Future Tense

Kindergarten in the Computer

“Online education” for elementary schoolers doesn’t mean kids will sit alone in front of a screen all day.

Kids on computers.
Who says computer-assisted education is an anti-social exercise?

Photo by Fiona Watson/iStockphoto.

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.

The best teachers already integrate this into their classrooms intuitively; they seem to have a sixth sense for the precise moment when little Felicia got lost in the intricacies of long division. But most kids, alas, aren’t lucky enough to have great teachers every year in every subject. Computers can help simulate or supplement that experience.

If it works, the model may slowly spread through KIPP schools, with the goal of getting more kids learning more material for less money. And there are signs that it’s working: Last year, 36 percent of the school’s incoming kindergarteners were reading at a proficient or advanced level. By the end of the year, that figure was 96 percent.

Another model, Rocketship Education, has been around a little bit longer. Founded in 2006, the San Jose-based K-5 operator serves up a school day that is 25 percent online and 75 percent offline. When kids are working on the computers, they are nudged and assisted by monitors, not certified teachers. The youngest kids get math lessons from DreamBox, in which a talking reptile helps them understand concepts like greater than/less than. Because kids aren’t in traditional classrooms all day long, Rocketship can save money on facilities—classes meet in funky prefab units. Rocketship schools are about $500,000 cheaper to run than their traditional counterparts. The nonprofit uses that money to do things like pay teachers about 20 percent more than market rates—as schools figure out how to best use new online tools, it’s crucial to attract top talent—and invest in more schools.

When computers take the pressure off, not only can teachers spend more time helping kids, but kids can also help one another. Nearly everyone has had the experience of being shushed in classroom for being part of a side conversation that had a legit educational purpose. (“What was that trick again for multiplying by 9?”) Blended learning makes room for some of those ordinary human interactions in a way that a command-and-control traditional classroom simply can’t.

“It’s something I don’t think many who implement blended learning foresee ahead of time, but the new arrangement allows teachers far more time to work one-on-one and in small, manageable groups with students and for students to peer tutor each other and work on richer projects applying what they have learned together,” says Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute, which has published several reports on blended learning, including one that describes 40 different models already out there.

There are a few policy tweaks that could help get more kids into blended-learning environments and help speed the process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t, including getting rid of funding formulas that allocate money based on “seat time”—literally the amount of time spent in a chair in a classroom and performance measured on expected accomplishments for a September-to-June school year. Student-to-teacher ratio requirements also stop making sense in an environment when kids are being guided and coached by quasi-teachers facilitating online learning. Many states also have caps on the number of students who can enroll in a particular online program, which scare off potential innovators and investors in the field.

Far from being labs full of pale, lonely kids lit by LED screens, KIPP and Rocketship classrooms are masses of hollering, tumbling, tiny humanity. Kids bounce from working solo at computer kiosks to chattering with their friends to having serious tête-à-têtes with authority figures. If that sounds a lot like your day at the office, it’s no coincidence. School has always been a cartoon approximation of the adult world, but somewhere along the line, the model got outdated. Blended learning brings classrooms back in line with the world of college and white-collar employment these schools are so desperately hoping their kids will someday enjoy..