Technology can help students get to know each other and their communities.
We all understand the paradox of technology: energy waster versus knowledge accelerator. My son will start kindergarten next year so I pay close attention to how parents of younger children approach technology. While my wife could immerse him in visual arts and literature, and I could coach him on game mechanics and the best slice of pizza in New York City, we quite sensibly ruled out homeschooling. So, we are embarking on the painstaking process of choosing the best school for him.
We unearthed arcane but insightful forums from the underbelly of the parent-verse online. But mostly, we speak to other parents and passionate school representatives. Due diligence is largely trumped by word-of-mouth and intuition about which school fits your child.
I work in the esoteric field of social media marketing, which centers on how people form social connections, and how word-of-mouth informs behavior. A four-year-old is a petri dish for word-of-mouth. My son returns home with caches of unattributed information culled from his wonderfully diverse ecosystem of neighborhood, school, after-school program, and family friends. Oddly, you learn to trust this community more than any source.
The three schools we're applying to all understand that technology must always evolve more quickly than best practices, especially when children are involved. But given my faith in community, I have been noodling ideas on how to use technology to facilitate after-school community—privately and safely—for even younger kids and their parents:
1. Getting to Know You: Enable students to get to know each other, and share ideas, in a closed and secure online environment prior to beginning the school year. For example, over the summer, students are invited to a virtual event, in which they spend two minutes in a video chat with another incoming student before the screen automatically refreshes to the next pairing. In this way, students form early social connections, and parents can meet their new community to plan activities, or just play-dates. If students adopt a theme such as after-school volunteering, this initial experience sets a precedent for a collaborative after-school environment, and this closed video chat environment can be used throughout the year by parents for group discussions.
2. Lifebrary: Facebook boasts its Timeline; students should have their Lifebrary. In it, students publish a monthly compilation of his/her personal after-school projects, or just favorite moments from their home life: videos, photos, JPEGs of book covers, audio, writing, and art. Friends can then share securely with their friends' (parents) to look at each other’s Lifebrary boards. In this way, children are able to relive their favorite moments.
Since parents will obviously assist younger children in posting content, they are able to share their passions with their kids—in my family’s case, our love for art and technology. We even caption the pictures and videos together to verbalize the effort. Admittedly, there are more pictures of Elvis the Corgi, Top 40 artists, and home videos than Mark Rothko paintings or artistic Instagram photos on our Lifebrary. But they are all great memories.
3. Community-Sourcing: Community-sourcing is the private version of crowdsourcing—members of a community acting together to create a product or experience online. In an after-school setting, a group of students employs basic collaborative software to build after-school projects, or organize after-school activities. They can even submit ideas to Kickstarter, if their parents approve. Our office is launching a program for my employees to identify and execute opportunities to volunteer social media marketing support for charitable organizations based on agency-wide collaboration. After-school programs can come to life similarly through parents. Community sourcing also becomes a way to get parents, the extended school community, or even other schools to participate in after-school projects despite everyone’s busy schedule.
4. Fundraising: Having just experienced Hurricane Sandy, our son’s preschool arranged to donate items to families in the Rockaways, Sea Bright and Breezy Point. However, one of the challenges facing all New Yorkers was simply identifying how to contribute. Parents and staffers independently volunteered to drive the materials directly to families in need. It was a great effort. However, we also used Amazon.com’s open credentialing to purchase goods to be sent directly to families as well as through the Red Cross. By having a link to share through emails and bulletin boards through iTunes or Amazon accounts, we sent tens of thousands of dollars worth of diapers, batteries, and food to families in need. Technology facilitates fundraising by seamlessly tapping into our respective online networks. The ability to fundraise can be embedded within any digital presence.
5. Shared (Non-Concurrent) Experiences: Everyone is busier than ever. It is difficult to organize after-school activities and take advantage of the diversity in the community. Yet, we can all still share more experiences, just not always at the same time. Recently, my son and I went on a scavenger hunt through Google. We used links from websites and social networks to collect screen-grabs of the animals of Africa. We then drew them on the iPad through our Sketchbook App.
The scavenger hunt was followed by a trip to the zoo with iPhone in hand. This same exercise was repeated by three of his friends with other friends, and a bunch of us met a few weeks later over pizza to share. Our goal is not only to get the kids more interested in learning about animals or use the net, but also to learn how to share in a different way—one that becomes increasingly common later in life.
Please bear in mind that I am a parent, not an educator. However, if my son's school is interested in doing any of these five things, boy, I would love to help. See, the best uses of technology require a precedent and antecedent. Screens are a means, not an end. They work best as conduits between real-world dialogues, lessons, and experiences. Let’s help our schools use technology to build community.
Illustration by Fatim Hana