One of the most valuable tools for assessing the impact of new technologies is the hype cycle, a simple model that traces the peaks and troughs in the evolving perception of any new technology. Having gained widespread currency in the business world the model is also a useful focus for education.
Echoes of the hype cycle sound throughout ICT In Pre-School: A 'Benign Addition'?, a report on research commissioned by Learning and Teaching Scotland, the public body that provides curriculum advice and ICT expertise to the Scottish Executive.
Many pre-school groups now have access to computers, say the authors, but what they lack is a well-developed pedagogy for the use of ICT. The problem is widespread, with "hardware-based enthusiasm" followed by "pedagogical reflection" a recurring pattern around the world.
This relates directly to the hype cycle, in which inflated expectations are borne aloft by hot air, with no research to support the supposed benefits of the new technology. This paucity of research is a notable feature of ICT in pre-school: "There is a proliferation of reports that make claims for the benefits to be derived from children using computers, but the evidence base for much of this writing is weak."
The authors have therefore cast their net widely, trawling through the international literature on children as old as eight. Their 31-page critical review - a significant step in establishing early years ICT on a foundation of knowledge rather than inflated expectations - highlights a number of key issues:
* The debate is sharply polarised, ICT being seen as either detrimental to learning or a valuable contribution to development.
* Many of the criticisms are based on an out-of-date view of ICT.
* The relationship between print and ICT literacy is complex and under-researched.
* Curricular guidance could be improved by incorporating recent research on key ICT competencies.
* Lack of time to preview software was cited by 94 per cent of teachers sampled as the main obstacle to their use of ICT.
* Guidance on software products is vital but hard to find - LT Scotland "appears to be a leader in this field".
* The need for a study of current practice is highlighted by the lack of statistical evidence on pre-school ICT in the UK.
* Three-quarters of teachers polled said technical support was inadequate, the majority having to abandon lessons because of technical problems.
* Two-thirds of primary teachers sampled said they felt competent in using ICT, but the diversity of practitioners' backgrounds makes extrapolation to pre-school unwise.
* A variety of evidence exists on ICT and social inclusion: gender - no differences were found in a pre-school setting; socio-economic grouping - children without computers at home are significantly disadvantaged; special needs - ICT supports improved access but the technology is challenged to keep pace with mainstream developments.
* Research suggesting young children can use ICT in a playful way fails to recognise the child's perspective - playfulness may be an adult interpretation of informal learning.
* An exploratory approach to ICT by children is inappropriate in the early years, and technology is no substitute for the reflective practitioner.
ICT In Pre-School: A 'Benign Addition'?, a review of the literature on ICT in pre-school settings by Stirling University's Christine Stephen and Lydia Plowman. Price pound;3.75 from LT Scotland, tel 08700 100 297, email enquiries@LTScotland.com