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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are Students Tech-Savvy or Text-Savvy?

By Melissa Weatherwax — May 10, 2017 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Melissa Weatherwax, a K-12 technology coach in the Averill Park Central School District (Averill Park, NY).

Walk through any middle or high school and you’ll find most students with a device stuck in front of their face, snuck under a desk, or capturing a selfie. Students owning a personal device are younger, and the rate of alarm in schools is getting higher. Whether a hallway, a classroom, the library or cafeteria, schools are being invaded by these expert techies and teachers are afraid of what this world is coming to.

Our students are masters; they can send a duck-lipped Snap faster than the speed of sound and they’re able to text or post on Instagram before any adult catches on. Students aren’t afraid to pull a device out at any time; seemingly professionals. As we teach and learn in the 21st century schools look almost the same as they have historically, but students don’t. At each turn it seems there is an experienced student with a device and along with that comes the hesitation of teachers who feel their best hope is to post a sign on their classroom’s door forbidding technology from crossing the threshold.

I say, we’ve been hoaxed.

We’ve been fooled into thinking our students are tech savvy when they’re really text savvy.

They’re consumers, they’re not creators. They have snowed their teachers into believing they know everything about technology and we have believed them. In reality, our students rarely use a device to innovate or iterate, but instead use them as instant gratification machines or to do rote practice or tasks.

I believe there are two issues at hand.

First, students have many years’ experience in the “school game”. They know how to provide the correct answer, they know how to cite a source, they are good at studying the “right” answers. They are good at equating the word ‘presentation’ to a slideshow tool where they include, and speak, every word with little interpretation. They are used to a quick fix and that is the depth of their use. For all of these years students have been told exactly what to do and it hasn’t included being taught how to create or iterate using technology. When we change the expectation for students or require more depth of understanding, students begin to get uneasy.

Second, often times use of personal technology in schools is condemned. Often when devices are used in schools, they become a $1,000 pencil (November, 2012). Essentially, we ask students to do the same traditional task by replacing a pencil with an expensive tech tool rather than transforming a student’s learning experience. When teachers do attempt a transformational activity, falling back on our false assumptions of our savvy students, they aren’t prepared for the perseverance that will be required to assist students through the task.

Our current education system isn’t terribly current. In fact, it maintains it’s strong roots in the industrialized model that was created in the late 1800s, based on the need to move from agriculture to manufacturing. Often times technology substitutes traditional tasks so it can be checked off the never-ending list of things we have to get done. We need to change the way we structure learning and begin to allow students to demonstrate deeper understanding than historically asked. This is where we could capitalize on their love of technology and use applications of technology to deepen the skills and topics we currently teach.

One of the things I love most about being an edtech instructional coach is guiding, partnering and collaborating with classroom teachers; pushing limits, dreaming big, creating possibilities. Recently, I have been lucky to work with teachers who are pushing the limits of their own comfort with technology in attempts at providing a deeper learning experience for students.

Teachers have asked students to create powerful presentations to be shared in a distance learning format, to create a presentation that would be posted on the closed network television system, to analyze scenes from a classic film and present findings through a multimedia presentation, and to develop their own website to document ongoing research. In each situation, the teachers gave plenty of examples and sources for students to utilize.

The list of activities is exciting. The list of reactions is intriguing:

“Doing a Power Point! Reading off the slides can’t fail”

“This is dumb. Why can’t she just give us a worksheet?”

“Listen, I’m doing Slides. It’s easy.”

“I’m taking the hit on this one. It’s too much work.”

“Can’t he just give us a worksheet? This is too much thinking.”

“How can you and Ms. B stay so calm when this won’t work?”

In each of these cases students were panicking and paralyzed; putting up their best defenses. We assume that they are comfortable with the concept of demonstrating their understanding through technology because they’ve done a great job fooling us. They haven’t had the responsibility of owning their learning and demonstrating understanding by creating and connecting using a device. At this point, teachers were asking the students to take ownership and they were pushing back because they haven’t had many opportunities, if any at all.

In the situations above, and many others like it, not only were we asking students to think differently about their learning, but we were also asking them to use their technology to create, not to consume. We were asking students to apply their learning and they weren’t happy; they didn’t like our changes to the rules of the “school game”. Students are not okay with having to struggle to find a solution, be constructive within ambiguity, to become connected for a purpose, to create a unique product and to persevere through a problem.

We sometimes forget that although devices are such a huge part of our students’ lives, they generally haven’t had the instruction or experience using their devices as a means to create or empower. There is incredible potential in technology to create powerful learning if students are taught how. In each scenario above, teachers had great ideas and were making their best attempt to transform learning using technology, but the students had never been asked to complete a task like this and their panic was masked by complaint and refusal. Those same students who have a device in their face during most of their day don’t know where to begin.

Students need to be guided in this process of iteration and creation, of 21st century digital citizenship and collaboration. Often, the application of understanding is on a worksheet and the teacher is their only audience. They do not see the connection between themselves and other learners or the critical relationship that learning creates between them. It is our responsibility to help students make these connections.

In my edtech journey I’ve discovered a few things:

  • Our students are consumers, not creators or collaborators.
  • Our students can take a perfect selfie, but don’t know how to begin a powerful presentation.
  • Our students complete assignments for an audience of one, but not for one that has larger opportunity.
  • Our students can communicate with an emoji, but not with a strong message.
  • Our students care how many friends they have, but not how many they impact.
  • Our students know how much power their device has, but not the power they have.
  • Our students know the list of “don’t”, but haven’t been taught how to “do”.
  • Our students don’t expect us to figure out how to use technology in their education, but I am determined that we can.

One of my latest reads has been Who Owns the Learning by Alan November. Before the first page was turned, before the binding was cracked, I was intrigued. I’ve been intrigued with the title since it arrived. Since then, each classroom that I pass, each discussion I have had, I ask myself and others the very question that covers the book. I’d recommend we all do.

Connect with Melissa on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.