Special Report
Student Well-Being

Students Seek the Right Digital Fit

By Michelle R. Davis & Katie Ash — March 14, 2011 5 min read
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When high school student Teila Allmond was told by her social studies teacher she could choose to study the history of just about anything for a class project, she knew exactly what she wanted to delve into: sneakers.

The senior at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy works at a sneaker store and is fascinated by shoe trends and their influence on pop culture. A classmate, senior Danielle Duncan, also was interested in what was hip, so they paired up to study “the history of cool.”

Together, the two students created a 10-minute documentary on what has been considered “cool” over the decades, how it has changed, and what has influenced fads. They experimented with video styles, incorporated old video clips, and used the school’s professional-grade video cameras and editing software to polish the presentation.

But that doesn’t mean their teacher, Douglas Herman, has set off an academic free-for-all in his classroom. Before the project, the students had to complete a more structured assignment in which the topics were more limited and covered important historical events. Herman helped guide the students to trusted research sites for the more structured assignment, and helped them organize and weigh the importance of the data they collected.

With the “history of cool” assignment, “once I picked my topic, everything opened up to me, and it felt more enlightening than academic,” Duncan says. “Before that [assignment], we had to write a 10-page paper with an annotated bibliography on the atomic bomb, and it was so difficult to push out those 10 pages.”

Allmond agrees. “When it’s your choice, you become more passionate,” she says. “And with technology there are so many new things you can do. You can present things in multiple ways that are less linear. It’s so much more innovative.”

Today’s students are often called “digital natives” and feel more comfortable with technology than many of their teachers. So it makes sense that students are using the same technology to personalize their own learning experiences.

“If the student is able to work on something they care about, their passion comes through in the way they talk about it, present it,” and the amount of hours they put in,” says Herman, who teaches U.S. history and digital video production at the Science Leadership Academy. “I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t have to be done one way.”

‘Relevant and Useful’

While students have always been able to use their creativity to approach learning in different ways, experts say technology is allowing them to push the boundaries even further and faster than ever before. In addition to traditional essays, students are creating websites and films, writing scripts, and recruiting friends and family members to act in videos. They’re using social-networking tools to help teach each other new skills and reach out for assistance from their peers. And they’re using gaming to help express creativity, while also incorporating academic concepts.

Many students use those technologies daily outside of school, and it just feels familiar and right to access them for personalizing their own education, says Molly Schroeder, a technology-integration specialist for the 8,000-student Edina, Minn., public schools.

Until recently, all 4th graders in the district were required to do a state research project and create brochures on their respective topics. But recently one of the students questioned why someone would want a brochure instead of just going online.

“It was a great learning moment for the adults,” Schroeder says. “The kids have probably never even used a brochure. They always go online.”

Now each student creates a website for his or her final product instead. “The kids needed something that was relevant and useful for them,” says Schroeder.

Technology often provides that link for students, helping them understand how what they’re studying can be applicable in their lives.

Hal Scheintaub, who teaches conceptual physics at the Governor’s Academy, a private school in Byfield, Mass., makes the connection between physics and students’ own lives through gaming. A three-week project in his class teaches students to build physics engines into their games to make characters move, turn, and accelerate. They must place their characters on a screen using various coordinates and other physics concepts to make those characters move.

“They end up with these really, really rich games that are very personal,” Scheintaub says. “They reflect their personalities like any work of art.”

This year, two girls used physics concepts to create and program a game in which a worm’s family disappears, and the worm has to interact with good characters and avoid bad characters to go up levels to reunite with its family.

Two boys who are frequent gamers created an action scenario in which the main character battles zombies. But they had to figure out how to program the character to turn 180 degrees to see zombies creeping up behind him, which involved complex physics and programming work.

“It was really awesome, and they got that idea from their own games [they play at home],” Scheintaub says.

‘The Right Direction’

Students adept at using social networking are also pushing the boundaries of incorporating those skills into their own learning.

At the Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, a pre-K-12 private school with 1,250 students in St. Louis, students often employ social-networking tools like Twitter, Edmodo, Diggo, and Ning in their curriculum.

For example, says Elizabeth Helfant, the upper school’s coordinator of instructional technology, students use a Ning site as a book club for students to discuss what they’re reading or what they’d like to read.

But educators caution that just because students may be skilled at using technology to personalize their own education, it doesn’t mean teachers should take a hands-off approach. In fact, students say they appreciate having a teacher to guide them even more in how best to implement the technology, how to find trusted online sources of information, and how to organize and present that information.

“Teachers here keep us going in the right direction,” says Allmond of the Science Leadership Academy.

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