Hi I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg Co-Founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we explore technology adoption in preschools including proper usage by teachers in the classroom recommended exposure for preschoolers and how technology can be used for marketing in child care and early learning programs. Our guest Fran Simon is the founder of Engagement Strategies and producer of Early Childhood Investigations which offers free webinars to thousands of early childhood educators. She has over 35 years of experience in the field of early childhood education and a passion for technology and marketing. To learn more about the latest trends in technology and marketing in early childhood education from one of the most well versed experts on these subjects. Stay tuned for this week’s episode of the preschool podcast.
So Fran you’ve spent quite a number of years in early childhood education. I think it will be helpful for our audience just to understand how it all started for you.
So I went to work at a publishing company and early childhood curriculum publishing company here in D.C. I began as a web manager and then grew to be V.P. of marketing and technology initiative it was getting you that was like me combining all three things that I really really am passionate about. And I worked there for quite a long time. After that I went on to work at Naqoura and use technology and marketing skills to build a family network. It was all about family engagement getting parents engaged and I actually had no budget so I had to do everything online through email and web and sites and marketing strategies that I use now. To do that work as well so it all got started way back when I was administrator and I realized that technology made it easier for me to communicate and to do my job more professionally. And that’s how my passion sort of started. I mean I have to admit I was already using technology when I was in graduate school. If I didn’t have it I wouldn’t have graduated graduate school and I was always redoing a paper or something. So that’s really the beginning.
– Fair enough. I think a lot of us all in the same group. So now I’m also very interested in technology and marketing. However, let me ask you this question. In your many years of working in technology and marketing in early childhood education where would you say that these two things fall on the importance of attention and interest level scale for early childhood education sector generally?
That is such a big question because there’s so many audiences that we could talk to. So for example with teachers. While I’m a proponent of using technology and I think technology can have such a big impact in the classroom. I’m not a super conservative about using it in the classroom and that’s because you have to you know how to use it correctly and you have to be so picky about how you use it. I mean most of the apps and software out there now are horrible and they have been since the 80s. I mean there’s just a very good didactic and they might as well be worksheets and I don’t believe in worksheets. So for me I’m very conservative about my conversations with teachers in terms of using technology can they use it. Yes. Using it to communicate use with children to communicate outside of the classroom is fantastic. They can use it to find information and share it with children right on the spot during a field trip or in the classroom. And you know a need to explore further and you can’t do it with everything in the classroom and they can use it to create. And those are the three things that I’d like about using technology in the classroom.
So that’s the type that’s for teachers and then for administrators. I mean like I said before you can be so much more efficient and professional within your staff and your organization more professionally using technology can save time. You can also but more than anything you can reach outside of your program to communicate with people and in an instant like it’s like they said the instant gratification is making things happen much more quickly. With much more impact than you can off line. So I think that’s two things I would say to the stakeholders in the early education appeal them their organizations. You know I have a different message for different kinds of organizations that are in the early childhood people not just programs. I mean there are so many. I mean I had to have a whole different slew of discussions if it were about administrators. And then there’s the families Oh I forgot to mention families so you know communicating with families and families getting them to understand how to use technology with children in a meaningful productive way as opposed to the pass back effect where you give children devices just to keep them busy. So those are some of the things that I would say. No I did not address so much the marketing but that was the overview of some of what I might say is you know the most impactful areas for in the early childhood stage. I hope that made sense.
It does. And just sticking on the technology question for now. Where do you think the early education sector is in terms of adoption using it in these various ways. Both the teachers in the classroom as well as administrators are they really far along or really advanced or they just really in the early stages or maybe even a little bit behind.
Yeah I mean I think behind. I think there are a lot of reasons for that in general certainly I can tell you as related to the K-12 sector the early childhood sectors at least five to eight years behind in terms of using it in the classroom. There I think there’s a misconception on the part of basically administrators skew older including me so everybody, and let me just say I’m one of those. OK so you know if I was working with floppy disks you can tell how old I am. But you know we skew older and as administrators and we are more hesitant and slower to adapt to technology doesn’t mean some have and some have not. And we always have this misconception that younger new teachers just coming in know how to use technology for example with children and I’m not yet at that at the administrative level yet but with children and that’s not true. They know how to use technology. Younger people know how to use technology but not necessarily how to use it with children and sometimes not really well professionally as well. They may you know that’s not always true especially if they have a degree.
They probably have had to use computers to get their work done. But we know that the workforce is made up of a lot of different people with a lot of various education levels of education and they may not always have had access to technology. So we’re lagging behind in terms of using technology for children. And I think that’s also true in terms of using it to get work done as late as let’s say six years ago when I had a little bit more opportunity to be directly in touch with programs. I would say that you know it’s really difficult for them, they have no basic computer skills like they did some people didn’t know how to turn on the computer much less use it to like Adobe products which are really important these days just basic internet searching skills were lagging. Understanding file types which is really important. And you know I mean can people get through word pretty much. But there are some other tools that they really don’t know that well and as well so many of the online tools like Google Apps and communication tools as well. So yeah we’re really lagging. I’d like to see it better. It has improved dramatically in the past six years for sure but it’s still way behind way behind.
It’s a really interesting point you make about some of the younger early childhood educators in the field who maybe they really know how to navigate their way around apps and computers and technology but they may not necessarily know how to use it in the context or the environment of the classroom and not requires training. Now between the training for how to use it in a certain context or environment or even just how to use technology generally geared towards administrators and teachers who does it fall on to educate people about this?
You know that’s interesting because I think about that a lot. Personally this is going to come as a surprise. I mean certainly I think it’s a huge responsibility for the colleges. You know when but as I said not everybody has a degree. You know I think that I do know for a fact that while early education programs are coming along and their use of technology. What I’m talking about is programs and colleges. They are coming along in that regard. They still don’t make it a requirement of the early childhood degree program to understand how to use technology they do use it for you know the basics Excel spreadsheets using Word. But I think because the workforce is so diverse whose responsibility is it that is such a huge question all really modeled around career pathways in early education. So I know that I couldn’t quite, It’s so huge I couldn’t quite wrap my head around that but I can tell you that I’d like to see and I was thinking about this just the other day. A coalition of vendors in a field coming together to form some basic training opportunities for early educators. I think it would go a long way, having a lot of these a lot of the technology vendors get together and put together maybe a conference or some kind of regional training that would give people just the ability to use devices of all kinds.
You know because I think a lot of people are familiar with how to use their phones but not necessarily how to use a computer. I mean the younger people they know how to use phones and mobile devices but they may not know how to use a computer. And I think knowing how to use all of those things is very important. So that’s what I’m suggesting for the future.
Interesting concept. Now kind of stepping away from the ideal utopia of you know who’s going to teach everybody about how to use technology effectively in the classroom. What are some practical things that you know of that are out there right now in terms of workshops maybe conferences online or otherwise where you can go as a teacher or administrator. Talking about technology and education.
Well you know NAEYC has an interest forum for technology in young children. And so that’s one helpful resource IFTI which is the International Society for tech technology education is another resource they don’t have a really big early education focus but there are but it’s growing and there certainly a lot to take away from it see as at member or even just going to their Web site. I think there are some resources through Head Start too. They’re open to the public. They’re not necessarily only for Head Start educators so they eat quick Web site is really another resource that you might check out. And those are a few but there are free resources there are free webinars there are free you know things you can read and videos on YouTube about everything you might need to learn. You don’t have to limit yourself to you know having been in college or been in some academic environment too to learn about technology and how to use it. I mean technology with children. Different story technology and how to use it in general. Free resources are out there and there are free resources for technology in early childhood to that. The tech center at Erickson Institute has a lot of resources and let’s say common sense media has a lot of resources. One Another. Fred Rogers Center also has some resources as well.
So you know I think one of the things that I hope early educators will do is be curious and you know say how do I do this and set out to answer questions. I think it’s easy to say I don’t know how to do that and sit back but you have to solve problems. You have to be a problem solver. And in every field. And I think especially in this field because you have to dig so deep to find what you need. But just ask just you know whatever you can do. Actually you know it’s hard for me to recommend a web site. And YouTube because I’m expecting people to use technology who may not already know how to use technology so that sort of makes it difficult.
But I think your point about taking some of the initiative on yourself whether you’re a teacher in the classroom or an administrator or an owner or executive director of a child care program to go out and find what your local resources are or find those resources online just starting straight from Google if you have to because they’re out there. Being curious to go find out and how you can improve.
Definitely and I think one of the things that unfortunately I find is that people in our field and this is a blanket statement so no one takes offense I don’t mean everybody but I do think often we forget that we’re in charge of our destiny. You know I could say that about people in general not to feel that we’re in charge of our destiny if you want to learn something you can do it. I mean believe me I did not become I. I graduated from you know school as an early educator. I did not know everything I needed to know about technology and I did not know everything I needed to know about marketing and I made it my business to learn those things. I went out and found the resources I needed to. So empowering yourself is the key to learning everything really.
Now just switching gears over to your other passion which is marketing now you know kind of a similar question to you with technology people in the field of early childhood education what are they doing right with marketing where they struggling with marketing. Is are a lot of room for improvement. What’s the status of things?
It’s really interesting because I think marketing in early education is a dirty word.
Commercialism is really not appreciated in the field and because of that a lot of especially child care programs or also all kinds of programs and especially child care and head start that need to be enrolled full time for example, or really uncomfortable in that role.
I mean they know they have to do it and they know some basics but it’s really a hard role. I remember saying people saying I don’t need some market you know my program is so great and you know people just come my way or whatever. I even had a boss in the early childhood field at one of my jobs that said we don’t need to market our product because it’s so good. The product markets itself right. That’s never true. And that’s just not that’s not true.
And so if everybody if I think of early educators can embrace that you can’t do your work unless you can evolve. You can’t offer great childcare unless you can keep it up and make money to sustain it at least sustain it. You can’t it can’t do good work. There’s no need for jobs. There’s no need for teachers there’s no need for classrooms if you can’t sustain it. So it’s really important that we all become a little bit more comfortable in in our rules is needing to get the word out. So sometimes like just say if it makes you feel better. Call it educating. You know call it educating because that’s what marketing is. It’s about educating people about what you have to offer. And in persuading the way we oftentimes have to persuade children to do what we need them to do. So it may make you feel a little bit more comfortable. Does that make sense?
Yeah I like the way you’re kind of focusing on you know how do you make marketing you know not a dirty word in child care because it shouldn’t be. And I think that the two points you’re making which I’d like to touch on a little bit further. One is you have to have the right amount of enrollment and profitability in order to provide high quality child care for the children and families that you serve. And we we’ve had that conversation on this podcast previously with consultants like Kris Murray and Julie Bartkus.
And you know they talk about that point and it’s so true. You know if you if your end goal is really to improve outcomes for young children you’re going to have to do things like marketing so that you can achieve that goal. The second thing is I’ve seen some executive directors of child care programs nonprofit childcare programs do a really great job of marketing that really doesn’t look like marketing so you know maybe there or maybe they have a blog on their Web site and they talk about all the amazing creative curriculum that they have and the learning that they’re doing in the classroom and then they’re sharing that on social media like LinkedIn and Facebook in early childhood education groups and that’s not really marketing in their in their mind but it actually really is.
Right. I also think if you if you think that’s really important that if you see part of your job as informing parents about what quality childcare looks like and informing parents, without saying why childcare is so expensive. An not saying hey this is why it’s so expensive. You’re saying here are the elements of our program. It becomes obvious why it’s expensive. So you know and by the way I could get on a whole different, I could go down a different path with advocacy about informing parents about what you know what quality care. I think those are strategies you can use that don’t feel like marketing. Definitely I agree that blogging doing even contacting webinars. That’s what I do. So when I do this as part of my work. But I think there are a lot of strategies you can use even on social media with Facebook Twitter showing what early childhood looks like that’s there. That’s great way. It’s not really marketing It’s called personal branding so branding not just personal branding, branding yourself branding your organization so that you’re a leader you’re showing what you know and you’re an expert and that your program is excellent because there’s expertise behind it. And that will go a long way to making your program shine and you can this is how you can distinguish yourself from your from your competitors as well.
Yes. I actually I mean you said it perfectly when you said the way to think about it is you’re educating parents about the importance of early childhood education. And if you just look it up that way when you talk about the importance of what you’re doing the work with children. That in itself is great because you’re marketing your talker in early learning programs but you’re also advocating for early childhood education as a whole. And it’s also if you’re talking about something that you’re passionate about you know that’s really going to come across to your audience as well too.
Exactly. Now there are actual marketing strategies you have to do to get that voice out there. I think that Julie and Kris are both excellent at that. They demonstrate that with their Facebook posts and their Twitter feed and you know all the different things that they do, I think they have Pinterest as well.
They do an excellent job of getting their expertise, their demonstrating expertise when they do that and that builds their brands. And I think those are great models. One of the things I often encourage people to do when they’re getting started, focusing on marketing more is to find models out there that they can look at and replicate similar strategies.
I know that mine before I jumped into Twitter I spent a lot of time learning about it by following people I respected and I learned a great deal that way. And before I started, I did my first tweet which was a very long. I remember emulating other people that were doing it well. So I you know I encourage people to do that look around find out what is bright horizons to do for marketing. You know let’s look at that let’s see what we can do. How can we replicate that. So there are examples out there that you can borrow from.
Cool. Now what are the trends that are exciting you. In early childhood education you know maybe let’s start with technology and then move into marketing.
Well for sure for sure. A big passion of mine is parent engagement and I can tell you that there is a lot of emphasis on parent engagement using technology to connect children while they’re at school connect children to parents and check connect teachers to parents in a much stronger way. I think that there are so many opportunities to enrich relationships between teachers and parents now and help them understand children their children better using technology. So that is a big one that’s been going on for the past few years and it’s one I love seeing because it’s so important. And also by the way you know in its own way helps marketing any because parents want to be in programs where there’s transparency there’s communication they feel included that it really does help get more children in the door and it also helps improve the quality of the program. So I’m definitely loving that strategy.
Obviously social media has been a big trend in social and early education. People are still not sure how to use say for example Twitter in a way to attract families or to use Facebook in a way to attract families. I think the key is in what we just talked about in terms of making the content appealing for parents and making sure that you’re going to the right places to connect with parents on Facebook. So you don’t just have to have a page and post all the time. You have to go into other pages and other groups and post as well. So I say social media is another area of technology I like seeing.
Now in terms of what’s going on with children in the classroom and technology. I would say my favorite it’s actually old but it’s looks new. It’s coding in the classroom started way back when I was in graduate school with Seymour Papert and his book Mindstorm. And so there was coding going on around long time ago. But now today it looks different and that all kinds of coding applications like Scratch junior and even some of the Lego robotics programs they’re focused on helping children learn how to code. They don’t even know if they’re coding. They’re playing and they’re coding at the same time. And the gifts of video chat like Skype and FaceTime with children that’s growing tremendously. I think that they’re using the right advice you have to be so so so picky about that. To help children create stories on their own. Now remember I want to go back to what I said earlier and that was helping children create using technology create not consume.
So when we’re using an app we’re consuming when we’re creating a story we’re creating. And so if you can use that man to pick out the right apps you could really do some wonderful things for children. As a matter of fact I used to use in the old days we didn’t had great apps. We had some software in boxes and it wasn’t a very good. There was one that I loved but because it was all about creation. But now we have a lot more options in terms of apply even using apps that are meant for adults like Skype or even PowerPoint. Yes children can use even children as young as the four with the right can use PowerPoint to create their own story. They’re also free tools out there that you can have them use. Even Google Docs has things that children can do. You just have to be resourceful and creative to include children in the classroom. So those are the trends
I think being picky about what software you choose to use as well is a good point because like you said there are so many things out there right now thousands of things. And I remember back when I was you know in elementary school the beauty of the computer in the library at that point was it only one or two programs on it. So at least you could focus.
Yes that’s true. That’s true. And you made a really good point too you said the computer in the library. That’s not the case anymore. There’s no media center anymore. There might be but it’s also embedded throughout the day in every classroom. And that’s like that’s the happening thing.
A one on a one to one in some schools where people every child had their own iPad or Chromebook or something like that. But even in early education settings I really really encourage embedding it in technology of all kinds and opening your mind to different types of technology not just tablets and not just smartphones and not just computers. What else is technology is it. Is it a video cam that children can operate themselves? Are those kinds of things so it’s not just in a media center anymore it’s not stagnant it lives and breathes all throughout the day.
Yeah. Yeah. Wonderful. And what you touched on a little bit with the parent using a parent communication up for example in the classroom is actually also a form of marketing which is a good point. And I know we’ve gotten feedback sometimes with HiMama, where it’s the early childhood educators having the opportunity to share the great work they’re doing with the children in the classroom with parents and they get a lot of positive recognition and feedback back from the parents because of that. And the other interesting trend you’re seeing from a marketing standpoint has anything changed a lot in the last few years?
I think people like Julie and Kris are moving the needle on helping them understand the importance of local SEO Search Engine Optimization understanding that and using it effectively because we no longer have yellow pages. Everybody, its gone.
Yeah it’s the first place parents really go to find them. Child care is an online search engine.
Absolutely. And you have to understand localness that you have to understand being placed appropriately on the search engine. And if you don’t you’re pretty much kind of fade off the map because the days of word of mouth is still very strong. So you have to what your reputation you have to do a great job because word of mouth is stronger than ever with the likes of Yelp and care.com and the other rating sources that you can have you bet you have to be good and you have to manage your reputation. So I think but I think SEO is the most important thing that people are learning about. I’d like to see them learn more about inbound marketing. I think it’s. And what I mean by man band marketing is attracting people to you capturing data about them in order to track what’s happening. What I mean by that. So if parents come to your Web site you and I know that they’re there otherwise they’re just like coming and going and you never know they even came. If you have friends on your website that can help you capture information about them. Like for example offering them some free content something that they can download. You know would an early childhood classroom look like. And you put together a little booklet and you say would you know would you like a free book about what is an early childhood classroom look like.
Which a lot of parents don’t know.
And they see something they want and something they need to know right now and something they care about or they wouldn’t be on your site they downloaded that book and they enter their email. They have to in order to get the book. They have to. And their user name and phone number at least that name and e-mail address and phone number. This way you have a way to call them back. And what you can do is keep track of that and some sort of software program that will capture it could be Excel, it could be Google Docs. It could be a more sophisticated program and there are some specifically for early childhood education that help you track those people who call you and want to send some important message she need to get back to them quickly. I mean just looking right now and they’re looking at your competition and you want to be friendly with on the other side of the phone. So I’d like to see that happening more.
The other thing I think that does is touch on a point which you touched on earlier is it makes you seem very professional. You know if you’ve gone to somebody’s Web site it’s a nice looking Web site. Oh I’ve gotten some useful information from them. Oh that’s great right. They’ve you know they put that together. They must know what they’re doing. And also when I entered my information they contacted me shortly thereafter. Wow, these guys really have their stuff together.
It gives you something to call about you know up and say Oh I noticed you note book about early childhood classrooms. You know what did you think. You know do you have any takeaways. And by the way you know were you looking for you must be looking for childcare right now. How can you know what to do. Is there anything I can do for you. How can I help you. What can I do to put your child on my program today. No I’m just kidding. Don’t say that.
You know what are you looking for in a child care program and see if there’s a good fit there for sure. No that’s very good. Very good advice. Wonderful Wolf. Thanks so much for coming on the show Fran. This was very informative for me I think. Very informative for audience. Last question for you before we finish up here. If people want to find you on mine what’s the best way for them to find you.
I’m pretty hard not to find.
Give us some options.
I think the best way to find me would be engagement strategies. My URL is EngagementStrategies.com
Wonderful. Well thanks again for coming on.
Thank you for having me. You know and I’m so impressed with the podcast. I think it’s a really great thing that you’re doing to help early educator stay informed and there’s nothing I like better than informed early educators. So definitely keep up the good work and thanks for having me.