116 kindergartners last year participated in an experiment at a school in Los Angeles with "blended learning," where students learn from computers as well as teachers, writes Jill Barshay at the Hechinger Report.
Results from the trial were so promising that school administrators have decided to continue the use of computers in kindergarten classrooms, and they expect computer use to expand throughout the KIPP charter-school network of 109 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
"The early indications are that this is replicable in future kindergarten classrooms and, as we grow, into higher grades," says Richard Barth, chief executive of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Foundation, which supports the KIPP model of extended school days, a longer school year and frequent standardized tests to measure progress.
Computer instruction in kindergarten classrooms can be controversial, writes Barshay.
"It is occasionally used by some teachers as a supplement, but it's rarely used every day to substitute for traditional teacher instruction of the littlest learners. Still, KIPP Empower is among a growing number of schools that are embracing technology-infused approaches to teaching and learning. Rocketship Education, another national network of charter schools, is putting its kindergarteners in front of computers, too."
Advocates of blended learning say it holds the promise of offering engaging, individualized computer instruction that allows children to move at their own pace.
And, as Barshay points out, at a time when school budgets are being slashed nationwide, the new model at KIPP could help educators manage larger classes.
At KIPP Empower, principal Mike Kerr devised a complicated school-wide rotation where children are on laptops inside their classrooms twice a day for roughly half an hour each time. He says the computers allow him to "preserve the small-group instruction that he considers critical to student success". As a result, students who started the year behind their peers graduated from kindergarten on track.
Kerr says the blended approach led 95 percent of his kindergarteners to score at or above the national average in math after the first year, while 96 percent scored at or above it in reading.
However, due to considerable controversy over the validity of standardized tests at the kindergarten level, it's hard to assess the success, despite the encouraging early results. The state of California doesn't even test its public school children until the second grade, so there are no data for comparison. And because Kerr's test results reflect only one year with this particular group of students, it's unclear whether he can replicate the success, writes Barshay.
Even Barth remains cautious:
"This technology in the hands of an entirely different group of adults may not produce near the results that Mike and his team produced," he says. "There is a good chance it wouldn't."
He added that it would be "naÃ¯ve" to think "that five-year-olds are just going to walk in a computer lab and be inspired and all of a sudden make these great gains."
Still, one other KIPP school in the L.A. area has already adopted parts of Kerr's digital learning model for the current academic year and two KIPP schools that are scheduled to open in the fall of 2012 are planning to do so as well, writes Barshay.