Classroom of the Future
There is ongoing debate as to what role technology should play in the classroom. The concerns become ever greater when researchers discuss early childhood education.
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We are exploring the possibilities for the Classroom of the Future by partnering with students and teachers at The Center for Young Children in College Park, Maryland and Yorktown Elementary School in Bowie, Maryland.
The aim of this five-year National Science Foundation funded project is to foster innovation in both the development and use of new educational technologies. Research in the area of educational technologies generally focuses on the impact technologies can have on children and teachers, as opposed to the impact that children and teachers can have on the development of new technologies. We believe both the impact of the teachers and students and the impact of the technologies are critical to our understanding of how technology shapes our learning environments. It is not enough to think about how many desktops or laptops should be brought into the classroom or how we can train teachers to use them. We need to ask broader questions: Why should technologies be integrated into the curriculum? How can children and teachers share what they know about their technology needs? How can we change technology to support educational experiences in the classroom? How does the use of technology change our learning environments?
The goals of the Classroom of the Future Project fall into two categories: technological and educational. Therefore, we expect the outcomes of our research will include a better understanding of the input and output devices necessary for children to use technology which is not relegated to the desktop, as well as a method to effectively use these technologies in the classroom. Our team anticipates developing new “embedded” technologies that can be a seamless part of any physical object in schools. Children’s activity patterns will be supported with technologies that suggest active exploration, experimentation, and play. In terms of educational impact, we expect to understand how technology can support learning even in early childhood education environments. We will explore what technology infusion methods need to be developed by kindergarten teachers in a technology-rich learning environment.
Technology is becoming a visible part of children’s lives. From classroom settings to home use, computers are now a part of how children learn, play, and communicate. A recent national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation of over 1,000 children ages two to seven revealed that 62% of children have computers at home. According to the National School Boards Foundation, the most common reason parents cite for buying home computers is their children's education. Our schools are even being judged based on the ratio of students to computers. This ratio has been used to determine the ability of schools to provide “quality” education. Computers are an important part of children’s lives, even those young enough to attend pre-school.
What is not as clear is when children should have access to these technologies. Educators are also questioning what technologies children should explore. Many doubt whether placing a computer “box” on a desktop is an appropriate way to spend time with a young active child. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, educators should study the effects of technology and use technology if it can benefit children.
There is a clear mandate from the education community to question what technologies get made and how they are used with children. At the same time, technologists need to question what educational strategies their teaching tools promote. Today there is an emphasis placed on learning models that support the active construction of knowledge and skills. There has been a shift from educational environments which support the passive acquisition of isolated facts, to environments in which the learner actively explores the world and constructs their own internal models of understanding. From an early age, children physically explore by building with blocks, digging in sandboxes, and drawing new ideas. Activities such as these support the development of skills which include: creative problem-solving, collaborative learning, expressive design, and conceptual abstraction.
Understand the unique needs of young children (ages 3-6) in learning environments
Develop new technologies in partnership with children and teachers
Develop strategies for teaching in a technology-infused early childhood education environment
Understand the impact these technologies can have on young children and their early childhood educators
Understand when technology is an appropriate catalyst for early childhood education
Develop innovative technologies that fully support user needs by involving the user in the design process.
This five year project will focus on the following objectives:
Year 1: Understand existing kindergarten classrooms
Year 2: Complete prototyping activities
Year 3: Study changes in teachers and children
Year 4: Make technology available to the public and continue technology use in classrooms
Year 5: Publish final research findings
Our research began in January of 2001. Since that time, we have observed all of the classrooms at the CYC and the four kindergarten classrooms at Yorktown Elementary School. Our goal has been to understand the activity patterns of the children and teachers and to understand how they use technology. We have conducted two sets of interviews at the CYC and one set of interviews at Yorktown. In addition, we have had several meetings with the teachers at both schools. Together we have discussed new approaches to integrating technology into the curriculum. Our team introduced software applications that the teachers can use with their classes. We are now analyzing the data we have collected.
We began a six-week-long pilot design team with a group of six five-year old children at the CYC. Based on this experience we believe that children as young as five years old can be partners in the design of new technologies.
During these sessions we tested current technology, wrote and sketched notes and built low-tech prototypes. The goal of this pilot program was not to build any new technology but to see if the children could view themselves as design partners. We were particularly interested to see if children could take an active role in the group by expressing their thoughts on the design process and on the technologies they tested. Working with younger children made it necessary to adapt the design process that we use with our seven to eleven year old partners.
Kindergarten Design Partner Activities
An example design activity we did with the kindergarten team is a re-design of MusicBlocks. MusicBlocks is a toy that enables very young children to create their own compositions by manipulating and rearranging physical blocks. First each child used MusicBlocks and decided what she/he liked and didn't like about it. Then, each child sketched what they thought MusicBlocks should be like in the future. Below are sticky notes one child made detailing what she liked and didn't like about MusicBlocks.
Below are sketches that two five-year-old children made in their journals. The drawings show what the children would like the "MusicBlocks of the Future" to be like.
Our kindergarten team also worked with robots as a design exercise. First they played with our robot that helps children tell stories and then they played with ToyMax's commercial R.A.D. robot which can pick up and move small objects. Again, we wrote sticky notes about what we did and did not like about the robots. Then the children made sketches of what they would like their robots to be able to do in the future which the adults annotated. Below are two children's sketches and their annotations.
Design Process with Kindergartners
Working with the kindergarten design partners at the CYC taught us that our design methods had to be adapted to fit the unique needs of kindergartners. For example, we made design tasks easier for the kindergarteners by asking them to write only two sticky notes with their likes and dislikes, as opposed to three that our seven to twelve year-old design partners write. We have found it most effective when the kindergarten children drew on the sticky notes and the adults transcribed the children's descriptions of their drawings. We also adapted the design process for young children by asking them to sketch their ideas with pen and paper before they built low tech prototypes. This helped them to focus on the design process. It is challenging for kindergartners to stay focused, therefore, we met for only two hours a week (our lab design team meets for three hours a week).