Panelists: Digital tools expand learning opportunities

By Laura Devaney, Managing Editor
September 21st, 2010

Access to digital learning opportunities is critical for U.S. students' success, panelists said.

Access to digital learning opportunities is critical for U.S. students' success, panelists said.

The nation’s director of education technology called on schools to replace textbooks with mobile learning devices, and the head of the Federal Communications Commission said his agency would be voting this week on whether to lift some restrictions on the use of federal e-Rate funds to help deliver broadband access to more students, during a Sept. 21 panel discussion about the implications of digital-age learning.

Investments in broadband access and mobile learning devices are essential to helping students learn the skills they’ll need to compete on a global scale, said panelists during “Back to School: Learning and Growing in a Digital Age,” hosted by Common Sense Media, the Children’s Partnership, PBS Kids, and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

“In some ways, this country is in a serious crisis when it comes to education and the underinvestment in our kids over the last 30 years,” said Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, during his opening remarks.

“We may not have classrooms of the 21st century, but we clearly have technology of the 21st century,” he added, referencing the “warp speed-like” changes in media and technology that enable today’s students to stay constantly connected to the internet and social media.

“Whether we like it or not, [these changes are] starting to affect the schools and classrooms that all of us care about so deeply,” Steyer said, calling this phenomenon “both a crisis and an opportunity” for U.S. education.

Three imperatives face U.S. education today, Steyer said: Every child should be digitally literate before graduating from high school, all parents must be informed about their children’s digital media lives, and every classroom needs to be a 21st-century learning environment.

Technology is making a major difference in the lives of U.S. students every day, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. Children use multiple digital media devices to consume 11 hours of content a day, and teenagers send an average of one text message every 10 minutes while they are awake.

“It is striking how much technology is a part of kids’ lives today,” Genachowski said.

And while parents and teachers must find practical strategies to mitigate the risks of new technologies, including safeguarding students’ online privacy and security, “the opportunities of new communications technologies for our kids far exceed the risks,” he said. “The risks are real, but the opportunities are even larger.”

To that effect, the FCC launched Parents’ Place, a portal with information on how parents and caregivers can help keep children safe when using technology and the internet.

“Technology can, and must, be a key part of the solution to the problems that technology creates,” Genachowski said.

Major changes in store for the e-Rate

Access to broadband service creates countless opportunities for innovation and workforce development, Genachowski said, adding: “We fail our students if we don’t teach them basic [digital literacy] skills.”

That’s why the federal e-Rate program is so important, he said, noting that his agency plans to vote on Sept. 23 to make much-needed changes that will bring about a “major modernization” of the e-Rate.