How can educators keep up with the “digital natives,” today’s generation of youth who were raised in a world of information technology and to whom it therefore comes naturally? And, perhaps more importantly, how can educators prepare all students for the challenges of an increasingly global workforce and society, regardless of their socio-economic background or abilities?

These were the key questions considered during the opening general session at the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando March 22. Conference speakers and attendees hope to answer these questions over the next two days with the help of keynote speeches, more than 200 concurrent sessions, and an exhibit hall featuring more than 500 ed-tech companies.

Addressing conference-goers in his home district, Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Ronald Blocker posed the first of these two questions to attendees. To answer it, he said, schools must look to the business world for appropriate models.

“Yesterday’s students were wired for print,” Blocker said. “Today’s students are wired for video streaming and blogs.” His implication was that schools risk leaving some children behind if they don’t adapt their instructional strategies to reach this new generation of students who are wired for learning in vastly different ways than previous generations.

To ensure that doesn’t happen in Orange County, some of the district’s teachers are podcasting their lessons and posting them on Apple’s iTunes U to help students review for exams, Blocker said. And the district also has strived to give teachers the tools to create personal web pages quickly and easily. So far, he said, several thousand teachers in Orange County–the nation’s 12th largest school system–have their own web pages for communicating class information to students and their parents.

On the business side, Blocker said, Orange County is building a web portal that allows for “eRecruitment” and other enterprise functions. Teachers now can apply for jobs within the district online, he said, and the district’s ultimate goal is to enable all employees, parents, and students to conduct any of their business with the district through this web portal.

Orange County has commissioned a study on how technology is being implemented in the district, with the purpose of using it as a blueprint for reflection and improvement. “We’re doing things well in Orange County, but we’ll be doing them even better” because the district is taking the time to evaluate which approaches are working and which aren’t, Blocker said.

He concluded: “It’s important to do things right, so we don’t get ambushed by the digital natives.”

Technology has ‘arrived’

Florida Commissioner of Education John Winn later told a story that underscored Blocker’s point about the need to reach a new generation of students who are wired for learning differently. He said he visited a school where three first-graders were showing off a podcast they had made to answer the question, “What is peace?”

“What does peace smell like?” the students asked in their podcast–and an image of a flower appeared, along with their answer: “Peace smells like a flower.” The question, “What does peace sound like?” was followed by an image of a waterfall, along with the students’ answer: “Peace sounds like a waterfall.”

“And these were first-graders,” Winn noted, adding, “For you middle and high school teachers out there, watch out for these three” and other students like them–for they represent the kinds of interests and abilities that educators must be prepared to address going forward.

Fortunately for today’s students, technology has “arrived as a basic [element] in education and not an add-on,” Winn said, noting that Florida has invested as much in technology as in any other instructional tools or expenditures.

To succeed with educational technology, Winn said, educators must “have a vision for what the demand is going to be five years out.” He said this vision will be demonstrated in practical terms during the many conference sessions and on the exhibit hall floor over the next few days.

Winn also spoke of the need for schools to prepare students well for the challenges of an increasingly global society. He mentioned a new initiative, called “Global Florida: Classroom Connections,” that Gov. Jeb Bush introduced last month. “Global Florida” is an international exchange program between Florida and the Bahamas that uses technology to increase reading proficiency, raise students’ awareness about the culture and history of Florida and the Bahamas, and help the Bahamian Ministry of Education develop teacher-training programs, according to the governor’s web site.

In the program’s early stages, three Florida schools will pair with three Bahamian schools. Each pair will form sister classrooms, sharing culture, educational concepts, and technological innovation and strengthening students’ reading skills. To start the process, the classes reportedly are swapping books and will connect online in the spring.

New degrees of literacy

Preparing students for citizenship in an increasingly global society also was the theme of the evening’s featured speaker, Rudy Crew, who gave an inspiring and thought-provoking presentation. The former commissioner for the New York City Public Schools, Crew now heads Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth largest school system, where he has implemented the lofty goal that every student will graduate from high school fully prepared for college or the work force of tomorrow.

“Technology ought to be thought of as a road to hope,” Crew told the appreciative crowd, many of whom nodded their heads in agreement. “This is about giving children a portion of a world that they themselves didn’t even know they could have.”

Crew said it’s not enough to prepare students to meet state standards of achievement. Educators, he said, also must ensure that students are “occupationally prepared” for success in ” a shrinking globe.”

“Globalization is an economic reality,” Crew said. Arguing that an understanding of other nations–how they trade, how they think, what languages they speak–is increasingly critical for success, he called on attendees to start a dialog in their communities about the need for new levels of literacy–such as occupational literacy, civic literacy, and even personal literacy–that go beyond the core academic standards set by states.

“Bubbling in on a test sheet … is insufficient,” Crew said, adding that nations in Europe and Asia are “eating our lunch” because they connect the experience of students in the classroom to the outside world.

“These adequacies”–these notions of what it takes to be a fully functioning human being in an increasingly global society–must “travel alongside the conversation about technology literacy,” Crew said.

At the end of the day, he concluded, education is about all children leaving school with a personal sense of worth, a moral center, and the occupational skills and cultural awareness to make a living for themselves and their families in an increasingly global world. “That’s why we still have our shoulder to the wheel,” he said.

Links:

Florida Educational technology Conference
http://www.fetc.org