Experts gathered at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. this week for a moderated discussion that explores “a world beyond ‘screen time.’” How to use technology as more than an electronic babysitter and how to push for higher standards in technology use are on the agenda.

We spoke with Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation and author of “Screen Time: How Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child” about what brought this group together and where work around early learning innovation is heading.

Remake Learning: Tell me about this new group, the Alliance for Early Learning in a Digital Age.

Lisa Guernsey: It’s a coalition that came together at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2012. It’s the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Sesame Workshop, PBS, Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, Erikson Institute and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. I came into things in 2013 to help think through some of the challenges that a group like this might face.

What was the spark? What made something like this seem necessary?

The early childhood community has been a little averse to talking about technology in any deep way. And for good reasons, honestly. There is fear that technology in a preschool classroom might lead to kids sitting around staring at the TV. There is also fear that kids might get pushed into things before they are developmentally ready. Everyone wants kids to have a well rounded, hands-on, exploratory learning environment, but those types of fears have hung over the question of what role technology should play in that.

Have recent technological changes altered this conversation at all?

Lisa Guernsey

Lisa Guernsey

There have been some very interesting advances in technology — most obviously the touch screen. There’s also been some recognition through research and through the work of some pioneering educators, that, gosh, there are chances to use technology in ways that help children explore, that help open up windows into new worlds, or enable them to see themselves as creators.

That’s interesting, that idea of the difference between kids staring blankly at a TV and being “creators” as you say. Why is that so important?

We now have tools that let kids talk more freely and really capture what they’re exploring and creating. There are math concepts we used to think kids under a certain age couldn’t grasp, but it turns out, yes, they can — they just might not communicate it the same way older kids do. What if we can give them tools — like video cameras or tape recorders — to enable them to communicate in ways they couldn’t before?

For 4- and 5-year-olds, it can still be a struggle to put ideas on pen and paper, but maybe there are all kinds of things they want to say. For teachers this means being able to see more clearly how the kids are learning. And for the kids, it’s a chance to look back at something they’ve just done and say, “Hey, I did that. And here’s my story.”

There’s so much going on in the world of digital media. Is there a central set of concerns, or a central question around which the Alliance is organized?

At the New America Foundation, where I work, we have questions about how to break through the tired, polarizing conversations about technology, and how to bring educators up to a new level professionally with the right resources at their finger tips. The Alliance has several categories it coalesced around, and one is to build an agenda for new research. Our two organizations wanted to find a place to bring together all the research that’s happening in so many disparate places — some in science labs, some in research groups, some in the media literacy world.

So we had a research conference at the New America Foundation offices in October, and researchers talked about the similarities in their findings and their thinking. The desire to enable children to explore and be creators was an exciting idea to many people in the room, though it hasn’t been tested very much in research.

I’d imagine, considering the group, there was also talk about the role of the teacher or caregiver in facilitating children’s relationship with technology.

Children will really learn more and gain more from the experience if they are asking questions of a peer or adult while engaged. Sometimes the media itself triggers conversation or new questions — or takes them down paths of new learning. That joint engagement piece came through pretty loud and clear in October.

What else?

There’s a big focus on using media intentionally with young children and being very mindful about what it means for them.

I feel like so many people are so excited about these new digital tools and possibilities. Do you still find yourself telling people screen time is not inherently bad? Or has the conversation moved on from there?

What do we know about how children are interacting with digital technology? What are they learning? 

I don’t think everyone is on the same page because of the varied experiences out there. I see all sides of this because I talk to teachers in the elementary realm as well as in the realm of childcare and preschool. I also meet with childcare providers who work with, say, six children, in their home, and also public school teachers working with 3- and 4-year-olds. In some places there’s still a lot of concern that it’s just inappropriate for children to be using screen media.

On the other hand, I see teachers wishing they had more iPads, for example. There’s a wide range of view points out there, and we can learn from them all. It goes back to the mindfulness question. What do we know about how

children are interacting with digital technology? What are they learning? What are they understanding when they’re using these materials? Those are the big questions.

I’m struck by how the first thing you said was, “We need to do more research.” What do we know? Is there anything specific to which you can point?

There is a lot that we do know. My book, “Screen Time,” was based on scores of studies on television and some new studies on interactive media with children under the age of 6. But questions from educators and parents are still hard to answer, often because they’re asked in such broad ways, such as, “Should my child use an iPad?”

To answer that kind of question, we need to go deep and get specific. There’s some research, for example, that showed 30-month-olds could learn something specific from a short, interactive video experience. So we have research like that. Little slices that give us some hints.

And people surely have been researching TV for ages.

There’s all sort of research about background television, or just television without any consideration of content. That’s the very opposite of mindful and intentional. It’s just noise and visuals off to the side of the room. There are studies that show background television is disruptive to children’s play patterns.

That of course raises all sorts of interesting questions about why it’s disruptive. Is it the noise? Is it the visuals? There have been a couple of studies that show problematic connections between background TV and kids not getting enough verbal interaction from adults. In other words, different media used in different ways make a big difference.

In your book you talk about the three C’s.

It’s a shorthand way of understanding how complex it all is. It’s not just all or nothing when it comes to media and kids. You have to look at the content,  the context of how the media is being used , and of course there’s the child herself. How old is she? Where is she developmentally? What are her interests? Etc.

A lot of people are starting to really look at the equity component of all this. What’s your thinking? Is this part of the Alliance’s focus?

From what I understand, one  reason the group is named the Alliance for Early Learning in a Digital Age is that it’s about ensuring all children, even children from low-income families, have access to the same kind of learning environments that kids from the richest families have. At New America, that focus on equity is a core piece of our work throughout our education policy program.

How do you go about addressing this issue?

We’re focusing right now on equity in broadband access. We’re looking at the lack of discounts for internet services in childcare settings, as well as many Head Start classrooms and some publically funded pre-K classrooms. The public schools have the E-Rate program. President Obama is pushing for the

It’s about ensuring all children, even children from low-income families, have access to the same kind of learning environments that kids from the richest families have.
new ConnectED initiative, and the FCC is in the process of revamping the E-Rate to try and infuse a little bit of money into the system.

We’ve been writing and making recommendations to the FCC. One of our recommendations focuses on the early learning setting and trying to ensure more parity, at least for Head Start and publically funded pre-K. In an ideal world, we’d get it for childcare centers, too. This ability to gain access to the internet is important for teachers and caregivers so that they can communicate and share information professionally.

New America is holding an event in Washington, D.C. on March 26 titled Beyond Screen Time.  What’s the connection here to Pittsburgh? 

I’m glad you asked that. Pittsburgh is at the forefront of seeing past this old debate about passive media being detrimental to children’s learning. They’re past, “Oh gosh, technology just means putting kids in front of a screen.” They’re helping move us into a new realm, which imagines children as creators themselves and agents of their own learning, and having access to all sorts of resources to help them learn, create and make. We can learn a lot from what’s happening in Pittsburgh.