Blended learning within early childhood education is an interesting concept; how can a student who lacks the ability to read and write be part of a virtual community?
While many of the children at the primary level lack the ability to read, incorporating technology enhanced learning is still a reality. Teachers can enhance an existing curriculum, improve communication with the school community and devise forums which reinforce & enrich the early childhood education. Even though adaptations must occur in order for e-learning to be successful with young children, primary students "should not be excluded from the virtual learning world simply because of their age and developmental levels" (Scott; 2003).
When the topic of blended learning arises people often think of students meeting within a classroom setting and then continue the learning experience online in the comfort of their home. However within primary classrooms, blended learning can be more comparable to technology integration; serving the class environment as a teaching aide. Since many primary classrooms now have a technology center which can include anywhere from one to half a dozen computers e-learning is becoming a reality. While this is not the true definition of blended learning, this type of face-to-face instruction followed by independent activities based on individual student needs is the building blocks for higher level blended learning.
Blended Education: Application Examples
An overview of the primary classroom sees children learning to read, beginning to add, and exploring numerous topics for the first time. Most classrooms are brimming with children, lacking an aide and overloaded with information. By investigating each subject within a primary classroom, teachers can envision how blended learning can be a real part of early childhood education.
Incorporation of technology into the primary classroom can be as a simple as bringing the students to a website which better illustrates a story explored in class. For example, if a class reads "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" written by Bill Martin, Jr. to further extend upon the story a primary teacher may set a website such as Animal Vocabulary on a computer in the technology center.
Language arts within a primary classroom can be enhanced with a learning community such as The Monster Exchange. This website has the children collaborating with children all over the United States and beyond to work on descriptive writing. Children draw a picture of a monster and write a description of the creature in class, the teacher inputs the picture and description into the website. Classrooms connect with another class, read one anothers' descriptions, and then try to recreate the original monster. Pictures are set up side by side in the Monster Gallery for comparison. Children can access the monster website at home and work collaborately with their families.
A primary teacher knows all too well that purchasing enough math manipulatives for the whole class can be quite expensive and often not a reality for every school. Technology and blended learning offer a solution. If an educator works with his/her class on a lesson about patterns, he/she can direct students to practice the lesson on Virtual Library of Math Manipulatives. To begin this lesson the teacher would explore patterns in numerous ways using varying sets of manipulatives to illustrate patterns; however when it comes to having a set of coins or buttons for each student this might not be a feasible. Solution: if a teacher uses this website within a lab setting in which all the students are using a computer, children can play with patterns independently, make mistakes, ask questions and the best part no buttons, coins or colored bears to clean up.
Often time history is neglected because the basic skills often take top priority in the primary classroom. Using e-learning is a great way to further explore topics such as history. One very interactive website explores George Washington. During the month a February a 3rd grade teacher, for example, can set this website up as a favorite within her computer center. Each child can be required to view the site and make a comment in the notebook next to the computer. Those comments can later be shared as a class.
Since science resources are so abundant online, we can look at blended learning from a different angle. A second grade class designed this Space Website. After learning about space in class, the children worked within groups to develop a virtual learning area made for children in primary grades. The students and teacher took what they knew, blended it into technology and now other students can benefit.
Blended communication could be the most successful form for the new generation of parents. Quite often information relayed to a primary student quite often does not make it to the ears of a parent. Besides traditional classroom visits, parent/teacher conferences and telephone calls, many teachers of all students are realizing that reaching parents through emails, websites and discussion boards are more fruitful in contacting parents. Designing an online community where teachers can post and explain information about their teaching methods can help clarify classroom procedures. With the same regard, parents can ask questions, review announcements, and become an active part of the classroom through a virtual environment. Searching within Yahoo groups, numerous groups can be discovered which join parents and education groups. “Some schools are exploring the use of video conferencing and 'streamed' (stored for viewing at home) videos to promote parent understanding and involvement in student learning" (Starr, 2005).
This blended communication is even opening up a place for parent input to class learning. Teachers can design questions through online questionnaires from places like SurveyKey. Educators can ask parents about issues with in the class, specific needs and concerns. As parents respond, a teacher can make adjusts and improvements. Once again this is extremely important within younger students, as they often have a difficult time expressing experiences which they may have in class.
Reinforcement & Enrichment
Teachers at every level grapple with the difficulty of addressing the needs of each child within a classroom, however this challenge is extremely prevalent within the early childhood classroom as students are exploring the building blocks of education. This challenge can be aided with blended learning.
Studies have been surfacing for years that foreign language instruction should begin at the elementary level instead of postponing that learning until high school, however due to budgetary concerns, foreign language classes seem like a frill (Walker, 2004). By teaching another language to young children, we give them the greatest chance to fully absorb a second language. If an elementary school does not offer a foreign language classes, teachers and parents can still expose primary students to another language through technology. From simple websites which vocalize the French Alphabet to websites which allow the students to progress through activities to learn Spanish.
Within primary grades a child many times needs extra practice. The web has the amazing ability to give kids extra help in a way different from group classroom instruction, maybe in a form in which a child learns better. For example, if a teacher has introduced new letter sounds and she/he notices a student is struggling, the student can either use the computer center to practice or a Phonics website address can be send home for parents to use as practice.
Adaptations for Blended Learning in Early Childhood Education
One major concern for young children on the Internet is safety. While students within upper grades understand the seriousness of broadcasting their personal information, often younger students are ignorant to that fact. In order to protect the identity of students, it is recommended that students work as a group. Since group work is quite prevalent within a primary classroom, it is very realistic that young children work as a group within a virtual learning environment, collaborating on answers to contribute. Students can work as a face-to-face group in the classroom, develop an answer and post the response within their virtual environment. Working as a group also alleviates the need to post responses using full names, pictures and other personal information, instead the children post as, for example, The Green Group.
The design of a virtual community needs to be adapted for the younger set. Since the literacy development varies greatly within grades K-2, sites should use pictures and common shapes to navigate through the information. As streaming video and digital voice technologies improve and are becoming more common site participation becomes more user friendly for those with limited reading skills. Responses within an online learning environment need to be configured with developmental needs in mind. Answers may need to be multiple choice or give the contributor the ability to "draw" an answer.
Sites which are made specifically for online classes such as Moodle or other course management systems are not appropriate for the early childhood environment because "younger students may not have the study skills, reading abilities and self-discipline to fare well without a class to go to"(Russo, 2001). That does not mean they need to be excluded from the virtual community, we just need to think of these years as their preparation for becoming part of a Brave New World of teaching.