Don't Forget the Little People: A Vision for an Online Kindergarten Learning Community
Would you set a kindergarten-age child in front of the television with the remote control to independently channel surf alone? Most likely not. Kindergarten students are unique because they are at the beginning stages of learning how to be independent individuals. Overall, however, they are dependent on adults to supervise, protect and guide them through life and learning experiences. The same real-life principles apply to a virtual learning community. So, before I reveal my vision of a learning community for kindergarten students, we must all agree that children need either parental or teacher supervision to appropriately learn technology, how to use it and how to formulate an online community.
A child's first year in a formal education program sets the foundation and precedence for the years to follow. A kindergarten classroom's setup, procedure and curriculum provide students with a balance of rigorous academic standards and appropriate developmental experiences. A typical kindergarten student entering school d'es not have reading-readiness skills or independent writing skills.
So, how is it possible to have a virtual learning community in an environment where the students can't read or write? I believe that with the appropriate modeling, structure and support it is possible for children as young as 4 and 5 to actively participate in a virtual learning community. "What children learn and experience during their early years can shape their views of themselves and the world, and affect later success or failure in school, work and their personal lives" (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2002).
Kindergarten students should not be excluded from the virtual learning world simply because of their age and developmental levels. While students are unable to read text, there are other forms of material that children can read and comprehend. For example, students are usually able to recognize colors, pictures and common symbols. This type of environmental print is an excellent starting point for children to interact within an online environment. In addition, curricular activities can be delivered in an attractive fashion through a typical Web site accessed by the teacher or other adult.
In many instances, online kindergarten curriculum is too difficult for students to independently work with. Either there is too much text, a busy background or too much chaos happening on the page for a child to distinguish between what is curricular and what is for aesthetic reasons. My dream site would have little or no words and could be easily interpreted by a typical student with basic computer skills. It would be a simplistic student-driven site with adult modeling and supervision. The first step is to show students the importance of computer skills, and emphasize that literacy isn't necessary to understand, enjoy and learn from the Internet.
Once students have a foundation of basic computer skills, and have been introduced to the Internet through Web games and positive exploratory activities, the formation of the learning community can begin. A kindergarten learning community design and model are unlike traditional learning communities. First and foremost, students' full names, photographs and identities must not be part of the community for safety precautions.
So, how d'es a community build without the identity of its members? One idea is for students to take on group roles instead of individual roles. For example, the "Red Group" could cooperatively create a response for the learning community and post their work as a group instead of individually. Almost all activities in a traditional kindergarten classroom take place in small groups anyway. During classroom group time, students could cooperatively work on their team project that's going to be posted in the learning community. Another option to tackle the identity issue is to have each student act anonymously. The content and the quality of educational value would still be present in the learning community, even though all posts and submissions should be by anonymous individuals.
Other differences include the format and type of posts. Because lots of children cannot independently read and write, many posts should be in picture format, such as digital graphics, student drawings or photographs. It is also important to remember that just because children can't read words d'esn't mean they can't recognize pictures or comprehend what they see.
My vision of a kindergarten learning community revolves around a national and/or worldwide kindergarten student forum on the Web. Teachers and parents could assist their students to respond to topics of interest that center on curriculum and content prevalent to the kindergarten grade level. A sample activity might be for cooperative student groups to create a literary response to a popular children's book. Then, each group would post their content to a visual forum for other children to read and, in turn, respond to. This would be a modification of a traditional discussion board for students with limited literacy skills. In this vision, students are able to interact with students from other schools, geographic locations and various backgrounds. The level of educational value would be limitless in such an environment. Activities such as these address grade-level standards, while simultaneously allowing students to interact with technology.
But, the vision of a kindergarten learning community is not enough. The technology, design and content are all integral parts of this master plan. Teachers alone cannot create such an environment. A partnership between teachers, parents, students and publishers needs to take place in order to build the virtual learning community. "Childhood educators need to be prepared to use technology to benefit children, because technology plays such a significant role in American life today" (Skeele and Stefankiewicz 2002).
Technology has taken the elementary classroom by storm, making it imperative that students be given ample opportunity to enjoy and challenge themselves in the technological world. "Only when computers are integrated into the curriculum as a vital element for instruction and are applied to real problems for a real purpose, will children gain the most valuable computer skill — the ability to use computers as natural tools for learning" (Davis and Shade 1994). All elementary teachers, parents and publishers must unite to create optimal online learning communities for students. Together we will build and mold the future learning experiences for all children.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Teachers — Preschool, Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle and Secondary." U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, D.C. [cited 2 November 2002]. Online: http://stats.bls.gov/oco/ocos069.htm.
Davis, B.C. and D.D. Shade. 1994. "Integrate, Don't Isolate! Computers in the Early Childhood Curriculum." Kidsource Online. December [cited 2 November 2002]. Online: http://www.kidsource.com/kidsource/content2/integrate.computers.html.
Skeele, R. and G. Stefankiewicz. 2002. "Blackbox in the Sandbox: The Decision to Use Technology With Young Children With Annotated Bibliography of Internet Resources for Teachers of Young Children." Educational Technology Review: Vol. 10, No. 2 [cited 2 November 2002]. Online: www.aace.org/pubs/etr/issue3/skeele.cfm.
This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.