Online Preschool? Surely you jest.

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I was once called an education technology pioneer, probably because there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try at least once if it seemed like it might be a good fit for my students. Drawing on my experience in the private sector, and as an Instructional Technology Specialist in public schools, I embraced the idea that technology was a tool and there was a core of programming that should be in every student’s technology toolbox.

This article, An Online Preschool Closes a Gap But Exposes Another, published in the New York Times, however, indicates to me that educational technology has gone too far.

Briefly, the article tells of less-affluent communities who are embracing a Pre-School curriculum developed by Waterford. You can learn more about the mission of this non-profit here and read more about their partnerships.

While “preschool for all” should be must be a priority for US education, replacing a face-to-face preschool with screen time and 15 minutes of technology programming bothers me. I agree, every child should have access to preschool. As an early grade educator, I recognize that the fact that many communities that cannot and do not offer a quality preschool program puts some young children at a disadvantage which is difficult to overcome.

For some communities, offering universal preschool education through public schools is a matter of economics. There just isn’t adequate public funding for the public schools to offer preschool programs to every family wanting to send a child to preschool. Community budgets are strapped, and there are as many reasons for short funds as there are preschoolers, so community leaders do as the mayor in Fowler, California has done: offer a freebie program for online preschool access.

While I understand that this may seem like a good idea on the surface, it is not. In an effort to ensure every child can read by Grade 3, academics are being foisted onto 4 year olds. That is wrong.

The question is: Just what should a preschool program look like? Should a preschool be 15 minutes of drill and kill on a computer? Who is deciding which computer-aided skills are taught? I ask this because I was stunned to discover the Waterford program teaching silent letters as a phonics skills appropriate for preschoolers. When I actively taught Grade 2, “i+gh” for example was a second grade skill, not a preschool/pre-reading skill.

Preschool, in my opinion, should be heavily weighted toward teaching children to get along with each other, to share and take turns, and to learn appropriate group social behaviors. Preschoolers should also be allowed to learn by experiences; those experiences are important to everything that comes later in learning. Preschool children need to form a strong, compassionate, relationship with the adults teaching them. A positive preschool experience sets the stage for lifelong learning attitudes. These are the things a 15-minute daily online preschool program can never provide.

Our education leaders, in fact all of us, need to step up efforts to make an affordable universal preschool experience available to all who would like one, and stop relying on questionable “free” software to fill in the gap.

Adventures in Technology

It was a chance discussion that brought it on. My sister, a newly minted teacher from Oregon, pointed me to a blog written by one of her instructional technology professors, Barry Jahn. It was the post on an $80 SmartBoard that caught my interest.

Working in cash-strapped urban school districts generally means technology is way down on the list of priorities.  I have two iMacs in my classroom – 1 is nearly 10 years old and no longer can be updated; the other newer model (3 years old) is shared by my students and me and now has been given over entirely to the students. Getting a picture here?

So I am always on the look-out for some technology applications that I can a) afford and b) use meaningfully. As a former instructional technology specialist I firmly stand on the side of tech teachers who think technology should be one of the tools students use — not some stand-alone flash-in-the-pan.

So when the idea of making a SmartBoard out of a Wii-mote appeared, I was intrigued. I already had the Wii-mote — gathering dust as those things are apt to do. I had my old Dell XPS laptop that I was in the process of designating for use in school as “my” computer.  I had a projector already in the classroom. So all I needed was a bluetooth dongle, the software, and an infrared pen.  Sounds easy – right.

Well not so fast. There is Murphy’s Law to consider here – if anything can possibly go wrong it does (and did).  First I needed to get past the hurdle of getting my Dell to connect to the school’s network. Can I tell you that Fort Knox does not have such stringent security?

Then the bluetooth was not plug-and-play technology; that took about a week to figure out the ONE WAY it would recognize my Dell and the Wii-mote. The projector and Dell had a little tussle with each other and wouldn’t “talk”. And finally, it turns out WHERE you place the Wii-mote has a lot to do with whether or not the pen gets seen by the system and can be calibrated.

Oh and the software, no longer free – but a free-trial, didn’t much care for working either. It felt like every hurdle that was overcome had another one waiting to take its place in the line of “technology prevention”. It probably didn’t help that I truly was trying to do this on the cheap by using my 8-year-old laptop.

However, persistence paid off and 2 months later I have a SmartBoard. I rolled it out with my students this week when we introduced the concept of similes with the students, using an already made SmartBoard file from Smart Exchange. Even though the calibration on the pen still needs a tweak, the silly thing worked. And honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had an easier time getting kids to understand the concept of figurative language.

A perfect reason to use technology in the classroom! Can’t wait to find some others.