Given that digital interactive books (often called storyapps) are hybrids of books, short films and digital games, their educational value largely depends on whether they are used to promote specific literacy skills or just to have fun with a story.

Many schools have begun to use ipads, Google Chromebooks and other portable touchscreens in lessons, giving children more opportunities to access digital books and storyapps. Accessing an interactive digital book is a different experience from clicking through an e-book on the desktop PC and many teachers, especially those in primary schools, are legitimately questioning the value of using these resources in their literacy lessons.

Digital books with interactive features such as games and hotspots (areas in the digital text or image which act as hyperlinks, activated by tapping on the screen) have been found to impede children's story comprehension and vocabulary learning. Yet, there is also evidence to suggest that children are attracted to and motivated to read those digital books which are fun and personalisable and that children do access such books at home.

Choosing the right digital book

Teachers are best positioned to ascertain how particular books and e-books fit with their teaching objectives and how the resources can be best incorporated within existing reading activities such as guided reading or perhaps offered as an extra resource during free play time. This is why the UKLA Children's Book Award, which is judged entirely by teachers, is held in high esteem by teachers, who regard the shortlisted titles as a reliable indicator of the best books of the year for inclusion in their classroom or school library.

For the first time in their eight-year existence, the awards included a Children's Digital Book Award. The scheme, run in partnership with Book Trust and sponsored by The Open University, was piloted with selected teachers who, from the shortlisted titles, chose Axel Scheffler's Flip Flap Safari app by Nosy Crow, as the winner. The judging teachers liked the fact that the app included high-quality text, with rich vocabulary and good sentence structure which is often underestimated by digital producers and limits their chances for the app being used in the school context. Teachers also thought the app lent itself to various learning objectives, aligned with the requirements of parts of the reading curriculum or poetry lessons.

There was no direct children's vote for the award this year but from teachers' comments it was clear that children loved and found the second shortlisted app - Dino Tales by Kuato Studios - very engaging. Children could spend hours discovering and creating their own stories with customised dinosaurs. This app was highly commended in the awards.

Flip Flap Safari worked for teachers because it lent itself to the demands of current curriculum. On the other hand, Dino Tales, with its customisable story characters and game-like creative design, opened up worlds which the children loved exploring.

Dino Tales was launched in January 2015.

Teachers are keen to explore the dual purpose of digital books and literacy apps to entertain as well as educate. This means the best ones in an educational context have high-quality texts as well as a digitally enhanced narrative and open up the world of imagination, with possibilities for children to be creative and explore their own ways into a story or literacy activity. Digital books which can meet both objectives are therefore likely to be successful.

Teachers: know your e-book

Although using digital books is different from printed books, the basic principles of effective implementation of a new resource in the classroom still holds. Teachers need to get familiar with the technology before they can explore the different features embedded in the app. They need to get familiar with the particular digital book and the content of the story. This is fittingly summarised in a framework developed by American educational psychologist Kathleen Roskos and researcher Jeremey Brueck and presented at a recent conference about digital literacy for pre-schoolers: 1. know your device; 2. know your e-book; 3. establish routines; 4. link apps together; and 5. be persistent.

In the UK, a practical guide for teachers for implementing digital books in the classroom is currently being tested by teachers, as part of the MESH guide initiative - these are mini-summaries, with sources of educational research made accessible to teachers across the globe.

The old mantra that high-quality professional development for teachers may be the most important thing schools can do to improve students' learning still holds true with digital books. Leaving the choice of which digital book or app to use to the professionals - in this case the teachers - is the best indicator for knowing what works in practice.

(Originally published on The Conversation July 2015)

Coding classes should bring in everyone, not just children

The US and UK governments often mirror each other's strategies when it comes to new education policies, and the recent introduction of coding into the school curriculum is no exception. From this September, all children aged five and up will have to learn to code, with the English coding revolution reflecting the vision encapsulated in President Barack Obama's famous quote: "Don't just play on your phone - program it!"

This change is being accompanied by a surge of resources aimed at helping children code creatively, with tools ranging from non-digital board games such as Robot Turtles to Google's completely visual, character-free programming language. While some tools are commercially produced, others like The Missionmaker Core, have been developed through research and development projects in collaboration with schools.

It's not just about the tools though. Concerns have been raised about the government's inadequate training plans for teachers, and the risks of simplifying coding into procedural building blocks rather than conceptualising it as a new 21st century skill.

Mixed signals

The problem is that we're getting our coding metaphors mixed up. Editor at Mother Jones, Tasneem Raja, argues that good coders are like good cooks who are able to create creative dishes out of some basic ingredients. Others compare coding to music and composing, there is a rhythm and melody to it. Another popular metaphor is that of poetry and art.

There are some important similarities between these metaphors: they all share the notion of working steadily towards proficiency. Those who code daily for hours are likely to be those who will be good at it. All three metaphors also implicitly point to audience awareness: a musician, poet or cook derive great delight from those they "code" for.

Code for and with the community

Another way of looking at coding is that of creating a story, built by a community. If we characterise coding in this way, we move the concept beyond linear code-writing to multi-dimensional coding, co-created by multiple authors, who actively make as well as consume the code.

Seeing coding as community-story projects can help answer questions around how to educate and foster a generation that loves coding rather than teaching a set of skills demanded by employers. It moves us to conceptualising coding as part of computing science which can be taught without touching a computer and which needs to be taught differently to different age groups.

Importantly, it implies that children and teachers have to collaborate to use online tools together. Teachers could code apps and websites with the children, for various contexts of use. We need more examples of apps which are innovative and meet specific needs, like we saw with the Devonport High School for Boys app, created by Plymouth students aged 14 and 15 for students, staff and parents to communicate better with each other.

Similarly, a group of students across year groups could collaborate on coding projects, borrow ideas and re-purpose them.

The power of the right metaphor

Seeing coding in this way might provoke a society-wide dialogue about empowering more people to become involved in the creation of the content they would like to see in the digital sphere. It could inspire politicians, the private sector or not-for-profit organisations to support free coding lessons to parents, grandparents and the general public, and so avoid widening the cross-generational digital divide even further.

It could also provide an accessible way in which to demonstrate the need for gender and racial diversity in the coding industry. With a new generation of community coders, we are less likely to see social software applications designed for and by predominantly young urban white men.

Metaphors have the power to create realities we would like to see. If we are ever to reduce the cross-generational gap in digital skills we have been experiencing since 1990s and the digital divides within generations on the rise since the early 2000s, using the metaphor of community storytelling seems like a good one.

(Originally published on The Conversation, September 2014)

Contact Natalia and request full-texts of her other articles here:

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