Ten-year-old Jude Koster of Dallas, Texas, said that he could show his teachers a thing or two on his iPod Touch or 3DS. Koster creates stop-motion animations and videos with original storylines and can cut, crop and blend digital photos he takes himself, too, all of which he taught himself how to do in his limited weekly screen time outside of school, says his mother Wendy Koster.
While fourth grade didn’t lend itself to much of an opportunity to use digital devices in his classroom -- other than a few iPad games at the end of the year -- computer use wasn’t a large part of Koster’s class time at his Montessori school. But Koster said his teachers may not realize what he’s able to do with digital technology outside of the classroom.
“I had two fourth grade teachers,” Koster said recently. “One who knows nothing, and one who knows everything” about using technology. The younger of the two teachers, said Ms. Koster, was an avid XBox gamer and able to talk to the kids about the digital devices they use at home. The older teacher, she said, was perhaps a little less tech-savvy.
If he was able to bring his iPod Touch to class, Koster rattled off the ways he could use it: using Dictionary.com to look up words, typing up his essays and book reports instead of handwriting them, and looking up things he needed to know; and that’s on top of his content creation videos, and, of course, playing Minecraft. “I just learn by trial and error,” Koster said. “One minute, I’m asking, hmmm, how do I do this? Then yadda yadda - I just got a high score!”
According to an expansive new Speak Up survey conducted by Project Tomorrow, “From Chalkboards to Tablets: The Emergence of the K-12 Digital Learner,” students want school to be equipped with the same technology they're used to using at home, and that includes, in large part, handheld mobile devices like smartphones and iPads.
Of the more than 364,000 students surveyed, 65 percent of middle schoolers and 80 percent of high schoolers have access to a smartphone -- nearly triple the number reported from the 2008 survey. Speak Up reports that, in the decade since they’ve been collecting data on how new technological tools can transform education, there have been big, dramatic changes. When they took their first survey in 2003, students’ biggest classroom hurdles were access to the Internet and working on outdated computers. Today’s students, however, have surpassed those original blockades to digital learning and are now most concerned that they aren’t able to access the full range of learning tools available to them, due to firewalls that keep them from social networks and a range of websites, as well as school restrictions on their smartphones.
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“The disconnect between adults and students on the role of digital tools is played out every day in classrooms when students are forbidden to use their smartphones as learning tools,” writes the Project Tomorrow research team. “Many education leaders are valiantly trying to determine the new world order in the modern classroom where students can with a few clicks on a mobile device have access to more information and expertise about any possible topic than their teacher or the school library ever will.”
STUDENTS SPEAK UP
Gian Luigi de Falco, 18, just graduated from prestigious Brooklyn Tech High School in Brooklyn, New York. “My school is a bit technologically stunted,” he said, explaining that his school had some Dell desktops located in a few classrooms and computer labs, some of which aren’t even connected to the Internet, and most of which don’t have sound. And, while all Brooklyn Tech students are required to take a couple of computer courses -- a digital design course and a basic digital electronics course that includes breadboarding and circuit building -- most students, after sophomore year, don’t use computers much at all during the school day. And, like all New York City schools, cellular phones are forbidden at Brooklyn Tech, even during breaks and lunch.
De Falco believes that forbidding phones, iPads and laptops at one of the most highly prized academic high schools in the country is a big mistake, for several reasons. “I can safely say that I believe there’s a lot that could be done with iPads/laptops at my school, such as being able to tap into our expensive and heavy textbooks in class, or use interactive websites in our own seats rather than having to move to one of the few and inconveniently placed computer labs,” he said.
New York City’s systemic ban on cell phones and smartphones, said de Falco, causes kids to hide them in class and use them for purposes not related to what they're doing in class, like texting friends or looking up information on the sly. “Our phones could be used to find information not readily available, as well as serve many of the aforementioned functions that iPads serve, such as graph making, note taking and textbook help.”
BEYOND THE OBVIOUS
While students might think their teachers simply don’t understand the latest technology, the issue of classroom tech might be larger. According to the Project Tomorrow survey, students believe that teachers aren’t comfortable assigning homework or projects using the Internet, and they are correct: only 21 percent of secondary teachers give homework assignments using the Internet on a weekly basis, but in sharp contrast, 47 percent of sixth graders and 69 percent of high school students use the Internet regularly to “self-support their learning” on assignments at home.
But one of the biggest reasons teachers don’t ask students to go online for homework is the issue of equity: the issue becomes thorny when some students have access to computers and devices, but others do not. Todd Dickson, Founder and CEO of Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee, a group of mixed-income charter middle and high schools that are slated to inaugurate their first fifth grade classes in fall of 2014, said that, even though the tech model is hard to predict five years down the road, in order to ensure equity among Valor's future high school students (who will begin in fall 2018), Valor is planning on asking kids to bring their own devices if they have them. And for those who don’t -- Dickson predicts it will be about 60 percent -- the school will provide each with a Google Chromebook, and make sure their homes are equipped with high-speed Internet access.
But equal access to computers and high-speed Internet is only one piece of the puzzle. Dickson said one of the advantages of building a “next generation school” from the ground up is the ability to recruit teachers “who have already bought into the future of tech model” that Valor will rely on. Teachers will also receive plenty of professional development -- Dickson plans on 40 days per school year, some of which will be used for technology training -- and said that he’s “way more excited for the tech potential for teachers” than for students. While he thinks student learning should have a tech component, Dickson said that it will take time for websites to catch up to what teachers can do as far as learning content.
“I think the most promising part of tech is the tools that are allowing teachers and schools to collect data quickly, learn management systems, and be able to analyze the data. I think that piece of it has the most potential to improve instruction,” he said. Through the use of rich data platforms, Valor’s teachers will be able to quickly break down assessments, analyze them, and make predictions about students, ultimately providing them with better instruction.