By Maureen McTaggart
Pearson digital literact reportMobile digital devices are transforming young children’s early literacy development “in ways not thought possible in the past” and altering their opinion of learning by “providing engagement opportunities not always seen with print materials”, says an academic study funded by the Pearson Foundation.

“The Digital World of Young Children: Emergent Literacy” research white paper, which focused on three to five-year-olds in the least developed countries, discovered that although they may not have the same quality of access as their counterparts from developed nations, their learning development is rooted in their use of commonplace mobile devices.

“From the one-rupee video game rooms in the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, to the cyber cafes of Condega in the mountains of rural Nicaragua, to the Save the Children/ CESVI Internet connections in the École Medina Gounass shantytown of Dakar, to the ever-present cell phones in the villa miserias of Buenos Aires and favelas of Rio de Janeiro," says the report, "digital based learning is becoming widely present in the emergent literacy lives of millions of young children.”

According to the report, written by early childhood education experts Jay Blanchard and Terry Moore from Arizona State University, as young children’s access to digital technology grows their developmental milestones change. And providing evidence that these digital technologies are changing the cultural practices that used to aid the development of early literacy, it declares they are “making possible a new kind of personal and global interconnectedness”.

“The Digital World of Young Children: Emergent Literacy” is the second Pearson-funded study on the effects of mobile and digital technologies on young people. The first, "Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning", was pubished in 2009.

Although the white paper is generally positive about the use of mobile digital technologies to enhance the education of young learners, it sounds a note of caution. While acknowledging the abundance of available “educational” video games for young people it confirms there is no research available on the impact of video games on emergent literacy skills development. And as with television, or media that is not “intentionally educational”, it says learning only occurs when young children engage and sustain their attention.

It asserts: “…Until more empirical research becomes available, it is only possible to speculate about the effects based mostly on what the research has taught us about television and computer-based learning with older children, adolescents, and adults in developed nations. Factors that may be affected include attention, information processing speed, social collaboration, attitudes and digital literacy.

"McLuhan (1964), Papert (1980), and Brown (2002) believed that media would change the way humans learn. Taken a step further, it just may be that emergent literacy skills development is evolving to meet the needs of digital media—and this may be happening in one generation and throughout the world."

Pearson Foundation