A recent survey suggests the pervasiveness of internet-connected computers at home and in the nation’s schools has given rise to a new breed of tech-savvy student: “ultra-communicators,” who say they approach their daily lives differently as a result of technology. The survey’s findings have important implications for school leaders as they seek to design learning environments that meet the needs of today’s students.

“Voices & Views from Today’s Tech-Savvy Students”–part of a national report sponsored by the nonprofit group NetDay–surveyed more than 210,000 K-12 students from all 50 states to learn what role technology plays in their day-to-day activities.

The survey is part of a nationwide effort to capture the views of students regarding the importance of educational technology. NetDay plans to offer its research to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for inclusion in the third National Education Technology Plan, officials said.

Although today’s students indicated they are technology savvy, feel strongly about technology’s value, and rely on technology as an essential and preferred component of every aspect of their lives, what surprised the survey’s authors most was students’ flexibility in side-stepping the pitfalls of the digital divide, according to Julie Evans, NetDay’s chief executive.

Students across the board indicated they were using technology at a fairly sophisticated level, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status. Whether students have access to a computer from home or school doesn’t necessarily matter, Evans said: Kids are finding ways to get connected. If they don’t have home access, many flock to community centers such as their local library or Boys’ and Girls’ Club. Either way, students say technology plays an integral role in their lives.

And not just for schoolwork. Overwhelmingly, students said they use computers as a communication tool to exchange information, conduct research, and chat with friends.

According to the study, students across all grade levels view eMail as a communication tool, with a significant increase in accessibility as the student gets older.

Twenty-nine percent of students in grades K-3 have their own personal eMail accounts, but 79 percent of students in grades 7-12 say they use eMail to communicate.

Importantly, researchers found the key watershed for eMail accessibility is sixth grade, the point at which a majority of students (56 percent) said they have their own eMail accounts.

Even more significant than eMail is the popularity of instant-messaging (IM) technologies among students. Unlike adult computer users, Evans said, who tend to rely heavily on eMail to send messages with periodic responses, students are more likely to use IM, where the dialogue is instantaneous and, in many cases, takes the place of a telephone call.

To students, she said, IM represents a level of intimacy that is lacking in many traditional modes of communication. This observation contradicts the theory that technology has served to undercut the value of human interaction among the online generation.

Using most IM services, students are able to create personalized screen names that are easy for friends to memorize and often indicate something about their personality, Evans said. Students also favor IM because it allows them to communicate instantaneously with several people at once and can be done day or night, especially in places that offer the option of always-on internet access.

Students in grades 7-12 are the most active users of IM, the study found. In fact, 70 percent of all students in grades 7-12 have at least one IM screen name, and 18 percent have more than four names, according to the survey. Significantly, 54 percent of students surveyed knew more of their friends’ screen names than home phone numbers.

For many students, the ability to use IM and eMail is viewed not as a privilege, but as a practice that is essential to their day-to-day lives, Evans said.

This sea change in communication styles has created a rift between students and educators in some schools, where pupils have objected to administrators placing limits on eMail access and instant messaging.

According to the survey, students want to expand their active online lives into their school environment. Students in grades 7-12 said that if they could change one thing about technology at their school, it would be to allow the use of IM and eMail at school. That response outpolled having online classes and online textbooks by nearly 3 to 1.

In talking with students, Evans said, it becomes clear most of them do not view IM and eMail solely as social tools. Instead, many rely on the technologies to complete group projects and discuss assignments handed out in school. In many cases, she added, students question why these technologies–which have become such a part of their daily routine–are restricted during the school day.

Students also had a lot to say about what types of computing devices they’d like to use in school.

Consider, for instance, the issue of one-to-one computing. Educators have traditionally focused on the use of personal digital assistants and wireless laptops in their quest for viable solutions, Evans said, but students are less picky. As long as the technology will get them online, she said, they don’t care what it is.

Having grown up on the technology, many students are just as comfortable getting online with their cell phones and PDAs as they are with school-provided laptops. What really matters is whether the technology will enable them to perform the types of communication and information processes they are accustomed to, she said.

According to the survey, students in all grades have access to a wide range of technology devices. Among the most frequently cited devices were the desktop computer, cell phone, and CD burner. Similarly, the survey found that students are familiar with a variety of online applications, including eMail, search engines such as Google, IM, and online gaming, among others.

But the news could be better for advocates of educational technology. Students said they learn more about the effective use of technology from their own personal exploration at home than from their teachers in school.

Primarily, students said they find out about new technologies and internet sites from friends, parents, and through personal use outside of the formal learning environment, rather than from a class or a teacher recommendation.

Although two-thirds of students in grades 7-12 consider their technology knowledge “average,” nearly four times more students consider themselves “advanced” (26 percent) than students who label themselves “beginners” (7 percent), the study found.

Students from all grades said they believe strongly that technology use is important to their education.

For instance, 74 percent of respondents in grades K-6 said technology helps them with their assignments. In grades 7-12, that number jumps to 91 percent, the survey found.

The majority of this work is done from home. Seventy percent of the students in grades 7-12 and 57 percent of the students in grades 4-6 said they use technology more from home than from school.

The internet has dramatically changed the way students conduct research and write school reports, according to the survey.

Sixty-seven percent of students in grades 7-12 said they would conduct an internet search or visit a bookmarked web site when researching a school project. This compares to the percentage opting to visit a school library to find a book on the same topic (10 percent) or asking their teacher for help (9 percent). Even fewer would turn to their textbooks (5 percent). In the information age, Evans said, most students view textbooks as informational relics; they want the most up-to-date information at their fingertips, edited in real time.

Students who responded to the survey said they had little trouble getting on line from home or from some other outside source, but many said gaining internet access from school remains a problem.

For students in grades 7-12, the most frequently cited obstacles are a lack of time during the school day, slow internet access, school web filters and firewalls, not enough computers, and non-functioning computers.

Students not only highly value internet access for their education; they depend on it, the survey found. More than three-quarters of students in grades 7-12 said the loss of internet access would have an impact on their schoolwork, and 79 percent said it would affect their personal lives.

Students who participated in the survey also were asked to express their thoughts on improving the use of technology in schools. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Students have very strong ideas about how technology funds should be spent in their schools, the survey found. When asked to prioritize expenditure items, overwhelmingly across all grades the top priorities were to buy more computers and better software for student use.
  • Students in grades 4-12 are frustrated by the access obstacles at their school and would design a new school with fast, wireless access throughout the school building, new computers so students could go online anywhere in the school, and computer labs that stayed open after school and on weekends, the survey found.
  • Students have a clear sense of the value of technology to their education. If their school were to make technology readily available, students in grades 4-12 believe they would learn more, school would be more fun, student projects would be better, and students would get higher grades in class and on tests.

The survey results were based on voluntary participation by schools and students. Students in grades K-3 were surveyed using a teacher-facilitated format, but students in grades 4-12 filled out individual surveys independently. Next year, the organization will offer the individual option to younger students as well, Evans said.

NetDay was scheduled to release the full results of its nationwide survey as part of a congressional briefing March 24 at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The organization also will hold a National Speak Up Day for Teachers April 29.

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