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The shift from a traditional to a digital classroom: Hong Kong kindergartens: the 2003 Annual Theme issue of Childhood Education focused on educational technology. Guest Editors Sudha Swaminathan and Nicola Yelland located too many excellent articles on that important topic to include in one issue. Therefore, we are revisiting the topic here.

Parents and early childhood educators in Hong Kong have been enthusiastically supportive of including computer activities in programs for young children. However, the benefits of using computers as a tool for learning may be eroded by a number of socio-contextual factors. This article discusses some factors apparent in the Hong Kong context that may need to be addressed by early childhood educators.

Background

In Hong Kong, preschool education is not included as part of the formal education system. Nevertheless, approximately 95 percent of children as young as 2 years of age attend either kindergarten or child care centers (Rao & Koong, 1999). It has been well documented elsewhere that the criteria parents use to select an early childhood program often reflect their own beliefs and priorities for their children's education (Rescorla, 1991; Stipek, Milburn, Galluzzo, & Daniles, 1992). Most kindergartens in Hong Kong are privately owned, and they operate in a highly competitive environment.

Today, young children are learning in innovative environments (Craig, 2000). Chinese parents expect their young children to learn with computers, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they are eager to enroll their children in kindergartens that provide computer activities. Principals are aware of these parental expectations, which has led to a rapid increase in the numbers of kindergartens providing computer activities. However, this practice has given rise to some concerns. The author believes that early childhood educators and parents need to rethink the rationale underpinning the use of computers with young children. In particular, they need to consider whether computer activities are in the best interests of parents, kindergartens, or young children. In order to do so, early childhood teachers and parents must understand how children's learning with information technology occurs, as well as the factors that maximize the benefits of such learning experiences.

Sociohistorical Factors and Computer Activities in Kindergartens

Since the late 1980s, most private kindergartens in Hong Kong have lacked government funding and have been able to afford only older, less powerful computers (Lui, 1997). The kindergartens also have lacked printers, scanners, or cameras with which to enrich children's computer-based activities. Some kindergartens had only a few computers in a computer room, which were shared by the children for 15 to 20 minutes at a time in small-group activities, once a week. And some kindergartens had only one computer, which was located in a computer corner for children's exploration during free-choice activities (Han, 1997).

The role of technology in education has been controversial since the advent of educational television, teaching machines, and computer-assisted instruction. In the late 1990s, education reform in Hong Kong began to focus on advancing the use of technology in teaching. Following a review of the nine-year compulsory education in Hong Kong for the use of information technology in school, the Hong Kong Education Commission (1999) determined a direction for future development, specifically:

[Section 10.20.] Information technology is a way of life today. It is foreseen that a wider use of information technology would become a regular feature in our schools to improve effectiveness of teaching and learning. It will become a part of our school system, although teachers in no way can be replaced.

[10.21.] Information technology facilitates pupils' self-learning, helping to reduce individual differences. It is suggested that the Government should continue to strengthen resources and technical support in promoting the use of information technology in school.

This report led Hong Kong policymakers to finance projects concerning technology and education. Although pre-primary education is not included in the basic education schema, some pre-primary sectors applied for funds to implement information technology (IT) in their schools.

A wide array of projects within four categories were funded at the initial stages: 1) projects promoting effective learning, 2) projects promoting all-around education, 3) school-based management projects, and 4) education research. The second round of funding applications included the category of "information technology." The statistical report shows that preprimary sectors have been applying for IT funding in increasing numbers (see Table 1).

Table 2 summarizes the current status of computer environments in kindergartens, using the Kindergarten Profile developed by the Hong Kong Education Department Committee on Home-School Operation (2000). There are no curriculum guidelines in Hong Kong for integrating computers into classroom activities; therefore, in most kindergartens, children play with only a few educational software titles, which focus mainly on early mathematics and Chinese language and English language learning (Han, 1997). Some software integrates children's themes or project learning.

The classroom teachers select the software and set up a couple of chairs at the computer corner in the classroom. Children play with the computer during the free-choice activities. While children can choose to pursue a computer activity after they have completed all of the required tasks, they must complete many teacher-directed tasks each day. Consequently, they have little time to use the computer corner. Kindergartens still lack such resources as quality printers and other equipment, such as scanners and digital videos and cameras, that could be used by children to save and extend their work or enrich their learning.

Some kindergartens provide computer activities for children as weekend and holiday programs, but these are not included in the school fees. These computer activities are designed and implemented by the staff from computer companies, who are not early childhood teachers and so may have little professional knowledge of early childhood education. Consequently, the computer activities may not be appropriate in terms of young children's developmental needs and learning.

Computer Software

In the 1980s, educational software of good quality was scarce, and the few good titles were usually presented in English and from a Western context. As a result, teachers found it difficult to find educational software that was relevant to children in Hong Kong or that integrated the themes or projects they were pursuing. Therefore, most of the educational software could not be used to extend or enrich children's learning in a cohesive way, and local educational and instructional games tended to be nothing more than drill-and-practice worksheets.

Currently, Hong Kong kindergartens can access three sources for computer software: custom-made materials for a specific kindergarten, commercial packages, and teacher-designed materials that use simple presentation software tools (for example, Power Point). Unfortunately, neither the computer companies nor the commercial software designers have professional knowledge of early childhood development, and so most of the software they sell continues to be the drill-and-practice variety.

Haugland (1992) examined the effects of developmental (open-ended) and non-developmental (drill-and-practice) software on preschool children's needs. She found that young children's creativity decreased when they interacted with poor-quality, less open-ended software. In another study, the researchers found that open-ended software helped teachers to work in children's zones of proximal development (Haugland & Wright, 1997).

Guidelines are available to help select appropriate software for kindergartens. Kindergarten teachers may consult the Developmental Software Evaluation Scale (developed by Susan W. Haugland and Daniel D. Shade), and the High/Scope Buyer's Guide to Software for Young Children (developed by the High/ Scope Educational Research Foundation).

Staff Development

Hong Kong kindergarten teachers have not received training in using computers for teaching since 1995. The majority of them have little knowledge of or skill with computers, although some may use computers at home. Few of the teachers feel able to design or implement computer activities in their classrooms. As a result, the responsibility for designing and implementing computer activities with the children in a computer room often falls on clerical staff who have experience in using computers. As an alternative, some kindergartens employ staff from a computer company to design and implement computer activities. However, these practices do not align well with recommended principles of learning and teaching, such as those articulated by Bredekamp and Rosegrant (1994).

Bredekamp and Rosegrant (1994) recommend that teachers use computers in the same way as other materials. For example, teachers need to set up learning environments in classroom for children to explore, and then act to support children's exploration and inquiry in different ways. Ryan (1993) emphasized the importance of staff development, suggesting that technology inservice training for early childhood teachers is critical.

In the wake of recent increased emphasis on computer training in teacher education programs, some teachers have obtained computer training outside their teaching hours. Some have learned to produce their own educational software, using simple presentation software such as Power Point to design computer activities that integrate learning related to the theme or project in class. Although the quality of such software might not accord with professional standards, the activities can consolidate and extend children's learning in valuable ways. To shift the focus of these activities away from teacher-centered drill and practice and toward child-centered exploration and experimentation, teachers encourage children to use digital cameras and scanners in order to explore and discover new experiences related to the theme or project. The role of the classroom teacher is changing from a didactic role to one of facilitator and supporter of children's learning.

Integrating Computers Into the Early Childhood Curriculum

Until the early 1990s, teachers in most kindergartens in Hong Kong had no official curriculum guidelines for integrating computers into the early childhood curriculum. Young children's computer experiences typically were limited to drill-and-practice software programs done in isolation from the classroom curriculum. The role of technology in children's learning at this early stage was not clear at all.

In the late 1990s, a small number of kindergartens gained more resources and thus were able to integrate computer activities into their curriculum by employing computer companies to design activities that integrated the themes or topics that are studied throughout the school year (see, for example, www.evi.com.hk.) Classroom teachers and children selected structured activities from the educational platform on the computer provided by these computer companies. Still, classroom teachers had limited opportunities to design and select appropriate content for their children.

Researchers (e.g., Davis & Shade, 1999) recommend that technology be integrated into early childhood programs to facilitate the learning process. Shade and Watson (1990) claim that children use computers naturally as a learning tool, especially when computers are integrated into the curriculum and are applied to real problems for a real purpose. When this level of integration is achieved, young learners become engaged with learning processes and capable of using technology as another resource, or tool, that can help them think and present their ideas. Effective integration of technology into the curriculum requires effort, time, commitment, and even a change of beliefs (Clements & Swaminathan, 1995).

Papert (1993) also recommended that computers can be integrated across the curriculum if schools focus on a topic. Children need to learn to use technology as a learning tool. A position statement developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (1996) emphasized the responsibility of early childhood teachers to critically examine the benefits of technology for children. Computer activities cannot replace concrete experiences in early childhood classrooms, such as art, blocks, and dramatic play. Instead, early childhood teachers must find ways to integrate technology into the existing curriculum to provide meaningful learning experiences for young children.

Yelland (1999) suggests five goals to make an effective classroom environment that integrates technology:

* Integrating technology and curricula

* Promoting active learning, inquiry, and problem-solving environments that encourage children to use higher order thinking skills in both individual and collaborative work

* Using technology to present and represent ideas

* Creating new definitions of play and reconceptualizing what constitutes a manipulative

* Developing media literacy skills that involve a critical analysis of the use of the technologies and the information derived from them.

Conclusion

Technology is a vital element of our world today. Computer activity is welcomed by parents, who want their children to be socialized in learning with the technological tools of this era. However, it is important to realize that children's learning may not be enhanced by technology, nor is all use of technology appropriate.

Early childhood educators must be clear on the role that technology can play in children's learning and use strategies to scaffold children in their zones of proximal development.
Table 1

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY PROJECTS
FUNDED FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD

Round of Application No. of Projects No. of Projects in 1T
 category of Pre-Primary
 Sector

First 67 0
Second 46 4
Third 125 6
Fourth 122 15

Table 2

COMPUTER LEARNING ENVIRONMENT OF
KINDERGARTENS IN HONG KONG

Regions No. of kindergartens Computer
 activities provided

Hong Kong Island 181 117
Kowloon 269 164
New Territory 326 229
Total 776 510

Regions Using computer Using
 laboratory computer corner

Hong Kong Island 75 42
Kowloon 116 48
New Territory 141 89
Total 332 179


References

Bredekamp, S., & Rosegrant, T. (1994). Learning and teaching with technology. In J. L. Wright & D. D. Shade (Eds.), Young children: Active learners in a technological age (pp. 53-61). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Clements, D. H., & Swaminathan, S. (1995). Technology and school change. New lamps for old? Childhood Education, 71, 276-281.

Craig, D. V. (2000). Technology, math, and the early learner: Models for learning. Computers and young children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 27(3), 179-184.

Davis, B. C., & Shade, D.D. (1999). Integrating technology into the early childhood classroom: The case of literacy learning. Information Technology in Childhood Education, Annual 1999 (1), 221-254.

Han, C.W. (1997). Teacher's perception of implementing computer assisted learning in kindergarten classrooms. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong.

Haugland, S.W. (1992). The effect of computer software on preschool children's development gains. Journal of Computing in Childhood Education, 3(1), 15-30.

Haugland, S. W., & Wright, J. L. (1997). Young children and technology: A world of discovery. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hong Kong Education Commission. (1999). Education blueprint for the 21st century. Review of academic system. Aims of education consultation document. Hong Kong: Author.

Hong Kong Education Department, Curriculum Development Institute. (1996). Guide to pre-primary curriculum. Hong Kong: Author.

Hong Kong Education Department, Committee on Home-School Operation. (2000). Profile of kindergartens 2001-2002. Hong Kong: Author.

Lui, M. (1997). The effects of computer-assisted instruction and teacher-assisted instruction on preschool children's learning of arithmetic tasks. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1996). Position statement on technology and young children--ages 3 through 8. Washington, DC: Author.

Papert, S. (1993). The children's machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.

Rao, N., & Koong, M. (1999). Early childhood education and care in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: OMEP.

Rescorla, L. (1991). Parent and teacher attitudes about early academics. In L. Rescorla, M. C. Hyson, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Academic instruction in early childhood: Challenge or pressure? (pp. 13-20). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, A.W. (1993). The impact of teacher training on achievement effects of micro-computer use in elementary schools: A meta-analysis. In N. Estes & M. Thomas (Eds.), Rethinking the roles of technology in education (pp. 770-772). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Shade, D. D., & Watson, J. A. (1990). Computers in early education: Issues put to rest, theoretical links to sound practice, and the potential contribution of microworlds. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 6(4), 375-392.

Stipek, D., Milburn, S., Galluzzo, D., & Daniels, D. (1992). Parents' beliefs about appropriate education for young children. Journal of Applied Development Psychology, 13(3), 293-310.

Yelland, N. (1999). Reconceptualising schooling with technology for the 21st century: Images and reflections. Information Technology in Childhood Education, Annual 1999 (1), 39-59.

Wai Man Leung is Lecturer, School of Early Childhood Education, The Hong Kong Institute of Education.
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Author:Leung, Wai Man
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:9HONG
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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