This article emerges from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies and their effects on policy and society. On Thursday, Aug. 9, Future Tense will host an event called “Getting Schooled by a Third Grader: What Kids’ Gaming, Tweeting, Streaming and Sharing Tells Us About the Future of Elementary Education” in Washington, D.C. To learn more and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.
The notion of online education for the Crayola set can strike adults as absurd. But for kids, even little ones, it’s the idea ignoring computers all day that sounds crazy. After all, if you ask a third grader to list his favorite things, “doing stuff on the computer” will rank high, probably somewhere between race cars and string cheese.
What most people envision when they think of online education—a college or high school student sitting at a computer all day at home, perhaps with minimal parental guidance—isn’t viable for the vast majority of families with young kids. Warehousing is a dirty word in education circles, but the truth is that it must be part of the package. Kids need somewhere to go during the day, preferably to hang out with other kids. They also need a bunch of adults there to keep them from killing one another and help them learn something.
But those requirements leave a lot of room for experimentation. And one of the most fruitful avenues is blended learning, in which kids do some of their schoolwork in a traditional classroom, but then do real educational heavy lifting with the help of online tools.
One of the biggest brands in educational innovation is KIPP, the system of charter schools that caters primarily to poor kids in tough neighborhoods. KIPP’s results are impressive, with standardized test scores well above comparable schools and astonishingly high college matriculation rates.
But in the midst of the country’s most photogenic and terrifying budget crisis, California has repeatedly rejiggered school-funding formulas, effectively cutting funding to a new KIPP school in South Los Angeles by $200,000, which pushed classroom sizes well above KIPP’s preferred 20. So in an effort to maintain the individual-attention model that has made KIPP famous, this L.A. program decided to try something newer, cheaper, and possibly better.
The K-4 school, dubbed KIPP Empower (in keeping with the cheesy inspirational lexicon of the Knowledge Is Power Program family), opened its doors in 2010 with classrooms that contained 28 to 30 kindergarteners and 15 computers each. The population of the new school is pretty KIPP typical: Ninety-nine percent of the kids are black or Hispanic, and 92 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Each KIPP Empower student logs at least an hour of screen time a day, rotating between computers and small-group sessions with a traditional teacher. With half the kids working at their own pace on computers, the classroom size is effectively reduced to 15, an reasonably intimate environment for teachers and kids to interact.
Since KIPP Empower uses several different curriculum providers and kids aren’t great at remembering their logins (ElmoRocks12? Ilovemymommy42?), the school is working with the for-profit firm Education Elements to develop a unified launch pad. It’s pretty clever, actually. Kids click on a picture of their teacher, a picture of themselves, and then a password picture. After that, they can dig into a reading tutorial from iStation or an estimation game from Compass Learning with an animated chef and a table full of cinnamon buns.
Meanwhile, teachers have a dashboard with data from all the different instruction programs for each student. The system flags trouble spots with an alphabet app—Jayden is having trouble with difference between “C “and “K,” for instance—that might be easy to miss when the whole class is chorusing the alphabet together. It also lets kids breeze quickly through the concepts they grasp quickly.