The Importance of Technology at an Early Age

The Importance of Introducing Technology to Children at an Early Age

As a father and education technology developer, familiarizing my children with technology when they are young is vital to their future success

August 15, 2014

Since I have been programming for over 30 years, it is not surprising that I would be the one to introduce my first child, Lena, to technology. After a couple of years, Lena was followed by her younger brother Oliver in learning about computers and programming. Having taught them both, I have seen the exciting opportunities and growth that results from exposure to technology at an early age.

When it comes to introducing young children to technology, there are three key aspects to keep in mind:

  • Learning to use technology
  • Learning withtechnology
  • Learningabouttechnology

Learning to Use Technology

The introduction of the iPad in 2010, with its touch screen and consistent user interface for applications, made interacting with a computer significantly easier for young children—a group of users who may not have developed the fine motor control and spatial sense to operate a mouse. Since they are only beginning to be introduced to letters, using the keyboard can be a slow, clumsy way to interact with a computer.

However, even very young children can drag objects on the screen or push buttons. My then five-year-old daughter, Lena, had trouble with a mouse, which made using some of the older Flash-based programs available through her school a bit frustrating. But using the iPad was a low-effort, high-reward interactive experience. Also the consistency of the application user interface, enforced by Apple’s developer guidelines, creates a uniform experience for children, instead of creating confusion and frustration that comes from switching between programs. 

Since 2010, tablets and detachable laptops have become a large computer sub-industry, which makes these innovations available to a much larger group of consumers, including children. And we are starting to see substantial adoption in early education, such as through Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) school models. At Middlebury Interactive Languages, we continue to research new technology trends and optimize our courses in order to make the experience seamless across devices. 

Learning with Technology

The immediate feedback that is possible with technology accelerates the rate at which young children learn. This is not only true for a particular interaction but is relevant for introducing a sequence of concepts. The ability to vary the rate of information delivery according to personal needs will likely become the most important aspect of using computers as a learning tool, not only for children but for grown-ups as well. This notion of individualized and self-paced learning through technology is another area of ongoing research for at Middlebury Interactive. 

I taught both of my children to read using a popular series of computer tutorials. These courses consisted largely of animation videos with no significant interaction. Once my kids became familiar with the basic approach of repeating what people on the video said, they started to get bored and lose focus. We had to enhance the experience by racing to read the words off of the screen before the woman on the video had a chance to say them. Making the experience into a game with a time element kept my kids focused, and their rate of progress accelerated as we went through the course. And when they started to make errors, we simply slowed down or repeated the tricky bits until they succeeded.

The merging of games and learning hits a sweet spot with the cognitive ability of children. Kids are good at and have fun at both. Computers allow this fusion in ways that aren't possibleor practicalin traditional approaches to learning.

Learning about Technology

There have been many studies that illustrate how technology can be a useful tool for learning, but it is equally important to learn about the technology itself. From my perspective, one cannot undervalue the importance to human culture of the accelerating pace of technology development. We are in the midst of the transition from a world of tangible things to digital objects and their manipulation. This transition is accompanied by stratification in our society between people who understand technology and can create within that world, and those who are merely consumers of it. (There is, of course, another layer to the stratifications: those millions of Americans who lack access to computers and the Internet.)

This stratification has both economic and political consequences. While most jobs now require some basic ability to use computers, the higher paying positions are for people who can innovate and generate business value through technology. Technology literacy affects the ability of the public to understand and vote on important issues.

But computer literacy is about understanding what computers are and how they can be used to create and solve problems. In this transitional period from the old world into the new, few people have even a rudimentary understanding of the nature of computers. But our children will not have the luxury of being ignorant about the digital technology that controls their world. 

Fortunately, great resources are becoming available to introduce children to the fundamental of technology. I have worked with my six-year-old daughter on the Hour of Code project, a campaign to give every student the opportunity to learn how to code. Getting acquainted with basic programming through creating games was similar to her success in learning to read and do math through online platforms. 

In the United Kingdom, the Computing at School initiative promotes the idea that understanding computers is a fundamental skill and that learning about basic computer sciencerather than how to use the computer programs en vogue at the timekeeps students engaged. Computer science will continue to evolve subjects such as math and science, including how they are taught. Therefore, it is essential that these challenges to traditional approaches be introduced at a young age. 

My children are now almost seven and five. They are both adept at using a tablet for games, listening to music, watching videos or just going through photo albums. Technology provides a great outlet for young kids to spend their “downtime” since it is not as passive as watching the TV. They can utilize computers as tools for both education and entertainment. Hearing them talk about “programming” during our dinnertime conversations makes me proud and continually reminds me that the future of technology is very bright.

Eric Smith
Eric Smith is Senior Vice President of Product Development at Middlebury Interactive Languages in Vermont, which provides online content and tools for world language learning. He has worked in a long series of mainstream imperative languages, starting with 6502 machine code. He attributes the long overdue industrial interest in concurrent computing and program correctness as much to the easy access to old research papers as to multi-core processors. He spends a lot of time reading those papers. Eric is a regular speaker on functional programming and is currently producing a course on Scala for Pluralsight, which will be published in early fall.
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