Early Childhood

Virtual Learning for Little Ones Raises Developmental Questions

By Robin L. Flanigan — June 11, 2013 6 min read
Citalli Balcells, a 1st grader at Kyrene de los Niños Elementary School, uses Pixie software to work on a report about animals during computer-lab time.

Given that the youngest schoolchildren are part of the touch-screen generation, the question of whether they’re too wet behind the ears for online learning has shifted to a more complex concern: making sure the technology they’re using in school is developmentally appropriate.

In the Kyrene school district in Tempe, Ariz., which serves 18,000 students in kindergarten through 8th grade, educators first look at what they want students to learn, then decide which, and whether, technology can best help.

“We need to be very clear about how and why we’re using it,” says Lorah Neville, the district’s executive director for curriculum and learning services. “We don’t want to replicate core instruction in a digital format. We want to enhance it.”

Being sure to use intelligently designed technology in smart ways takes training and practice, especially as teachers find themselves having to juggle screen time with hands-on activities and pupil-teacher interaction, experts say.

For grades K-2, in particular, they say interactive digital games for math and reading must be fun; aesthetically attractive, with lots of animation; and connected to situations children would encounter in everyday life. Even so, those younger students need significant guidance, with step-by-step directions, while 3rd to 5th graders, though still requiring regular supervision, can start enjoying more freedom to learn through trial and error.

Kindergartners at Kyrene de los Niños Elementary School, in Tempe, Ariz., works on iPads during a dual-language class.

The key, whether students are in a virtual school or a regular classroom that incorporates online learning, is to use technology in highly engaging ways for each age group, and to leave enough time offline for open-ended questions and lessons about digital citizenship.

In the Kyrene district’s elementary schools, students are granted more independence as they negotiate the Web and become increasingly responsible consumers of information.

For example, with guidance from their teachers, kindergartners write simple sentences about community helpers, then use Pixie software to create a slideshow about them. First graders conduct online research through a teacher-designed launch page that links to safe, developmentally appropriate sites. Second graders create virtual tours featuring images and facts about insects, then post them to a secure district online-sharing site. While 4th graders sometimes still use a launch page, they also use search engines such as KidRex.org, which are designed exclusively for children and contain age-appropriate content.

“They have access to technology at home, so they expect it at school,” says Jacinta Sorgel, one of the district’s educational technology specialists. “They’re able to stay motivated because it’s something they do all the time.”

Too Much Tech Time?

But some educators and child-development experts worry about the fact that young children, despite all their dexterity and digital knowledge, don’t always know when enough screen time is enough.

“The concern about self-regulation is an important one, and teachers deal with it all the time,” says Roberta L. Schomburg, a professor of early childhood education at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. She is the vice president of the governing board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington.

Second graders at Kyrene de los Niños Elementary School display their animal-research reports using virtual tour-sharing on their laptops during class.

Schomburg adds that teachers need to take into account developmental factors when giving digital assignments to the younger set.

“We know that children in K-3 learn sensorially, by touching and doing, rather than by filling out worksheets,” she explains. “So I say to my students, ‘If you wouldn’t give a worksheet to teach this concept, why on earth would you give them an electronic worksheet?’ Technology should be providing an experience that children would not get otherwise, to add a new dimension to their understanding.”

In 2012, the NAEYC issued a joint position statement on the use of technology for children from birth through age 8 with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe, Pa. The statement says that when used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development; limitations on the use of technology and media are important; and ongoing research and professional development are needed.

Even as the 640-student Riverchase Elementary School in Hoover, Ala., is increasing its use of technology in the classroom, Principal Dianne Baggett advocates limitations. Each spring, she typically instructs little ones to stop running around during kindergarten registration. But this year was different.

“They were all sitting with a phone or some other device, playing,” she says. “These children have something in their hands all the time, and that’s a concern.”

The district launched its Engaged Learning Initiative in 2012-13, a pilot program that aims to provide all elementary students and teachers with digital learning devices by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Every student in grades 3-5 already has a Nook e-reader, and all teachers in grades K-5 have iPads in the classroom.

Baggett, a believer that technology can make some lessons more meaningful, is pushing to get Nooks into the hands of 2nd graders, particularly for reading and math. Students start learning about digital citizenship in kindergarten, and the district is planning to host its second e-learning day—in which students log in to their assignments and complete them from home—next school year.

“They come to us being able to do so many things with technology,” Baggett says. “We have to take them from where they are and grow them.”

Online Elementary School

Applying technology in the most discerning way was a guiding principle for the Marion County school district, based in Ocala, Fla., as it created its first online elementary school. Marion eLearning opened in October 2012 to 4th and 5th graders.

See Also

Read a related story, “Is Virtual Kindergarten a Good or Bad Idea?”

“That’s why we started with the upper grades,” says Tracy Patterson, a district curriculum and technology program specialist who coordinates the new school and is writing curriculum to include grades K-3. “I was very concerned about making sure they were very engaged in what they were learning, that they were really understanding and applying what they knew, and not just playing games.”

Once a week, students can meet with the teacher for a two-hour voluntary tutoring session, which includes hands-on science and math experiments.

For K-2 students with short attention spans and limited reading skills, Patterson is making sure their curriculum includes animated videos and a significant amount of face-to-face time with the teacher on the computer.

Marion eLearning opened with one 4th grader, and now has seven students. The roster for 2013-14 stood at 37 students as of mid-May, with 75 percent enrolling in grades K-2, and Patterson says the number grows every day.

It’s not surprising that young children, with their fascination with cause-and-effect toys, would be interested in technology-driven learning, according to developmental specialist Michael Robb, the director of education and research at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. Using apps creatively—such as those that record voice and movement on screen to create digital stories and promote language, problem-solving, and imagination—are good for self-reflection, he says.

“It’s hard to turn your back on technology entirely for this age,” Robb says. “And it doesn’t make sense to do that. That’s not the world we live in.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as Virtual Learning in the Early Years

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