Students’ Technology Views Solicited

By Andrew Trotter — October 15, 2003 9 min read
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A rare federal effort to ask students how they think schools should use technology is eliciting responses that are bound to make some educators clap and others cringe.

“Every teacher should have a cellphone that is kept on till 10 p.m.,” so students can call, said Ryan Martinez, 16, a junior at YES College Preparatory School, a charter school in Houston. He was echoing a recommendation he made during a special forum on educational technology held earlier this year.

His suggestion may sound a bit extreme. But in fact, it is what his 600- student school already requires of its teachers. They are issued cellphones so students can call them in the evenings and on weekends, with off-limits hours agreed upon by each class and its teacher. The policy has been in place for six years.

Students Speak Out

“Every teacher should have a cellphone that is kept on till 10 p.m. [But] you don’t call them for every little thing. That would be uncouth.”
—Ryan Martinez, 16, YES College Preparatory School, Houston

“There should be more computers and printers for everyone and leave community centers open 24 hours a day. ... You could use 12th graders as teachers [in technology].”
—Daniel Valencia, 18, T.W. Andrews High School, High Point, N.C.

“I’m not a video-game person.”
—Tiffany Torres, 16, Manor High School, Manor, Texas

“If they go on the Internet, kids copy from the Web.”
—Zephyr Lutz- Carillo, 16, Manor High School, Manor, Texas

Mr. Martinez is one of dozens of “student leaders” who have taken part in special forums that are being used by the U.S. Department of Education to give policymakers a better sense of how students think schools should use technology.

Several current and former department officials said the effort is the agency’s most concerted attempt to consider student ideas for use in crafting the nation’s educational technology plan. The plan, which has had two previous versions, is expected to be completed by next spring.

Later this month, the project will undertake an unprecedented national online survey that aims to collect the opinions of as many as 500,000 students.

Already, federal officials are beginning to see attitudes and expectations that could influence the ways schools operate.

John P. Bailey, the director of the Education Department’s office of educational technology, said those beliefs raise the question: “Are schools ready for today’s students?”

To complete its portrait of the educational technology know-how and expectations of today’s youths, the government, which has invested $400,000 in the effort, is also compiling survey and U.S. Census data from researchers, corporations, and federal agencies.

What Students Say

The actual voices of students, heard at a series of youth forums that began last winter, have given federal officials the freshest—and sometimes most surprising—take on how educational technology can be used in schools, officials who have attended the forums say.

Mr. Martinez, the young Texas advocate of giving cellphones to teachers so students can call them in the evening, participated in a student technology leadership symposium held at the National Educational Computing Conference in Seattle last June. More than 9,900 educators attended the gathering.

Mr. Martinez said giving out teachers’ cellphone numbers would help when students are stumped by a homework problem. But he said guidelines should be in place to ensure that students don’t abuse the privilege.

“You don’t call them for every little thing,” he said. “That would be uncouth.”

Mr. Martinez also suggested that schools create video games for teaching the curriculum. “Keep the violence and action,” he recommended, “but put more facts in it.”

Tiffany Torres—a junior at the 800-student Manor High School in Manor, Texas, who also took part in the NECC symposium—disagreed. “I’m not a video-game person,” she said.

A more important change schools should consider, she said, is getting rid of Internet filters. Although such filters are intended to block access to inappropriate material, Ms. Torres, who is 16, said they just as often prevent students from gathering useful educational material. She said some regular Internet search engines, such as Yahoo, are blocked by her school’s Internet filter.

Beyond that suggestion, she added: “We should have a better Web site—our school Web site is absolutely nothing.” A better Web site, she said, could be used to hold Web-based discussions on school concerns.

Chris Tresslar, a Manor High assistant principal, said that a district policy requires filters on Internet services. He agreed that the school Web site was deficient, but noted that the site is being upgraded by a recently hired Web design teacher.

Daniel Valencia, 18, a senior at the 1,200-student T.W.Andrews High School in High Point, N.C., suggested that schools should do more to get parents to use technology to interact with schools and their children. “It would be cool,” he said. Other participants said schools should give students laptops that they could use at home or school, teachers should use more video clips of documentaries in class lessons, and districts could use technology to hold videoconferences between parents and the school board.

The E-Generation

Feasible or not, the suggestions confirm the image of young people projected by formal research and the news media. They are the “always-on generation,” spending a large part of every day online, on cellphones, with video games and other electronic devices.

“Teens and tweens are using technology to grow up,” said Stephanie Azzarone, the president of Child’s Play Communications and one of a score of researchers who attended a White House symposium that Mr. Bailey of the Education Department convened last month.

Among the reports that sparked a great deal of discussion at the recent gathering was a March study by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which found that the frequency with which 6- to 17-year- olds use digital media nearly matches the amount of time they spend watching television.

Based on four online and telephone surveys of thousands of children and parents, the study, “Connected to the Future,” found that young people in that age range spend 3.1 hours a day watching television and 2.9 hours a day using digital media, such as the Internet, non-Internet software programs, and video games.

Other studies and surveys that shed light on today’s plugged-in generation are also on the federal government’s radar screen.

Ms. Azzarone’s company and Insight Research Group, both based in New York City, conducted a national telephone survey in July about the relationship between self-esteem and the use of technology among 8- to 17-year- olds.

The July 2003 survey of 500 students found that self-esteem tended to rise among youths who mastered technological challenges, such as finding information online or creating Web pages.

“By using technology, children are feeling more of a sense of mastery and are feeling good about themselves, because they’re able to do things,” said Kelly Schmidt, a developmental- research psychologist at Insight Research Group.

Ms. Schmidt said the study contradicted an earlier Carnegie Mellon University study—which sparked a great deal of media attention—that characterized children who spent a lot of time online as, in her words, “lonely or isolated or not feeling good about themselves.”

Chance to ‘Speak Up’

Other research highlights the disparity between the technology that young people use at home and in school.

A July 2002 study that the American Institutes for Research conducted for the Pew Research Center is summed up by its title: “The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-Savvy Students and Their Schools.”

As of 2002, the study found, more than 78 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 were spending time online.

For most of those youths, the Internet was a key resource for doing homework, for clarifying subject matter, for working and communicating with classmates, for locating guidance about school, college, and careers, and even for keeping their schedules and storing and transporting papers and assignments.

But young people in the study reported that their schools fell short in supporting those functions, because of poor quality of access to the Internet at school, filtering software that interfered with legitimate educational uses of the Internet, and the wide variation in use of the Web by teachers.

“Students are frustrated and increasingly dissatisfied by the digital disconnect they are experiencing at school,” the report said. “They cannot conceive of doing schoolwork without Internet access yet they are not being given many opportunities in school to take advantage of the Internet. Many believe they may have to raise their voices to force schools to change to accommodate them better.”

Their chance to raise their voices will come later this month, during the national Speak-Up Day being held online.

Officials of the Irvine, Calif.-based NetDay, which is best known for spurring a nationwide effort to wire schools to the Internet, is organizing the event for the federal Education Department. It aims to involve about 4,500 schools and half a million students from across the country.

Resource materials for the event, downloadable at www.netday.org, encourage teachers to hold class discussions before having students log on to the Web site and answer questionnaires. To participate, schools must have registered online in advance.

The questionnaires will cover how students use technology for schoolwork, how they use it outside of school, and how they would like to use it in school. The questions, offered for group or individual responses and geared to three different age levels, will ask for multiple-choice, yes-and- no, rank-order, and a few open-ended responses.

The NetDay Web site will start collecting surveys Oct. 25, a few days before the Oct. 29 event. It will stop taking surveys after Oct. 31.

‘Meaningful Voices’

The survey is an official part of the process for writing the national education technology plan.

But both Mr. Bailey of the Education Department and Julie Evans, the director of NetDay, say they hope the event will spark discussions among young people and adults about such issues at the school and district levels as well.

“It’s interesting not only to engage students to have a voice in the national [education technology] plan, but to start a dialogue up in their own classrooms, schools, and communities,” Ms. Evans said.

If that happens, some experts say, local policymakers could face the awkward question of what to do with young people’s ideas.

“Very few schools have any kind of meaningful voices for students,” said Dennis Harper, the founder and chief executive offer of Generation YES, which organizes students to provide technical services in about 800 schools nationwide. “They let them pick the color of the stripes on the basketball court, and that’s about it.”

Yet to spurn their ideas without close consideration would be a waste of time and money and would send a bad message to students, he said, because young people collectively possess most of the technology expertise in a school district.

Student input was used, for example, to craft the draft state technology plan for Washington state that was produced earlier this year.

The plan, which has not yet been approved by the state, recommends that every student above grade 3 should have a laptop computer, and that all statewide standardized testing should be administered online.

Mr. Harper said actually using what students say to write policy sends a strong message to young people, and can lead to meaningful changes in how schools operate.

“When it does happen,” he said, “it’s powerful stuff.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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