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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Connecting to the 21st-Century Student

Educators must work to understand and motivate a new kind of digital learner.
By Josh McHugh
Credit: David Julian

Nathaniel Hawthorne's novels are pretty daunting fodder for the average English class, no matter how they're approached. But Diane Hamstra, a teacher at Park Tudor School, in Indianapolis, found a way to get her tenth-grade students to dive enthusiastically into the nineteenth-century moralist's dark thicket of language.

Hamstra used a software application called DyKnow Vision to let her students analyze various passages from the books on computer screens at their desk. She then posted their work on a large-screen monitor at the front of the classroom (the computer lab, in this case), and the students discussed the displayed examples. Hamstra has also had students analyze similar passages using pen and paper.

The difference is startling. Using the software, the students' responses "were deeper than with pen and ink," Hamstra says. "The focus was really sharp. There's something about changing over to an electronic medium, something about that screen. It's psychological. It's a generational thing."

No kidding. Teachers in every strata of education are increasingly dealing with a student population that is not only more wired than they are but also grew up in a techno-drenched atmosphere that has trained them to absorb and process information in fundamentally different ways. This generation of students is more likely to be armed with cell phones, laptops, and iPods than with spiral notebooks and No. 2 pencils.

Teachers who once struggled for students' attention mainly against daydreams, passed notes, class clowns, and cross-aisle flirting now also face a formidable array of gadgets and digitized content. Smart schools -- and smart educators -- are scrambling to figure out how to use these same tools and information-distribution techniques to reach and excite young minds. "You have to work with the kind of brains we've got now," says Susan Blackmore, who holds a PhD in psychology from Oxford University and frequently writes and lectures on new technology's effects on consciousness.

According to Blackmore, today's brains are shaped by various information streams -- sometimes referred to as memes -- constantly popping and sparking and competing for attention. This new generation of digital learners -- call them the MEdia Generation -- take in the world via the filter of computing devices: the cellular phones, handheld gaming devices, PDAs, and laptops they take everywhere, plus the computers, TVs, and game consoles at home. A survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that young people (ages 8-18) mainline electronic media for more than six hours a day, on average. Interestingly, many are multitasking -- listening to music while surfing the Web or instant-messaging friends while playing a video game.

Educators must figure out how to compete with this frenetic memestorm coming at them from marketers and other students. Many are. The last few years have seen a rapid classwide and districtwide use of collaborative course-management systems such as DyKnow as well as so-called social technologies -- blogs, wikis, and media-syndication systems based on the Really Simple Syndication (RSS) protocol -- that allow anyone to shift from consuming media to being a media creator. Giving students powerful media-authoring tools means relinquishing a degree of control, but doing so also makes it possible to help them learn in more effective ways (and tighter time frames) than ever before.

One way of competing with electronic distractions is to optimize lessons for the MEdia Generation's rapid-fire meme-hopping tendencies. Leapfrog Enterprises, maker of the LeapPad Learning System, the talking-book device that topped the list of best-selling toys in the United States for several years, imposes a seven-second rule on the writers and designers of its teaching toys: Stories and lessons must progress in increments of seven seconds or less, at the end of which the book prompts the child to interact with it. A concession to a fragmented attention span, perhaps, but one that recognizes reality.

Collaborative learning, too, has taken a tech-driven leap forward. In the Cranbrook Schools, in Cranbook, Michigan, for instance, students use Moodle, an open source course-management system designed to create online communities. With it, users discuss class content with teachers and other students, take quizzes and tests, and get help after school.

Class Action

Although tech awareness in the schools has increased, in many instances it does not focus on the classroom. A recent survey by CDW Corporation shows that teachers are more likely to use technology to ease the administrative requirements of K-12 education than to utilize it in instructional applications. More than 85 percent of respondents in CDW's Teachers Talk Tech survey say that while they are adequately trained on Internet, word processing, and email software, 27 percent have little or no training with integrating computers into lessons. Nonetheless, the survey indicates that more than 70 percent of teachers at all grade levels believe computers are an important driver of student learning.

Christopher Moersch, an independent Internet-technology consultant who helps schools incorporate tech into the class, says most teachers he encounters are eager to engage their students with classroom technology, but federal testing requirements consistently get priority over technology initiatives. Consequently, teachers spend most of the day in drill-and-practice mode, preparing for standardized tests.

"The typical kid's reaction is, 'I'm bored to tears,'" says Moersch. "'There's a total disconnect between my life and what's going on in the classroom.'" But if that changes, the effect on learning could be immediate and widespread. More than half the students in a nationwide survey by the National Governors' Association said their classwork is easy, and two-thirds reported they would work harder if their coursework were more interesting or challenging.

Click to enlarge picture

Credit: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study, March 2005

Click to enlarge picture

Credit: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study, March 2005

To some degree, our gizmo-intensive state of affairs is Alan Kay's fault. Kay earned the sobriquet "father of the personal computer" for his work at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the 1970s, where he came up with the concepts of the personal computer and the graphical user interface. But originally, Kay wasn't trying to create a better tool for business. He was thinking more along the lines of a teaching machine. In 1968, Kay, a computer science graduate student at the University of Utah, heard that Seymour Papert, an artificial intelligence researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was doing interesting work with computers and kids, and he visited Papert in Cambridge to check it out.

Papert, working with pioneering educational psychologist Jean Piaget, came up with a programming language called Logo, simple enough for kids to use to do math, generate poems, and even translate sentences into Pig Latin. The theory behind Logo was that children, by actually creating their own learning environment, would retain far more knowledge than they would from ordinary teaching methods. Kay came away from his visit with Papert with several new ideas, one of which led to object-oriented computing and another that prompted a device called KiddieKomp, later renamed the Dynabook.

In a 1971 memo, Kay described his vision for the device, originally intended specifically for children to use as a learning machine: "In the 1990s, there will be millions of personal computers. They will be the size of notebooks today, have high-resolution, flat-screen displays, weigh less than 10 pounds. . . . Let's call them Dynabooks."

And so it came to pass, almost exactly as Kay predicted/invented it. Except for one thing: The problem, Kay told me in a recent email, is largely with "the difficulty of adults to adjust to new ideas. I don't mean really new ideas like computing, but ideas new to the human race, like science and how it uses mathematics, or even slightly older ideas like reading and writing. Teaching the latter is still a struggle, despite its relative antiquity (and despite the fact that we know very well how to do it best). And real mathematics and real science are not yet taught in elementary and even most high schools."

Turning of the Tide

The slack tide of educational innovation Kay laments is beginning to turn, as teachers deploy the latest wave of teaching technology. The kind of Dynabook Kay envisioned is still in the wish list stage, but the means to deliver the deeply educational Dynabook experience Kay had hoped for are all around us: laptops, handheld computers, powerful cell phones, the same inescapable computing devices frequently bemoaned as weapons of mass distraction.

Together, blogs, wikis, and other social technologies are seen as a new entity that goes by many titles -- the semantic Web, Web 2.0, the read-write Web -- but whatever you call it, this swirl of media may well end up doing Kay's vision one better.

Pamela, a student at North Whiteville Academy, an alternative school in North Whiteville, North Carolina, writes on her page of teacher John Blake's class wiki, "Students are learning how to micromanage an array of elements while simultaneously balancing short- and long-term goals." Pamela's observation, incidentally, is at the heart of the defense of video games advanced recently in Steven Johnson's controversial book Everything Bad Is Good For You.

"Kids are bombarded by media," says Blake. "They're completely high tech, and they don't know a different way. When you hand them a book, they're going to say, 'Is this all there is?'"

Looking for more structure and access control than the wiki system gave him, Blake switched over to Moodle software this fall to manage class-related conversations, homework assignments, and quizzes. He also encourages students to keep blogs using BlogMeister, a student/teacher system created by the Landmark Project. To tie it all together, Blake's classes use Bloglines, a Web-based tool that aggregates RSS feeds generated by Moodle and BlogMeister so all the school-related activity and conversation can be viewed in one place.

"This is a mix-and-match generation," Blake says. "I'm looking at these things as a way to hook into what they're doing outside the classroom. When they see that I know how to use the technology, they think, 'This is going to be cool.'"

At Martin Luther King Elementary School, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, fifth- and sixth-grade classes made short documentaries about local history, architecture, and celebrities and post them to the school's video blog, Atlantic City Rough Cuts. "We're using video blogging to put students in contact with real professionals," Art Wolinsky, the consultant and retired teacher who helped set up the Atlantic City project, said at the time. "They're-creating products that are going to have an impact on them, on their friends, and on the community."

Older kids, even those getting ready for college, benefit from new applications of technology. High schoolers can tap into Boston Test Prep's BTP to Go, an audible SAT test-preparation course downloadable onto digital audio players such as iPods, as well as PDAs, smart phones, and other listening devices. The audio format allows students the freedom to prepare for the SAT at their own pace and within their crazy schedules. Such personalized instruction can also alleviate much of the stress caused by an SAT prep course held in a traditional classroom setting.

Shifting Power Centers

Of course, there's a price educators pay when they open their classes up to the world: Power tends to move from the center outward, an exact duplication of the effect of the Internet on many institutions. In March, the principal of Proctor High School, in Rutland, Vermont, banned access from school computers to MySpace, a blogging site popular with students, saying blogging isn't an "educational use of computers" and citing concerns about Internet predators.

Just as in corporate America, where companies such as Delta Airlines, Microsoft, and even Google have fired employees over blog posts, schools are working on policies designed to protect themselves while trying not to stifle personal expression. For educators accustomed to making and enforcing absolute rules, letting the inmates take part in running the asylum (an inexact metaphor, of course) is going to take some getting used to. But in the end, the best way for students to learn about the world they live in is to have a hand in creating it.

"The key to teaching is keeping kids involved," says Ryan Ritz, the computer science teacher who first brought the DyKnow system to the Park Tudor School. "They like everything being electronic -- it's speaking their language." Ritz cites near-instant feedback during class as the most important feature of the system, allowing him to know which points the students have observed and which ones need to be revisited." You know immediately where they stand," he says. "This is a better way to learn."

Josh McHugh is a contributing writer for Wired magazine.

Comments (77)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Daria Horbachevsky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher, it is my responsibility to try a variety of ways to connect with my students. While there continues to be much value in "tried-and-true" methods, I feel I must educate myself in the rapid-fire world of technology. Yes, kids today are assaulted by media, but they are adapting and multi-tasking successfully. For me, I've always maintained a healthy skepticism, yet seeing is believing. This year I had a Smartboard in my classroom for the first time, and it clearly maintained student interest longer. Now I am compelled to familiarize myself with other forms of technology, because that's what the 21st century requires.
Still, I worry that the hardware or software will change as soon as I feel proficient in it. How am I to keep up? My brain is not wired in the same way as today's learners; my skills are improving, but it's likely that my students will always be more skilled. My school district boasts a strong technology department, and specialists try to keep us updated on many of the new products. Without them, I would be lost.
I don't agree that technology can replace the joy of reading a good book, turning its pages, folding down corners, jotting notes by stirring passages, rereading favorite parts. However, perhaps technology can help the reluctant reader through different interactive methods. Yet, as the teacher, I have the responsibility to try connecting with my students in whatever ways work best for them.

Stacey Buerkle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a first grade teacher and I absolutely agree that children are powering down when they come to school. Technology plays such a crucial in their lives. Recently, I taught a unit on maps. While charting what my class already knew about maps, I realized that many of them would never have to open up a map in their cars that would fill up the front seat. Almost every child had some sort of GPS device in their car. I knew that I had to approach this unit of study differently. I think it is important for teachers to learn as much about technology as possible and I think that districts need to be more responsible about providing learning opportunities. There is a lot of inconsistency in schools. There are the teachers that are tech savvy and those that are not. I believe that districts need to even out the playing field so students have common experiences.

Debbie Monticelli's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article was very interesting. There are still many teachers out there who feel that the old pen and pencil way is still just fine. Obviously studies are now showing and proving that is not always true. We need to change with the times. As teachers we should be modifying year after year anyway to best meet the needs of our students. Technology is a huge part of that. I myself, in my eighth year, get overwhelmed with that idea because staff development and time doesn't always allow for it. However, if we did even a little at a time to incorporate these new ideas, it would make a difference.
We are in a huge technological time and as the article states, some student's minds work a little different now. We must adjust. This would definitely help with the boredom and disconnect some kids are feeling at school.
I went to a class on wikis this year. I had no idea what on earth the guy was even talking about at first, but it seemed quite interesting and would be something I would be interested in learning more about. He had his students do homework that way and respond to each other etc.
As a science teacher, I am thinking how useful something like that would be in regards to articles and such about all the research, cloning, stem cells, DNA information etc there is out there. They could have debates, discussions, voice their opinions and concerns. I think that would be great.

Angela Langston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is no doubt that today's educator needs to stay on top of technological trends in order to engage and motivate our students who are all tech savvy. However, with the current budget crisis that many school districts face, it is going to be quite a challenge for educators to be trained and current software and updated technology to be purchased. Teachers will have to be creative in accessing free online resources, collaborating with colleagues who perhaps are more on the cutting edge with technology and allowing our students to lead us into the changes of the digital age. All this being said, we must not forget that teaching is about content, not gadgets.

I am a high school art teacher who teaches an introduction to art using the computer as the main medium of expression This course, Studio in Media Arts, fulfills the New York State requirements for an art credit for graduation. I designed this curriculum since I felt that there was a need to engage students in the arts, be it traditional art or digital art, in a way that they can relate to. This has become such a popular class that it another teacher now has to also help teach some of the sessions.

Although we use computers, the students are taught art. I stress that the class is not a technology course nor am I a technology teacher. The computer is used as a vehicle to help the students explore their creativity and learn about art history in a fun way that is relevant to them. They learn about the elements and principles of art and can apply this same thinking to a painting or sculpture, as well as, the computer. I always encourage students to also take classes in traditional art. The arts, in any form, can engage students in creativity, over all education, and help to develop the critical thinking problem solving skills that they will need in this ever-changing world.

Susan Zucchero's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Technology has changed our lives for the better for sure. In my opinion that doesn't mean that it need replace all that we have the ability to do. Technology can enhance or decrease social interactions. We are social beings and need to remain so. Students who spend an inordinate amount of time using technology sometimes are at a deficite as compared to their peers. Multitasking was referred to in this article in a way that made it seem like a positive behavior. Remember-Jack of all trades... Our brains are wired to carry out one function at a time. Multitasking decreases focus as well as sustained focus. These are important life skills to possess.
Keeping balance in our lives leads to increased productivity and happiness. Including the ability to use a pen and paper as well as a computer to communicate. Our brains can be enriched by being able to carry out both processes. It's better for us. Technology will continue to be a positive force for all of us, remembering to balance it.

Nancy Montgomery's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In today's world one would be crazy to ignore all the advances in technology and not try to integrate their use in the classroom. As teachers, we are always striving for ways to connect learning to students' lives in the real world. What better way than embracing what they have become most passionate about - Technology! On the other hand, I don't think that a PowerPoint lesson or video up on the Smartboard is the answer to all our instructional problems. Just as with all the research done on multiple intelligences, different students learn in different ways. Technology should be just one tool in a teacher's arsenal, not the ONLY tool. The key to good teaching is interesting, engaging lessons in which students actively participate. The use of technology, just like other good teaching tools can facilitate this process. We can never forget that it is our job as educators to design lessons to try to reach all of our students and teach to their strengths as best we can.

Melissa Worthington's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that children's brains seem to be shaped differently. We as teachers always change a bit each year to fit the needs of our students. However, I feel like these days I am only one step ahead of them. That is a scarey thought with fifth graders.

John Scognamiglio's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems to me that this article sort of just points out very obvious things. Adults need to get over themselves and realize that their students have as much to offer them as they can offer in return. Students are not dumb people that need school to enhance their lives. Schools and teachers are what students need to let them explore the world, but without the students, the teachers cannot teach them what the world is all about. Technology, as it is constantly growing and is predominant in today's society is a vital part of young people's lives, thus it is what the world is all about. We, as educators, cannot teach our students to live in this world without knowing what it's all about ourselves, and we need to learn about it from our students. As adults, we cannot get ourselves wrapped up all of the newest trends out there in the electronic worlds, as we have other responsibilities: mortgages, families, etc. Students have the time to devote much more to these new trends, and we must learn from them.

Laura Myrick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is amazing what students know about technology these days. As an educator, I know that I should be trying to use more technology in my room. It is just difficult to find a balance. I want it to be relevant for them and I want them to learn from it. Sometimes I feel they do not get anything from it except fun time. I need more suggestions on how to use technology more effectively in room. Any suggestions?

jbecker's picture

As a graduate student currently pursuing my teacher certification, I feel like I have an advantage over current teachers in that I do not yet have any preset ways of teaching. Therefore, it should be somewhat easier for me to incorporate technology in my classroom because I am not used to teaching any other way. On the flip side, with the rapid pace that technology changes, I am sure that I won't be teaching for more than a few years before the technology that I started using in my classroom is outdated. I strongly believe that the best way to reach and teach kids is to use what they know and build on their current knowledge and experiences, which, in today's world, is technology. This, however, poses a huge problem from schools, which was mentioned in an earlier post, and that is cost. Technology isn't cheap. And with it changing so fast, it becomes unaffordable for all but the most elite schools to keep the technology in the classrooms up to date. One of the biggest challenges for teachers, then, is how to most effectively engage students in the technology that is available in the classrooms, as well as search for less expensive programs and software that can be incorporated into the current technology.

Another comment that was made in earlier post had to do with the importance of continuing to teach students pencil and paper writing. I do understand that there is nothing like receiving a hand-written thank you note, but typing is the new writing. Just like pencil and paper writing was, at one time, the new ink well calligraphy. There is less and less of a need for people today to write, because everywhere you go typing is available. For instance, it is much easier to type a quick note to yourself on your phone than find a pencil and paper and then remember where you put the note. And as far as requiring kids to think and write with pencil and paper, well, that would've been like our teachers expecting us to think and write using an ink well.

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