Special Report
Education

Outside Interests

By Catherine Gewertz — March 22, 2007 8 min read
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Even before Randy Herrera opens his eyes on school mornings, his high-tech life begins. With a click from his CD alarm clock, the music he bought on the Web and burned onto CDs fills his room. If that doesn’t wake him, his cellphone will. Set to “vibrate,” it buzzes loudly on the floor near his head.

“If I haven’t called my friends by like 7:15, I’ll get a text message going, ‘Hey, man, wake up,’ ” Herrera says. A 17-year-old senior at Central High School in Providence, R.I., he listens to music and exchanges text messages as he rides to school on a city bus. After school, he pays bills online or talks to his dad in Spain via a webcam attached to his computer. He might shoot scenes for his latest video, or use special software to edit images, dub in music, or write lines for the actors—his friends—to say.

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“I can make a whole movie in my bedroom,” says the aspiring filmmaker. And he posts some of them online for all to see.

But in school, he has little chance to use new technologies. In English, for instance, there is a computer in the classroom, but he says students are not allowed to use it. To do research, his class of 29 troops upstairs to the media center to share 15 computers. And there, he says, many useful sites are blocked.

“When I step out of school, I have a pretty high-tech life,” Herrera says. “When I step in school, I feel like I’m not me anymore. I have to jump into this whole old-fashioned thing where everything is restricted.”

One time, for a project on Victorian England, he got permission to do a DVD slide show instead of a research paper. He says he enjoyed that project more than most other schoolwork because using the technology “facilitates me doing what I do best and shows my creativity, who I am.”

Herrera typifies his generation’s immersion in technology. With their portable digital-music MP3 players, cellphones, and computers, today’s young people are constantly plugged in. By sharing art and music, making Web sites, keeping journals, building social networks, and doing coursework online, they’ve helped catapult the Internet into a new stage known as Web 2.0, in which everyday users don’t just access information, they create it.

Behind the Curve

The technology so integral to young people’s lives holds immense promise for academic learning, but relatively few schools have embraced it. Experts say insufficient training and lingering skepticism about the new tools contribute to that lag.

“There are really just pockets of innovation happening, in certain classrooms,” says Anastasia Goodstein, a San Francisco-based writer who examined teenagers’ use of technology for her book Totally Wired, scheduled for publication in April. “Most teachers are really not taking advantage of all the things they could be doing.”

In most schools, technology means students using the Internet for research, or PowerPoint for presentations, Goodstein and other experts say. In some schools, students use classroom blogs, or online journals, to post and discuss classwork or share resources.

That’s a far cry from 10 years ago, when students would visit computer labs to write papers or do research, plugging obscure Boolean commands into rudimentary search engines, and finding mostly online versions of periodicals. Schools were struggling just to get the hardware and connect it to the Internet.

Now, nearly all schools have Internet access, and students comb the world via cyberspace with simple search commands. But experts say it is the rare classroom that turns blogs, MP3 players, podcasting, video games, or cellphones into learning tools.

By falling behind the technology curve, they argue, schools risk alienating students and miss prime opportunities to teach them how to analyze and understand their increasingly complex world.

“Education is bifurcating into school and after-school,” says Marc Prensky, a New York City-based educator and consultant who coined the term “digital native” to capture the technological fluency of today’s young people. “School represents the past. After-school is where they are training themselves for the future. The danger is that as school becomes less and less relevant, it becomes more and more of a prison.”

On the Cutting Edge

In scattered technological frontiers across America, students are using new tools to learn.

Digital Whiteboards

While only eight states have digital whiteboards in more than half of their public schools, 28 states have the technology in over 35 percent of their public schools. Missouri leads the nation, with whiteboards in 70 percent of schools. At the other extreme, only 4 percent of schools in the District of Columbia have this tool.

*Click image to see the full map.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Market Data Retrieval, 2006

At Ross Elementary School in Pittsburgh, immigrant children use iPods—a popular brand of MP3 player made by Apple Inc.—to listen to stories recorded in English by their teacher.

Students in Ron Garrison’s humanities class at Jesse M. Bethel High School in Vallejo, Calif., are learning geography by digitally mapping landscapes, a skill they later build into designing video games.

At Philadelphia’s new Science Leadership Academy, Jasmin Thomas can use one part of her school’s Web site to post her work, edit another student’s work, or join classmates in responding to a teacher’s discussion prompts. On other parts, she can commiserate with classmates about a recent Philadelphia Eagles loss or listen to a podcast—an audio file stored on the Internet—of the poetry club’s newest verse. Free software called Moodle and Elgg enable those functions.

State Laptop Programs

Eleven states currently have in place laptop-computer programs that are financed by the state.That figure is up from just three states in 2005. Only Maine and New Mexico had such programs in 2005 and 2007.

*Click image to see the full map.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

Thomas, 15, enjoys the high-tech opportunities her school offers. She writes for the online newspaper, which features audio clips and graphics, and sparks lively cyber chats among its readers. “It allows me to be more creative, and use more learning styles,” she says of the school’s tech-friendly climate. “Doing things so many different ways keeps me more interested.”

Principal Christopher Lehmann says the idea is to build a vibrant, interactive learning community. “We’re creating educational social networking,” he says of the center-city magnet school, which enrolls 110 students in 9th grade and plans to expand to 10th grade next year.

In Liberty, Mo., 8th grader Amy Lostroh has taken advantage of the podcasts her social studies teacher, Eric Langhorst, has developed to help students review for tests. The resident technology pioneer at South Valley Junior High, Langhorst writes study guides, then uses a microphone to read them into his computer. He uploads the files onto his class’s page on the school Web site. Students click on the link at home and use their computers’ speakers to listen, or they download the file into MP3 players and listen through earbuds.

“I listen and follow along in my notes at the same time,” says Amy, 13. “It makes it easier for me to lock it into my mind.”

Her teacher’s methods influence her attitude about school. “It makes me feel like he wants to get more involved with the kids to learn it,” she says of Langhorst. “Some teachers just say, ‘Here are the notes. Study.’ ”

Amy also liked being part of an online book group that Langhorst set up last fall. About 300 of his students joined teachers and community members in reading the novel Guerrilla Season, by Pat Hughes, set in Civil War-era Missouri. Students discussed the book online, and were excited that Hughes agreed to answer their questions, Amy says.

Bud Hunt, who teaches language arts at Olde Columbine High School, an alternative school of about 100 students in Longmont, Colo., started a blog for his speech students. They use it to share research ideas and shape one another’s drafts.

Katelyn Shorkey, one of Hunt’s students, says she loves the chance to talk about the process with her peers on the blog. Even better than providing help, though, is the chance to offer it—“to be someone’s expert,” she says.

“I love the fact that my papers mean something to someone, and I try my hardest because so many people see them and I can get feedback from so many people,” Shorkey says. “This is the fifth high school I’ve gone to, and it’s my favorite because of how they do things.”

Another benefit of blogging, Hunt and other teachers say, is creating a comfort zone for shy students, who aren’t likely to speak up in class, or those who need a few more moments of reflection before expressing their thoughts.

“The students who are really excelling are my quieter ones,” Hunt says. “Suddenly, the playing field is level.”

Getting From Here to There

So if the newfangled tools are so promising, why aren’t they turning up in every classroom? Insufficient training is the barrier experts most often blame.

“Many teachers are not comfortable with technology and need meaningful time devoted to teaching them how to use tools,” Hunt wrote in an e-mail. “An hour of ‘here’s a neat tool you should try when you get a minute’ show-and-tell isn’t meaningful, nor is it effective.”

Online Exposure

A congressionally financed survey on online victimization found that young people ages 10 to 17 faced more unwanted exposure to sexual material and online harassment in 2005 than in 2000, while sexual solicitation edged downward over that period. Only Virginia requires that all students receive instruction on Internet safety, the EPE Research Center’s 2007 survey found.

*Click image to see the full chart.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Crimes Against Children Research Center, 2006

Teachers often find, as well, that they don’t get enough ongoing tech support to solve glitches when they happen, he says.

While home-computer and Internet access are now widespread, they are not universal. Mindful of that gap, teachers are reluctant to adopt approaches that put some students at a disadvantage.

Langhorst, the Missouri teacher who records “studycasts” for his students, says that method is possible because all his students have access to MP3 players or computers outside school. Making that strategy work in a less affluent community would be more challenging, he says.

But even then it’s not impossible; Garrison, the teacher in Vallejo, says all his students come from low-income families, but parents amazed him by finding a way to buy their children laptop computers. For the few who could not, part of a federal grant did the trick.

Digital Literacy

The Educational Testing Service designed the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Literacy Assessment to help measure students’ use of cognitive and critical-thinking skills in a technological environment. Preliminary findings revealed that performance varied widely among the skills assessed, a sample of which are shown below.

*Click image to see the full chart.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Educational Testing Service, 2006

Worries about student safety and privacy online also have fueled hesitation in moving ahead with instructional strategies such as blogs, Hunt says. While he views the concern as understandable, it is also manageable, he says, by using passwords and other safety mechanisms.

Tech-savvy practitioners also say that teachers, pressured to cover material and prepare students for tests, worry that they can’t afford to let students use technology to shape projects in unexpected ways. Some are uncomfortable with upending traditional classroom dynamics by letting students be the experts on technology.

“To change requires understanding that we do not have all the answers anymore,” Lehmann of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy says. “What we have are some amazing questions. And that forces people to re-examine their practice.”

For Randy Herrera, such a re-examination might open some exciting doors. Never in any of his classes, he says, have teachers solicited students’ ideas about how they could harness technology to learn in new ways.

“I wish they would,” he says with a sigh. “That would sure make class more interesting.”


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