Preschool Classroom Computer Experts

by Patricia Hutinger

"Does anyone know how to...?" "I need help. I can't get this computer to..." "Which menu item do I go to if I want to...?" Such questions are not uncommon around schools and offices where adults work with computers. Usually when a person needs help, someone else is able to offer advice or help solve the problem. And, as literate adults, we can 'read the documentation' -- if we can remember where we put it! But how much better--and easier--it is to get the help we need from one of our peers.

Whom do children turn to when they need help with the classroom software? Some may turn to the teacher or aide, but more and more often we are finding that children, like adults, are turning to a peer for help, and not just any peer, but the classmate who has somehow become recognized as the class 'computer expert.'

Time and time again in two major research projects conducted by Macomb Projects staff during the last six years, we found the apparent phenomenon of the self-styled, child-accepted, classroom computer expert, a child who emerged unexpectedly, often to the teacher's surprise. A quiet little girl (a four-year-old) in a preschool classroom participating in the Interactive Technology Emergent Literacy study gradually took on the role of 'expert,' helping children when they needed assistance. She also liked to oversee the computer 'sign-up sheet.' In the following year, after she moved into kindergarten, a boy assumed the preschool's 'computer expert' role early in the year. During the first year, he had been relatively uninterested in computer activities. Neither child had a computer at home and both participated in a classroom for children with disabilities in a rural, midwest school district.

Preschool classes in other parts of the country also have standout computer authorities. A teacher in an inclusive preschool classroom on Long Island who participated in the Early Childhood Comprehensive Technology System study, said, "Ah, Shaniece. Our computer ace. She has used every program. She has learned a lot [from the computer] and is very swift with the mouse. She also teaches the other kids very well. The kids give her a lot of respect." In another class, a teacher's written observation supports a child's expectations from the classroom expert: "Jenny Kate was having trouble with a program and called Cam over to help her get out of the game she was playing. Cam went over and helped her out right away. "

When a computer expert emerges in a preschool class whose members include children with disabilities, the child not only is capable of using software, but also assumes the role of 'teacher'. The child expert is neither taught nor asked by an adult to assume the 'teacher' role. Rather the 'expert' designation is bestowed informally upon him or her by the other children gradually as the child expert emerges and is recognized by the others as the one to call on--before they call upon an adult--when a problem or question arises. The child 'computer experts' help others navigate through software procedures. Sometimes several experts emerge, each with expertise in a particular piece of software or a specific tool function.

Throughout our research, the emergence of a classroom computer expert has been fairly commonplace. The teachers are frequently surprised, since the 'expert' that children acknowledge within a given classroom may not be the brightest child nor the most socially adept child. The 'expert' child in preschool classrooms generally does not have a computer at home. While the common assumption may be that the experts are children with access to technology outside school; this tends not to be the case in the dozens of preschool classrooms that participated in the research studies carried out by Macomb Projects' staff.

We believe that the child computer experts gain a great deal of self confidence in their role as authority and teacher. The preschool classroom experts we describe here are young children who have been diagnosed as demonstrating recognized characteristics constituting a mild or moderate disability or who are at risk for academic failure. Seldom are these children considered experts at anything as they move into the school system. We have not had the resources to follow these children after they leave preschool; therefore, we do not know whether the mantle of 'computer expert' follows them. We DO know that during the year(s) they are in preschool, the mantle of 'expert' is conferred upon them, they know how to teach other children, and they do so willingly. How does being the classroom computer expert affect a child? Does it add to their social and cognitive growth? What conditions lead to the emergence of an 'expert?' Are they older children? Have they been in a computer classroom for two more years? We're not sure, but patterns are beginning to emerge. The entire matter deserves careful attention.

Children who become 'experts' seem to gain in communication and social skills, areas that may have been areas of weakness. Cheryl, diagnosed as Down Syndrome, is a classroom computer guru. She shows intelligence at the computer that she doesn't show elsewhere and has earned the respect of her classmates. She showed her teacher some programs the teacher didn't even know were on the computer. Cheryl makes sure that Megan, a child with severe physical involvement, gets time on the computer, and she helps Megan use it. Other children in the classroom watch Cheryl use the computer and some say, "That was good, Cheryl." Perhaps observing an 'expert' on the computer is one way that the role is gradually acquired.

Perhaps children who have been in a computer using classroom for more than one year are more likely to become 'experts.' Gary, a child with visual impairments, was extremely shy, but when he got on the computer, he began socializing with other children and making friends. He learned how to control the mouse and how to play the games. As his abilities increased, his confidence increased. The following year, he was the only child who remained in that classroom. He became the computer teacher for the new children. They came to him for help, and he was obviously pleased with his new role. Mitchell, with multiple sensory disorders, also became an acknowledged expert in his second year with computers when he organized two other classmates around computer activities.

However, in another classroom's first year, Olivia, diagnosed as having pervasive developmental delays, navigated through new programs with another child. Olivia took the lead, helping the other child. And, according to the teacher, Olivia's language and positive social behaviors increased.

During Hank's first year with computers, he became adept at using software and took on the responsibility of loading paper into the printer. He explained the intricacies of software to teachers and children alike. Away from the computer, he presented a range of behavior problems, but at the computer, he was in control of his own behavior.

People are not surprised at the existence of adult or high school computer experts, those comfortable on any machine or solving any complex programming problem. Nor are teachers and parents surprised by an elementary or junior high school student who is interested in technology and becomes a 'computer wizard'. However, a computer expert at the preschool level is unexpected! Moreover, a child with disabilities who can teach others is an exciting phenomenon, and the child experts encountered in our research do just that.

The child computer expert is an interesting phenomenon, one we would like to investigate further. Do you have (or have you had) a computer expert in your preschool classroom? If so, we are interested in knowing what happened: how did the child earn that designation? what did he/she do to help other children? what were the results of that help for the child him/herself as well as for those being helped? You can e-mail your stories to me at pl-hutinger@wiu.edu. We will compile the submissions to share with ACTTive Technology readers in a future issue.


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