Should we use digital portfolios instead of paper-based options to document children’s learning? If everything is online, how will children engage with their own learning? And what about screen time!

These are things early childhood educators around the world are asking when it comes to discussing the digital age we live in, and how we’re using technology when it comes to making children’s learning visible.

The thing is, we seem to be asking the wrong question when it comes to documentation. It’s not a case of one or the other: just because you’re using a digital method for documenting children’s learning doesn’t mean that paper-based is out of the question – and vice-versa.

Every early learning service is unique in their philosophy and practice, which means there’s not one ‘right or wrong’ way to do things.

Essentially, what every service wants will be the solution that results in the best outcomes for children. And often, this looks like using the best parts of both methods.

A lot of services are being more selective over what they print, using a blended model rather than all or nothing. This means that the service will use a digital portfolio primarily as a fast and secure method of recording children’s learning and development that is easily accessible to families, but choose to print significant moments for children that they will display in a physical book that children have access to at any time.

This way, the children still benefit from the proven enhanced family engagement of a digital e-portfolio, the educators are considering sustainability by not creating massive paper trails of unnecessary printing (not to mention that printing photos and stories from Storypark is a breeze – find out how to do this here), and children have a collection of the most special moments of their learning to reflect on.

My 20-month-old niece attends a centre who uses Storypark. She started there three days a week when she was still under one year old. It was a difficult time for my sister who would have loved to stay at home longer instead of going back to work. As we all know, this is often not possible for so many parents. My sister and our mum (Clementine’s Nanny) all shed a tear of relief on Clementine’s first day at her early learning centre when we read the story and saw the pictures come through on Storypark. “Clementine is settling in well,” said the caption, accompanied by some photos of Clementine engrossed in books and feeding herself. The relief we all felt to see that our little one was being looked after so well, and happy on her first day was priceless. A paper based document may not have been printed out in time for Clementine’s parents to see this and certainly not eased their mind while still at work, plus the responsive nature of e-portfolios like Storypark can not be compared.

Clementine, on the other hand, loves to look at photos of herself and people she knows. As a child who sometimes finds transitions from home to the early learning centre difficult, having a familiar item there can make a big difference to her well being. Her centre has printed off some significant moments of Clementine’s time at the centre, as well as some of the photos that my sister has shared with the centre of her mum and dad, her aunties and her beloved grandparents. When she is feeling unsettled, she goes straight for her special book (there is a picture of herself on the cover, and her name) and sits in a safe space to look back at all of her photos.

Carol Hartley, who is the head teacher of Mangere Bridge Kindergarten in Auckland NZ and co-author of ‘Crossing The Border – a community negotiates the transition from early childhood to primary school’ emphasises that both paper-based and digital portfolios play an integral part in helping children to have positive experiences when transitioning from kindergarten to primary school.

The transition portfolios include the child’s learning stories from throughout their time in the services, and when the child is several weeks away from starting school, their teachers actually interview the child themselves! The child chooses the learning stories from their time at kindergarten that they want their teacher in the new entrant room to see and add their comments on the learning as well. What better way to share a child’s interests and strengths with their new educator than to have them help to present this themselves!

In many services, during the transition process, the children have a printed version of this transition portfolio that assists them with their transition, while a digital version is shared with their new entrance teachers ahead of them starting school, giving the teacher insight into each child’s developmental history and learning dispositions.

“While we have paper portfolios AND digital portfolios, I think there’s a place for both because the children use the paper portfolios all the time in the kindergarten and they consider them their possession – whereas the digital portfolio is really a possession for the whole family. It’s been fabulous on both scores really – we’ve had comments from Greece and Scotland on Storypark and the children also comment on their own portfolios all the time at kindergarten.”

Now, let’s talk about screen time. A contentious issue for many parents and educators, especially with regards to children under 5.

In many centres, children ask to see their ‘Storypark’ photos and videos every day and become documenters of their own learning by taking photos and videos, as well as recording their own voice and reflection in the comments area. With the increase of internet capable devices, iPads, tablets and phones being used in early learning centres all around the world, children are able to access videos of their play in a secure digital environment and feel valued about their work being seen and acknowledged.

Outdoor play and forest schools are an increasingly important part of the ECE landscape. But sometimes it’s difficult for parents to grasp why a child’s clothes getting wet and muddy is a good thing. It’s just playing, right? With Storypark, outdoor programmes are able to share videos of the child’s interactions and activities. A picture may paint a thousand words, but a video can tell the whole story about the relationships that were developing, confidence that was building, science experiments that were happening, improvements in balance, spatial awareness and language. Combined with links to aspects of the curriculum, schema, dispositions or other learning philosophies a parent is able to see past the muddy clothes and far better appreciate the experience and benefit to their child.

They’re also able to sit with their child and revisit the learning that was taking place, strengthening their connection and potentially helping the child to reflect and deepen their thinking about the experience.

You can’t print a video, but children and families love to revisit them and reflect on the learning again and again. Chris, Storypark’s Customer Success Manager, has a three-year-old daughter who loves to rewatch videos of herself months after she has used new words, sung a song for the first time or assembled a jigsaw. She will often relive the experience, telling her parents more about what she was doing at the time, who else was involved and how she approached it. She also loves to then reflect on how she has progressed from then. A video of her hanging from a climbing frame can turn into an excited revelation of how she can now make it across to the third bar all by herself. It also lets her share the words of a song that she is learning at school so that her parents and whanau can sing along with her.

Furthermore, sometimes video is able to tell a richer and deeper story about children’s learning than words can. For centres with family members who don’t speak English, videos are a way for them to still be connected to and contribute to their child’s learning without words.

But doesn’t this mean MORE screen time? In a sense, it does – but in places like New Zealand and Australia, educators are starting to consider the notion of screen time as being more complex than the guidelines set out by the American Association of Pediatrics in 1992. In line with the new guidelines issued last year, the use of screens as a communication tool is deemed as appropriate by both the AAP and many practitioners.

They are considering the type of screen time children are having, rather than the amount of time in general. It’s really about whether a child is a passive consumer or is an active participant in technology.

Hear Dan Donahoo talk more about the problem with screen time:

Some more excellent articles and videos on this topic:

How dropping screen time rules can fuel extraordinary learning

Research about how children are using technology to learn at home – Dr Joanne Orlando

Moving Beyond Screen Time – Redefining Developmentally Appropriate Technology Use in Early Childhood Education

Enriched, Engaging and Excellent Education – is there an app for that!? – Dr Kate Highfield

Technology in Early Childhood Education – Encyclopaedia on Early Childhood Development

On the other hand, for services who are moving further away from children using screens at all, like this Waldorf school in Silicon Valley, printing stories from Storypark for children to engage with means that educators are still able to use digital options to engage families, but there is no need for any screen time for children.

Some articles on screen time guidelines in North America:

https://www.good.is/articles/bill-gates-cellphones-kids

http://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/screen-time-and-young-children

So after considering all of the variables when it comes to technology and early learning, what are your thoughts on making learning visible in our digital age? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

Posted by Hilary Cook

Hilary is a communicator, writer, yogi and learner. She's passionate about not-for-profit organisations and has worked as a volunteer early childhood teacher in Spanish speaking countries.


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One Comment

  1. Tracey Spencer July 23, 2017 at 9:03 am

    Kia ora and hello to you Hilary. What an interesting read this post was. Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention, one that lies close to my heart. What to do? Paper or digital? I have worked in a centre who just did paper and knew know different- thought that was amazing and loved the profile books. I have also worked in a centre with digital now and see that has some amazing functions as well. I think the only answer is that there is a place and a balance of both needed.

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