Research News

Teaching ABCs in a Digital Classroom

IPR associate Ellen Wartella studies pre-K teachers’ technology use


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Pre-school students are increasingly exposured to digital media and technology in the classroom.

From federal and local tax dollars to finance “one-on-one” classrooms, where each student has a tablet or laptop, to technology-related grants from donors like the Gates Foundation, millions of dollars for technology in classrooms are being funneled into K-12 schools across the country.

Yet, as existing research points out, though more is being spent on classroom technology, its successful integration into lesson plans is another matter. Communication studies researcher and IPR associate Ellen Wartella and her colleagues are examining this puzzling relationship.

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Ellen Wartella

“We’re in a changing moment right now, where parents are starting to believe that using technology with their preschoolers is a way to get them ready for schooling and the world they’ll face,” Wartella said. “So we were really interested in seeing if teachers, in turn, were embracing technology more.” 

Wartella and her fellow researchers—Northwestern’s Courtney Blackwell and Alexis Lauricella—believe that theirs is the first study to investigate the factors that influence early-education teachers’ use of digital media in the classroom. 

Using survey data for 1,234 educators of children up to age 4, the researchers studied both internal and external obstacles to successful technology integration, including inadequate training, a lack of available technology, and teachers’ attitudes on the educational value of technology. Teacher attitudes, the researchers find, had the strongest impact.

“We were surprised by how ultimately important it was that the teachers believe the students can learn using technology,” Wartella said.

Such confidence in using technology, in turn, shapes such attitudes, the researchers show—demonstrating that these internal factors not only have a relationship with technology use, but also with one another. 

Other positive influences on teachers’ technology use were support from schools for technology use and a school having a written technology policy.

Interestingly, while educators with more experience in the classroom were more likely to use technology when they taught, they were less likely to think that students would actually benefit from the technology. Wartella and her colleagues hypothesize that a new teacher might feel more comfortable using technology, but lack the experience to effectively integrate it into a curriculum.

A next step for the research is to examine how technology influences achievement in young children.

“We need more details on how technology is being used, and the ways in which it enables other learning to go on,” Wartella said. “It’s not just a question of how technology is being used, but what influences it has on learning.”

Ellen Wartella is Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication and an IPR associate. Courtney Blackwell is a PhD candidate in the Media, Technology, and Society program. Alexis Lauricella is a lecturer and research associate in the communication studies department.Factors Influencing Digital Technology Use in Early Childhood Education” was published in Computers & Education

Photo credit: Eirik Solheim