Child-Computer Interactions in early childhood
Children are meant to play games, chat with friends, tell stories, and mimic the social practices they see in the world around them. As they enter schools and learning systems, they continue this indoctrination into society as they study history, math, literacy, and build the content knowledge they’ll need to be empowered, productive members in a global, or local, marketplace.
As new technologies and digital spaces become ever more critical to our lives, we need to ask questions about how these texts and tools play a role in their lives. In addition, we need to be sure these technologies support children in ways that make sense for them as young learners, explorers, and avid technology users. From the Internet, to social networks, to gaming, to videoconferencing, technology is changing the way children live and learn.
This may seem of obvious importance, but there still is debate, and much-needed research to examine Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and skills and practices employed as users interact with technology. There are also significant questions that need to be asked about Child-Computer Interactions (CCI) and how these new mobile, social, and ubiquitous technologies change children’s future patterns of searching, exploration, and expression of information.
Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is a multidisciplinary field of study focusing on the design of computer technology and, in particular, the interaction between humans (the users) and computers. While initially concerned with computers, HCI has since expanded to cover almost all forms of information technology design.
The term suggests that, unlike other tools with only limited uses (such as a hammer, useful for driving nails but not much else), a computer has many uses. This mental model is further complicated by the inclusion of “human” in the label as individuals have a multitude of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that make them all different. In addition, regional, cultural and national differences play a part.
HCI helped popularize the idea that the interaction between a computer and the user should resemble a human-to-human, open-ended dialogue. Initially HCI researchers focused on improving the usability of desktop computers (i.e., how easy computers are to learn and use). With the ubiquitous nature of technology in society, computer use has increasingly moved away from the desktop to embrace the mobile world, and HCI has steadily encompassed more fields. This raises questions about how early we should focus on technology use with humans.
Child-Computer Interaction (CCI) is an evolving area of research that focuses on the interactions between children and the Internet and other communication technologies (Read & Markopoulos, 2013). CCI is a research discipline within Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) which is multidisciplinary in nature and informed by work in a variety of fields (e.g., educational psychology, developmental psychology, learning sciences, computer science, game design). These two fields (i.e., CCI and HCI) are emerging, and as such require insight from a variety of fields, yet also need opportunities to remain flexible and account for changes in technologies, and our understanding of these elements (Read & Bekker, 2011).
Read and Bekker (2011) define CCI as the ‘‘study of the Activities, Behaviours, Concerns and Abilities of Children as they interact with computer technologies, often with the intervention of others (mainly adults) in situations that they partially (but generally do not fully) control and regulate.’’ Children in CCI are identified as individuals between the ages of five and twelve, but increasingly this lens has included toddlers and adolescents in this focus. As technology becomes more ubiquitous in society, there are questions about the growing need or purpose for children to use ICTs during critical developmental periods (Plowman, Stephen, & McPake, 2010).
Children now grow up surrounded by a plethora of screens that may be concerning to adults (Pollock, Van Reken & Pollock, 2010), yet they also may be a hallmark of our networked society (Plowman & Stephen, 2003). This access and abundance of screens, and the questions or concerns about CCI may be partially dependent on a variety of factors, but children in the most developed countries are some of the most frequent users and consumers caught up in the challenges and opportunities present in CCI.
Early Childhood Educational Contexts
Given the emerging challenges and opportunities that exist in CCI, and the potential for applications of these technologies as an educational tool, there is an urgent need to explore how current and future HCI will impact learners (Read & Markopoulos, 2013). Educators are making assumptions that developers, researchers, and organizations are delivering technologies that will improve student learning outcomes (Hess & Saxberg, 2013) without negatively impacting individuals (Punchoojit & Hongwarittorrn, 2015). These new developments and technologies also need to be matched to best practices and contemporary paradigms in educational psychology to best scaffold learners (Gilutz, 2009).
Classrooms, especially early childhood educational environments, can provide challenging environments for testing and evaluation of these digital texts and tools (Dhir & Alsumait, 2013; Read & Markopoulos, 2013). This has the potential to expand necessary literacy skills and competencies ranging from information literacies (Robin, 2006), media literacy (Jakes, 2006), and visual literacies (Simmons, 2006).
The challenge is that in order to make these digital practices come alive in the classroom, there is a need to start building these skillsets at an early age. Furthermore, there is a need to build authentic awareness about the interactions learners may have with computers now and in their futures. There is little reassurance that young children are receiving positive, or informed exposure to computer interactions at home, or in school (Paciga & Donohue, 2017).
The one constant in these interactions is change. Research and planning that is focused on pedagogical opportunities for this current time period is already outdated as these technologies advance and become more ubiquitous. In addition, learning and social environments will also be ever-changing because of new technologies. This creates an urgent need to study the challenges and opportunities of designing for child-computer interactions.
I should note at the end of this post, that as we plan for and design the future, there is also an opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of the past. With children as users, it is sometimes viewed as difficult to bring them into the research, design, and planning process. As children go to school for most of their days, they encounter and are indoctrinated by existing power structures, biases, and assumptions. They are given opportunities to assimilate or accommodate these societal expectations. For many reasons, a child’s role in the design of new technology has historically been minimized. As we explore and develop new understandings and technologies, there are opportunities for various roles that children can have in this process. They can help define and determine how these technologies interact with, and impact society.