In recent years, our houses have become full of smart devices, from virtual personal assistants like the Amazon Echo to smart fridges, and even smart toys. They talk to each other and exchange data over the internet, forming a network called the Internet of Things (IoT). Many adults find this concept hard to grasp, but what about children? What do they make of it all? After all, they have lived their entire lives surrounded by computers and the Internet.
Pekka Mertala, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education and Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä (JYU), asked several three- to six-year-olds this very question. His multidisciplinary research, a hallmark of JYU, focuses on children’s and teachers’ relationships with digital technologies, and informs what should be incorporated into new school curricula. Pekka found the children were pretty skeptical at first that everyday items could have a computer inside and could connect to the internet. He explains, “That is quite understandable because even though they have first-hand experience with these kinds of technologies, the technology is hidden.”
In one experiment, Pekka and his team read nonfiction picture books about computers and the internet to the children. Then, they helped the children design a futuristic smart toy discussing where the computer chip would live inside, and the children made drawings of their designs. Finally, with some assistance from the researchers, the children built prototypes of their toys using Lego and Play-Doh, materials readily available in a kindergarten setting and added LED lights for effect. After this exercise, many of the children were able to describe in detail how their smart toy would work and were more accepting of the IoT concept. Pekka explains, “The idea behind these kinds of practices is that they are empowering for kindergarten teachers who are struggling with the idea of having to teach digital literacies or multiliteracies. You are combining these abstract literacies with tactile, familiar stuff that they are already using in their everyday teaching.”
“Multiliteracies” is a term that encapsulates the fact that in our modern world it is not enough just to be able to read and write. To be truly literate, we need to be familiar with digital media and the internet and to have the skills to communicate in a diverse global community. This is central to Pekka’s work and the JYU multidisciplinary research group he is part of called “MultiLEAP”, which examines life in a media-driven and digital-oriented society. Their research is in keeping with JYU’s ethos to improve and renew learning, interaction, and participation to build a better future and support welfare and sustainable life, both nationally and internationally.
Pekka has also researched teachers’ beliefs as these can affect how willing they are to embrace digital technology and incorporate it into their teaching. His work involving Finnish and Chinese student kindergarten teachers found that both cultures shared some common beliefs that were not backed up by research. They believed that children are “digital natives” who do not need instruction from adults. However, Pekka’s research has shown that children learn to use digital media by “observing others having first-hand experiences and having either intentional or unintentional instructions from older siblings, parents or teachers, and so on”. The student kindergarten teachers also believed that “children will be harmed by digital media at home” because parents are unable to regulate their own media use, not to mention their children’s. But this too has been disputed, and research has found that parents take the task of regulating their children’s digital use quite seriously.
Pekka’s current research is investigating what 12- and 13-year-olds think about artificial intelligence. He explains, “There is this trending idea that AI literacy should be included in the curriculum all over the globe. We think it is necessary to learn what kind of preconceptions and misconceptions children have about artificial intelligence so we can take these into account when we plan pedagogical material and a curriculum.”
Working in JYU as part of a multidisciplinary team on his two passions, educational research and literacy research, is a dream come true for Pekka. He moved to JYU in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although this has meant that he has spent a lot of time working from home, he has still felt welcome and managed to get to know his teammates. He says, “I love the way JYU encourages us to cross [subject] borders to learn from each other and learn to do things in a new way, to really collaborate”. It is an inspiring atmosphere to work in.
Pekka Mertala is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Education and Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. His research focuses on multiliteracies and digital literacies. He is a former kindergarden teacher.