Professional Learning

Students as Change Agents: Kids Help Integrate Tech Into the Classroom

This Washington school district sets an example that is quickly catching on.

December 1, 1996

Tech-savvy students are a huge resource in providing computer and other high-tech knowledge to teachers and other staffers.

Credit: Olympia School District

No library card is needed in the "virtual library" where our children can download articles from Grolier's or Britannica. Banks electronically deposit our checks and pay our bills. We e-mail our co-workers to pass along important messages. Truly, the use of telecommunications has become an integral part of the way we work and live.

The problem is that telecommunications hasn't had the same impact on the way we learn -- yet. Helping students and teachers use information and communications technologies has lagged behind the emergence of the technologies themselves.

Given America's move toward a highly technological society, teachers should become expert at using the new technological tools. However, meaningful change will be limited without a plan, time, money, and help for teachers.

Currently, both new and experienced teachers have little systematic training in technology, don't know how to integrate it in their classrooms every day, and have limited time to upgrade their skills. They do not fully understand or believe that telecommunications, for example, can improve student learning. Many fear that they may not be able to learn how to use these new tools.

When training time is limited, it is also tempting to ignore opportunities for socialization and individualized support. Like many other time-deprived professionals, teachers are interested in practical applications, not abstractions. They prefer to control their environments and are impatient with things that don't work. Yet teachers who have formed supportive bonds with their colleagues and students seem to learn much faster. The more casually and frequently these bonds can be reinforced, the better.

While traditional school reform generally involves meetings, workshops, and other communication among educators, these efforts seldom involve businesses, parents, and community groups, and too often they don't involve students. That is what makes the Olympia School District (OSD) in Washington State different. OSD is noted nationally for involving students to support technology, including hardware maintenance, World Wide Web development, network administration, and assistance to classroom teachers.

OSD is a district of eighteen schools and 9,000 students, primarily from middle- and lower-middle-class families. OSD's Technology Plan extensively involves students collaborating with teachers, the local community, and corporate sponsors. Additionally, OSD has developed a partnership of school districts, colleges of education, community groups, and businesses to help integrate telecommunications in the classroom. For example, Microsoft and Intel, located near OSD, offer internships, technical support, and software for the schools.

By using students to provide the necessary teacher support, OSD teachers and students learn together how to find resources to meet instructional goals. Overcoming teacher hesitancy and inexperience in telecommunications requires changing the culture surrounding computers in education -- and that is just what OSD is addressing.

Student-teacher collaboration in the Olympia School District has proved to be a model around the country.

Credit: Olympia School District

No Outside Experts

OSD does not bring in out-of-town experts to help train its teachers, because experience shows that just when a teacher attempts to apply some new computer skill, a question will arise, and the expert is long gone. Only job-embedded professional development provides long-term buy-in.

For that reason, OSD uses its students to provide training and support for its own teachers and to regularly teach workshops both in and outside the district. The students have also made presentations to governmental agencies and educational conferences and have helped develop plans for other states where students are taking the lead in technology integration with teaching and learning. It would have been impossible for OSD to create its network infrastructure if students were not involved.

The students' help also extends to their peers. Students can often teach other students about technology better than adults. Kids understand new technologies and how to explain them far more naturally than many over the age of thirty do. Fourth graders -- some totally new to computers -- soon teach students to create home pages and PowerPoint® presentations. The teacher who uses these classroom assistants appropriately can dramatically increase learning opportunities.

For this new student-teacher relationship to be successful, students need the skills of systematic thinking, experimentation, and collaboration. They become the information navigators, critical thinkers, creators of knowledge, effective communicators, selectors of appropriate technology, citizens, technicians, workers, learners, and community members.

A Means to Change

Technologies, once utilized, can leverage change. But that is the point: First we must use them. To use powerful technologies optimally, we must take the focus off technology and shift it to the information it enables students, educators, parents, and businesses to access. The vision should not be of students alone at computers, under the watchful but silent eye of a teacher-manager.

Here at OSD, groups of students share computers as resources, such as they might use a dictionary, blackboard, or calculator, and the teacher is the facilitator. Students may start by browsing a network, but if they are going to learn, they need to apply its contents to support meaningful inquiry, with teachers facilitating this process. OSD is committed to making schools more challenging; giving students greater responsibility for "inventing their lives"; and making instruction more interactive, collaborative, and closely tied to real-life experience. Technology helps to support this goal as teachers:

  • become comfortable with a project-based, problem-solving approach to learning;
  • allow students to progress independently and at widely varying paces;
  • recognize that students know more than they, as teachers, do about certain subjects and techniques, and let the students become expert teachers at various times;
  • realize that they do not need to have complete control over what resources the student accesses or learns; and
  • change directions when technical glitches occur.

Information and communication technologies are not simply subjects. They are a lifestyle. To learn from others through computers is to live the lifestyle while, at the same time, preparing for it. Students need to understand technology so they will be able to control it, integrate it into their lives, and use it humanely. They need to be "upside down" inside the system (i.e., students as teachers and teachers as students), tap their own capacity, and enhance their teachers' capacity.

It is OSD's three-year success with student-teacher collaboration that has many educators and business leaders from around the United States wanting the model to be refined, documented, and disseminated. As a result, OSD has been chosen to receive one of the U.S. Department of Education's twenty-four Challenge grants. The $3.7 million in federal money is being matched by another $9 million in corporate donations, mainly from technology companies.

As students pass their skills and attitudes toward technology to their peers and collaborate with teachers, a more challenging curriculum emerges, and student achievement improves. Thus, students develop the needed skills to be successful in the workplace for the century ahead.

Dennis Harper is executive officer for Generation YES (also known as GenYES), a program in which students share their technology expertise with teachers.

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