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Geeking through School

Technology keeps knocking on classroom doors, but schools are careful about what they invite in

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In today's education parlance, going Old School refers to pre-laptop days when class time was spent taking notes with pen and paper while a teacher lectured at the front of the class. A new wave of learning techniques has students silently engaging with the teacher, asking questions and making comments through social media platforms that some educators say give voices to students who don't normally raise their hands in class. The new paradigm has detractors, however, as teachers and school administrators try to harness the energy technology can bring to the classroom while balancing the need to keep students focused on schoolwork and protect them (and diminish the liability of schools) from the abundance of harmful materials available on the Internet.

  There's no question classrooms need to adapt to students' changing methods of cyber communication — and many have done that — but the controversy comes in how to administer the new teaching methods and control the information students retrieve.

  "We have an academic discussion board, similar to what colleges use: Blackboard. We use Moodle," says Philip Forchier, director of technology at Academy of the Sacred Heart. That program allows a closed circle of users to add content and comments, and students can hand in assignments over Moodle.

  "It allows teachers to post assignments, what went on in class that day, and students can comment back," Forchier says. "The teacher has control over the conversation, and our students are the only ones with access. When a student logs on, they only have access to their teachers."

  As for straight social media, Sydney Dubbin, dean of students at Sacred Heart's upper school, says the policy is straightforward. "We do not allow our students to access Facebook or My Space on campus," she says.

  Shelly Raynal, director of public affairs at Holy Cross, says the all-boys school also has that rule. All Holy Cross students in fifth grade and up are issued laptops when school starts and every classroom has a smartboard (electronic interactive screens), she says. The school maintains an online community where students can check assignments, ask questions and keep abreast of what's happening at the school.

Computers first became commonplace in classrooms 30 years ago, after the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued A Nation at Risk in 1983, warning that education must keep pace with a world dominated by computers and jobs that require high-tech expertise.

  In response, the U.S. government in 1997 established the E-rate program to help schools and libraries build the infrastructure needed to connect to the Internet, thus bridging what then-Vice President Al Gore called "a gap between the information haves and the information have-nots." Public schools in the U.S. had an average of 72 instructional computers in 1995, according to figures the U.S. Department of Education released in 2009, but by 2005, the number had risen to 154 computers per school — and 100 percent of the nation's public schools were connected to the Internet.

  The Department of Education's 2010 National Education Technology Plan ratchets up the need for tech savviness with a policy that envisions students being online 24/7. What has changed over the years is the thought that connectedness for the less moneyed would be mainly through schools and libraries — and that it would be limited to a computer terminal.

  Today, students can go online from their smartphones or iPads, and family income no longer determines who has access to technology at home. The challenge for educators is to teach students how to capitalize on the positive things the cyber world can teach — new ideas, research, communication and technology skills — and minimize their exposure to the trash.

  Schools have enacted policies to block or filter Internet access to pornography and other inappropriate materials in accordance with the Children's Internet Protection Act. "At the heart of these various education technology policies are competing frames (policies developed based on the attitudes of those enforcing the new rules)," researchers wrote in Social Media Access in K-12 Schools: Intractable Policy Controversies in an Evolving World, which will be presented by University of Maryland researchers June Ahn, Lauren Bivona and Jeffrey DiScala during the American Society for Information Science & Technology annual meeting in New Orleans Oct. 9-12. "The narratives of economic competitiveness and digital divide compel education leaders to expand access to technology for students. However, fears about student safety on the Internet typically induce school organizations to dramatically restrict student use of new tools."

  That study shows 95 percent of U.S. families own a cellphone, 93 percent own a home computer, and 94 percent have regular Internet users in the family. It also shows that young people have set up their own cyberspace networks, with nearly 75 percent of American teenagers using sites such as Facebook and MySpace. 2010's Project Tomorrow reported that youngsters take on self-directed learning on the Internet, searching topics that interest them, finding videos, podcasts, blogs, websites and articles on their own. While it shows initiative, such explorations usually aren't monitored by parents or school administrators.

  "Although young people have grown up surrounded by technology, researchers have found that youths exhibit large variability in skills such as online search or assessing the credibility of Internet sites," the study concludes. "Furthermore, social media provides powerful opportunities for young people to participate in online communities, but these opportunities also introduce significant risks." Those include cyberbullying, stalking and other activities.

The conundrum becomes: How do schools promote media education so young people can learn to use new technologies safely and ethically, but safeguard students against negative behaviors?

  "We have instruction on how to safely use all of these sites in our computer class," Dubbin says, "and the archdiocese has films. We bring in outside speakers so [students] know about these social sites, but they are blocked on campus."

  In the 2008 University of Minnesota study Educational Benefits of Social Networking Sites Uncovered, principal investigator Christine Greenhow, a learning technologies researcher in the school's College of Education and Human Development, says, "What we found was that students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st century skills we want them to develop to be successful. Students are developing a positive attitude toward using technology systems, editing and customizing content and thinking about online design and layout. ... The websites offer tremendous educational potential.

  "Now that we know what skills students are learning and what experiences they're being exposed to, we can help foster and extend those skills ... and build on that in our teaching."

  Still another study, this one by researchers at Lock Haven University, South Dakota State University and Pennsylvania State University and published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, suggests that using Twitter in class could lead to greater participation and higher grades. Of the first-year pre-health majors in the study, those who used Twitter in class typically averaged grades a half-point higher than the non-tweeters. The students reported richer discussions among students using Twitter and conversations that extended beyond the class hour.

  But can students in K-12 grades get as much out of using social technologies in the classroom as those college students?

  "Seeing students (in lower grades) use technology is amazing," Raynal says. "They give it no thought. We have fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders ... they have slide shows on our website and videos of science projects. It's amazing what these fifth- and sixth-graders can do. They're well-versed in technology, and they're not afraid."

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