Rewards of Role Reversal: Teachers Learn, Students Teach

Lenny Gonzales

All too often, schools find that they've invested heavily in education technology only to see these tools unused or classroom instruction unchanged.

That was one of the realizations of the Oak Hills Local School District (OHLSD), a tech-friendly district in Cincinnati, Ohio. Even though the district had adopted an "anywhere, anytime, any device" policy, school officials found that technology simply wasn't being used all that frequently in the classroom. It was clear that a different level of support was necessary, beyond typical professional development.

So the district devised a program to help teachers and students take full advantage of the tech resources by turning to an under-utilized but incredibly valuable resource: its students.

Tracy Pirkle, OHLSD's director of curriculum and e-learning, created a pilot program last year called eKIDS (eLearning Kids in Demand) that turned a handful of seventh-graders at each of the district's middle schools into "e-learning consultants."

Now, these consultant/students are equipped with computers and software that they use both at school and at home. Students choose the technology they want to learn about or specialize in. "The kids push the envelope," Pirkle said, pointing to student projects that include learning about things like the programming language Scratch and taking on responsibility for assembling new tech equipment and prepping its Bluetooth connectivity.

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In turn, the students offer professional development to the school staff at large or to individual teachers whenever they're needed. Student consultants also offer tech support in the classroom while a teacher focuses on, for example, a particular lesson. The students at the elementary school level, for example, have all become Google Apps for Education experts, which is particularly important as the district has transitioned from Microsoft to Google products.

The program has given a totally different meaning to the phrase "flipped classroom." Pirkle said she was initially unsure how the students would be received by teachers. One of the biggest changes wrought by technology is the blurring of roles between student and teacher -- the control shift.

But the pilot program has been very successful, in no small part because it's a "low stress" way to incorporate technology. In other words, the teachers don't need to fret that the students are more technologically advanced, and the students enjoy teaching and learning with their peers.

The positive response to the pilot program has prompted the district to expand it this year to both the elementary and high school level. There are now 10 eKIDS at every grade level from 4 through 12 at every one of the district's schools -- 90 in total.

Pirkle notes that having the eKIDS available at the elementary school level is particularly useful: Imagine trying to get a classroom full of elementary school kids to log into their Google accounts, for example, that the eKIDS offer young students helpful suggestions on how best to remember their passwords.

The students who participate in the eKIDS program are self-selected. They've indicated that, given free time to work on various projects or programs, that they're keen to do more with technology. Participating students also earn high school credit. In addition to offering tech support to teachers and fellow students, the eKIDS work on their own curriculum as part of the program, one that is project-based and aimed at mastery of a particular skill. Students who learned about Scratch, for example, made their own animations that they shared in turn with the Art teacher and offered their assistance to other Art class students.

The program has taken on other projects too, including organizing a recent TEDxYouthDay earlier this month. Speakers included the students themselves, and the eKIDS ran the audio/video equipment during the live-blogging of the event.

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Tech skills aren't the only thing the eKIDS program fosters. It also allows them to practice important leadership, public speaking, and collaboration skills. And events like the TEDx point to future opportunities for these kids: outreach to the community and an offer of tech support and tech instruction to another potential group of learners: parents.

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