Early childhood settings are embracing new software to share children’s portfolios with their families, but JUDE BARBACK asks whether people will mourn the inevitable loss of the printed learning journeys or embrace technological change?

The pages of my four-year-old son Daniel’s preschool learning journey book are so full and heavy with learning stories that on the regular occasions that he brings it home, he has to carry it with two hands and a great deal of huffing and puffing. My three-year-old daughter Emily does the same with her book, also filled with colours and photos and words about what adventures they’ve been up to at pre-school.

When first confronted with the learning journey books, I perceived them solely as an initiative to keep parents informed. However, experience has shown me that when Dan and Emily bring their books home, they want to look at pictures of themselves, discuss with me what they are doing, have me read to them about them. The books are as much for them as they are for me.

Learning Stories

I recall very little from my own kindergarten days, and what I do remember is reinforced with photos, retro 1980s images in photo albums. I imagine my children’s recollections of their early childhood education will be somewhat clearer, thanks to the summaries and reflection prompted by the learning stories that their teachers write for them, and which we read together over and over again.

Learning stories, as we know them today, are largely the result of the research conducted by Margaret Carr and Wendy Lee. In their book Learning Stories: Constructing Learner Identities in Early Education they discuss how learning stories can construct learner identities and how, by making the connection between socio-cultural approaches to pedagogy and assessment and narrative inquiry, learning stories have become a philosophical approach to early childhood education.

The book Learning in the Making: Disposition and Design in Early Education by

Anne Smith, Margaret Carr, and other colleagues draws on research around joint attention and autobiographical memory and its relevance to the development of a disposition to learn “reciprocity”. It argues that early childhood contexts can foster children’s dispositions to learn in various ways.

The book states that “a disposition towards reciprocity includes engaging in dialogue with others, negotiating mutual sense and interest, communicating with others (both adults and peers), giving an opinion, taking into account the perspectives of others, sharing responsibility, communicating ideas, and becoming a group member”.

Te Whaariki, the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, focuses on ongoing dispositions to learn. The learning story narrative assessment connects what we see and how we make meaning of it to the ideals of society and cultures as proposed by the goals and strands of Te Whaariki.

Taking it to the next level

But now many early childhood centres are taking learning stories to the next level by recording them online.

The immediate advantage is that they can easily be shared with family, and indeed this appears to be the sales pitch of many of the providers out there. As a parent, I agree this is great. I’m already a fan of my kids’ pre-school’s Facebook page, on which I regularly distract myself from writing articles to see what they’ve been up to throughout the day. On the days they don’t attend, they like to check the Facebook page with me. To see that their friends who attend on Monday have made bone-shaped biscuits (as part of their Hairy Maclary module) brings great anticipation of Tuesday’s morning tea!

What’s more, my mother-in-law, who lives in England, can see and comment on the photos on Facebook.

The addition of learning stories online will make it possible for far-flung relatives and friends to engage with the child’s learning.

Of course, that’s thinking about it from the end-user’s perspective. For the early childhood centre, there is a raft of decisions to make, the first of which is, which company to go with.

ePortfolio providers: the main players

The market for these sorts of early learning management systems is brimming with eager players.

Generally considered the leading provider in New Zealand, Educa was born out of a parent’s experience with his child attending ECE. In early 2009, founder Nathan Li’s one-year-old daughter Nancy started full-time childcare in Lower Hutt. Within a few months he discovered the early childhood education community was facing a challenge: teachers were recording loads of information about children’s learning and development, but with no easy way to get that information to children’s parents. Similarly, time constraints often meant parents found it difficult to provide feedback to the teachers.

And so Li brought Educa to life. It is primarily a software system built to help early childhood teachers and parents with documenting and assessing children’s learning through learning stories, photographs and videos. It provides a secure online diary of a child’s growth and development at an ECE centre. It allows parents to share in the experience of their child’s day and for the early childhood centre to gain valuable feedback and provide a better service. It provides a secure website and a range of smart phone (iPhone and Android) and tablet (iPad) applications.

Educa has grown rapidly in the past few years. Li says over 15,000 users in 71 countries now use Educa on a regular basis. The company expanded into Australia earlier this year.

Kinderloop, while an international player, grew from the same parental concerns experienced by Nathan Li. It was founded by Dan Day of USA and Dan Walker of Australia, both busy parents who craved more information from their children’s preschools. More or less like the others, Kinderloop allows child care providers to post video, photo, and text updates about each child in their care so that parents can log in to the app or website to see a newsfeed of updates and photos of their child’s activities. It places huge emphasis on privacy and cybersafety. Day says it is seeing an increasing number of New Zealand early childhood settings take up its services.

Meanwhile, home-grown ventures Kinderbooks and Storypark have been informed from teaching perspectives. Kinderbooks was essentially created to solve the problems experienced by Dale Neill, with collating and sharing profile books over her many years of teaching.

Storypark began in a similar way, with Lynda MacDonald, who manages Aroha Early Learning Centre in Gore, guiding the initial prototype. The company has a strong focus on education with input from ECE advocate Janet Dixon, ICT specialist at Wellington Kindergarten Association Amanda Higgins, and CORE’s ECE ICT specialist Sharon Carlson.

Storypark, founded two years ago, has only been available to the public since September last year. It operates in a similar way to other ePortfolio providers, a cloud-based tool that offers teachers, parents and wider family the opportunity to engage together around a child’s learning by recording and sharing photos, videos and text securely via a closed, private network. Interestingly, Storypark is designed for a child’s life-long learning.

“Parents can create an account for their child when they are born, include an early childhood centre for the period of time that their child attends the centre, then continue the child’s Storypark account as the child goes to school,” says co-founder, Peter Dixon.

Dixon also believes the fact that Storypark is a values-based social enterprise – “a business that balances social outcomes with financial sustainability” – gives them a point of difference.

Like Educa, Storypark is growing fast and is evolving. Dixon reports that they are working on advanced reporting features and extended curriculum features. Plans are also afoot for a teacher’s professional learning community and planning area.

Making the decision

As with most purchasing decisions, it is about finding the best fit for the early childhood centre’s ICT strategy and budget. All the providers flaunt numerous testimonials from around the country, proving that competition in this area is indeed hot.

My children’s pre-school has recently made the decision to go with Educa. They have decided to hold onto the printed learning journey books too, for a little while at least. While it presents more work for the teachers in the short-term, the transition will be gratefully received by children and parents alike.

However, while I’m probably not alone in mourning the gradual death of print, it would be fair to say my three- and four-year-old are as at home with touch-screen swipe technology as they are with a book, as familiar with an app as they are with a Beatrix Potter book. No doubt children will easily adapt to the new medium of their learning journey, as will their parents.

Top 10 tips for a great learning story

  1. Start with a great title – short and concise.
  2. Include an observation of the child which describes the learning activity.
  3. Uncover what is beneath the surface of the learning activity. “What’s happening here?”
  4. Plan for the future to extend or continuously support the child’s interest. “What next?”
  5. Take care with language. ‘I’ can convey the teacher’s observation, ‘You’ is speaking to the child, ‘We’ is inclusive of family.
  6. Include photos – three is best and make sure they’re clear.
  7. Make it colourful and interesting – to keep children captivated in their own learning journey.
  8. Keep it personal – link it back to what’s happening at home.
  9. Encourage family feedback and input by asking questions in the stories.
  10. Keep stories up-to-date so that the most recent story is relevant to the child’s current learning.

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