I. The Power of Connectivity :
“I am going to practice my freedom of speech today with you.”
I had the opportunity to observe a high school class recently in which students participated in what’s become an ongoing Skype discussion this year with an Egyptologist known to their student teacher. In this course, students consider issues in the modern world. The curriculum evolves in real-time based upon the critical events driving learners’ search to understand the contemporary dilemmas of nations. Seeking primary sources to inform their understanding of different points of view, they analyze and debate the big ideas of history as they play out today.
They heard from their Egyptian contact that the initial euphoria felt in Egypt about the advent of democracy has been tempered over the past few months by the politics of multiple parties vying for control. Discussing their perspectives on the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the English “Glorious” Revolution, they chatted with their “boots on the ground” Egyptian contact about how qualities of these older generation revolutions are or are not reflected in that of the Arab Spring. These students talked so confidently via Skype. We were all pulled into a first person account of the meaning of freedom to him as he described living through challenging times in Egypt.
While the opportunity for students to make such connections becomes more common daily in our schools, there are still many students who are not afforded such rich opportunities for a variety of reasons. Access occurred in this case because of a personal connection with a student teacher and a teacher who was willing to open the door to experiential learning via Skype. And, they were fortunate the technology needed was available in their school. Shouldn’t these kind of experiences be the norm for all young people, not the exception?
II. Universal Design for Learning Works for All Kids
“I worry about the kids like me who might not be seen by a teacher.”
A high school senior met with me in the late fall to describe her experiences as a learner with risk factors. She’s finishing her public school education at the top of her class with a full boat ride to the Ivy League school of her choice. As a minority student with economic challenges, she shared that she considered it her good fortune that teachers “saw” her.
This young woman, so bright-eyed and articulate, noted that teachers early on in school took time to look for something inside a child who had little opportunity living in an isolated rural area. She noted, “Reading’s expensive when a child’s parents have dropped out of school, when there are no books in the home, and when one lives too far from a public library to ever go there. I don’t think it’s about whether a student likes to read at all when you’re poor. It’s about factors that middle class America would never consider.”
This young person also represents the digital divide accessibility issues of zip code. She lives an area where there’s no cell phone signal or broadband penetration to her home. As her courses in high school relied more on access to the web, she found herself catching rides to and from school to arrive early and stay late to use her school’s technology resources because “when there’s no dictionary in your home, there’s not going to be a computer either.” This past year, a teacher bought her a smart phone so she could extend her tech reach. She filed her college scholarship request on her phone. Don’t all kids deserve access to the tools they need to accomplish learning work in their homes? Doing school shouldn’t be so hard.
III. Beyond the Horizon of High School
“I don’t use an alarm clock to get up. My touch works just fine.”
In a conversation over break with a recent high school graduate, he shared how he’s expected to work in college courses. It’s a different world in many ways than the colleges most people attended even five years ago.
This year in college, he’s been expected to collaborate with peers in Google docs on science lab projects, use sophisticated electronic resources for online research, and “dropbox” his papers to a history professor. He described his involvement in managed chat rooms for online study groups- and that this summer he’ll complete an online course through his college while at home. He was expected to come to college with a laptop and once there had to purchase a personal response tool for use in a lecture class. He corresponds with friends and family via text messaging, Facebook, and Skype – and chats with his parents almost daily. The professor in one of his classes put every lecture on a podcast so students could review language lessons. This learner also taken online language tests weekly- including oral assessments using a laptop microphone. One of his graduate assistants communicated using twitter with a small cohort of students for one course to share resource links and respond to questions.
He says that college students own multiple tools -some that fit in a pocket, others in a backpack. He owns a smart phone, an iPod, and a laptop. He’s created his own personal tool crib so that he can “on demand” compute, listen to music and lectures, read interactive texts, complete simulations, take tests, and create and complete assignments independently and with peer teams. He has access to the tools he needs to get his work done – in a coffee shop, a friend’s apartment, the library, or on the Metro.
He shared how much more independently he has to work in college than in high school. There are no bells to keep him on schedule. He doesn’t own an alarm clock – it’s way too old-fashioned for this generation.
We also talked about the need for high school to offer opportunities to learn how to work differently. He hasn’t had a high-school like exam this year. Multiple choice items are rare – his college assessments demand much more of a “show your work and understanding” than a “pick the right answer from four choices” kind of test. Some professors conduct traditional lectures but check students’ understanding and preparation with personal response devices. At least one expected him to come to class knowing the background information needed to engage in more of a seminar discussion model with classmates. Shouldn’t kids experience transition opportunities in high school that help prepare them for a workforce and post-secondary education future?
These recent moments with young people and educators also have led me to reflect upon the Pew Internet and American Life 2010 Project Report. Pew’s description of the widening digital divide alarms me about the current state of access to contemporary learning tools and current expectations of students in school and at home. Whether we’re considering to “BYOD or not BYOD” or shifting at-home old-tech assignments to include web-driven work ala flipped teaching, the geography and economics of broadband penetration and access to devices in the home and school determines which young people will gain equity of opportunity in today’s learning world. Learning that integrates contemporary technologies should not occur by chance or be limited to those with access – in any school or learning community.
Over the years, I’ve seen more and less effective uses of learning technologies. There’s nothing more disheartening than to observe a computer screen used as an expensive, mind-numbing worksheet or an Interactive White Board serving as a substitute for the chalkboard on a dominant teaching wall. It’s even worse when some educators allow such technologies to gather dust while continuing the traditions of factory schooling even as their learners unplug from such classrooms. It’s a waste of both the technologies and the resources used to purchase them.
On the other hand, really brilliant uses of technology inspire learning through powerful experiences that otherwise couldn’t happen. The resultant remarkable outcomes define the shift from the Gutenberg mode of write-print-read to a Post-Gutenberg mode of search-connect-communicate.
All three stories illustrate this shift. The learning paths opening today are akin to the spice trade routes that emerged well over five hundred years ago and drove the world economy from the middle ages into modern times. I believe we’ve entered a new Age of Discovery defined by virtual worlds that can only be explored through access to contemporary, ever evolving technologies, existing side by side with older tools. Such worlds offer extensions of that which excellent teachers make possible through face to face connectivity.
This new Age of Discovery delineates why the learning divide among “digital haves and haves nots” is unacceptable. This time of Renaissance thinking is why we must invest in learning tools and services that allow young people and teachers to go to learning spaces that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
Should any child be denied entry to those spaces? I think not. I’d prefer working on turning our dreams of access to and equity of learning for all young people into reality. You?