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What digital technology do early childhood educators use and what digital resources do they seek?

Background

The Australian early childhood (EC) workforce includes educators working towards qualification, certificate- or diploma-qualified educators and university-trained teachers and differing lengths of experience in the sector, resulting in varying levels and types of pedagogical knowledge (Grieshaber & Graham, 2017). The flexibility and freedom in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF; DEEWR, 2009) can be a source of uncertainty for educators; professional learning (PL) can help them construct knowledge bases to underpin their pedagogical practices (Barber, Cohrssen & Church, 2014).

Engagement in PL activities often carries costs, including activity fees, travel costs or release time (Waniganayake et al., 2008), which employers are largely responsible for funding (Productivity Commission, 2014). Financial limitations, workplace culture around PL (Barber et al., 2014) and time and distance constraints (Waniganayake et al., 2008) can represent barriers to PL opportunities, perhaps particularly for those working in long day care (LDC) services (see Waniganayake et al., 2008).

Online resources can potentially reduce the cost issue. In Australia, a number of online resources have been developed. The Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) and Early Childhood Resource Hub (ECRH) provide guides to the EYLF (DEEWR, 2009), the National Quality Standard (NQS; ACECQA, 2017) and the National Quality Framework (NQF; ACECQA, 2017), and other useful links. Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has the Learning Hub, which offers PL resources via online learning modules, webinars and other (free and at-cost) materials.

Another way to access PL is via mobile learning (hereafter, m-leaming). The potential of m-learning has been examined in various teaching and learning contexts (Mills, Knezek, & Khaddage, 2014; Rung, Warnke, Mattheos, & Perio, 2014). The potential of smartphones has been demonstrated for efficient delivery of up-to-date educational information to professionals, and professionals-in-training, in resource-limited and geographically remote settings. Smartphone applications (hereafter, apps) have been used to provide professional educational content to physicians in Botswana (Chang et al., 2012), dental students in India (Deshpande, Chahande & Rathi, 2017) and health professionals in New Zealand (Orsborn, Demetriou, Arcus & Asbury, 2017). Recent Australian estimates suggest 87% of people aged over 14 years own smartphones (IAB, 2018; cf. Rung et al., 2014 for students), about five million more people than own tablets (IAB, 2018). Thus, as a potentially wide-reaching method for delivering PL content to EC educators, smartphones are worth considering. One open question is whether EC educators would likely take up their use.

Recent studies examining EC teachers' professional use of digital technology (e.g. Aldhafeeri, Palaiologou & Folorunsho, 2016; Nikolopoulou & Gialamas, 2015; Palaiologou, 2016) have provided valuable insight into EC teachers' attitudes and competencies related to integrating digital technology into classroom practice. Collectively, the studies suggest reluctance by EC teachers to integrate digital devices into their pedagogical practices, largely because they are concerned about digital technology's role in play-based pedagogy. In their personal lives, EC educators are generally competent, confident users of digital devices. Less is known, however, about EC educators' use of digital technology to aid their own ongoing PL. This paper focuses on understanding EC educators' professional use of digital technology, to inform the development of relevant PL resources to help EC educators address gaps in their knowledge and practices. One such gap currently exists around early language development.

Supporting early language development

Previous research has identified a need for more professional knowledge and training around speech and language to support EC educators' pedagogical practices around promoting children's early language development (Bouchard et al., 2010; Degotardi, Torr & Nguyen, 2016; Girolametto & Weitzman, 2002). In speech-language pathology, apps are becoming widely used in clinical practice (Dunham, 2011) to enhance or supplement traditional speech-language therapies (Furlong, Morris, Erickson & Serry, 2016). There are also apps for parents to help them facilitate early language development, such as Beginning With Babble (LEAP, 2017) and Talk With Me Baby (Talk With Me Baby, 2018).

A range of web-based software exists to support EC educators in documentation, planning and parent communication. Australian examples include Educa (Educa, 2018), Kinder m8 (Kinder m8, 2018), Kindyhub (Kindyhub, 2018) and Storypark (Storypark, 2018), which provide subscription access to web-based software via smartphone apps. Using the software, services can streamline reporting processes and establish private communities to engage with families and other educators around children's development. There are to our knowledge, however, no apps to support educational content for EC educators, which prompted the current research.

Key concepts

In contemporary EC literature, various terms describe activities and processes, including workshops, conferences, mentoring, professional discussions and online learning (Barber et al., 2014), through which educators acquire, or refresh, knowledge and skills that help them support children's development through their pedagogical practices (Cherrington & Thornton, 2013; Sheridan, Edwards, Marvin & Knoche, 2009). Here, our adoption of the term professional learning (PL) reflects a constructivist view of teaching and learning, in which educators not only facilitate children's learning, but are also active agents in their own ongoing learning process (Nuttall & Edwards, 2009). Congruently, our conceptual understanding of m-learning assumes a definition in which m-learning supports learners' agency 'in a way that the learner can decide when, where and how he or she will learn; as such, mobile learning is instrumental in just in time and on demand learning' (Khaddage, Muller & Flintoff, 2016, p. 16).

Theoretical framework

Adult learning principles (Knowles, 1978; Lindeman, 1962), which assume adult learners are motivated by specific situations that require learning in order to address problem-based concerns, provide the main theoretical framework for this research. In such learning contexts 'subject-matter is brought into the situation, is put to work, when needed' (Lindeman, 1926, p. 9). Our approach also draws from the Framework for the Rational Analysis of Mobile Education (FRAME) model (Koole, 2009), in which the characteristics and needs of the (intended) learner constitute a key component of the m-learning process. The FRAME model is useful in the current context for informing the development of m-learning materials. Supported by this framework, this paper focuses on the potential utility of m-learning for delivering PL content to EC educators.

The current study

The main goal of the study was to assess the viability of developing a smartphone app for EC educators to help them support speech and language. In addition to the framework outlined above, our research approach was also informed by previous empirical work of EC researchers. Their findings highlight the value, when designing PL opportunities for EC educators, of seeking educators' input (Barber et al., 2014) and considering the needs of staff with a range of qualifications and at different stages of their careers (Hadley, Waniganayake & Shepherd, 2015; Waniganayake et al., 2008). Thus, we sought input and advice from a cross-section of EC educators, varying in age, qualifications and experience, who were currently employed in 0-5 years EC services in varying socioeconomic (SES) and geographical contexts. We aimed to answer three research questions:

1. How do educators use smartphones in their personal or professional life?

2. How do educators use existing digital technology (particularly smartphones), in and out of the workplace, to support their professional role and to construct a professional knowledge base?

3. What sorts of features would educators desire in a PL smartphone app?

Method

To address our questions, our research team, whose backgrounds are in speech and language research and EC education, developed a researcher-administered questionnaire (Appendix A). The questionnaire was inspired by a Google search for smartphone usage surveys; we developed questions to ask about professional and personal use, together with technical choices (e.g. software, operating systems, social media) current in 2017. The protocol was face-to-face administration by a researcher in a 15-minute conversation. Trialling led to wording improvements in Question 12.

Ethics and recruitment

Ethics approval for the research was obtained from the Western Sydney University Human Research Ethics Committee (approval number H12336). To understand the PL needs of educators working with children 0-5 years, we focused on LDC centres and invited 29 centres; 17 agreed to be involved. With prior approval from centre directors, we approached educators to explain the study, provide information statements and invite participation. Once educators' written informed consent had been obtained, we conducted the questionnaire at prearranged times, typically during educators' lunch breaks. As participation took place outside of paid work hours, educators were reimbursed at a rate of AU$25 per hour (or part thereof) for their time.

Participants

Seventy-four educators (69 females) took part, from EC services across two locations: one suburban (Sydney, New South Wales (NSW), n = 37), and one regional (Darwin and Katherine, Northern Territory (NT), n = 37). Educators represented five age groups: 15- to 24-year-olds (n = 21); 25- to 34-year-olds (n = 24); 35- to 44-year-olds (n = 18); 45- to 54-year-olds (n = 10); and 55- to 64-year-olds (n = 1). Educators' qualification levels included 'working towards (<) certificate' (n = 8), 'certificate' (n = 23), 'diploma' (n = 30) and 'university' (n = 13). Educators had between three months and 32 years of experience (M = 8.09, SD = 6.79, Mdn = 6.5); which we classified into four categories: '< 2 years' (n = 8), '2-5 years' (n = 21); '6-10 years' (n = 27) and '> 10 years' (n = 18). Figures 1 and 2 provide scatterplots (jittered to avoid overplotting) visualising educators' age, qualification and experience.

An SES indicator for each service was calculated using the Index of Relative Socioeconomic Disadvantage (IRSD) national decile rankings from the Australian Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) data for suburbs (ABS, 2013). Lower IRSD scores indicate a relatively high incidence of disadvantage in the area. Higher IRSD scores do not necessarily represent areas of relatively high advantage; they only indicate a relatively low incidence of disadvantage. IRSD deciles for the sample ranged from 1 to 10 (M = 4.88, SD = 3.63, Mdn = 4), and were well represented across the two locations (NT range = 1-10, M = 4.9, SD = 3.78, Mdn = 4; NSW range = 1-10, M= 4.71, SD = 3.69, Mdn = 5). At each location, at least two services were in suburbs ranked in the top two IRSD deciles and at least two were in suburbs ranked in the bottom two deciles.
Figure 3. Breakdown of smartphone platform use across educator ages.

              Age group
              Android    iOS

15-24          4         16
25-34          7         17
35-44         10          8
45-54          4          4

Note: Table made from bar graph.


Data analysis

Questionnaire data were analysed quantitatively and qualitatively. Numbers and percentages of participants indicating response options for each question were calculated, and descriptive statistics were generated in RStudio (2016). To provide a rich description of responses to the open-ended question (13), data were analysed following five stages of inductive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006): a) becoming familiar with the data; b) generating initial codes; c) searching for themes; d) reviewing themes and e) defining and naming themes. Identified semantic themes were crosschecked within the research team until a consensus was reached.

Results

I. How do educators use smartphones in their personal or professional life?

Most educators (96%; 71/74) reported owning a smartphone; 64.3% (45/70) iOS, and 35.7% (25/70) Android (with one missing response). iOS use was 74.3% (26/35) in the NSW sample and 54.3% (19/35) in the NT sample. A total of 75% (33/44) of 15- to 34-year-olds used iOS, compared to 46.2% (12/26) of 35- to 54-year-olds (see Figure 3).

Smartphone users were asked about apps they had, across 13 categories (see Appendix A).

Around half (50.7%; 36/71) had apps in seven to nine categories (these were mostly under-35-year-olds); the rest tended to have apps from fewer categories. Educators typically had installed on their phones social networking, weather, productivity, utility and entertainment apps. Educators' favourite apps were social networking (especially Facebook), search tools and entertainment.

Digital devices being used in the workplace

Most smartphone users (70.4%, 50/71) reported using their smartphones for both work and personal use; others (28.2%, 20/71) used them for personal use only, and one used theirs for work purposes only. At work, educators reported using between one and four digital devices (M= 1.62, SD = .84, Mdn = 1), usually desktops (68.9%, 51/74), followed by laptops (59.5%, 44/74), tablets (52.7%, 39/74) and smartphones (18.9%, 14/74).

2. How do educators use existing digital technology (particularly smartphones), in and out of the workplace, to support their professional role and to construct a professional knowledge base?

A key set of questions concerned how educators used digital technology in their professional roles. We were interested in the sorts of apps and other existing digital resources they, and the services they worked in, used to support them in their professional role. This included their use of commercially available apps and software designated for professional use, but also other digital resources educators might use to meet their professional needs. For this purpose, we grouped resources into two categories: a) formal resources (i.e. websites etc.), which we classified as those existing in the .gov.au domain, reserved for Australian government entities, the .org.au domain, occupied by nonprofit organisations, or the .edu.au domain, indicating Australian education and training providers and b) informal resources, which we classified as any other digital resources, including commercial websites, social networking websites, discussion forums and other multimedia-sharing platforms.

Apps/software being used for observations/reporting and parent communication

Of the 17 services involved in the study, 14 (seven suburban, seven regional) used commercial software for observation/reporting purposes and for communicating with parents. Seven centres (two regional, two suburban) used Storypark; three centres (two regional, one suburban) used Educa; two suburban centres used Kindyhub, one suburban centre used Kinder m8 and one suburban centre used Learning Involving Families and Teachers (LIFT). Of the three regional services not using commercial software, two were located in low-SES areas (IRSD = 1). For observation/reporting purposes, staff in one centre downloaded templates from a privately run educational resource website for childcare (Aussie Childcare Network). The other centre, in a high-SES area (IRSD = 9), had previously used a commercial app (Storypark) to communicate with parents, but had since returned to face-to-face communication with parents. Individually, commercial software was being used by 82.4% of educators (61/74) for observations/reporting, and by 79.7% (59/74) for communicating with parents. Some educators also used other methods of parent communication, including email software and Facebook.

What digital resources were EC educators using for lesson planning?

Educators were also asked about their use of digital technology for programming and planning. We were especially interested in where educators sought information to help them construct their knowledge bases, and how their choices might vary by age, experience, qualification level or SES context.

Commercial childcare software. A total of 25.7% of educators (19/74) reported using existing childcare apps for lesson planning. The apps were Storypark (n = 11), Kindyhub (n = 2), Childcare desktop (n = 1), Kinder m8 (n = 1), LIFT (n = 1), Educa (n = 1), Skoolbag (n = 1) and one centre's internal app (n = 1).

Formal resources. Most educators (79.5%; 58/73) did not list any formal resources. Of the 20.5% (15/73) who did, eight listed one, and seven listed two. All had at least two years' experience, 86.6% (13/15) were at least certificate-trained, and 93.3% (14/15) were working in lower SES suburbs (IRSD < 5). A total of 16.4% of educators (12/73) reported using Australian government resources for information, making specific reference to ACECQA (n = 6), the EYLF (n = 6), the NQF (n = 2) and the NQS (n = 1). Other formal resources included the Early Childhood Resource Hub (n = 2) and Early Childhood Australia (n = 5). One educator mentioned Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA), a second-language learning program delivered via the Polyglots apps. The Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation, Save the Children and the Montessori Australia Foundation were also mentioned.

Informal resources. Educators listed between zero and six informal resources (M = 1.6, SD = 1.3, Mdn = 2). A total of 24.7% of educators (18/73) did not list any informal resources, while 75.3% (55/73) reported using some type of informal resource. Of those 55, 76.4% (42/55) listed one to two resources, 96.4% (53/55) had at least two years' experience, 92.7% (51/55) were at least certificate-trained and all were aged under 55 years. There was an association between SES and educators' use of informal resources; educators working in centres in higher SES suburbs listed more informal resources than those working in lower SES suburbs [[r.sub.s] (71) = .36, p = .002]. Use of informal resources was not associated with educators' age.
Figure 4. Educator suggestions for desirable app features arranged by
topic theme.

                 Percentage of responses mentioning theme

Pradical support: Activities and experiences      21.7
Early childhood frameworks                        15.2
Professional development                          13.9
Documentation and parent communication            10.9
Additional needs & challenging behaviours          9.1
Developmental milestones                           7.4
Useful links to information and services           5.6
Language                                           5.6
Health/Illnesses                                   4
Theory/Theorists                                   3


The most popular informal resource overall was Pinterest, listed by 50% of educators (37/74), including 67% (14/21) of the 15- to 24-year-olds. Educators' general feedback was that they used the software when seeking inspiration for, and visual examples of, activities and experiences. Google was mentioned by 39.2% (29/74) of educators as a usual starting point when seeking planning and programming help. Early childhood pages and discussion groups on Facebook were also popular, mentioned by 25.7% of educators (19/74), the most popular of which were the 'EYLF/NQF--Ideas & Discussions' groups (mentioned 11 times). The groups, along with others mentioned (e.g. Educators Engaging with Educators), are forums where educators connect informally with other EC educators to share information, advice and ideas. Educators also accessed other web-based resources, directly or via Facebook, for teaching resources (free or at-cost) and creative inspiration. These included the Aussie Childcare Network, Twinkl, Learning 4 Kids, the Imagination Tree, Sparklebox, Teachers Pay Teachers, Inspirational Early Learning and other online communities promoting particular educational philosophies (e.g. the Reggio Emilia approach, or the Curiosity Approach).

3. What sorts of features would educators desire in a PL smartphone app?

Educators (70) offered a total of 230 individual suggestions, which we categorised into 10 themes. Response trends are illustrated in Figure 4.

Practical support for programming and planning: Activities and experiences

The most common comments expressed educators' wishes for practical resources to support their programming and lesson planning, with 21.7% of suggestions (50/230) echoing the theme. Of the 70 educators who responded to this question, 27 (38.6%) made suggestions we categorised under the sub-theme 'activities' (which also included reference to experiences and learning environments). Here, educators generally wanted specific examples of activities, experiences and learning environments. This included requests for activities that were: agespecific/age-appropriate; linked to EYLF outcomes and specific areas of development; organised around particular themes (e.g. art, craft, cooking) or linked to particular themes (e.g. life cycles, dinosaurs, transport, etc.). Educators also desired visual examples of activities and step-by-step visual instructions (static or video) for setting up activities and learning environments.

Early childhood frameworks: EYLF/NQF/NQS

Various comments (15.2%, 35/230) reflected educators' wishes for content, or links to information, about the EYLF, NQF, NQS, ECA Code of Ethics, and relevant policies and regulations. Some expressed wishes for resources to support implementation and understanding of the guidelines, such as an accessible ready-reference guide to the EYLF outcomes, a glossary of EYLF terms, or links to ACECQA.

Professional development

A number of comments (13.9%, 32/230) were categorised under the theme 'professional development'. One sub-theme was 'professional development opportunities'. A number of educators (10%, 7/70) wanted to know about upcoming professional development opportunities (intra-state or local), perhaps via a central calendar of events. Educators expressed interest in events such as training days, webinars and conferences (including links to videos of conference presentations). A second sub-theme, 'professional network', mentioned by 14.3% of educators (10/70), expressed educators' desire for a digital professional space to facilitate sharing of information, ideas and advice among educators, within or across services. The topic was raised by three certificate-trained, two diploma-trained and five university-trained educators. Three educators wanted a way to stay informed of industry updates (e.g. changes to employment conditions, regulations, etc.).

Documentation and parent communication

Comments categorised under this theme (10.9%, 25/230) came from 15 educators who were using existing childcare software (Storypark (10), Educa (3), Kinder m8 (1), Kindyhub (1)) and included various suggestions for additional features or improvements to the software. For example, five wanted to capture and upload photos and videos directly into the software, and three wanted the ability to send incident/injury reports to parents via the software. Three educators caring for infants or toddlers wished to document children's daily routines (e.g. nappy changes, bottles, etc.) within the software, rather than on paper as was current practice, for easier communication with parents. Other suggested features included the ability to link child observations with extension or follow-up learning experiences, or with EYLF outcomes. One educator, concerned about ongoing pay-per-child data storage costs, wanted child data to be easily downloadable for local archiving when families left the service.

Supporting additional needs and managing challenging behaviours

A number of responses (9.1%, 21/230) reflected educators' wishes for resources that could better equip them to: a) support children with additional needs (7.1%, 5/70) and b) manage challenging behaviours (14.3%, 10/70), sometimes also in relation to developmental disorders. Educators wanted accessible information about developmental disorders (e.g. autism) and practical behaviour management strategies. Some educators (8.6%, 6/70) wanted easily accessible resources (e.g. sign language programs) to support communication with children having verbal communication difficulties.

Developmental milestones

Some comments (7.4%; 17/230) related to developmental milestones. Here, educators generally wanted checklists for tracking children's progress across different developmental domains. Three wanted information about 'red flags' that could indicate possible developmental delays, and three wanted a school-readiness checklist, to help them support children transitioning to school.

Useful links to information and services

A small percentage of comments conveyed educators' wishes to have links to useful resources on hand (5.6%, 13/230). Some educators wanted links (e.g. to community, allied health, or culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) services) they could pass on to families. For the most part, though, comments reflected a general desire for links to information that could be useful in educators' direct work with children in their care.

Language

A small percentage of comments (5.6%, 13/230) expressed educators' wishes for access to language-related content, including information about how to support language development generally and resources to help them enrich the experiences of older children through second-language learning activities. Some educators wanted resources to help them support children from CALD backgrounds, and also to help them support CALD families attending their service, both in terms of effective educator-parent communication and being able to direct families to CALD services in their area. One suggestion was to include simple key phrases in multiple languages, to assist educator-parent communication. One educator, having acquired English as a second language (ESL), suggested a link to reliable translation software (e.g. Google Translate) to facilitate ESL educators' clear understanding of professional information (e.g. EYLF).

Health/illnesses

Some suggestions (4%, 9/230) expressed educators' wishes for resources about children's health. This included information about common childhood illnesses (e.g. common symptoms, medical management), healthy food for children or ways to support basic skill development (e.g. nose blowing, using the toilet, handwashing, etc.) in young children.

Theory/theorists

The final theme, identified in a small number of responses (3%, 7/230), was raised by seven educators (two certificate-trained, three diploma-trained and two university-trained), all of whom had at least six years' experience. Their comments reflected a desire for more information about developmental theories and theorists, for their own benefit and for the benefit of less qualified educators. Suggestions included links to accessible information about various theorists and their theories, or tables comparing and contrasting particular theoretical approaches to development. One suggestion was for a 'theorist a day' feature to help less-qualified educators gain better conceptual understanding of rationales behind programming and planning decisions.

Discussion

Our study was prompted by a practical question: whether EC educators might use a smartphone app to support speech and language, and what features they might find useful? Underpinned by adult learning principles (Knowles, 1978; Lindeman, 1962), our approach acknowledged EC educators as adult learners who use PL opportunities to construct professional knowledge bases (Barber et al., 2014; Nuttall & Edwards, 2009). Our approach was also informed by the FRAME model (Koole, 2009), in seeking to identify optimal ways to deliver materials that could facilitate educators' agency in their ongoing PL practices. We viewed as key the characteristics and needs of the intended end users: educators with diverse professional backgrounds (e.g. Hadley et al., 2015) and diverse learning approaches (Rung, 2014). Our enquiry was shaped by three research questions.

Our data relating to research question one indicated that nearly all educators were using smartphones in their personal lives, and, in line with current Australian trends (IAB, 2018), most were using iOS phones. The younger EC educators showed a particular iOS preference, with 75% of the 15- to 34-year-olds currently using the platform. Younger educators tended to use more apps than older educators, and social networking apps (particularly Facebook) stood out as the most popular, followed by search tools and entertainment apps.

Research question two centred around educators' use of digital technology to support them in their professional role. Around 70% of the self-reported smartphone users said they used their phones for work as well as personal purposes. As regards which digital devices EC educators used most in the workplace, however, desktop computers were still the most commonly used device, whereas smartphones were the least used. All of the suburban LDC centres, and most of the regional centres, were currently using some type of commercially available childcare software, which was largely independent of SES. Our data, indicating EC educators routinely use digital technology for professional purposes, lend support to previous findings (e.g. Aldhafeeri et al., 2016) that hesitation to integrate digital technology into play-based pedagogical practices is unlikely to represent a general 'technophobia' on the part of EC educators.

Our data suggest new insights into educators' resource-seeking behaviour. Educators working in centres located in lower SES suburbs tended to seek information from more formal resources (e.g. ACECQA), whereas educators working in centres in higher SES suburbs tended to seek information from more informal sources. Speculatively, educators working in lower SES suburbs may be dealing with more complex issues. If so, it is possible they were looking to resources seeking more conceptual understanding, whereas educators working in higher SES settings may have been looking to resources more for creative inspiration. As there has been relatively little previous research into resource-seeking behaviour by EC educators working in different contexts, there is a clear need to better understand these professional practices.

The general lack of engagement with formal digital resources for programming and planning purposes was striking across the sample, with only about 20% of educators listing any formal resources. Overall, educators were more likely to access informal resources, which were listed by over 75% of educators. Use of informal resources was not associated with age; more experienced educators, however, tended to list more formal resources than less experienced educators. We also found that diploma- and university-trained educators made more use of informal resources, which is not surprising since they would likely be responsible for programming and planning (i.e. as room leaders), more so than less qualified educators. Where educators were using informal resources, they tended to lean heavily on one or two resources. Our finding that Pinterest was the most popular resource, across the whole sample of educators but particularly within the youngest age group, was unexpected, as was the popularity of Facebook discussion forums.

Our third research question asked which app features educators would find useful. Educators were generally enthusiastic when it came to offering suggestions. Their responses provided further insight into their resource-seeking behaviour. That is, the popularity of informal resources like Pinterest was mirrored in the most common theme to emerge from educators' suggestions for useful app features: educators want practical support for programming and planning. Similarly, use of Facebook discussion forums was reflected in the desires of educators for professional networking spaces where they could connect with other educators to exchange information and advice. Our findings fit well alongside previous literature regarding EC educators' preferences for more practical PL experiences (e.g. Barber et al., 2014), and their desires to be supported in their ongoing PL through professional networks, or 'communities of practice' (Sheridan et al., 2009, p. 383).

There was little mention of children's language and health development in educators' feedback. It is unclear whether the minimal mention of language reflected a lack of interest on the part of educators; we were transparent about our focus on supporting language development, which could possibly have influenced educators' responses about language. There was also little mention of theory in educators' feedback, either in relation to resources educators were using or in relation to resources they wanted. Where the topic of theory did arise, it was raised by more experienced, and more qualified, educators.

Conclusion

Our questionnaire data suggest that when it comes to PL, there is a desire in the EC sector for easily accessible, practical resources that can help educators to better understand and implement the national guidelines and support children's development. Educators' personal use of digital technology seems similar to what has been reported about EC educators internationally (e.g. Palaiologou, 2016). Importantly, in line with previous research (e.g. Cherrington & Thornton, 2013; Nuttall & Edwards, 2009), our data illustrate the active agency of educators in their own ongoing learning process. They also demonstrate educators' use of digital technology to construct their own knowledge bases via the type of 'on demand learning' described by Khaddage et al. (2016, p. 16), seeking information as needed to address situation-specific problems (Knowles, 1976; Lindeman, 1926). Our data also suggest, however, that valuable existing online EC resources may not always be reaching their intended audience. In this sample, educators' general use of smartphone apps suggests that apps, as utilised in other professional settings (e.g. Chang et al., 2012; Deshpande et al., 2017; Orsborn et al., 2017), potentially represent a viable avenue through which to overcome some of the barriers faced by individual educators in the EC sector (Waniganayake et al., 2008). This is because apps can deliver PL content to EC educators working in resource-limited and geographically limited settings. Based on our findings, we suggest that PL models for the EC sector may be optimised through the provision of: a) practical resources for educators and b) easy access to reliable information, to facilitate individual educators' construction of their own sound, evidence-informed knowledge bases. It is our hope that, in addition to informing our own research, our findings about EC educators' use of digital technology, and their desires for PL, constitute a useful contribution to the knowledge base about current professional practice in the Australian EC sector. These data highlight the potential value of m-learning as a way to provide access to practical PL, to support EC educators' pedagogical practices so they can effectively fulfil their important role in supporting children's early development.

Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge the educators who participated in the study.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

Funding

The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article: This study was funded by the Australian Research Council through the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (140100041) and the Linkage Projects scheme (140100468).

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Appendix A

Questionnaire for early childhood professionals

Participant ID: .... Gender: ....

Date: .... Location: ....
Age      15-24  25-34  35-44  45-54  55-64  65+
group
(please
circle):


1. What is your childcare qualification?

2. How long have you been working in child care?....

3. Which age group(s) are you currently working with? (circle all that apply)
0-12 months  1-3 years  3-5 years


4. Do you have a smartphone? (please circle) Yes / No

5. Which platform does your smartphone use? (circle) Apple (iOS) / Google (Android)

6. Do you use your smartphone for work or personal use? (please circle)
Personal  Work  Both


7. What sort of digital device do you use most for work? (please circle)
Desktop computer  Laptop  Tablet  Smartphone


8. What sort of apps do you currently have on your smartphone? (tick all that apply)

* Travel apps (public transport, travel bookings, etc.)....

* Social networking (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, etc.)...

* Entertainment apps (livestream TV, Netflix, movies, radio, music, etc.)...

* Productivity apps (calendar, to do list, price checker, etc.)...

* Utility apps (calculate, convert, translate, etc.)...

* Fitness apps (track exercise, diet, etc.)

* News apps (local news, national headlines, etc.)...

* Game apps...

* Sports apps (sports schedules, scores, headlines, etc.)...

* Search tool apps (directions, phone numbers, recipes, etc.)...

* Weather apps (local forecasts, weather warnings, etc.)...

* Planning/reporting apps (Story-park, Echidna, etc.) (please specify) ...

* Other (please specify)...

9. What are your 3 favourite smartphone apps? (Please list)...

10. Does your centre use any apps or software for child observations/reporting?

* No

* Yes (Please list)...

11. Does your centre use any apps or software for communicating with parents?

* No

* Yes (Please list)...

12. Does your centre (or do you) use any apps or software to help with lesson planning?

* No

* Yes (Please list)...

13. As an early childhood professional, are there any features you think would be really useful to include in an app? (Please describe)...

Anne Dwyer

MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development & ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Western Sydney University, Australia

Caroline Jones

MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development & ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Western Sydney University, Australia

Lee Rosas

MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development & ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Western Sydney University, Australia

Corresponding author:

Anne Dwyer, MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University, Locked Bag 1797, Penrith, New South Wales 2751, Australia.

Email: A.Dwyer@westernsydney.edu.au

DOI: 10.1177/1836939119841459
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Author:Dwyer, Anne; Jones, Caroline; Rosas, Lee
Publication:Australasian Journal of Early Childhood
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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