Before time is up on the Dora the Explorer game—a game four-year-old Isabel loves—she’ll jump to something else, excited to play and completely unaware that she’s part of a literacy experiment at Ohio’s Cleveland Public Library (CPL).
“She has fun with the keys,” says Isabel’s father, Pedro Anaya, who accompanies his only daughter to the library every other week. “On certain games it asks for her name, and she wants to put it in.”
Isabel is just one of the thousands of Cleveland children (ages 2–8) that CPL is trying to entice with a mixture of games and education lesson plans through the 54 new Early Literacy Stations the library is installing across its 27 branches, says CPL’s chief technology officer (CTO) Rod Houpe.
“It’s the whole gamification idea,” says Houpe. “The children can embrace that.”
Public libraries are increasingly looking for ways—like through gamification—to support early learners from preschool age children to those in third grade. Through offering reading clubs and other educational programming, libraries can support student learning outside of school, and the CPL is just one library system, out of many, actively looking to increase its partnerships with local schools.
“We have been trying to strengthen our relationship with Cleveland Public Schools,” says Cindy Lombardo, CPL’s deputy director.
According to a March 10 article on Cleveland.com, the Cleveland school district confirmed that “it considers 1,000 students—about 40 percent of the third grade—unlikely to meet standards [to move onto fourth grade] without help and is planning to send them to summer reading school to catch up.”
“There is a huge concern [for] what will happen to these kids and the ones coming up behind them,” says Lombardo.
The Early Literacy Stations are one part of the CPL’s push in closing the education gap. The touch screen computers come preloaded with games that span multiple curriculum areas—from reading to graphic arts to STEM subjects to music. Although Isabel prefers games with Dora the Explorer, students can choose from 60 other gaming options.
Houpe says the interface is very simple to understand, so librarians aren’t handed the burden of walking students though the how-to process. Having the literacy consoles preloaded with age-appropriate content also saves the library from having to create its own material, or vet each program.
Instead, the programs are created by the educational content company AWE, which began designing software for early learners originally when one of its clients, the Free Library of Philadelphia, expressed its frustration with “managing its education software for its youngest clients,” according to AWE’s web site.
Getting feedback from how students perform on literacy programs is essential with documenting any improvement—or lack of. That’s one reason why CPL invested more than $137,000 in the stations; they now have the ability to record and report data on each user. While that feature is currently turned off, CPL says they hope that this data will be available to both CPL—and schools—by this fall.
To Isabel’s father, spending time on the stations is a way to help his daughter get an early start using digital tools, a skill he believes will be core to her success as she grows.
“Everything is about computers,” he says. “In the future, everyone will have a tablet instead of writing out their homework.”
Houpe sees this technology as one way to close the achievement gap.
“The technology is not going to be the end all,” says Houpe. “But, if we can start building metrics, we can start to see an outcome and extend the students’ educational day without their thinking they’re extending their day.”