Kendrick Kidd, a tenth-grade Rural Trust student at Packers Bend in Alabama, organized and directed the wiring of the school for computer networking. His work, which now involves many other students, resulted in Packers Bend being the first high school in the state that designed, built and now manages its own computer network.
Students in the applied economics course at South Dakota's Clear Lake High School have designed and developed Web pages for "client" businesses and agencies in the community. They also are developing a community database that includes information on economic opportunities, housing and land costs, events, education, recreation, news, weather, sports and local history.
At St. Paul High School in Virginia, student-designed Web sites are available for most courses. Student Matt Pritchard, along with a student Web staff, trained teachers and large numbers of students to develop the sites. This work has led to a request for Matt to develop St. Paul's town Web site. Neighboring schools are asking for assistance from the St. Paul Web staff to set up their own courses on the Web.
Why would schools turn to their students to create Web sites or other instructional tools, when most districts have technology specialists?
First, as most school administrators know, technology specialists tend to run help desks only in buildings: a place to go for advice, maintenance and planning. Do these professionals have the time to create a Web site for the math department. Probably not.
Surfing Projects Wipeout
But more importantly, the vast majority of students today have high expectations about what they want from computer-aided instruction. Ten years ago, surfing projects, visiting museums, dipping into online encyclopedias, and so on were exciting and a boon to most classrooms. But since then, young people have come to see the Internet as a deep and multi-faceted resource.
"Virtually all [students] use the Internet to do research to help them write papers or complete class work or homework assignments," according to a recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life project. "Most students also correspond with other online classmates about school projects and upcoming tests and quizzes. They communicate with online teachers or tutors. They participate in online study groups. They even take online classes and develop Web sites or online educational experiences for use by others."
It would seem, then, that schools are entering a Golden Age of students actually using the Internet in sophisticated ways for educational reasons. The only problem is, students have generally outstripped teachers and even their districts in gaining Internet expertise. If da Vinci was right when he said, "The apprentice who doesn't outstrip his master fails him," then ironically, today's computer-savvy students have in no way let their teachers down by showing them up.
It Was Predictable
Five years ago, a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics showed the handwriting on the wall: approximately one-third of teachers reported feeling well prepared or very well prepared to use computers and the Internet for classroom instruction. Less experienced teachers indicated they felt better prepared to use technology than their more experienced colleagues "Whereas half of all teachers reported that college and graduate work prepared them to use technology, less experienced teachers were generally much more likely than their more experienced colleagues to indicate that this education prepared them to use computers and the Internet."
In other words, younger teachers were more comfortable around technology and more likely to use the Internet.
But like a flood, students with high-level computer skills quickly overwhelmed time-pressed teachers with their questions, ideas and in some cases, trickery regarding the Internet. Today, the Pew Internet & American Life study, The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet Savvy Students and Their Schools, reports that students cite conflicting school policies over Internet use; variations among teachers about what's acceptable Internet use; and, said the Pew interviewers, "Students repeatedly told us that the quality of the Internet-based assignments was poor and uninspiring. They want to be assigned more and more engaging Internet activities that are relevant to their lives."
Throw in the Digital Towel, or Get a Degree?
Some teachers have thrown in the digital towel and allowed their students to become the classroom Internet experts, turning them into de facto teacher aides.
Larry Magid, who runs the Web site Safekids.com, describes a situation involving his son 10 years ago. When Magid and his wife protested that their child was spending a lot of time on computers in school instead of reading and writing, his teacher confessed, "I need his help."
"In the ensuing decade," said Magid in a column for the San Francisco-area Mercury News, "teachers in this area have come a long way. Virtually all of Will's current teachers at Gunn High School in Palo Alto are at least somewhat literate in computers and the Internet. Many are quite savvy. Still, several Silicon Valley teachers I spoke with admit that it's not uncommon for their students to know more than they do. Sara Good, a math teacher at Mountain View High School, has plenty of experience with technology. Yet, "if I have something complicated I want done on the computer," she said, "I'll ask my students and within 30 seconds one of them will have done it for me."
"And why not? It helps build up the students self-esteem to know that their technology skills are useful and appreciated," Magid admits.
"But there is a difference between calling on students' expertise to help out a teacher versus a teacher who simply isn't knowledgeable or supportive of technology or the use of the Internet," he adds.
Some institutions of higher education have stepped into the breach and begun to offer advanced degree programs in educational technology. The Ed.S offered at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is fairly typical: "a post master's, sixth-year degree with a focus on education technology. It is designed to provide teachers and others with high levels of proficiency in the use of technology in school and classroom and other educational settings," says the program description.
That, of course, requires about a year-and-a-half of graduate school, or more. For teachers already short on time, it's a sacrifice.
Stick to the Standards
Another option is to integrate teaching and what students know about Web design, with state and local standards. At Longfellow Middle School in Hill City, Kansas, that's exactly what teacher Scott Parker did. It garnered him and the school some awards.
"We usually ask our partner teachers from our middle school and the elementary school what projects they would like our students to do," says Parker. "We then match those projects with the Kansas state curriculum standards."
Parker's eighth-grade The War of 1812 WebQuest was used in American history classes at Longfellow last fall and garnered an "exemplary" rating by the National Generation Yes consultants (see Resources sidebar).
A seventh-grade module, Town Team Sports Histories of Northwest Kansas, also received an "exemplary" rating from the same organization and Grade 8 American History and was shown at the "Enhancing Education Through Technology Student Leadership Training Workshop at Abilene, Kansas, in April 2003.
Parker and his students are taking advantage of professional expertise provided by Generation Yes, a private provider of curricula and online tools that create collaborative partnerships in technology between teachers and students. In a Gen Y class, as it's called, a student is paired with a teacher at the school. Each of these student-teacher teams then decides what lesson plan, curriculum unit, or other school need will be addressed. Gen Y students in grades 3-12 learn technology skills aligned both to the ISTE NETS for Students and Texas TEKS standards; each student participating in a Gen Y class produces and delivers a technology infused lesson aligned to local and state standards.
From its beginning in Olympia, Wash., in 1996, Generation Y has spread to schools in 44 states.
Kids as Designers
A final alternative, and one that's gaining ground "slowly and not without some bumps along the way" is recognizing that students independently can create Web sites that enhance instruction. The difference between these and an individual project for a grade is that the Web site may contain links to other sources of information, student weblogs (journals), a chatroom for the class--most of the elements found on high-powered sites created by design firms.
But why would a school or district turn to kids to serve as online instructional assistants, when the administration may already have an educational technologist on staff?
The problem with most school-built Web sites, says Nicholas Terry, 19, a student at University of California, Davis, is that they lack a "personality that would interest a young person."
"The ones schools build are very clean, but not creative," he says. "Students expect a site that's more than a series of pages. They want a 'voice' behind the graphics and things to do that are helpful, not just more information."
When he was still in middle school, Terry learned Web design on his own then developed his own Web site as part of a class project. In high school, he freelanced as a Web designer, working out of his home in Auburn, Calif. In 2003, he won first place in Macromedia Innovation Awards competition for students (macromedia.com/resources/student/innovation/gallery). He plans to major in Web design and become a new media developer.
The reason why more schools don't turn to student designers for Web sites, Terry suspects, is that schools are concerned about the appropriateness of content on a student site. "That's a problem," he says. "You have to respect people's right to say what they want on the Web. On the other hand, people posting things have an obligation, too, to respect users."
Schools always have two cards in reserve they can play, of course: one is censorship; the other is limiting the reach of a student created Web site.
The job of censoring a student Web site is harder for a public school administrator. Issues stemming from First Amendment rights, and controversies that have landed school boards in court generally make principals and superintendents gun-shy about increasing the power of student publications.
In private schools, however, the matter of adult control is easier. When Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School went to an Internet service provider to demand that one of its student's Web sites, "Ten Things You Donit Want to Hear at a Parent-Teacher Conference," be yanked, the service (and the student) complied immediately. The school's newsletter carried a follow-up article about the incident in which Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law
Center, a non-profit organization that offers legal advice to student publications, explained, "Because the First Amendment really doesn't come into play at all at a private school, private school administrators really can do anything they want. Private schools are really not much limited unless their own policies limit them. When it comes to [regulating] expressive activity, the school can legally get away with anything it chooses."
There is, however, a compromise opportunity that's strictly technological and skirts legal issues: limit student created Web sites to the school's intranet.
Says U-C Davis student Nicholas Terry, "An intranet site lives on the school's server and is available only to students, faculty, and parents. It doesn't go out on the Internet so its reach is really limited. Obviously, schools have control over their own server."
Under these circumstances, schools can prevent links to inappropriate material and remove objectionable content so quickly it makes even posting it in the first place as futile as spray-painting graffiti on the sidewalk near the flagpole. If it's gone within hours, rule-breakers tend to stop doing it.
No student Web site on an intranet is immune to the most powerful utility on an administrator's computer desktop, after all--the trash icon.
Charles J. Shields is a contributing editor.