Connecting to the 21st-Century Student

Educators must work to understand and motivate a new kind of digital learner.

Educators must work to understand and motivate a new kind of digital learner.
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.

Syncing Up

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.

This article originally published on 9/26/2005

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Caroline (not verified)

Bend Like a Bamboo

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I know teachers who think that technology is just another one of those gimmicks in the classroom. A gimmick that might be the buzzword right now, but can very well change in a couple of years or so. Hence, they don't bother to incorporate the Smartboard that they were lucky enough to get in the classroom into their lessons. Like the article mentioned, they use it for "administrative tasks" like taking attendance, for example. Others, meanwhile, don't like technology because they think it dilutes their content. What this article clearly shows us is that technology can enhance the content that we teach. With the various sources out there, students can bring in their own knowledge when covering a topic in class. And I think therein lies the problem for some of these anti-tech teachers -- that the kids may know more than them. The article also made a valid point of how the Internet had shifted the power from the center. This ultimately will happen in the classroom. Once the only repository and deliverer of knowledge, now the teacher or professor may be threatened. But that is exactly the gate of opportunity that educators must use. We SHOULD empower students with their learning. My personal motto in the classroom is that we teachers are here not only to teach them the WHAT of learning, but more importantly the HOW of learning. How do we take in and disseminate information? What's the best way that I learn? And with today's technology, we've got to capitalize on their knowledge. If it's technology that will get them to pay attention or apply the content, then that's the avenue we need to take. We must be like a bamboo -- sway with the wind, but still keeping all its strength in tact. We are not selling out if we use technology; we're enhancing their experience and ours.

patricia Werner (not verified)

I teach a class of Autistic

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I teach a class of Autistic children who range in both age and ability. In my classroom and I’m sure in many other classrooms motivating students and keeping their attention are two of the top five challenges! Although many people feel that our ability as educators to guide students is ‘old school’ and technology is a more efficient way, I feel technology is a ‘good buddy’ and should be supplemental. Technology is fascinating and it certainly opens a window to ‘their world’ but I believe students, especially Autistic students need the human connection and interaction while learning how to respond appropriately to people. I recently received a Smartboard in my classroom and it has been an amazing tool in gaining student attention and increasing participation. At first, I thought this was going to ‘save me some energy’ and I quickly learned that the Smartboard is a tool to enhance teaching rather than an ‘energy saver’. A few ‘cool tricks’ technology has brought to my classroom through the Smartboard is…animation, amazing visual aides and the touch of a finger to change the screen and regain wandering minds. Technology is a gift to the classroom!

Jeanne Canon (not verified)

Create a Level Playing Field

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In my opinion, rather than fighting technology, I feel that we need to embrace it. There are so many uses for technology that will help us to further students' learning and reach students who we might otherwise not reach. I have two children of my own who are much more tech savvy than I. My older son, has struggled with OT issues, especially handwriting, and my younger son, who has autism and has obviously struggled with more than OT issues, both florish when able to use a computer. Last year I received a grant to purchase books on CD. I was able to correlate the books that I purchased with books used by each grade level in my building. In this way, children who otherwide would struggle to decode some of the text, were able to hear the words read fluently and they were provided with a model of good oral reading. I purchased all of the audiobooks through Amazon, where I could get the most bang for my buck. While searching for books, I came across information about Kindle, an electronic device for downloading books. They call it "wireless reading", and I couldn't help but notice the huge difference in price for downloading a book, which was very cheap, and buying CDs which could cost as much aa thirty or forty dollars each. The Kindle, or other wireless reading devices, will certainly be the wave of the future. For example, it can holdmore than 1,500 titles and after purchasing a book, it is delivered to your Kindle in less than 60 seconds. This is an expensive device, about $350, but if that's too much for your current classroom budget, an alternative could be to download books to an i-pod and students would check out books and take home the i-pods with the audio on them. I am looking into applying for another grant next year, with which I could purchase i-pods for students to borrow for listening not only to audio books, but podcasts as well. I've given students website addresses so that they can practice certain skills at home, however, we cannot assume that the playing field is level for all of our students. I deal with students who have immigrated from other countries. Some of these students have every electronic device available to them, and others don't have the internet or a computer at home. So, as we expand our use of technolgoy in schools, we must keep the playing field equal for all students and make sure that they all have equal access to technology, regardless of income, which will certainly be a challenge.

Lori D'Andrea (not verified)

The NEW Way!

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Teachers do need to continue to educate themselves on all the new trends and ideas in education. Research has a way of changing things every few years. Change is hard but necessary for all. Our children are growing up in a media world. "The key to teaching is keeping kids involved," says Ryan Ritz, "They like everything being electronic -- it's speaking their language." Ritz cites. Ritz could not have stated it better. If keeping kids engaged and involved means changing how we teach then we must do so! Children get only one chance to learn so it is our job as teachers to give it our best shot. Teachers need to connect with what children are doing on the outside and bring those interests into the classroom. That is what makes learning fun and meaningful.
As a student, I often wondered why do I need to know this? Why are they teaching me this? How will I ever use this? Answering these questions is so important for children. It helps them connect the real world to the classroom.
For all those teachers who think they can continue to teach from the same binder year after year...STOP! Think! How can I ,make learning fun and engaging for all my students? The answer is through technology!

Erika (not verified)

We DO need to hit the ground running!

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We need to understand that our students are participating in rapid evolution of thought and language before our very eyes. Computers, cellphones and even gaming systems fall into the basic categories of the fundamental needs of humans. Of course we can answer the question, "What did we do before the computer or cellphone?" We just have to understand that we cannot ask to resort to that type of mentality. It really is an exciting time and we need to know how to be a part of this conversation that our students are facilitating and enjoying.

John A Medeiros (not verified)

Technology: An important teaching tool

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I have always believed that teachers are more then just educators. We can not expect to simply provide information to our students and expect them to absorb it like sponges. Our job description and has expanded to entertainer as well. I teach technology classes to middle school students in Massachusetts and have found that kids love just about anything that has to do with technology. My classes work on computer related assignments 90% of the time and the behavior issues are few. Students often tell me that my class is the one they look forward to each week. I do not have any special plan for success that the other teachers are missing; my weapon to combat boredom is the use of technology.

I tried to teach the concept of data bases to an eight grade class with limited success, there was little interest in the topic until I took out my cell phone and asked “who has one of these”. Head s immediately went up, eyes opened wide, and all hands were raised. They were now eager to hear what I had to say. I went on to explain that the numbers they have in their phone are a data base they created. In order for students to have an interest in the subject or topic being covered in class they need to see how it is relevant to their life. Discussing a random list of data is difficult to relate to, but the way their friends and families phone numbers are stored on a cell phone is an interesting topic they will want to explore further.

Do you want to create more interesting lessons? Have a more manageable classroom environment? Get the student’s attention and keep it by integrating technology into your classroom.

venhi (not verified)

We Need To Compete With Finland

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Finland is ranked highest on international math/science high-school exams with Asian countries like Singapore, China, and Korea not far behind. If we want to prepare "iKids" for the global market (it will be in it's upcycle when they are adults) then implementing open source tools are a must. Educators need to "digitize" their classrooms so that our children can one day flourish in the sci/tech sectors. There need to be more cross-cultural exchanges and earlier exposures to reading. I update weekly with free tools here Let's all take advantage of open-source sharing to ensure a bright future for our kids, for their future is also ours.

Amanda Keen (not verified)

A agree with this article

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A agree with this article that technology is becoming a huge part of education. I think it really is neat and will provide some students with a lot of extra support. I believe that if teachers are willing to go through the training to learn how to incorporate it into their classroom, they will be surprised and happy with the results. I admit that sometimes it is overwhelming, but I don't think it's going to go away. In fact, I believe it will become the norm. I am lucky enough to be a school district that is very supportive and in favor of using technology. All classrooms are equipped with wall projectors instead of tvs. It seems like everything runs though the computers! The 5th grades are wireless and can be found using laptops on a regular basis. The goals is to have this for every classroom. Our principal feels that in a few years, we will no longer even have a "computer lab" since we will have the laptops to use! I am excited to see how far technology will take us and to see the benefits that will be seen in the future.

John Whiting (not verified)

It seems like the students

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It seems like the students we will interact with in the future will process information in vastly different ways than many of us geezers do now. I believe this will open up teaching both to many more challenges as well as opportunities. It seems like we, as educators, will need to hit the ground running and make sure we stay ahead of the wave.

Lena Fahringer (not verified)

This article is extremely

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This article is extremely informative. It gives a clear overview as to what extent technology plays a key role in our MEdia Generations' way of absorbing, processing, and interacting with the world. I wonder if this propensity to absorb the world through "computing devices", and the ability to technologically multi-task will eventually change the way our new generations' brain is wired!
I think the article brings up two important points that I agree with. One, technology speaks the digital learner's language, and is therefore extremely important in the delivery of education. Two, students learn best when they can "create their own learning environment", which technology facilitates. I agree that there should be a gradual increase in the availability and use of technology in the classroom in order to optimize learning, and make learning "cool". In my school, for instance, the drive is to have all teachers using SMARTboards, but as with all technology it can be intimidating, and it requires extra time and dedication. I think this dedication is vital in the growth towards becoming more effective teachers, no matter how many years we have under our belts! It's also important to incorporate the technology so that it doesn't become something extra, which we don't have the time for when we're busy preparing the students for the standardized tests that are given at regular intervals throughout the year.
On the other hand, I do believe that technology, although the way of the future, should no take the place of paper and pen, and especially reading a good book. Take Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Desperaux (the book). It is magic, full of deep wisdom. Can reading a book of that caliber ever be replaced by technology? I don't believe the article is saying anything like that, but I do feel that technology can create a virtual world that can be removed from our world. For example, there is a big drive to be "green", having greater respect for nature, and saving Earth's resources. This can best be achieved, in my opinion, if we instill in children a love for nature. Love for nature, however, comes from living in it. It comes from walking through the woods, tending a garden, appreciating the beauty of a sunset. We need to preserve that time, or make the time, to interact directly with people and nature.

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