You may have heard, in reference to the Internet, the saying "Information wants to be free." It turns out this expression applies to learning, too. Education is no longer limited by time (six hours a day, five days a week, thirty-eight weeks a year) and space (the classroom and school), and indeed now happens in a realm without bounds: Wherever there's access to the Internet, education is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. Learning, like information, is now always "on."
Four years ago, a video produced by The George Lucas Education Foundation included an arresting scene: Students from San Fernando High School, in the southern California city of San Fernando, were sitting in a parked car one evening, their faces illuminated by a dim glow, outside the home of their teacher -- a scene that might startle many educators.
They were not lighting up illegal substances, however; they were illuminating their minds, using the wireless hub inside Marco Torres's home to access the Internet, because their school was closed. Now, after-school programs are extending the technology resources of schools and keeping the doors to learning open beyond the final bell, so that students, parents, and other community members can take advantage of computers and the Internet to further their learning.
Many educators and policy makers agree that the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act has led to a regrettable narrowing of the curriculum. The focus on testing may also be choking our students' creativity, as they are taught to value getting the right answer at the cost of more expansive thinking. Though this constriction has spelled bad news for schools, it has proven to be good news for after-school programs. Many applied, integrated, project-based-learning experiences have been moved into the "after-school" hours -- which include evenings, weekends, and summers as well as afternoons.
Following are a few examples of how after-school programs are keeping pace with technology, and enabling students to use the latest media and software to support creative and powerful learning.
The Partnerships for Unlimited Educational Opportunity (or PUEO; the word the acronym forms is also Hawaiian for "owl"), started in 2005, is the result of an unusual partnership between the independent Punahou School and public schools in Honolulu, Hawaii. Middle school students, called PUEO Scholars, commit to spending each summer for three years on the beautiful Punahou campus studying science, engineering, multimedia, and other subjects.
In one class, I observed Douglas Kiang, a Boston-area teacher, sharing his passion for flight simulators with his class. Students were using Microsoft Flight Simulator, a software program for adult aviation enthusiasts, to fly among airports in the Hawaiian Islands. Pairs of students used a simulated yoke to practice takeoffs and landings and eventually pilot a plane on a charted flight path from one Hawaiian airport to another.
In another class, students were engaged in Logo Robotics, designing and programming robots that could move forward, sideways, or backward, as well as rotate. In one exercise, two sumo robots are placed in a circle; the robot that pushes the other out of the circle wins.
Punahou also used additional funding to buy out its leases on Apple laptop computers, giving each PUEO scholar his or her first personal computer. Several of the students told me their family already had a computer at home but they were excited to have a machine to call their own.
The Chicago Public Schools work with a range of after-school programs and partners that involve the innovative use of technology. John Spry Community School, for example, uses the MIRACLES program, founded in 2001 by Todd Wagner, a technology entrepreneur from Texas. (The initials stand for the concepts Measures Progress; Internet-Based; Remote Access; After-School Curriculum; Core Curriculum; Life, Educational, & Technology Skills; Evaluation Ongoing; and Scalable Nationwide.)
MIRACLES now operates twenty technology labs in seven cities. As with PUEO, students and families make a multiyear commitment starting in the middle school years. When I visited the Spry program, students were using Excel spreadsheets and graphs to predict the distribution of colored M&Ms in a bowl -- an interesting (and delicious) exercise in statistical thinking. Other students were recording their musical compositions for a video.
At the North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School, middle school students participated in an after-school project making "movie reports" on aspects of Chicago's history. Topics included the African American neighborhood of Bronzeville in the 1930s, the role of the Black Panthers in the civil rights movement, and the redevelopment of the Ida B. Wells housing complex, built in 1941 -- the first city housing development with a park, playgrounds, and athletic fields.
Mentored by professionals such as National Public Radio producer David Isay, the students used historic photos and footage, digital cameras, editing software, and laptops to produce their documentaries. Some of their work has been honored in student media competitions. The project was documented by cognitive psychologist Kristina Hooper Woolsey as part of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation about today’s young digital natives.
As these examples illustrate, a growing number of after-school programs are giving young people the media tools to tell their own stories through digital art, photography, music, and filmmaking. This trend also extends to the design of the rapidly changing field of computer games.
Playing 4 Keeps
At this Global Kids program in Brooklyn, teens channel their enthusiasm for visual entertainment into designing educational video games. Playing 4 Keeps encourages teens to study topic,s such as racial profiling in airports, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or the rural life of a Haitian family as subject matter for their final product.
At South Shore High School, students in after-school workshops learn about game design and programming, as well as global issues such as human rights, racism, health, education, and children's rights.
A final example of an innovative learning tool for the after-school setting is READ 180 software, an exemplary instructional system for literacy developed to reverse declines in reading students in grades 4-12. The software uses advances in technology for diagnostic teaching, analyzing student reading patterns, and adjusting instruction based on immediate feedback.
Created by Vanderbilt University professor Ted Hasselbring and published by Scholastic since 1999, the program has been shown to improve reading comprehension for English-language learners, African American and Native American students, and special-education students.
For a research study conducted by MPR Associates at a school in Brockton, Massachusetts, ninety-minute school periods were shortened to sixty minutes for after-school programs, with the time divided in three segments: small-group direct instruction, independent and modeled reading, and use of the READ 180 software.
When implemented with 300 students in grades 4-6, children using this after-school version of READ 180 improved in oral reading fluency and word recognition -- with some variation by grade level -- compared to a control group. The researchers concluded that "participation in the intervention led to greater fluency by improving students' ability to read words more quickly and accurately." READ 180 students also had more regular attendance and appeared more motivated to participate in the after-school program.
Looking Toward the Future
Perhaps school districts and their community partners will some day envision and fund a new "learning year," where students and teachers are able to engage in learning activities throughout the day and across the weeks and months with time off for vacations but without the three-month summer break. Can we conceive of a system that encourages learning beyond the standard school year, a system in which students are constantly stimulated and want to come to school early and stay late?
Students from more affluent families benefit from such a learning year and are able to go on trips to museums, take art and science enrichment classes, and travel throughout the United States and to other countries to broaden their horizons. The digital divide in access to technology continues, however, as many students from lower-income families have little regular access to personal computers and broadband Internet capability. Our challenge now is to make such learning experiences available to all students as part of their public school experience. Innovative after-school programs are already demonstrating how this new type of learning year can become a reality.
Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.