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Creating Digital Citizens

How advances in technology are changing—and bettering—the way kids learn.

How advances in technology are changing—and bettering—the way kids learn.

Earlier this year, a third grade art class at the Godfrey Elementary School in Wyoming, Michigan worked on a collaborative sculpture project with Park Lane Elementary School in Sandy, Utah—and they did it over Skype. A group of sixth graders at Godfrey held a Skype session of their own, theirs with a former student who is now starioned in Bahrain. From halfway across the world, the students were able to ask the soldier questions about the geography and culture of the Middle East.

In the information age, a couple of online video chats might not sound like such a big deal, but for a struggling four-school district in Michigan, with the lowest per-pupil non-instructional costs in the state, it’s a cutting-edge bridge to a brave new world.

"Being a high-poverty area, our kids can’t get out a lot and don’t see the rest of the country and don’t get a chance to meet other students in other parts of the country,” says David Britten, superintendent of the Godfrey-Lee Public Schools. "Technology is a way to open a new window for them.”

Britten has embraced the technologies he espouses: He pre-ordered the iPad and sends out 30-plus Tweets to his 1,000-plus followers per day—about everything from open-bid contracts for conserving energy at his schools to observing students in another school texting quiz answers to an in-class “smartboard”—and these force multipliers, to borrow a military term, are just the tip of a big tech iceberg for Britten’s kids.

The same month the Godfrey-Lee classes went global, the Obama administration released its much-anticipated National Education Technology Plan. It calls for teachers and students to be provided with an “access device” so they can stay connected to homework assignments, events, and not to mention, each other. In many parts of the country, some schools are already way ahead of the federal government.

An "Internet bus" in Vail, Arizona, gives students a Wi-Fi connection during their commute to school and in Britten’s district (as with many others across the nation) grade schoolers are using cellphones, wireless game console controllers, and iPod Touches for classroom activities.

Starting in August, every Godfrey sixth grader will have their own netbook, while the high school is developing a new thesis project that would allow seniors to collaborate with other students in a four-state coalition including superintendents from Michigan, Utah, Iowa, and Virginia, who first met through Twitter.
Britten is clearly an early adopter. “The number one thing is that technology increases engagement significantly,” he says. “A lot of kids walk into school nowadays and think they’re entering a museum from the 1980s. It’s very uncomfortable for them and you wonder why they’re not engaged at all.”

In other words, education should be treated like any other business. “Education is a knowledge industry and in 2010 that really means access to technology,” adds Karen Cator, director of education technology for the U.S. Department of Education. “It’s not access to technology for technology’s sake, but access so that they can learn math, communicate effectively, write well, communicate with media, do research, and access primary documents.”

Cantor highlights a program in Reno, Nevada, where ESL students were given MP3 players to improve their language skills outside the classroom. "I think a lot of times people say, ‘Oh, kids know how to use technology, they’re fine,’” says Cator. “But using technology for social reasons is very different from leveraging technology to think and learn and solve complex problems.”

For California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, this digital conversion is a long overdue no-brainer. Last June, he proposed a plan to do away with paper textbooks and replace them with Kindle and iPad-style e-readers. While the plan is platform agnostic, as are those from the federal Department of Education, it is a movement that is gaining traction.

"These e-readers are still flat and boring at this stage, but it reveals the beginning of a revolution,” says Brian Bridges, director of California Learning Resource Network, a state-funded organization that tests software, video, and internet resources for California's public school system. “I can’t say there will never be textbooks—AM radio still exists— but the textbook industry can’t wait to get out of the paper business and are actively entreating the next generation.”

And for good reason: A single e-book application has the ability to hold text, an instructional video for teachers, and an interactive feature with an embedded test. “There are so many opportunities to reach kids who are lost in this context,” adds Bridges.

While this new tech wave may seem like a Big Brother takeover to some, most urge that there's nothing to fear. “It’s definitely a concern, but no more for education than it is for society in general, and if that’s a reality for society in general then school’s the place to shine a bright light on that,” Cantor says. The challenge is also generational. “The adult world didn’t grow up in a globally networked society, but these kids have to grow up understanding and becoming digital citizens.”

Illustration by Parliament of Owls.

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