Technology helps students think critically and become independent learners at a young age, say East Kingston's Principal Jim Eaves and Tech Coordinator Heather Reed.

Apr 05 2010

From the Get-Go: Teaching Students Technology from an Early Age

Elementary schools have begun to introduce technology to their youngest students, who now enter school already tech-aware.

Elementary schools have begun to introduce technology to their youngest students, who now enter school already tech-aware

By Wylie Wong

Is elementary school too early to introduce children to computers and other technology?

Not at East Kingston Elementary School in New Hampshire, where students start learning basic computer skills in kindergarten and every classroom is equipped with interactive whiteboards and digital cameras.

Elementary schools have begun to introduce technology to their youngest students, who now enter school already tech-aware

Is elementary school too early to introduce children to computers and other technology?

Not at East Kingston Elementary School in New Hampshire, where students start learning basic computer skills in kindergarten and every classroom is equipped with interactive whiteboards and digital cameras.

The school even uses technology in physical education class. During snowy winters, bundled-up students in snowshoes go geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunt game in which they tromp outdoors and use Global Positioning System de­­vices to find hidden items. The children learn mapping skills while they get their exercise.

“The goal is to help students become independent learners and have them think critically – technology is part of that,” says Heather Reed, East Kingston's tech coordinator. “It's doing research on their own, accessing all types of information, and knowing what is valid information.”

Early Introduction

Some school districts consider classroom technology appropriate for middle or high school students only. But a growing number of elementary schools such as East Kingston are testing that idea by introducing technology at a young age. Besides interactive whiteboards, elementary schools are taking advantage of document cameras and student response systems to liven up lectures and make learning more interactive and collaborative. Then there's the technology that students use independently – computers, applications such as Microsoft Office, and handheld devices such as iPods and Flip Video camcorders – that teachers incorporate into lessons.

Interactive whiteboards sold worldwide in 2009

Source: Futuresource Consulting

Educators say it's important to incorporate technology into the lower grades because most children entering school today are “Internet natives” – they have always had technology at home and have come to expect it wherever they go. Schools need to adapt and give students a multimedia experience, says East Kingston Principal Jim Eaves.

“Some teachers pooh-pooh technology and say kids are looking to be entertained,” Eaves says. “My answer to that is: So school is supposed to be painful? If kids are playing video games and are used to technology, then we better use technology tools to engage them and get them excited about learning.”

Because children need technology and web skills to succeed upon graduation, it's never too early to teach students tech skills, says Stein Brunvand, a University of Michigan-Dearborn assistant professor of educational technology who teaches a course in incorporating technology in elementary classrooms.

“With any skill, it's building a foundation,” Brunvand says. “Just like we don't expect children to show up in eighth or ninth grade and do algebra without doing math before, we can't expect students to be successful with technology without having some foundation.”

Educators say there's no specific type of technology that's easier to introduce to students first. In general, they can adapt and handle almost anything, says Keli Gustafson, principal at McLean Science/Technology Magnet Elementary School in Wichita, Kan. The important thing is to expose children to a variety of technologies and let them try them out, she says.

“Some teachers may be afraid that the kids can't do it, but they can. We've seen it,” Gustafson says. “We have kids in all socioeconomic backgrounds, and even if they've never had a computer, they can do it. It's all in your expectations. If you expect them to do it, they will do it.”

Livelier Lessons

East Kingston Elementary first introduced interactive whiteboards to teachers last year, and it's the first technology tool that all teachers have become excited about and want to integrate into their classrooms, Eaves says.

Primary school teachers who say the use of interactive whiteboards saves them time

Source: Survey of 561 teachers, Becta

“Within a month, people were saying, ‘This is awesome. We see the power of these.' There was a rumbling throughout the building about the excitement over these whiteboards and the way they could engage children,” he recalls.

The 4-by-6-foot PolyVision eno whiteboards are easy to set up, Reed says. The tech team mounts the boards on the wall and a projector onto the ceiling and then downloads software drivers to each teacher's notebook computer. When paired with a Bluetooth-enabled stylus pen, teachers can tap a few targets on the board to align the devices.

First-grade teacher Marne Dohrmann uses the eno two to three times a day in math, reading and science. With the whiteboard wirelessly connected to her notebook computer, she can show students online videos or visit websites. If the class is studying planets, for example, she can show a graphic of the Earth's rotation in the galaxy. When she checks out a mobile computing lab to teach the children computer skills, she projects her computer screen onto the whiteboard and walks them through a lesson.

“Instead of walking around to 17 kids and troubleshooting over and over again, I can display my computer and tell them to click on something and tell them what that is, and it's so much easier,” she says.

With RM Easiteach's interactive whiteboard software, Dohrmann designs her own interactive lessons using the software package's clipart, animation and Flash files. With the Bluetooth-enabled stylus, students write on the board, highlight items and move objects around. The technology is easy for both teachers and students to grasp and then use, she says.

“The whiteboard livens the pace of the lessons,” she says. “I have their attention. It's fun and exciting, and when they are excited, they absorb and learn more.”

Before the interactive whiteboard, Dohrmann manually wrote and drew her lessons on chart paper each day. Now she pulls up her lessons from her computer. She can even write new content on the whiteboards during class, save it and reuse it later.

At Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Technology Magnet School 76, Promethean interactive whiteboards also double as student response systems.

The technology lets teachers quiz students, get immediate feedback on student comprehension and keep students involved in class, says instructional support teacher Faith McKeithen.

With Promethean software, instructors can prepare multiple-choice questions in advance and students answer with a Promethean ActiVote response device. The results are immediately tabulated and shown on the whiteboard. If students have trouble with the questions, teachers know that they need to go over the materials again, explains Principal Mary L. Booker.

Try It Out

The school has integrated several technology tools aimed at engaging its youngest students. It's testing an interactive computing table, which lets pre-kindergartners do learning activities, such as manipulating shapes, letters and numbers, on a touchscreen computer. The children and the teacher like it, but the school is still determining whether to buy and deploy these systems, McKeithen says.

Saint Louis Priory School's Andrea Nunziante suggests using a simple rule of thumb for gauging whether a technology tool is age-appropriate: Try it before you buy it.

Photo: Jay Fram

Francis Scott Key teachers also use document cameras, technology that replaces overhead projectors. Instead of having to use transparencies as they would with projectors, document cameras let teachers project 3D objects, such as textbooks, onto a whiteboard or projector screen. They can also project paper, such as children's drawings, pictures and even images from under a microscope.

Document cameras can save the images, which means teachers can reuse the material for other classes. The technology has become quite popular in schools because it gives teachers more choice in what they project to the class, and it's more visually appealing to students, says Andrea Nunziante, director of technology at Saint Louis Priory School in Creve Coeur, Mo.

“Teachers used to spend a lot of time making and cleaning their transparencies,” he says.

Hands-On Computing

McLean Science/Technology Magnet Elementary has two regular computer labs and two mobile computing labs, including one with new netbooks. The school starts off kindergartners right away with keyboarding, typing, using CDs, and launching and exiting programs. By the ninth week, they are playing educational math and reading games, says Cheryl Bish, the school's tech paraprofessional.

As students' computer skills improve, McLean's teachers incorporate new applications and new devices, such as iPods and video cameras, into the curriculum. In first grade, for instance, the students take photos with digital cameras, and they start learning PowerPoint by using the photos to do storytelling, Bish says. By third grade, students take their state assessment tests on computers, and by fourth grade, they're manipulating data in Excel and building graphics. They also learn to do Internet research, write reports and publish their own newsletters.

“Our priority is to help them develop their technology skills. We've got kids using Excel, Word and Publisher. It's real-world stuff that they will use when they are out of school and start their careers,” McLean's Gustafson says.

The school's second- and fifth-grade classes have sets of iPods, which students use to bolster reading skills, she says. The students read book passages and record them, and then play back their recordings to go through the story again and improve reading comprehension. They can also read vocabulary words into the iPods and listen back to see if they pronounce them correctly. Fourth- and fifth-grade students also broadcast a weekly TV news show on campus. They write scripts in the computer lab, take pictures and learn to use video cameras and audio-video mixing equipment.

Elementary school educators say they have heard anecdotally that their early introduction of technology is paying off.

“We've heard from our middle schools that they can always identify the students that come from our school because the students are comfortable and have a good understanding of the technology,” Bish says. “It's always nice to hear that our efforts are paying off.”

The Tool that Fits

KAARPOT. That's how a kindergartner might spell “carpet.”

It's sweet and humorous – and a good lesson to remember when considering applications and tools to introduce technology to early learners in the classrooms.

Be aware of age-appropriate applications and tools, says Stein Brunvand, a University of Michigan-Dearborn educational technology professor who volunteers as a technology instructor at his children's elementary school. Some applications and tools are perfect for younger students, while others are simply too advanced.

Younger students aren't yet adept at reading or writing and typing on a keyboard, and this limits what teachers can do, says Brunvand. Start out using graphics-oriented software that lets students drag and drop items on the screen. For example, his second-grade class recently learned physical states and matter, so students use Kidspiration concept-mapping software to identify and select pictures that represent liquids and solids.

At the other end of the spectrum, East Kingston Elementary School Tech Coordinator Heather Reed points to minislates. She has found that these wireless handheld devices that let teachers and students write on interactive whiteboards from a distance are better for adept writers. The New Hampshire school has five and uses them for fourth- and fifth-graders. When students write on the slates with a stylus, it doesn't show what they are writing on the slates, so younger students in kindergarten or first grade have a hard time making the connection that what they are writing is appearing on the whiteboard, she says.

AVerMedia AVerPens are all-in-one devices that combine interactive whiteboard, minislate and student response system features. Rather than having to write on a minislate, students just “write” on their desks and the text appears on the projector screens. These are ideal for younger students, educators say.

The Junior School of Saint Louis Priory School recently tested the AVerPens with its seventh- and eighth-graders. They were too simple for that age group, but would be perfect for students in the primary grades, says the Creve Coeur, Mo., school's technology director, Andrea Nunziante. The software, he says, is geared toward younger children. One feature, for example, lets teachers split the screen in six parts, allowing students their own space on the board.

Trial and error is the way to go, Nunziante says. When a new tool comes out, buy a few or ask for a demo so you can see if it fits your students' technology and curriculum needs, which can be very age-dependent.

The AVerPens, combined with a document camera, are new products that essentially give schools interactive whiteboard functionality without the expense of buying an actual interactive whiteboard.

“It's a good technology. If you don't have an interactive whiteboard, it's an easier and cheaper way to go,” Nunziante advises.

<p>Jason Grow</p>

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