Don't Forget the Little People:
A Vision for an Online Learning Community for Kindergarten
by Jaclyn Scott
Would you set your Kindergarten child alone in front of the television with the clicker to independently channel surf? 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. Children need guidance and modeling from adults. So, before I entail my vision of a learning community for kindergarten students with you, we must all agree that children need adult (either parent 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 precedent for the years to follow. A kindergarten classroom's setup, procedure, and curriculum provides students with a balance of rigorous academic standards and appropriate developmental experiences. A typical kindergarten student entering school does not have reading readiness skills or independent writing skills. So the question becomes, how can it be possible to have a virtual learning community in an environment with children who do not read or write? I believe that with appropriate modeling, structure, and support it is possible for 4 and 5 year old children 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." (Teachers 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, they can read and comprehend other forms of material. For example, students are usually able to read color, pictures, and common symbols (like the McDonald's logo). This type of environmental print is an excellent starting point for children to interact with in an online environment. With clever planning, curricular activity can be delivered in an attractive fashion through a typical website accessed by the teacher or other adult. In many instances, "kindergarten" curriculum presented online is much too difficult for students to work with independently. Either there is too much text, a busy background, or too much chaos happening on the page for a child distinguish between what is curricular and what is for esthetic purposes.
For my purpose, I would design a simplistic site that would be student driven with adult modeling and supervision. My "dream" site would have few or no words, and it would be easy to interpret by a typical student with basic computer skills. This beginning step would introduce students to the importance of computer skills and highlight that (reading) literacy isn't a necessary skill for being able 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 Internet games and positive exploratory activities), the formation of the learning community can begin. A kindergarten learning community design and model would be unlike traditional learning communities. First and foremost, students' full names, photographs, and identities would not be displayed to the community for safety precautions.
So, how does a community build without identity of its members? There are several options. One would be for students to take on group identities instead of using individual names. 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 face-to-face kindergarten classroom take place in small groups. During classroom group time, students could cooperatively work on their group project to be posted in the learning community.
Another option to remedy the identity issue is to have each individual student post anonymously. The content and the quality of educational value would still be present in the learning community even though all posts and submissions would be by anonymous individuals.
Another difference between a Kindergarten learning community and a typical learning community would be the format and type of posts. Because many Kindergarten children cannot yet read and write independently, many posts will be in picture format. The pictures could be digital graphics, student drawings, or photographs. It is important to remember that, because children can't read words doesn't mean they can't read pictures or comprehend what they visualize.
My vision of a Kindergarten learning community revolves around a national and/or worldwide kindergarten student forum that would reside on the WWW. Teachers and parents could assist their students to respond to topics of interest that would center around curriculum and content prevalent at the Kindergarten level.
A sample activity would be for cooperative student groups to create a literary response to a popular children's book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Each group could post their picture, writing, or both, to a visual forum for other children to read and 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 this would address grade-level standards and simultaneously allow students to interact with technology.
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 curriculum publishers needs to take place 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 & Stefankiewicz, 2001).
With technology surrounding us and taking us by storm in the elementary classroom, it is 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).
I challenge all elementary teachers, parents and publishers to band together to create optimal online learning communities for their students. Together we will create and mold the future learning experiences for all children.
BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS. Teachers-Preschool, Kindergarten,
Elementary, Middle, and Secondary. US Department of Labor.
http://stats.bls.gov/oco/ocos069.htm (accessed 2 November 2002).
DAVIS, BERNADTTE C., D.D. SHADE. (1994). Integrate, Don't Isolate! Computers in the Early Childhood Curriculum. ERIC Digest 376991. Kidsource Online http://www.kidsource.com/kidsource/
content2/integrate.computers.html (updated 10 April 2000, accessed 2 November 2002).
SKEELE, R, & G. STEFANKIEWICZ (2001). 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: International Forum on Educational Technology Issues & Applications. Vol. 10, No. 2, 2002. http://www.aace.org/pubs/etr/issue3/skeele.cfm (updated 22 October 2002, accessed 2 November 2002).
Browse through the current discussions on the Kindergarten Chatboard...