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Four Meaningful Ways Students Can Contribute

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Bestselling author and educational expert Alan November's new book Who Owns the Learning?: Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age compiles lessons learned over 30 years of educational experience. Beginning with his first teaching job, November began to realize that the most powerful education happens when students take ownership of their learning and when they feel that what they produce contributes meaningfully to a community.

Using those two principles as his guide, November's book profiles innovative teachers' efforts to make learning meaningful to their students, sharing concrete ways to transform schools. The book uses the family farm as a metaphor to explain the importance of making students central contributors to the modern education system. The excerpt below helps explain the type of work students could do in this model and how technology can help along the way.

Owning Their Learning: Student Jobs on the Digital Learning Farm

Perhaps the greatest role shift in the Digital Learning Farm model is that of the student. As we help to transform students from passive receptors of information into active drivers of their educational experiences and designers of their educational goals, we need to provide them with the incentives of meaningful work and authentic audiences. Here are the four types of jobs for students that we will discuss in this book:

1. Tutorial designers
2. Student scribes
3. Student researchers
4. Global communicators and collaborators

Tutorial Designers

Students often learn better from other students; they listen more intently, understand more completely, and participate more readily. Using webcams, video software, and other freely available recording and broadcasting tools, students can create tutorials that other students, parents, and viewers can access and use from any location. As you will learn in chapter 2 (page 25), teacher Eric Marcos and his students from Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, California, have energized their school through the use of screencasted tutorials they produce. Creating tutorials increases student engagement and provides struggling students with more opportunities for reviewing troubling concepts. As one of Eric’s students reminds us, “In order to teach it you really have to learn it” (personal communication, December 2011).

Student Scribes

Not all students take excellent notes every day, but free online collaboration tools can give any class the opportunity to collaboratively build one set of perfect notes. Using a shared blog, wiki, Google Docs, or another collaborative writing tool, students work together to create a detailed set of notes that can be used by the entire class. (Visit for live links to the websites mentioned in this book.) Darren Kuropatwa, a high school calculus teacher, uses this student scribe technique to transform his classroom into a collaborative learning community. In chapter 3 (page 39), you will learn more about Darren’s student scribe program in which each day a new student is responsible for taking notes and collecting diagrams that become part of his class’s online calculus textbook. Using a student scribe program encourages students who don’t take notes to do so, and it helps students who struggle to take good notes improve their technique through positive feedback and advice from their teachers and peers.

Student Researchers

Many classrooms have one computer sitting in the back of the room or on the teacher’s desk that gets very little use while instruction is taking place. What if that computer became the official research station where one student each day was responsible for finding answers to all the questions in class—including the teacher’s questions? Assigning students the research job can be a very effective learning tool, and it’s an incredibly simple process: each day, assign a different student to sit by that computer. When questions come up during class, it is that student’s responsibility to search out the correct answer. In chapter 4 (page 49), you will learn details about using this student job to build a class search engine that meets course standards for curriculum content and reliability of resources. Training students in the role of researcher offers guided opportunities and teachable moments that allow them to hone their research skills.

Global Communicators and Collaborators

It wasn't that long ago when it was cost prohibitive to have your class connect with other classes and subject experts around the world. That time is gone! In an ever-shrinking world, we now have free access to make these very connections. In chapter 5 (page 65), you learn how educators are using Skype and other online tools to establish and maintain working relationships via the Internet with classrooms and topic experts from around the world. (Visit for live links to the websites mentioned in this book.) Students can develop questions, conduct interviews, and build their skills in online learning and collaboration with people from different countries and cultures. This Digital Learning Farm job offers hundreds of opportunities for any adventurous group of students to bring the world into its classroom.


These jobs offer just four examples of work that gives students valuable opportunities to make real contributions to their learning community. While educators can implement these and other student jobs individually, we can create a more balanced approach to teaching and learning by bringing multiple jobs together to work in harmony. I have talked with educators who assign different jobs to their students. If the work results in meaningful activities that advance student contributions and ownership in the learning process, it probably deserves a place in the classroom.

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