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Published in Print: June 12, 2013, as Kindergarten The Virtual Way

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Is Virtual Kindergarten a Good or Bad Idea?

Can kindergartners get the necessary amount of social and emotional interaction in primarily online learning programs?

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Connections Education began offering virtual classes for kindergartners in 2002, long before online education began rising in popularity for elementary-level students.

Since then, kindergarten enrollment—now at 2,250—has kept pace with enrollment in its other grades, growing at between 20 percent and 25 percent a year, according to Steven Guttentag, the co-founder and chief education officer of the Baltimore-based online-curriculum provider, which offers virtual classes for grades K-12.

"When we started, one of the most common questions people would ask is why we were putting kindergartners on a computer all day," says Guttentag. "But getting a virtual education doesn't mean they're online 100 percent of the time. I'd estimate they're only on about 20 percent of the time."

When not online, kindergartners practice forming letters to work on fine motor skills, for example, or work with manipulatives to learn basic shapes, he says.

Even so, some child-development experts are unsure kindergartners can get the necessary amount of social and emotional interaction in virtual environments.

"Children need to be developing 21st-century learning skills that include creativity, collaboration, and real-world problem-solving through group projects with shared goals," says Roberta L. Schomburg, a professor of early childhood education at Carlow University in Pittsburgh and the vice president of the governing board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "Collaborative learning is very hard for a five-year-old to do online."

Engaging Young Ones

In Media, Pa., the nearly 3,800-student Rose Tree Media school district's virtual kindergarten combines at-home and at-school assignments, serving 236 pupils through interactive lessons in science, math, reading, and other subjects. The online learning component is done at home with their parents.

Virtual-kindergarten teacher Christa Consadene, who designed the program, grabs children's attention with fun educational videos, then assigns a hands-on activity to reinforce the information they just learned. She uses screen-capture tools, flip video cameras, familiar icons, and away-from-the-keyboard assignments to keep young ones engaged in her online course.

"If the content isn't right there and ready, you lose their attention," she says. "And I didn't want the kids to be at the computer the whole time."

Also offering personalized lessons that have students act as teachers, Consadene often works with small groups during the regular school day to mine material she can embed into the course. During a lesson about onomatopeia, which is when the sound of a word imitates the source of the sound it describes, for example, she had pupils illustrate examples, write an accompanying script, then record themselves on video. In keeping with the "down on the farm" theme for 2012-13, the children used farm images and sounds in their work.

Consadene has been involved in other projects that bring technology to the district's youngest students. She helped design an online math course for 1st graders—built around themed units such as fairy tales, weather, space, and insects—and is now looking into ways to provide live instruction online for her virtual-kindergarten course.

"There isn't such a thing as being too young for online learning, simply because of the wealth of valuable resources out there for children," she says. "And when they get really involved, it just makes the information that much more real to them."

Vol. 06, Issue 03, Page 24

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