This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline "Leading the conversation on tech." More from this issue

Students at Chicago’s Augustus H. Burley School don’t always need to raise their hands when they have a question. Sometimes, they use an iPad to ask an expert via video chat. Or they post a question on the class’s Twitter account.

“When I plan lessons, I look for the best ways to help my students connect with information and one other,” says Burley’s prekindergarten teacher Erin Stanfill, M.S. ’11. “Sometimes it involves using materials found in nature or taking a field trip, and sometimes it involves technology from looking at photos and videos on an iPad to interacting with people around the world through social media.”

When thinking about how best to use technology and digital media in her classroom, Stanfill turns to Erikson’s TEC Center for insights.

The TEC Center, which stands for Technology in Early Childhood, works with professionals across the education spectrum, from children’s librarians to top technology companies, to help them make informed decisions about using technology appropriately in the classroom and other educational settings.

Since launching in 2012 with the support of The Boeing Company, the TEC Center has developed an international reputation as a thought leader when it comes to digital media for children.

“People pay attention to us because we have the child’s healthy development as our ultimate goal,” says Chip Donohue, the Center’s director. “If a child is engaged and excited about learning with technology or any other classroom material, we’ve done our job.”

Reaching around the world

In 2012, there was a growing realization among early childhood educators that technology was something they could no longer ignore. Technology, from tablet computers to cameras, was increasingly being used in classrooms and child care settings. But how can early childhood practitioners learn how to use it appropriately? The TEC Center set out to help answer that question.

“There’s an urgency because parents are dying for information on how to use this, and they look to teachers for help,” says Donohue. “Teachers want to have the answers, but haven’t had the training to use these technologies with young children. Through lots of hard work, we’ve proven that we are a key resource for them.”

In 2013, this hard work included presenting 42 workshops, sessions, and keynote speeches at national and international conferences, contributing to 47 media articles and broadcasts, maintaining active communities on Facebook and Twitter, and expanding its reach through a number of national and local collaborations.

The Center also regularly brings together leaders in the field, including hosting four TEC Conversations on Erikson’s campus and sponsoring four TEC Track Webinars with partner Early Childhood Investigations.

Teaching tech to teachers

An important part of the TEC Center’s work is helping tomorrow’s teachers know how and when to use digital media. This includes partnering with teacher education and professional development programs to ensure this element is included in their curriculum.

In 2013, the TEC Center began a collaboration with the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network’s Early Learning Collaborative. The partnership included hosting a symposium at Erikson for early childhood faculty from across the country to talk about the inclusion of technology and media in teacher education programs and trainings.

At the symposium, Erikson faculty and staff shared perspectives on how Erikson has begun integrating technology into its teacher preparation courses, with presentations from Professor Gillian McNamee, senior instructor Mary Hynes-Berry, and TEC Center program coordinator Amanda Armstrong, M.S. ’12.

Teacher preparation faculty who grew up in the pre-digital age need to be able to reach students today where they are, and that includes using new technologies, according to McNamee. “Today’s new technology is like the printing press,” she said at the symposium. “The way knowledge today is redistributed throughout civilization is mind-blowing.”

Along with regularly designing and delivering online continuing education modules for early childhood educators, the Center also hosted the second annual Tech for the Early Years conference. With partners Columbia College and Catherine Cook School, the conference facilitated discussions with innovative and thoughtful practitioners, parents, researchers, and app developers.

Practitioners participated in hands-on workshops allowing them to explore and learn developmentally appropriate approaches for using digital media in early learning settings.

“The TEC Center understands that technology will never replace blocks children can hold and manipulate in their hands or the joy of flipping through the pages of a favorite book,” says Stanfill, the prekindergarten teacher. “But they also see the potential of technology to enhance these experiences and allow children, educators, and families to review and reflect.”

Going beyond the classroom

Not content to stay in the classroom, the Center has also begun to address technology outside of traditional educational settings, including working with children’s librarians and staff from museums, zoos, and nature centers to help informal educators make appropriate digital choices.

In 2013, the Center hosted a meeting with representatives from national library associations to discuss plans to create an evaluation tool to help librarians evaluate which mobile apps are appropriate for young children.

“We have this opportunity to prepare librarians to be digital media mentors,” says Amanda Armstrong. “They’re excited about it, and they’re really going to be the group who’s navigating the use of digital media for children.”

Cen Campbell, a librarian and editor of LittleeLit.com, a network that works to incorporate new media into library collections for families and young children, looks to the Center as a resource.

“The information the TEC Center pulls together has been indispensable to our conversations as we partner with the California State Library, the Association for Library Services to Children, and other national and state agencies,” she says. A meeting with the TEC Center last year resulted in the planning of the National Forum for Young Children & Libraries, which is currently seeking funding.

“The TEC Center has been one of the most valuable partners in our journey to create profession-wide best practices for the incorporation of new media into library collections, as well as programs for young children and their families,” Campbell adds.

Planning for the future

The TEC Center continues to develop new ways to reach educators and contribute to the conversation about children and digital media.

In the coming months, the Center will launch a new website that will serve as a resource for information, articles, and best practices for educators in Chicago and across the country.

This fall, the TEC Center will also have its first book. Donohue is bringing together leaders in the field of early childhood technology to contribute chapters to Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years, which will be jointly published by Routledge and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The Center is exploring creating a system with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media to evaluate early childhood educators in different technology competencies. The Mozilla Foundation, maker of the popular Firefox internet browser, has also expressed an interest in collaborating to promote digital media literacy resources for educators using their online training and recognition program.

Donohue says, “We have this great content to deliver, and I’m excited to see where the next two years take us.”