Preschoolers online

Via a site called eSchool News comes this article, “More preschoolers going online.” Here are the leading paragraphs:

Before they can even read, nearly one out of every four children in preschool is learning a skill that even some adults have yet to master: using the internet. Some 23 percent of children in nursery school–kids ages 3, 4, or 5–have gone online, according to an Education Department (ED) report. By kindergarten, 32 percent have used the internet, typically under adult supervision.

The numbers underscore a trend in which the largest group of new users of the internet are kids ages 2 to 5. These figures have important implications for school systems, which must adjust their methods of instruction to accommodate an increasingly tech-savvy generation of new students, experts say.

I have some first-hand experience with this with my son, who is now 7, and his school. It probably isn’t surprising around our house, but Will has been on the computer since he was quite tiny, either in my lap or in his mother’s.

And last year, I did some volunteer work in Will’s first grade class, where they had a little mini “computer lab” of five or so older machines in the corner. I came in once a week for an hour or so and, when they were working with the computers, I helped the kids play some little educational games. This experience spoke to the opening paragraphs of this article in good and bad ways.

On the one hand, I was surprised that just about all of the kids had some basic computer literacy: most of them could effectively use the mouse, they understood the concept of clicking on links or other things on screen, and some of them could handle the menus for things like MS Word. That might not sound like much, but these kids were 6, and these are skills that, 10 or so years ago, many many college students didn’t possess. And I’m not just talking about the “rich white kids;” Will’s school is quite diverse in terms of race and the income level of the students, and the students from less privileged backgrounds handled the computers well, too.

On the other hand, computers and instructional technology had a tiny tiny role in Will’s first grade, and I think the same is true for his second grade. The teachers don’t know how to use what they have effectively, they equipment they have is pretty old, and the “educational experience” with the classroom computers seemed to me to be limited to educational “games” where the object of the game, at least from the point of view of these kids, is to click on stuff as fast as you can. I did a review last year of Todd Oppenhemier’s The Flickering Mind, a book that I found to be “problematic” at best, but I do agree with him (sort of) that integrating technology into teaching shouldn’t be a priority in elementary schools. At least under the current circumstances.

As the technology gets better and teachers have a better idea about what to do with them, that will change. But just because kids are used to computers and can play games with them doesn’t mean they necessarily know how to really “use” them, and it doesn’t mean that they are using/engaging in technology in meaningful ways.

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