Baby with laptopEric Ferguson remembers the day last year when his first-grader asked him how to spell “Martin Luther King.” Armed with that information, the boy ran to the computer and pulled up a YouTube video. Within seconds, he was watching the Rev. King deliver his famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“It really gave me a tingle,” Ferguson says, marveling at what technology offers today’s students. He sees that impact every day as technology curriculum manager for the Bellevue School District. A former middle-school teacher, his job now is to integrate the curriculum department and the technology department to make the best possible use of technology in the classroom.

But that integration may come easier for the students than the teachers.

The challenge for teachers

Marc Prensky, educational speaker and consultant, coined the term “digital natives” in 2001 to describe students who have grown up surrounded by technology. “They are native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet,” he writes. “It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most educators suspect or realize.”

Those who were not born into the digital world are “digital immigrants” who managed to adopt much of the technology, but retain an “accent” because they still have one foot in the past. Prensky points to these examples of the accent: printing your e-mail; printing a document to edit it; making the “Did you get my e-mail?” phone call.

Those who may struggle the most are digital-immigrant teachers with a room full of digital-native students who are much more comfortable with the technology in the classroom.

Using technology wisely remains the big challenge for educators, says Dr. Bill Pfohl, professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and president-elect of the International School Psychology Association.

“As technology expands in society and in our lives, we have to have technology-literate children. But often they are more literate than the teachers who teach them. Teachers don’t get the training they need to use it effectively to enhance learning,” he says.

Dr. Pfohl says studies show that technology can facilitate learning, but, so far, cannot replace learning. “How does it inform learning, problem solving and thinking? How do we train teachers to do that?” Pfohl asks. “That is a corner I feel has not been turned yet. The corner is in sight, but we haven’t turned the corner in our public schools yet.”

‘Listen to the natives’

So, the question is how best to use technology. Usually, those decisions are made in each school, and sometimes in each classroom.

Prensky urges educators to “listen to the natives.” Teachers need to learn to laugh at their own mistakes, pay attention to how their students learn and value what they know. Students have no real voice in their own education, and their parents are no longer effective representatives. “In the 21st century, this lack of any voice on the part of the customer will soon be unacceptable,” he says.

Leslie Levenson, middle- and upper-school technology curriculum coordinator at Annie Wright School in Tacoma, says the key to helping teachers is spending one-on-one time with them making them comfortable with the technology. “Like with kids, teachers have to feel successful,” she says. “You don’t like to be unprepared. If you’re using technology and something goes wrong, as it frequently does, how do you cope with that?”

Technology offers ways to teach students that appeal to their particular style of learning, she says.

“I think that the great thing about having a computer is that you have multiple ways of presenting information,” she says. “For students who have a hard time with text-heavy material, you can find other ways of presenting it to them.”

Levenson recalls a digital-film class she taught last year, which caught the interest of some students who weren’t that engaged in their other academic classes. “I found them in the class after school hours, during lunch, before school, working on their films.”

More and more, teachers are finding technology indispensible in the classroom, including Mark Kranwinkle, a French teacher at Lakeside School in Seattle. He recalls handing out sheets of papers with class expectations and homework assignments in years past. “They’d put it in their notebooks and never look at it again. Now I put it on the Internet and we’re off. If they have any questions, they can go to my Web site,” he says.

Kranwinkle also remembers the days when school districts invested in language labs equipped with headphones and language tapes for practice. “Now I send them to the computer. They can listen to an authentic French language speaker and respond, then record themselves and send it to me.”

The research gap

Probably the most obvious change in how students learn is how they do research. In fact, a 2001 study completed by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 94 percent of youth online said they use the Internet for school research; 78 percent said they believe the Internet helped them with schoolwork. Asked about their most recent major school report, 71 percent of teenagers with Internet access said they relied on Internet sources the most in completing the project. That’s compared to 24 percent who said they relied on library sources the most. (For much more on this topic, see “Teaching research skills in a Google world,” in LearningMap, inside this issue.)

“We really see that kids, with the Internet and the speed of computers, have made people change the way they do work,” Ferguson says. “Everything is accessible. They do research differently now than we would have five years ago.”

Erica Sternin, youth services manager for the Seattle Public Library, has seen the Internet supplant the card catalog for research. But the phenomenon has led to other challenges for librarians.

“One of the things that school librarians and public librarians all share is a concern around working with children on how do you know what you’re reading is authentic and not just someone’s half-baked Web page on the Internet?” she says.

Despite the mushrooming use of technology in education, Sternin says she often sees elementary- and middle-school students in the library whose teachers have told them they can’t use Web sites for their research. The teachers are just not confident that the students will find accurate information.

“Librarians know that often the most authentic material, the information we want our kids to use, is only available in an electronic format,” she says. Wikipedia, in particular, is often off limits.

“I totally understand why teachers ask them not to use Wikipedia, but sometimes it’s one of the most accurate and thorough resources you can use,” she says. “In order to analyze the information, you have to know the source of the information.”

Wandering through ‘Web land’

Besides accuracy, the other challenge today’s students face in using technology is wading through the hundreds and thousands of Web sites offered on any given topic. Going to Google and using the first site that pops up is not always the best option. Just because that site has had more users than any other doesn’t mean it’s the best.

Sternin says preventing students from wasting hours wandering through “Web land” is one of the priorities of a good librarian. “How do I decide the strategy for deciding what looks good and accurate, and how do I get to it without spending a hundred thousand hours searching the Internet?” she said. “That’s what we try to answer.” Graph

Educators also are finding surprising evidence that time spent on social networking may be a useful educational tool. A 2007 study by the National School Boards Association found that 96 percent of students surveyed responded that they use the Internet for social networking, 71 percent use it on at least a weekly basis. Yet, the study found that the majority of school districts have strict rules against social networking during the school day.

“Indeed, both district leaders and parents believe that social networking could play a positive role in students’ lives and they recognize opportunities for using it in education,” the study asserts, urging school districts to reconsider their policies against it.

The study polled 1,277 students 9 to 17 years old, 1,039 parents and 250 school district leaders. It also found that 50 percent of students who are online spend time discussing schoolwork, and 59 percent spend time talking about education-related topics, “including college or college planning; learning outside of school; news; careers or jobs; politics, ideas, religion or morals, and schoolwork.”

Double-edged sword

But the Pew study underscores a few lurking worries about teens and social networking: “Wired” is good — but at what cost? Is cyber-life replacing important person-to-person interaction? And are teens putting themselves at risk — of embarrassment, privacy issues, or worse?

According to the study, almost half of social network-using teens visit the sites either once a day (26 percent) or several times a day (22 percent). That’s a lot of connectivity. Another Pew study found that fully 32 percent of online teens have been contacted by a stranger — and 7 percent report feeling scared or uncomfortable as a result.

Further, there is the concern shared by many parents that all of this technology makes it easier to be secretive. There’s no knowing exactly when or how often most teens are connecting; no more listening for the phone to ring, monitoring audible conversations. Kids are freer than ever to get “lost” in their own social world.

With a careful eye on those issues — and proper training about staying safe and knowing who to trust — kids can gain myriad benefits from the Internet. After all, says Prensky, the really exciting part of many kids’ education occurs after school. “This is the place where 21st-century students learn about their world and prepare themselves for their 21st-century lives.”

Elaine Bowers lives in Magnolia with her husband and teenage twin daughters.


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