Digital kindergarten – a case study from Vermont (USA)
Last autumn, I was able to visit various institutions for children under 6 during a research trip to Massachusetts and Vermont (USA). I studied one kindergarten in Burlington (VT) more closely: I was able to sit in on and observe their activities and speak with staff, parents and children. Subsequently, I also looked at a range of documents produced by the children. I focused particularly on the use of digital media, especially the significance of social networks. This resulted in a fine, well-rounded case study illustrating the perspectives offered by digitalisation in early childcare institutions.
This work was underpinned by the theory of mediatisation, which also formed the foundation for several other research projects of mine: Krotz (2015) describes mediatisation as a metaprocess (similar to individualisation or globalisation, for example), in which media and the use of media fundamentally change communication, social relations, everyday life and actors’ identities. Thus mediatisation describes a fundamental cultural shift in which culture is not merely conveyed through media, but is altered and shaped by them. Against the backdrop of this process of change, I am concerned with examining how communication and action are changed by the media in the context of early childhood, too – and the Vermont case study aimed to examine precisely this.
What do 5-year-olds do with digital media in kindergarten?
First of all, it was very exciting for me to see how digital media are used in this kindergarten group. This list of key words summarises which media play a role:
- Kidblog http://kidblog.org/home/
- Seesaw http://web.seesaw.me
- Staff blog https://kindergartenlife.wordpress.com
- Google Forms
- Padlet https://padlet.com
The kindergarten’s technical equipment includes a computer, several tablets and a smartboard. Children use the abovementioned media to gather information on certain content using apps (when I was on site, they were learning about patterns), to document their work themselves (using photos, audio recordings and videos) and to make contact with their parents, other groups of children and people across the globe (“connecting globally”). The staff also used digital media to inform parents and enter into exchange with them.
What does the use of digital media lead to in the case study?
Links with other areas of life. The group of children is able to establish links with other areas of life through digital media. In particular, thanks to their representation in social networks the children are now present in their parents’ everyday lives and their work environment. The children are now present especially in their fathers’ worlds of work, as the fathers are able to find out what their children are doing at any given time via Twitter, Kidblog or Seesaw. The digital is interwoven with the world of kindergarten within the families’ worlds, too: in the evening, parents are able to ask what their children have been up to and the children are able to show pictures directly. This creates a sense of greater cohesion and a stronger sense of community. Overall, the boundaries of the kindergarten shift; it is no longer restricted to its own group space or the institution.
The quantity and quality of communication change. Due to the rise in opportunities for communication, the frequency of communication has also increased. In the kindergarten investigated here, the children post something visible to their parents around once a day; the staff posts something around once a week. The quality has changed, too: the media used enable an exchange between staff and parents; communication is no longer possible only in one direction (from staff to parents), but now goes in both directions. What is even more important: the children are no longer mere objects of communication (information ABOUT children), but themselves participate actively in communication, as they are able to post messages themselves (communication WITH children). Strongly visual media in particular offer new scope for children who are not yet able to write.
Appreciation for education processes. The fact that the children’s education processes are seen to be so interesting that they are documented and rendered accessible to a larger audience means that their value can be seen and experienced afresh. On the one hand, this expresses appreciation for the children’s achievements, while on the other hand it also draws attention to the teachers’ achievements.
Enthusiastic actors – despite challenges
For the individuals I interviewed, the kindergarten world changed by digital media is characterised by its increased visibility, transparency and community. Staff, children and parents enthusiastically described how they experienced this change. Of course, there is a price to pay for all this: on the one hand, there is the willingness to become involved with digital media and become proficient in handling them, as well as the time investment involved with this learning process and media use. On the other hand, there is the readiness to be publicly visible and continuously render one’s own actions transparent to the outside world. Despite the opportunities visible in the case described, there are thus also considerable challenges – we will see what the future holds!
A detailed description of the methodology and results can be found here:
Knauf, Helen (2016). Interlaced social worlds: exploring the use of social media in the kindergarten. Early Years. doi:10.1080/09575146.2016.1147424
Krotz, Friedrich. 2015. Mediatisierung. In Handbuch Cultural Studies und Medienanalyse, edited by Andreas Hepp, Friedrich Krotz, Swantje Lingenberg and Jeffrey Wimmer, 439–451. Wiesbaden: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-531-19021-1_45.