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How High Tech Supports Early Childhood Education Research

March 28, 2022

Abt Senior Associate Kerry Hofer conducts research on and evaluations of early childhood programs. Kerry serves as the Abt project director for the Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H), a longitudinal study that examines children's development over time in the context of their early education and care settings. She also directs the evaluation of the Massachusetts Early Childhood Support Organizations initiative (MA ECSO), which seeks to improve the quality of educational programs by supporting program directors and other instructional leaders in providing job-embedded professional learning opportunities for their teachers and in using continuous quality improvement to refine practice.

Kerry recently sat down with us to discuss how her project teams use technology to support data collection and reporting.

Q: How has technology been useful for your project teams, your clients, and study participants?

A: Technology has enabled us to communicate better and faster with study participants and carry out critical data collection activities that might otherwise not be possible. With technology, we can be more creative in how we respond to and help our clients and study participants. That improves our relationships, enables us to answer critical research questions, and can lead to opportunities to conduct further research.

Q: What recommendations do you have for researchers and practitioners working in early childhood who want to integrate technology into data collection and reporting?

A: How we educate and care for our children is evolving; it’s not static. Our technology tools are also evolving, and researchers and practitioners should consider using new and innovative methods to support and enhance the work and impact.

We recognize that the utility of these tech-heavy methods relies on the preferences and resources of people using them. In our work with individuals who do not have smart phones and regular internet access, these methods may not be sensitive to the needs of those involved. Additionally, when using technology, be prepared to offer lots of training and support to data collectors and other users of these new tools. The benefits technology tools provide require big investments on the front-end.

Q: Your team created a dashboard to share data from the Massachusetts Early Childhood Support Organizations initiative (MA ECSO) project with your client. What about the dashboard has been helpful for your client? How has your client used the dashboard?

A: The dashboard was designed to showcase the supports ECSOs provide to early education program leadership teams and educators in an interactive, visually digestible way. One example of these supports is the number of hours of coaching that ECSOs provide their instructional leaders each month focused on the use of child screening/assessment data. Every month, the three ECSOs use a project template to provide us with data about the supports they’ve offered to leaders and teachers during the previous month. We then populate the dashboard with the new data. Some of the displays are cumulative, and others show a by-month breakdown. ECSOs can view overall progress and more nuanced information about the types and formats of supports down to an individual program level. New Profit (the client), the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, and the ECSOs use the dashboard to gauge their progress toward their goals.

Q: For the Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H), your team conducts data collection with 2nd and 3rd graders virtually. How does this work and what are the benefits to collecting data virtually?

A: Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to assess children participating in ELS@H virtually as opposed to in-person this year. We use most of the same measures we have used for years with participating children in this longitudinal study, but we have adapted them for virtual administration. We use tools such as WebEx for virtual sessions, Calendly for scheduling, Knack for collecting data and logging progress, and PowerPoint for measure-specific item presentations. The goal is to make these sessions as seamless as possible for both the children and their parents/guardians. Using this method, we are assessing the literacy, math, executive function, social-emotional, and school connectedness skills of more than 1,500 children in a way that is safe and convenient for assessors and study participants and yields valid, reliable data.

Q: For the Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H), your team is implementing a new system to text parents to engage them in data collection. What benefits has this approach provided to the project?

A: It is not uncommon for study participants to have questions about their involvement in study activities, the benefits of participation, the nature of specific tasks, etc., and e-mail is an antiquated means of communication for most of our parents.  We are currently working on a way to engage with ELS@H parents via live responsive texting. Similar to what we might think of as an online customer service interface, our team members will be able to respond to parents who text questions, effectively engaging in a virtual SMS conversation with study participants that is responsive to their individual needs and respectful of their time. Abt team members will work with a computer-based interface, typing responses to parents who text questions to the team, while the parent will see our responses on their phone as text messages and can then reply. We're hopeful that this texting capability makes project participation more equitable and accessible to all families.

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