Student voices are key: This was the main theme that girded many of the sessions and keynote speeches at the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Philadelphia June 27-30.

From student showcases, or student-led sessions in which kids demonstrated how they are using technology to enhance learning in their classes, to a Student Voice Film Festival sponsored by Philadelphia public television station WHYY, this year’s conference featured many opportunities for attendees to hear students’ perspectives on a variety of issues.

And that’s increasingly important in today’s digital age, many speakers and show organizers said, because this generation of students has a whole new set of needs and skills that most schools so far have been slow to address.

In a highly creative and entertaining keynote speech on June 29, titled “The Natives are Restless,” actress and educational technologist Deneen Frazier Bowen urged educators to ask questions and listen to what their students have to say about their instruction.

Her point: Listening to students will help educators understand the disconnect that often exists between students’ expectations for their education and what they’re actually getting from school, so educators can begin to help bridge this gap.

Bowen got her point across by assuming the roles of four characters on stage: Dr. Priscilla Normal, a research “expert” who believes all the answers teachers need about this new generation can be found in the demographic data; Edy, an eighth grader who discovers her voice and her best place for learning by writing a web log, or blog; Maria, a fifth grader who leads a school-wide effort to find out what the students in her school think about technology; and Joanne, an 11th grader who takes a journey around the world to get involved in her own community.

From the stories of each of the three student characters, it was evident that today’s educational system needs to reach students who learn in vastly different ways. Edy is most comfortable expressing herself via a written blog, while Maria prefers more verbal forms of communication, such as her cell phone and podcasts.

What’s also clear is that technology–whether a blog, or a podcast, or a digital story–can help students find or express their voice.

In her persona as Dr. Normal, Bowen revealed some compelling statistics about today’s digital “natives,” including these: 78 percent of students in grades K-3 know what the internet is; 58 percent of students in grades 7-12 know their friends’ screen names better than they know their friends’ phone numbers; and 18 percent of kids in grades 7-12 have four or more screen names.

“An administrator’s job is to protect the system,” Bowen told eSchool News in an interview following her speech. “But administrators sometimes forget that it’s the students who drive the system.”

Links:

eSchool News Conference Information Center
http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic

Video coverage of NECC 2005
http://www.eschoolnews.com/vrc/video.cfm