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Reaching Digital Natives on Their Terms

Making your technology environment student centered.

From replacing print textbooks with digital content created by teachers or gathered from outside sources to encouraging students to explore the world around them digitally, many districts are creating a new type of student-friendly teaching and learning environment that goes beyond just adding computers to classrooms.

Through a wide range of curriculum related activities inside and outside the classroom, they are bringing about what administrators and others involved see as a significant cultural shift in education. And such a cultural shift is part of President Obama's plans for the future of American education. He recently stated that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act comes with an ambitious goal: to ensure all students graduate from high school prepared for college and a career in the 21st century.

According to "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds," a report released in January by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children in that age group devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day to using entertainment media, including television, music players, computers and video game devices.

With technology playing such a prominent role in student lifestyles, district leaders are creating programs that include not only specific technological tools like interactive whiteboards and netbooks but also restructured curricula. These programs allow students to work outside as well as inside the classroom on projects that often involve collaboration via technology with other students and experts worldwide.

Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), says the "digital divide," the gap between people with and without effective access to digital technology and its impact on their earnings, now also is seen as a "learning divide." That means, he says, that "kids don't have the opportunity to learn, as well as earn," if they don't have digital skills. While students formerly had the classroom teacher as their "sole guide," they now can use those skills, as well as new digital tools, to connect and interact with experts around the world, and "that makes so much difference in helping kids learn and advance and stay engaged," Knezek says.


In the new environment, "every student has a digital device and access to the Web and is supported by a curriculum that shows kids how learning can take place outside the classroom," adds Will Richardson, a former teacher and now an author and columnist for District Administration who encourages the integration of technology in learning.

Federal Support

There is also federal support. Last November, President Obama launched Educate to Innovate, a digital learning initiative to improve achievement by students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The Educate to Innovate program includes a digital media and learning competition to advance "the most innovative approaches to learning through games, social networks and mobile devices," according to a White House statement.

In another move, the U.S. Department of Education will provide funding this year to launch the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies to explore how schools, and other nonprofits like museums and libraries, could use emerging digital technologies. The center, authorized by Congress in 2008, is charged with supporting a comprehensive research and development program to use advanced information and digital technologies to improve learning.

Changing Teacher Mindset

Notwithstanding the buy-in from the president, the support of businesses, and the excitement of K12 administrators and students alike, some teachers are slow to grasp the digital environment. "Teachers teach the way they were taught themselves, and the biggest problem I have seen in classrooms is that while teachers know how to use a computer, they still don't know how to integrate that computer into their teaching," says Cathleen Norris, a former math teacher in the Dallas (Texas) Independent School District. Now a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, she also is co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow, a company that develops educational software for mobile learning.

Elliott Levine, a former K12 administrator and now education strategist for Hewlett-Packard's Personal Systems Group, adds that many of today's teachers come out of education colleges where they were taught by tenured professors who have been teaching the same old methodologies for years, including lectures and assigned readings.

A fifth-grader at Cimarron Elementary School in the Katy (Texas) Independent School District uses a mobile learning device as part of a student-friendly digital environment.

But the old-time professors do not teach them how to integrate technology into classroom lessons. For example, in the Auburn (Ala.) City Schools, Technology Director Debbie B. Rice says the greatest challenge is changing teachers' mindsets. Five years ago, the district created a committee of principals, teachers from core content areas, and students to develop a program, the "21st Century Learning Initiative," with the approval of the superintendent and board of education.

The program's mission was to "prepare 21st-century students and educators to be contributing members of an ever-increasing technological and global society through an anytime, anywhere learning environment." The initiative began with a two-year pilot of one-to-one mobile computing and included wirelessly networking the district's junior high and high schools and providing all ninth- and 10th-graders with laptops.

The Auburn district is working on changing teacher mindset through a professional development partnership with the College of Education at Auburn University. Administrators and faculty from the district and the college serve together on a Professional Development System Council "to make sure the teachers who are coming out have more of the skills that we require," including an understanding of how to apply technology in classroom instruction, says Rice. For example, math professors in the college require their students to use graphing calculators because they are used extensively in Auburn's secondary schools.

Also, some district teachers are instructors for university methods courses, modeling best practices in technology integration. About 50 percent of the district's new teacher hires are Auburn University graduates, some are new teachers and others are veterans with several years of teaching experience.

In addition, the Auburn district has an extensive professional development program that begins with three-day technology workshops for new teachers before the school year starts. Throughout the year, junior high and high school teachers devote an hour every week—either on "Tech Tuesday" or "Wi-Fi Wednesday"—to technology-related training, including how to create hyperlinks or use applications and how to incorporate or create e-curriculum materials.

Further, each Auburn junior high and high school has its own full-time instructional technology coach, who works with teachers as needed. For example, says Rice, a math teacher doing a segment on fractions might ask that school's instructional technology coach for help in finding online resources to support what is taught.

Starting this academic year, in a program that the North Kansas City (Mo.) Schools school board approved in May 2009, 100 of the 400 teachers in the district will participate in intensive training every year that focuses on applying technology to the curriculum. The number of participating teachers, who meet one day a month for 60 hours of training, is limited only by the capacity of the program, including the number of available trainers, says Janet Herdman, executive director of information and technology services for North Kansas schools.

Staff development coordinators from the central office visit with classroom teachers to offer additional support as they implement new teaching strategies "so the teachers are not left there to flounder," Herdman explains.

North Kansas City Schools principals also are trained for two hours every month in a condensed version of what the teachers are taught. "Principals need to know what to expect when they go into a classroom where teaching strategies are changing and there's a lot of noise with kids up and moving around," Herdman says.

For some teachers and principals, working in a digital environment takes some getting used to. "All they know is traditional teaching—standing in front of the room, lecturing, maybe throwing in a PowerPoint here and there. We think taking part of the staff at a time and leading them through is the best way to do it," she adds.

Trick Them into Learning

At the Vail (Ariz.) Unified School District, health teacher Steve Schween (standing) helps students in Cienega High School?s 21st century Technology Enhanced Courses and Classrooms program create an informational flyer.

Pedagogy is key to digital learning. While many districts have state-of-the-art technology, many educators say it's only the beginning. "It's not about the technology. It's what we are doing with it to change what is going on in the classroom," says Herdman.

The district last year won the Consortium for School Networking's annual TEAM award for successfully leveraging technology to impact teaching and learning. Educators also agree that the digital environment builds on the interests and needs of students. With ready access to computers and a wide range of mobile devices, many students already are familiar with available technology tools and use them all the time, particularly for entertainment purposes.

Hempfield (Pa.) School District English teacher Sarah DeMaria is having her 10th-graders use various Web sites to network socially, bolster listening and speaking skills, and mix images and music. "I'm trying to immerse my curriculum in the technologies students prefer to use," says DeMaria. "I use more social networking since that is so important to them right now. I feel like I am tricking them into learning because the way they analyze the literature that they read goes above and beyond what I could ever push them to do in a discussion or worksheet. I think they absolutely love it that way. "It puts them in the driver's seat. They have to present the information in a way that shows they have learned it," she adds. "I think they absolutely love it that way."

Replacing Textbooks

One significant change that many teachers are adopting is learning how to teach without textbooks. In its Beyond Textbooks Initiative (BTI), which began two years ago, the Vail (Ariz.) School District is phasing out its textbooks in favor of digital content from other sources, including Vail's own teachers. "We realized that we needed to find the best content we could that was aligned with the state standards we have to meet, and it became apparent that we no longer needed textbooks to do that," says Matt Federoff, the district's chief information officer and a former high school science teacher.

Vail's teachers create much of the content themselves and post it on a Web site for other teachers. Vail teachers follow electronic "pacing calendars" on the district's server that define what state standards require them to teach and how long it should take them to teach them. For guidance, they go to a wiki page the BTI team has created for each standard, which lists resources the curriculum department has put together.

The wiki pages also include materials produced by a wide range of nonprofit organizations, such as the Public Broadcasting Service and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Doing away with printed textbooks has saved Vail money. It spent about $9 per student on instructional materials last year compared to more than $50 two years ago, Federoff reports.

The Katy (Texas) Independent School District also is considering getting rid of printed textbooks over the next two years, says Chief Information Officer Lenny Schad. "Because most of them [students] live and die on their computers and cell phones, I didn't think getting rid of the printed books would be that big a transition for them," he says. But "when we talk to junior high school kids, they still prefer to have the hard copy to look at. So as much as we would like to jump into doing without textbooks, we're going to have to ease our way into it."

Creating a digital learning environment is a cultural change that will take time for districts to accept, says Elliot Soloway, a professor in the University of Michigan's College of Engineering and GoKnow cofounder and chief strategy officer. "We're still doing what we did 30 years ago, and almost every other profession isn't," he says, "but I think some districts are beginning to open up to it."

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer to District Administration.