When asked if the future of education means embracing the digital world, Clinical Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education Nermeen Dashoush said, “we’re already there.”
“I think that digital learning is something that we know is a powerful tool, and we’ve been scared of it so far,” Dr. Dashoush said. “But we know that it’s something that children are really interested in, so why not use pedagogical research about how children truly learn to make digital learning tools developmentally appropriate?”
For the past four years, Dr. Dashoush has been helping mobile-based MarcoPolo Learning do just that, by serving as the education company’s Chief Curriculum Officer. She has experience teaching at the early childhood level, specializing in science.
Earlier this year, the company raised $8.5 million in their first round of funding.
“When they first approached me, I wasn’t sold on it to be honest,” Dr. Dashoush said. “I was wondering what the point was of children playing on something digital when they could be playing in the real world.”
She quickly bought into the company’s core principles, though, being grounded in their commitment to fostering curiosity among children. They do this by enabling young children to play in and manipulate environments such as the Arctic and the ocean and phenomena such as the weather.
Dr. Dashoush said that the app’s concept builds on the idea of contextualized learning.
“The lessons that they can learn through the apps about the natural world, materials around them, and things like site words, all stem from things we know that children are interested in,” she said.
In the Arctic app, for example, children can actually build animals and feed them while learning about different species’ physical adaptions in their environment. In the weather app, they can make it rain or snow, and then manipulate characters to respond to the changing weather by giving them a raincoat or umbrella.
To ensure that children don’t remain solely fixated on their digital apparatuses, Dr. Dashoush said that she’s helping to create communication tools that parents can use to have conversations with their children about what they’re learning through the apps.
“This will extend the learning outside the digital world, into the real world,” Dr. Dashoush said, adding that the apps also accomplish this by encouraging children’s inquiry skills.
“Instead of the characters in the apps just giving information to children, they encourage children to think about it and try to figure it out themselves.”
So far, MarcoPolo Learning’s apps have been used in classrooms and downloaded millions of times both in the U.S. and internationally.
“Children are really gravitating to the digital world,” Dr. Dashoush said. “It’s our responsibility as educators to think about what children need to learn and to apply research to these digital tools.”