a new meaning for literacy

via Slashdot, the San Francisco Chronicle reports on November 20, 2008:

Rather than wasting their time, children who gab on Facebook or play online games are gaining valuable social skills and learning some technology basics, according to a study to be released today.

The report, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, contradicts the idea held by many educators, parents and policymakers that children should be blocked from online social networks and video games like Halo, which allow users in different locations to play together. Instead, children should be encouraged to use the technologies to gain a certain level of digital literacy, the study said.

… But critics have called social networking a distraction and, in some cases, a danger because of the potential for children to befriend strangers. Hoping to limit children’s use of the services, some schools now block access to such sites.

and why not build online social networks for schools?

From the BBC on November 21, 2008:

The MacArthur Foundation’s education director, Connie Yowell, concluded that the work creates a new way to look at how young people are being taught.

“Learning today is becoming increasingly peer-based and networked, and this is important to consider as we begin to re-imagine education in the 21st century,” she said.

and self-directed learning makes a cameo appearance:

[Dr Ito] also said the internet provided a core group of teens the opportunity to explore their own creativity and “take a deep dive into a subject”.

on a related note, via Slashdot on November 21, 2008, a discussion about technology and childhood education begins like this:

“I’m a programmer engaged to an inner-city public school teacher. I’ve been thinking for a long time now about what I can do to help close the technology gap, and I finally did something (very small) about it. I convinced my company to give me a few old computers they were replacing, refurbished them, installed Edubuntu on them, and donated them to her classroom. I also took some vacation time to go in, install everything, and give a lesson on computers to the kids. It was a great experience, but now I know first-hand how little technology these schools have. I only helped one classroom. The school needs more. (Really the whole district needs more!) And while I want to help them, I don’t really know how. With Thanksgiving a week away and more holidays approaching, I suspect I’m not the only one thinking about this sort of thing. I know it’s a hard problem, so I’m not looking for any silver bullets. What do Slashdot readers do? What should I be doing so that I’m more effective? How do you find resources and time to give back?”

On November 21, 2008, the top page of the comments includes the following excerpts:

a question about how to create self-directed learners (#25852113)

Unfortunately, computers and the internet haven’t really changed the game of education. They let driven kids kick ass and unmotivated kids fail hard. The real trick, which is unfortunately much harder than getting computers in front of kids, is getting kids who will benefit from being in front of computers.

In observing teachers I’ve had, and teachers at the school I work in, this is the aspect of good teachers that impresses me most. A great teacher can actually inspire students, turning mere rule followers, and even the downright troublesome, into learners. Once you have learners, you just need to stand back and help out where needed, they’ll figure it out. Teachers who can make learners, though, have my respect.

a suggestion (#25850697) to arrange the desks and computers in a classroom in “a horseshoe formation,” because:

you can only keep their attention by NOT LETTING THEM PUTZ AROUND on the computer while you are teaching, unless that is a required part of the teaching. I really simple trick (requires no locking down/configuration of anything) is to have all the students turn off their monitors when not in use. Also, have them turn around and face the center. If your layout can allow it, have two seats–one in front of the computer and one to the side, where they can put materials. Have them sit in the seat NOT in front of the computer. Then, when the task requires introducing the technology, they work happily at their terminals, without the distraction of their dear teacher blabbing away. You walk around from terminal-to-terminal, taking an ACTIVE INTEREST in the activities of your students..you know..teaching–supervising. Unfortunately, most teachers just cut them loose and let them do whatever.

suggestions about additional resources (#25848717):

Apparently, Intel contributes not only by donating technology for classrooms and computer labs, but also by training teachers in how to use them effectively in the classroom and developing a “digital literacy” curriculum for them to use. Intel takes great pride in their school involvement, and you can find details about that at http://www.intel.com/education/ [intel.com].

… the Brookings Institution had a little bit about how the Federal government can facilitate involvement in “educational entrepreneurship” which is developing cheap, classroom-relevant tech specifically targeted for school use. This was part of the Blueprint for Prosperity report which can be found at http://www.blueprintprosperity.org./ [www.bluepr…perity.org]

an observation from the author of the question (#25848859):

As for the machines and kids goofing off instead of doing work: I locked down a lot of things on the machines I brought in so that the kids can only use them for educational games. And I was amazed at how much fun these kids had with TuxMath.

a suggestion about where to begin (#25848875):

I wrote my Ed thesis on this. You’ve gotta start with the teachers, as they are woefully unprepared (some argue unwilling) to integrate technology into their lesson plans. What good is a 1:1 student:computer ratio if the teachers don’t actually have students use the computers for their work?

A second, lingering problem is trying to figure out what we actually do with computers. There are far too many old-fashioned minds that think education should teach kids about computers, which is an outdated paradigm for sure.

Keep the Computer Science classes for those truly interested in that field, but quit trying to pretend the computer is a magical box that requires special skills to operate. Realize that any 8-year olds know how to click a mouse, type some words, go on the Internet, etc. (the same assumptions cannot, however, be made about their teachers) and stop trying to teach them to be Computer Scientists.

Start thinking about how the students can USE the tool to learn as opposed to teaching students how to make the tool work. If they do the first, the second takes care of its self.

and a tale of a self-directed learner (#25849145):

I am a 9th grade student and I know exactly what you are talking about! I go to a small private school of about 800 kids in 1st-12th grade. I am the only real computer geek here, there is one other kid but he is just about gaming and a little bit of hardware. Which won’t get you much. So out of the whole school aside from the computer technician I am the computer guy. People come to me before they go to anybody else, I kind of like it but it almost hurts knowing that these people know nothing about computers (aside from myspace, they all have myspace) and that they are going to have trouble getting jobs because so much requires some type of computer skill. We used to have a computer class but that only lasted for about a year because nobody wanted to sign up. Now I have all the text books and use them for my own learning.

The Slashdot comments, although unsourced and unverified, do seem to provide a sketch of many issues involved “as we begin to re-imagine education in the 21st century.”

Infrastructure: Computers and Internet access are critical first steps and a “technology gap” exists in today’s schools.

School Policy: Access to computers and the Internet is determined by school policies, some of which seem to think that they are obligated to prevent children from engagement in computer-based and online learning.

Teacher training: A major barrier in the effective deployment of online technology in schools is the inability of teachers to effectively use these tools. This would also seem to limit the ability of teachers to advocate for the use of effective technology in their classrooms and changes to school policies related to the use of technology in the classroom.

Teaching strategies: The effectiveness of the use of technology in the classroom is influenced by the tactics and strategies used by teachers.

Differences in learners: Learners arrive in various states of development – some are “driven” and others are “unmotivated.”  However, there are ways to help facilitate growth in “unmotivated” learners and online social networks may be an important part of the process (e.g. “they all have myspace”).  “Self-directed” (or “driven”) learners appear to have a distinct set of needs that also need to be addressed by educators to avoid alienating students from the learning process.

This is a rough sketch and I have more research to organize into a post that I hope will tie some of these concepts together in a more useful form.  At this point, this is a developing framework for concepts and ideas that I plan to explore in greater depth in the near future.

Related:

A Vision of Students Today

The Internet can make you “smarter” if you learn how to use it

Self-directed learning and brain development

“Adult learning theory” in the Kindergarten classroom

Using the Internet to enhance the learning experience

dynamic collaboration and thoughtful citizenship

Internet learning communities

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