Dennis Harper: Harnessing Student-Led Tech Support
Credit: Peter Hoey
Dennis Harper does not mince words when it comes to the premise of his life's work. "Kids know more than you do," he says.
That belief has been the guiding principal of Generation YES, an organization rooted in an educational model he created in 1995 when he was a technology director in the Olympia, Washington, school district. Initial funding came through a 1995 U.S. Department of Education grant designed to improve technology integration in schools by giving students a key role in the professional-development efforts of K-12 teachers. Over the last twelve years, Harper says, more than "40,000 teachers have been partnered with GenYES kids."
The rationale for the GenYES approach, as Harper explains it, goes like this: Schools are made up of about 92 percent students and 8 percent teachers. The students are at least as tech savvy as the teachers. "You can argue that the kids know more," he adds, but to make his point, Harper allows, "let's just say they're all the same." Given that assumption, he says, the students possess 92 percent of the tech prowess and skills in school -- which makes them the experts, and ideally suited to help teachers get their tech skills up to speed.
How do teachers cope with this new balance? Harper makes it a point to always ask teachers whether they prefer learning from students or adults. Ninety-eight percent of the teachers ranked their student partner's support as being of high quality. They went into teaching, the teachers tell Harper, "because we like to work with kids."
The goal of GenYES is not simply to help schools integrate technology in a collaborative way. Harper believes his organization can facilitate greater equality and access for students of diverse circumstances. "On the Internet, the poorest student in the world has the same resources as Bill Gates's kids," Harper says. "Ready access to technology, he adds, is "an equalizer, a leveler -- exactly what Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream was."
Recently, Harper has taken that dream to the other side of the world, where, in Liberia, he worked with educators and a closely engaged President Ellen Sirleaf to develop the Liberian Renaissance Education Complex. The school's charter is to provide Liberian children "the twenty-first-century education necessary to achieve a peaceful future."
In addition to his GenYES position, Harper is executive director of Kijana Voices, the organization that raised $1.1 million and donated thousands of hours of staff time to make the Liberia project a reality. Sirleaf, whom Harper holds in high regard, spoke at the groundbreaking and then stuck around for two hours to enjoy the festivities. "Fourteen years of war, 300,000 kids dying -- it's a pretty sad situation there," Harper says. "But Sirleaf gets the GenYES model. The kids in the school will actually be part of her effort to help rebuild the country."
Kijana Voices takes on a couple of projects a year, Harper explains. Recently, the nonprofit organization, with funding from Verizon, trained 500 California eighth graders from forty-one school districts in the state's Central Valley. When their training was complete, the students were made responsible for ensuring that 10,000 seventh graders became tech literate. Then, each of the seventh graders used their newly acquired skills to complete two projects. "That's 20,000 projects!" Harper exclaims. "It was just a total shock to everybody that that many projects could be done."
What's more, Harper says, all the projects were assessed -- by the eighth graders -- to make certain they met national technology standards. "It shows how well we prepare kids to solve the problems," Harper says proudly, and he quickly adds that his organization also works with one or more adults in each school district. "It does take a good teacher as well," he says.
How does a school successfully incorporate GenYES programs into its curriculum?
"They have to trust kids," Harper says. GenYES does its part by preparing students to support technology and its use in the classroom. That may mean the students aid teachers as they integrate technology into their lessons to improve learning. It could mean, as in the California project, that they support other students in becoming tech literate. It could even be that the students render assistance to the often overworked school IT department by repairing computers or keeping networks operative. Generation YES, GenYES's parent organization, runs programs to train students in all those areas.
The GenYES vision, Harper says, is one of collaboration between students and teachers. The educators, he emphasizes, provide the content and the pedagogy, while the kids are deeply involved in helping instructors employ the classroom technology as a learning tool. When this approach fails, he says, it's "because we expect teachers to do everything. It always gets me that you have to argue the case that kids should be doing things in schools." When students and teachers work together to make technology an integral part of the education experience, Harper says, learning is the most effective, and most fun.
How do you use the Web or other technology in your work?
Most of our organization is kids: Kids do our Web page. Kids answer the phones. They do all of our promotional materials. They monitor all the bulletin boards. We walk the walk.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
The work of Seymour Papert and a lot of the constructivists, and Jonathan Kozol's work -- anything he's done. (See "Seymour Papert: Project-Based Learning" and "Teaching with Passion: Advice for Young Educators.") I've been to nearly every country in the world; my doctorate is in international education. And you see these natural teachers. I've probably seen only fifteen or twenty natural teachers, but they have really inspired me. Also, a man named Murray Thomas, the former dean of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He's in his eighties now and still writes three books a year.
Another real role model: The president of Liberia is absolutely fantastic -- incorruptible and trying to do good things. She understands that youth is the answer. I was in Soweto in the antiapartheid days, and got booted out of that country for being a rabble-rouser. It was kids that helped turn apartheid around.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
Trust the kids. I was in Sierra Leone last May, with all the problems -- the child soldiers and the blood diamonds. What these kids have come through! There are kids there who have never seen electricity in their lives, have never gone to school, yet they can operate and survive. I've always thought that if we could get some of the real street smarts of the African kids in war-torn countries and combine it with the book smarts of our kids, then you'd really have something.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
I was part of the early Logo movement [Logo is a philosophy of education and an evolving group of programming languages that support it] and I'm lucky enough to have worked with Seymour Papert. Seeing what kids could do with technology has also guided me. You always hear that kids today are not responsible, and the reason is, we don't give them responsibility.
Another project that we're doing with Kijana Voices that might illustrate this is media literacy. Kids are watching so much media -- video games, computers, movies -- we should teach them how to make media, how to evaluate it. So I pitched an idea to Cable in the Classroom called Media Smart Day, where we'd work with fifteen to twenty kids in a high school, and they would be responsible for an entire day's learning for their school, based around media literacy. The kids would determine what the kids would do, how they would learn, what the teachers in the school would do during that day. Somehow or another, Cable in the Classroom bought it. We just finished our pilot in schools around the country.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
Remember that kids will come through. It saddens me, looking at the major issues in the presidential campaign -- both parties -- that education is not in their top ten. If you had the right education, all the rest of these problems would solve themselves. The key is the youth. We've known that through the millennia. The next generation has always been the hope.
But you still see the same retaliation, especially in West Africa with all the child soldiers, and the things that they've done to kids. Very few places have messed their kids up as much as that. Of course, now that they have a really good president in Liberia, kids are starting to have a good role model there. I've been to Africa three times in the last few years. You're there working in the muck and slums and orphanages. Through the twenty-hour days, you don't think of it, but when you fly off and you look down from the plane, it hits you: How did this happen?
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