Discussions of technology in education typically center on what policymakers, academic experts, and educators would like to see happen in the classroom. Rarely heard are the voices of those who are actively test-driving new forms of technology: the students.
Yet the decisions schools make about technology access and use have a major impact on student engagement and learning. A 2008 survey, for instance, suggests there is growing frustration among students that they have to “power down” their use of technology when they enter school buildings. They are concerned that this reality is slowing the development of skills they’ll need to compete in a technology-driven global economy.
That’s why many ed-tech advocates say it’s important to consider student perspectives when making decisions about technology policy and how digital tools should be used in classrooms. This article serves as a starting point for an online discussion about the role of students in decisions about the use of technology in schools.
Joe Occhipinti, 17, for one, says ease of use is very important.
In his physics class, when “the suitcase” comes out, there’s a buzz of excitement among students, despite the fact that it usually means a test or quiz is imminent. The “suitcase” contains a student-response system that students use to answer physics questions.
Each student uses a remote, hand-held device, which Occhipinti says looks and operates a lot like a television “clicker,” and students in his class at New Hampshire’s Londonderry High School prefer it over paper and pencil.
“You don’t have to write anything down, and it’s easier for the teacher,” says Occhipinti, a senior. “It instantly calculates your grade and saves all the grades to the teacher’s computer. I had definitely never seen anything like it. But using it wasn’t awkward. It was like changing the channel on TV.”
Students like Occhipinti are increasingly demanding more technology-rich learning environments and would like the opportunity to use more Web 2.0 tools and mobile devices in school, suggest the results of the 2008 Speak Up survey, conducted by the Irvine, Calif.-based Project Tomorrow. The nonprofit education group supports science, math, and technology programs in schools.
Outside of school, about half the 140,000 middle and high school students who participated in the survey reported using e-mail, instant-messaging tools, and text messages to communicate with classmates about homework, and the same number said they used social-networking Web sites to collaborate with their peers on school projects.
The same group of students reported being inhibited from effectively using technology tools in school, however, by not having enough time to use such technology, having their Internet searches impeded by school online filters or firewalls, and being limited in their technology use by both teachers and school rules.
‘Money Is Always an Issue’
On the Education Week Digital Directions Ning site, educators are discussing why student perspectives about educational technology are important.
Do you think it’s important to seek student opinions? What do your students say about how your school or district could use technology in a more targeted way?
Mike Urbach, a senior in the 33,000-student Poway school district in California, says he mostly uses his cellphone to stay in touch with friends outside of school, “but among my peers, traditional [cellphone] calls are dwindling, and texting is on the rise as a legitimate means of communication.”
But when he’s at school, cellphones and other mobile devices must remain turned off, says Urbach. “If a cellphone is out, it gets taken away for the day.”
Despite the prohibition, he believes it is a necessary and effective policy because it prevents the devices from becoming classroom distractions.
“It may not be distracting for the students necessarily, but anytime the teacher has to stop what they’re doing [to enforce the policy]—that’s what slows the class down,” he says.
Jordan Fernandez, a 10th grader in the Poway district, doesn’t share Urbach’s view. “I think it would be better if we were able to use our iPods during class,” he says, “but only at the teacher’s request.”
Fernandez says listening to classical music on his iPod, for instance, helps him concentrate.
Half the teachers responding to the Speak Up survey agreed that mobile learning devices—such as iPods, smartphones, cellphones, and laptop computers—can increase student engagement, but were concerned about the challenge of providing equal access to such devices for all students, the amount of professional development needed to use the tools effectively, and the ability of schools to provide ongoing technical support.
Eleanor Bray, a senior at Cleveland High School in Portland, Ore., says those concerns are justified. She’d like for her school to upgrade to wireless Internet service so that students could bring in their computers and work during free periods. But “I know that we obviously can’t ask every student to have a laptop in class to take notes because that would be a lot of money,” she says, “and, of course, money is always an issue.”
At J.L. Mann Academy in the 68,800-student Greenville, S.C.,school district, every teacher has a classroom whiteboard, says Jake Riggs, a 9th grader. Teachers use laptops connected to the whiteboards to enhance their lessons. That technology, Riggs says, definitely makes classroom learning more engaging. “There’s so many functions you can do with it,” he says.
But Cristi Gill, a senior at J.L. Mann, notes that not all technology is welcome at school, where officials have banned the use of cellphones. Yet she concedes that having cellphones ringing in class would be disruptive to learning, and that students might try to use them to cheat by text-messaging friends during tests.
“It might be troublesome” for teenagers to have to deal with the cellphone ban, she says, but “I do see the reasoning.”
Morgan Joyner, a junior at Cleveland High School, says that although her school has a handful of SmartBoards, she’s never seen one used in any of her classes.
“I would really like to have that opportunity to have more [SmartBoards] at our school,” she says.
Occhipinti, from Londonderry High School in New Hampshire, says while there are many high-quality computers available at school, he recently visited a nearby high school that has a one-to-one computing initiative. “Each student had a Macbook Pro, and they all have top-of-the-line SmartBoards,” he says. “That stuff is crazy. It’s a completely new concept.”
Bryan Merrill, 17, a junior at Londonderry High, says his American Heritage class is an NComputing lab. That Redwood City, Calif.-based company’s technology allows one PC to be split or cloned to enable several others to run off it, as if each station were its own distinct unit. In Merrill’s class, that means each student has his or her own computer to use.
“It’s extremely easy to access resources, and we don’t have to waste time taking notes because everything is downloadable,” he says. “Anything we do in class can be uploaded and used at home. It’s mind-blowing for me.”
Merrill says he recently moved to Londonderry High from another school, which used very little new technology. He says the greater use of technology at Londonderry has helped him be more organized, since he has bad handwriting, and he uses the computer to do a better job organizing his school files.
In addition, he says, he uses a large, high-quality projector with surround sound in the music room to review his marching-band performances and help improve them.
The greater access to and use of technology at Londonderry High, he says, “improves the flow from school to home.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2010 edition of Digital Directions as What Do They Think?