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Digital literacy crucial early in life, educators say

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439, he remade the world. The age of broad public literacy -- the ability to read and write -- was under way, according to a speaker at an early childhood education conference at Westmoreland County Community College.

Nearly 600 years later, the world faces a shift as profound as the one Gutenberg's movable type ushered in, said Faith Rogow, the founding president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

E-readers, iPads, the iPhone, interactive "smart boards," Skype, social media -- these and other products of the digital revolution are the 21st-century equivalent of Gutenberg's sublime invention, Rogow said.

In this new world, "what does it mean to be literate?" Rogow asked the 200 teachers attending the daylong symposium on Friday.

Reading and writing are part of the answer, she said. But so is the ability to navigate the new media landscape. For early education teachers, it means preparing youngsters "for the world they actually live in," Rogow said -- the world of interactive, instant communication and information-gathering.

For all the emphasis on new media, conference speakers emphasized these are "tools"-- similar to paper and crayon -- to be used to guide children "to be the people we want them to be," in Rogow's words.

The purpose of "media literacy education," she said, is to develop in children "the habits of inquiry and the skills of expression."

Teachers and parents, living in the day-to-day world, needed something more practical, and Rogow tried to provide it: Adults should be persistent in asking children, "how do you know that," during story reading time, with the followup, if needed, of "how can you find out" the answer.

Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, the conference featured 18 90-minute workshops on such topics as "There's an App for That: Selecting Quality Children's Books in E-book Format", "Message from Me: Using Digital Technology to Connect Children and Families" and "Using Media and Technology in the Early Childhood Classroom."

A second keynote speaker, Roberta Schomburg, a senior fellow at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media, stressed the importance of keeping playtime a part of early childhood education. She was more emphatic about the role of adults and human interaction in the education of children.

"At the core of early childhood education is the relationship" between children and their parents and teachers, Schomburg said.

"Technology and interactive media are learning tools, and it's how we use them that makes a difference," she said. "Just because it's electronic" is no guarantee that it's good for children.

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