Well-integrated technology opens social networks for students and allows children to develop key social skills, according to two recent studies conducted by researchers at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Researchers X. Christine Wang and Cynthia Carter Ching have based both of their reports, titled “Social Construction of Computer Experience in a First Grade Classroom: Social Processes and Mediating Artifacts,” and “Digital Photography and Journals in a Kindergarten-First-Grade Classroom: Toward Meaningful Technology Integration in Early Childhood Education,” on the theoretical framework introduced by Lev Vygotsky.

Vygotsky’s theory states that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition, or the mental process of knowing–including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment.

As Wang and Ching explain, “from a Vygotskian perspective…the children are engaged in valuable social construction…of their classroom experience and culture by engaging with well-integrated technologies, such as computers or a digital camera.”

In their first study, supported by a dissertation grant awarded to Ching by the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, both researchers set out to investigate young children’s social experiences with a computer. The study was conducted over a span of one school year in a first grade classroom at a public school in a Midwestern town. Researchers used video, field notes, and interviews to capture information.

Students were mainly from working and middle-class families, and the average class size for first grade is 18 in the school and the district. There were 10 boys, six girls, two African-American children, and two Asian children. All students were between six and seven years old. There was one classroom teacher.

Most of the children had a computer at home, but two did not. Among those who used a computer at home, the children played educational games an average of 15-30 minutes per day.

There were two computers in the classroom. Computer 1 had an internet connection and a printer. It was a newer iMac and had current educational games such as Nanosaur and Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo. Computer 2, also a Mac, was older and did not have the newest games. Students mostly used Computer 1 and only used Computer 2 while waiting for Computer 1.

Although the teacher reported feeling comfortable using computers, she did not see herself using a computer in a “truly integrated way.” Therefore, there was no explicit computer curriculum, and the computers were used primarily as an enrichment, or free-choice, activity for students.

Students had choice-time for an hour each day, and student names were pulled randomly from a mug. The selected students would one by one put their names under the activity they chose. Activity choices included Computer 1, Computer 2, picture-taking, math enrichment, painting, writing, and reading. Only two students could use a computer at one time, and a timer was used to limit each student’s time on the computer to only five minutes. Those students not being the first to select computers as their first choice activity had to sign up on a waiting list and do other activities while waiting for their turns.

The researchers observed that every time free choice was offered, Computer 1 was always chosen first by every student in the class with no exceptions–even when new activities were introduced. Also, children crowded around Computer 1, while rarely did anyone play at Computer 2.

At first Wang and Ching believed that students did not want to use Computer 2 because it didn’t have as many interesting games, but after a peer debriefing, they found that “young children like to play together, and simply getting to play at Computer 1 was not their only motivation. Instead, playing at Computer 1 became a social event in which everyone was part of the group that tried to reach a higher level of the game.”

Both researchers observed how even though there was a “no watching” rule, students would break that rule in various ways: some students played on the carpet nearby and offered comments to the players, eventually coming over; some students would write their name on the waiting list, eventually coming over to the computer to watch and offer comments; and some students would play on Computer 2 to be closer to the action occurring at Computer 1. In fact, video footage showed that when the newer computer was occupied, 70 percent of the time more than two children clustered around that computer.

Also, according to the teacher’s rules, even though two students sat at a computer, student 1 was allowed to play the game while student 2 was only allowed to observe. However, seated players always worked together to accomplish the task of getting to higher levels in the game.

Wang and Ching found that the computer group, meaning the two seated players and the standing observers, had common goals: play the game to the highest level, minimize the teacher’s intervention, maximize playing time, have fun, socially belong to the group at the computer, and be good students in the classroom.

Seated players had two dominant goals: get to the highest level, and make sure no one infringed on personal play time.

When one of the seated players believed other students were breaking the rules, they would enforce the rules themselves with comments such as “wait your turn,” or “move away from here.” However, when the players found observer comments helpful, the players would enlist their help.

Overall, Wang and Ching found that the computer allowed children to solve tensions between their goals and the environment. To solve these tensions, students chose to invoke or ignore classroom rules and create new collaborative practices. The computer helped encourage social interaction and helped students learn how to accomplish group goals as well as personal goals.

“…Using technology in the classroom afforded . . . multiple opportunities for social and cognitive development via their continual negotiations,” explained Wang and Ching.

“Because most schools do not have enough computers for each student to use individually, especially in this grade level, young children must often work together. These ideas of spontaneous teamwork, awareness of others and yourself, as well as problem-solving are important to prepare children to become productive members in the increasingly technological and globalized world,” the researchers observed.

In Wang and Ching’s second study, they partnered with Mei-Li Shih and Yore Kedem of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over the course of one school year, they observed how students created and used digital photography journals to support social and cognitive reflection.

All the researchers wanted to know what kinds of reflections children would exhibit when making photo journals.

The study was conducted in a kindergarten/first grade classroom in a Midwestern town. There was one head teacher, two teaching assistants, and 25 students. Twenty-one students created a photo journal.

Using a digital camera, students were asked to document their daily school activities and created digital photo journals to represent their experiences. Downloading pictures to the computer and creating a photo journal was done with help from an adult who not only provided technical help, but encouraged children’s reflections about their photos by asking them to describe their photos and what the photos meant to them.

With the aid of an adult, students took turns on a daily basis to get their photos. No more than two days later, students created their journals on the computer–a single iMac equipped with iPhoto. At the end of the project, students displayed their journals to their families and peers at an open-house night.

Researchers took note of how students were using the camera to gain access to the classroom community in different ways. For example, during story time, one student with the camera went around and shot pictures of the book from over the teacher’s shoulder–something students without a camera were not allowed to do.

Also, although students at first focused on their friends and their teachers, they later began to shift to peripheral items and spaces, such as books, calendars, and empty areas of the classroom.

Students also took an active part in role playing. For example, the student with the camera would go to another student to take a photo. Without exchanging any instructions, the student in the photo would objectively explain what he or she was working on. Even if the two students were friends, the student in the photo treated the student with the camera as an objective photographer.

The researchers also noticed that even children who typically avoided the computers during choice time were drawn to seeing a friend working on the journal. Just like the computer in the first study, students would play near the computer during a student’s journal time, or around the computer offering comments on the photos.

During the journal-making process, students began to describe their photos in four different ways:
– Descriptive approach: Children would simply say what was on the screen
– Explanatory approach: Children articulated their own reasons behind taking or choosing pictures
– Situative approach: Children would relay the physical, temporal, or social context of the picture
– Interpretive approach: Children would either fill in details about the talk, thoughts, or feelings of the people in their photos, or refer to particular elements of their pictures to explain what was on screen.

The researchers reported that “the act of taking pictures served not only the purposes of documentation, visual literacy, and reflection, but also child empowerment. The students were able to use digital photography as a means to shift from their usual roles as restricted participants, and engage in sophisticated negotiations with their fellow students as photographic subjects and within the norms of classroom behavior.”

During this project, students became empowered, became more aware of the community around them, learned social roles, and became interested in their own personal goals as well as the goals of others.

Wang and Ching said both studies can offer educators insights: Teachers can use students’ interest in technology to help establish rules and norms. For example, because students helped to enforce and create rules around computer use, teachers might ask students which rules they think are good and why, as well as what other rules they think should apply. Engaging students in discussion will let students further consider complex social issues and share ownership of classroom behavior, the researchers said.

In both studies, Wang and Ching reported that technology can help educators by allowing them to see the classroom from a student perspective. By engaging students in discussion about computer usage, the teacher can collect feedback; by observing student journals, teachers can see what is most important to their students and how they view their environment.

“Because students’ use of digital cameras allows teachers to see the classroom world through children’s eyes,” explained Wang and Ching, “this activity may enable teachers to examine their own beliefs about children as learners and fellow participants in the learning environment–a necessary and often difficult step in the process of realizing student-centered technology integration.”

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X. Christine Wang

Cynthia Carter Ching