Virtual School Age: Coding

I’ve been part of my library’s virtual storytime team over the last month, and today, it is my turn to expand into virtual school age programming.

About three years ago, I started the Innovation Academy programming series because of a technology grant that gave us about $5000 in tech ideal for ages 8-11. The program series was popular, as anything with technology seems to be, but after a few years I grew close to burnout with tech. I was one of the only staff members interested in tech programming, and I felt obligated to keep creating it since there was a patron interest.

We had a mixed audience at every program, which made it difficult to plan. I couldn’t move on to advanced content because at least a third of every program’s attendees would have never used any kind of tech before. Another third would have come to every single tech program I had done in the last 2-3 years, and they would quite loudly complain that they had done this activity before. The other third would be some combination of the previous two, while also regularly letting me know that they had more advanced tech at home or at school. Oh, and there were also the kids who were too young to be in the room and couldn’t read (and didn’t have the patience to try to work through any kind of problem solving).

Luckily, last year, our department divided up the Innovation Academy program series, expanding its content to cover more than tech but also expanding the staff who ran the program. This gave me a much-needed technology break, and while I can’t say I am ready to jump back into monthly tech programs, I don’t mind the occasional offering, and I definitely don’t mind trying to translate that content to a new medium–online!

My library decided to approach school age programming so that:

  • Ages are expanded–all programs have materials for ages 6-11.
  • Attendees register via Evanced (our regular event registration software).
  • On the day of the event, the program presenter will email attendees a video introduction as well as a PDF with resources, content, and activities to do at home.

My first program goes live today, so I don’t know what the patron feedback will be. Four days before the event, we already have 60 sign-ups, which is fantastic! Our first school-age event from last week, virtual Young Engineers, received a great response from virtual attendees, so I’m hoping that pattern continues.

Content

This session’s intro video is below. It is boring. I’m going to work on ways to make it more engaging–including seeing my face talking–for next time, but I was determined to get this done this week, and double storytimes meant that reading my notes instead of talking was just easier.

Participants can watch the video, or they can move straight to the packet, included below. It covers the vocabulary reviewed in the video, and also provides four pages of coding resources for all levels of coders, from beginning to advanced, including unplugged, block-based, and text-based coding activities.

Pros and Cons

Obviously this format is different than standard library programming, and there isn’t too much we can do about that. Until we have a vaccine for COVID-19, our world is going to look different. Encouraging people to gather for entertainment purposes, while mentally helpful, is simply dangerous at the moment. Speaking personally, my life, my coworker’s lives, and our patron’s lives aren’t worth creating an hour’s worth of entertainment–or learning–right now. When stay at home orders are lifted, some people will run from their homes to any open location–that doesn’t mean we are obligated to amuse them at our own personal risk. Other people will stay home and prioritize their and other people’s safety.

Everyone will make their own choices, and virtual programming allows us to reach people in a way that is safe for everyone. Unfortunately, it means we will be missing people, especially those that need our services the most. I don’t have an answer for that, but I will say that in almost all cases, in my particular library, the people who are coming into our library to attend our physical programs are not the people who don’t have Internet at home. They may make choices about screen time limits that may make it hard to attend our virtual programs–and honestly, if you are able to stick to those limits in these crazy times, good for you–but they still have access if they choose to use it.

I don’t think temporarily moving our programs virtual is preventing our regular users from accessing the library. Figuring out how to reach those folks who could never make it into the library in the first place is a bigger question, and virtual programming may actually be opening doors instead of closing them. According to Pew Research, 68% of low income families use social media (with Facebook being by far the most popular tool). While I don’t have the statistics, I will bet that 68% of our low income families don’t visit our library regularly.

Obviously, no matter how I try to spin it, there are still cons to online programs. They feel impersonal. I can’t adjust a program based on a participant’s response. I can’t lead them through a problem the same way I could in person. I can’t give them physical items to work with and explore, from robots and 3D printing pens to even simple craft materials. I don’t even know how many participants opened the files I sent or actually did any activity. People could really struggle with what I provide, or simply not like the format, and I may never know.

To end on a positive note, however, there are small good things to focus on too. So many of those reasons that I was burnt out on tech disappear here. I can provide activities and resources for all ages and abilities–from those preschoolers sneaking their way into school-age programs to the attendees that have been coding for years. I’ve got you all covered.

Online programs can promote family engagement in a way that in-library programs can promote peer-to-peer learning. Adults learn about fun ways they can connect with their kids without having to spend money on robots and 3D printing pens and craft supplies. Programs can be completed whenever is convenient for a family–as soon as an email is distributed, after work is done, over the weekend, a year from now. If the baby is super grumpy, a family doesn’t have to worry about leaving the house and arriving 30 minutes late. If a kid is really, really, really bored with Scratch, they don’t have to yell that at the top of their lungs in a room of their peers–they can just try Code Combat instead.

I want to get these kids back in our programming space–I miss them. I miss watching them grow up over the last few months, and possibly over the next year. Virtual programming provides us a bit of everything–while we don’t always get to see the kids, we still get to connect with families, share some cool learning opportunities, and connect our patrons to the ideas, interests, and passions that matter to them. Just with a little more distance between us and them.

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