Creating Spaces for Families: Exploring Digital Learning Communities

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It was a Saturday morning in October, days after a five-legged friend flew into our kindergarten class and inspired us to start a bug study.  As I reached for my dog’s leash, I noticed a strange green bug.  I snapped a quick picture on my phone and uploaded it to our class’s private Flickr group with the caption, “I found this one at my house.  I’ve never seen one like him!  Any ideas?”  A student’s mom wrote back, “[My daughter] and I saw this one at the park! It crawled across our hands. I think I have a photo.”  A few days later, my mystery bug had a photographic partner in crime, thanks to our digital learning community on Flickr.

Why Digital Learning Communities?

I started exploring digital learning communities in my kindergarten classroom because I noticed that a lot of our home-school communication was very one-sided:  I was sending information home about upcoming events or student progress, but I infrequently asked families for any input more than a signature or their physical presence at events.  This type of communication creates inequitable power structures between home and school:  school represents the entity controlling the information and determining importance, and home represents the entity receiving (and sometimes responding to) this information.  This position mirrors what Paolo Freire called the banking model of education, where students are viewed as vessels into which information is deposited.  Instead, he suggested that learning should occur in problem-posing models, where the teacher fills a more fluid position as a learner alongside students.

Digital learning communities can be natural settings for this problem-posing model that interrupts traditional, inequitable home/school power structures.  I started a private group on Flickr as a digital learning community because I wanted families to learn with and through our classroom learning explorations, just like I wanted to learn with and through families in their home learning explorations.  I found that digital learning communities create access to these types of learning exchanges in ways such as these:

  • Digital learning communities transcend physical boundaries. Some families maintain work schedules or family responsibilities that prevent them from visiting the classroom during school hours.  Others may not have the resources necessary to get to school independently.  Still others may have negative memories of their own school experiences, and being in school buildings may still be uncomfortable.  Digital learning communities invite families into learning spaces that are not constrained by the physical boundaries typically associated with school.
  • Digital learning communities recognize that learning happens in a variety of contexts. When I found my mystery green bug, I was at home, and my student and her mom found another member of my mystery bug family at the park.  Therefore, digital learning communities have the potential to interrupt inequitable hierarchies of learning that value school-based learning above home- or community-based learning experiences.
  • Digital learning communities invite participation in a variety of ways. Families, educators, and students can choose to create content through photos, videos, or captions, or they may choose to respond to others’ creations through commenting, liking/favoriting media, or simply viewing it.  All parties can choose their most comfortable mode of community membership.
  • Digital learning communities situate language as a resource, not a barrier. Digital learning communities depend upon visual media such as photos and videos, which interrupts the inequitable practice of situating one specific language (typically English) as the sole means of communication.  We live in a world where we make meaning through signs, commercials, ads, emoticons, and other visual points of reference, and digital learning communities build upon these strengths.  Families, students, and educators can choose to write captions and comments in the language they find most comfortable, and other members of the community can use online translation tools to make meaning across languages.
  • Digital learning communities tap into technology most families already access. Participation in digital learning communities depends on access to devices and access to internet.  Research on the digital divide originated before the rise of smartphones, tablets, and other hand-held points of internet access.  I found that while some families might not have a computer at home, almost all had a cell phone or tablet that they used to access the internet via a home network, work network, or cellular data network.

Listening to Families

My favorite part of using digital learning communities is the ability to listen to families.  I listen to families through the media they create and share with our group.  I listen to families through the comments and favorites they add to the content we created in the classroom.  I also listen to families through the silence.  All families might not feel comfortable as active participants in our digital learning community.  It is my responsibility to listen in those silent spaces and pursue alternate ways to engage those families in our learning community.  For this reason, I offer this caution as you consider this strategy to engage families.  Digital learning communities are a supplement, not supplant, for in-person relationships.  We still need to listen to the other ways that families want to participate in learning communities through classroom visits, parent/teacher conferences, home visits, community events, and more.  The key word, however, is listen.  Are we offering parent/teacher conferences and other school events because we hear families asking for these experiences, or because it’s the way we have done school for countless years?  Listening to families, through digital learning communities or other means, is an important step in creating learning environments that recognize and honor our families as the original experts in our students’ lives.


Melissa Summer Wells (@mswells01) has served children in Spartanburg, S.C., as a 3rd grade teacher, a kindergarten teacher, and, most recently, a literacy coach. She will complete her Ph.D. in Language and Literacy from the University of South Carolina in 2017. Her research interests include critical digital literacies in early childhood settings and bidirectional family learning communities. Wells is a 2016 ASCD Emerging Leader, serves on the board of South Carolina ASCD, and was named to ILA’s “30 Under 30” list in 2016.