A recent report commissioned by Common Sense Media about the use of cell phones and the internet for cheating (see story) is representative of how students and adults can look at the same behavior or activity and have very different perceptions of technology’s impact.

With the exponential increase in students’ access to cell phones, and their access to a wide range of digital content via the internet, the effective use of these technology tools has become a key topic in many education discussions. Yet the question of how to leverage technology’s potential to transform teaching and learning is still largely unresolved. And while there are “campfires” of innovation and implementations with promising results, there continues to exist a wide digital disconnect between how students want to use these tools for learning and living, and how the adults in their learning worlds think these tools should be used.

As observed in the latest results of our national Speak Up survey (see “What do students want from their schools?”), our nation’s students largely still power down when they go to school and power back up as they leave the school grounds to resume their digital lives. Students’ widespread dissatisfaction with the availability of technology while they are at school stands in stark contrast to the stated values of their school administrators and teachers, with 85 percent of administrators and 70 percent of teachers saying effective ed-tech implementation is important to their school’s core mission.

At the root of this digital disconnect is a fundamental difference of perception. Our students, who are not only digitally native, but increasingly mobile, view the world through a new lens that has been framed by a myriad of emerging technology devices and the use of such tools for increased communication, collaboration, content development, and connectedness. Their parents, teachers, and many other digital “immigrants” in education policy and media spheres are startled by the speed with which students are not only adopting these new tools, but adapting them to new, previously unforeseen uses. And quite often, the context of this adaptation is misunderstood by the adults whose lenses are not quite as digitally focused.

Over the past six years, Project Tomorrow, a national nonprofit organization, has collected and reported on the views of more than 1.5 million K-12 students, teachers, parents, and administrators about their use of technology, the values they place on technology use, and their aspirations for improving learning with the help of technology. As a result, we have learned three essential truths in polling youth about technology: context matters, perspective matters even more, and–overall–this is very tricky business.

To enlighten the analysis and extend the conversation started by Common Sense Media, I will tap into our Speak Up survey results to share the point of view of students and to demonstrate the absolute criticality of understanding both context and perspective in this discussion.

At the heart of the Common Sense Media report, “Hi-Tech Cheating: Cell Phones and Cheating in Schools,” is the belief that “versatile technologies have made cheating easier.” The report cites as an example that 20 percent of cell phone users ages 13-18 say they have “always/often/sometimes/rarely” used their cell phone to search the internet for answers during a quiz or test, 17 percent have taken photos of test questions to send to friends, 25 percent have texted a friend about answers, and 25 percent have stored notes or information on their phone to look at during tests.

While it is unclear from the data how many of those students admitted to doing these activities “often,” it can be implied that a strong 75 percent to 83 percent of the students did not chose any of the cheating activities as behaviors they have personally done. And a solid 79 percent indicated they viewed such activities as cheating.

What’s more, only 11 percent of the students in the poll chose the option “no” when asked if they believed these kinds of cell-phone activities were wrong. This, however, was not the headline from the report, which chose to focus on widespread cheating with cell phones. Today’s youth are confronted almost daily with new examples of how our titans of business and industry, sports heroes, government leaders, and celebrities cheat to get ahead for personal gain. This tacit acceptance of cheating in our culture is not limited to those in the news. A 2006 study noted that 33 percent of Americans said they would cheat the government by working under the table while receiving unemployment benefits. And while that 11-percent figure from the Common Sense Media report is not an acceptable number, considering the pervasiveness of cheating in our society, parents and teachers must already be doing a good job teaching about appropriate and responsible use of these versatile technology tools.

The Common Sense Media report also provided data on students’ inappropriate use of digital content from the internet–such as turning in assignments that included copied text or actual papers or reports as original work. As noted with the cell phone value statements, a vast majority of the students in the Common Sense Media poll considered all of the identified inappropriate digital content behaviors as offenses. Only a small percentage of the students indicated explicitly that copying text from web sites (14 percent) or downloading a paper to turn in as your own (11 percent) were not offenses.

Putting aside the frequency of technology-enabled cheating in schools, perhaps a more meaningful question raised by the report is whether we are assessing the right skills in our nation’s classrooms–and whether our concept of “cheating” is no longer appropriate for today’s students. According to the definition of cheating as described in the report, the contestants in the popular game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” cheat every time they “phone a friend” for help on a tough question. Most likely, those calls are even being made on a cell phone!

The proliferation of digital content within schools is creating new paradigms for teaching and learning, and also new challenges for evaluating academic integrity. Increasingly, students are telling us that the process of creating content themselves as a representation of knowledge acquisition is often more important than the mere recitation of information and facts. Many of the points made in the Common Sense Media report reflect a bygone era when students were empty vessels the teacher would fill with pertinent information. “Pencils down” style tests were well suited for assessing the effectiveness of the teacher in filling those empty vessels. Today, with 30 percent of high school students saying that tests do not effectively measure what they know, and only 39 percent of students saying their high school is doing a good job preparing them for the jobs of the future, a more relevant topic of conversation would be how to leverage digital content more effectively for learning–and what constitutes a meaningful assessment of knowledge acquisition in this new digital era. 

In the Common Sense Media report, 32 percent of teens said they have searched the internet to find a teacher’s manual or publishers’ solutions to problems in their textbook. While the report characterized that as proof of cheating, this behavior is totally consistent with how today’s students are far ahead of adults in using internet resources to solve problems and gain new knowledge. The real test of competency today is not a regurgitation of data, but how to apply data and information to real-world problems to create new knowledge. While many of our teachers (39 percent, according to Speak Up results) are stuck in a paradigm of using technology primarily for homework and practice, students are already using a wide variety of Web 2.0 tools to create subject-specific podcasts and web sites for personal use as review materials, taking online self-assessments to gauge their own content knowledge, and auditing online classes to further their study in particular subject areas–all without the knowledge of their classroom teachers.

These “free-agent learners” have, to some extent, given up on their school’s ability to prepare them for the world and have stepped up to assume front-line responsibility for their own learning. In a focus group last spring, I learned from students in a science class that they were regularly going online after school to check on the accuracy of what their teacher lectured about in class that day. Their teacher actually encouraged this behavior as a way for her students to gain valuable information and media literacy skills. By the way, those students in that science class were only in sixth grade, and already they were taking responsibility for their own learning process.

From the Speak Up 2008 data from 280,000 K-12 students, we learned that while 88 percent of middle school students (grades 6-8) and 95 percent of high school students say they have a cell phone, only one-quarter of those students have internet access through their cell phone, and the cell phones that many kids are carrying today are either limited in their text or photo capability, or don’t have those capabilities at all, owing to parental or financial constraints. For today’s student, however, that cell phone represents much more than a communications device for chatting or texting with friends about the upcoming dance or latest movie. Increasingly, students are interested in leveraging that “computer in their pocket” for improving their school-life productivity and learning experiences.

For example, one-third of students would like to use a mobile device to communicate with their teacher, record lectures they can listen to later, and share and edit calendars. More than 50 percent of these students want to receive alerts and reminders through their cell phones about homework due dates and upcoming projects, as well as conduct internet research for schoolwork. Fifty-three percent say they would like to have information from their online textbooks downloadable to their cell phones, so they can have ubiquitous access to learning materials–both in and out of school. And students have high aspirations for using those mobile devices for better collaborations with their classmates on school projects. From 2007 to 2008, we noticed, for example, a 46-percent increase in students using their social networking sites for school-project collaborations.

But these are all just dreams for most students, because their schools are still very effectively prohibiting their access to these devices. A third of students say not being able to use their mobile device at school is a major obstacle, and two-thirds say the best way their school could make it easier for them to work electronically on schoolwork would be to allow cell phone usage.

In some schools, teachers and school administrators are taking students’ ideas to heart and thinking about how to leverage these mobile devices effectively within the classroom. Seventy-two percent of principals told us through Speak Up 2008 that they believe incorporating mobile devices into instruction will increase student engagement, and 50 percent say the devices provide opportunities to personalize learning for each student and help students prepare for the world of work. One out of four parents believes that mobile devices can help extend learning beyond the school day. A quarter of teachers want new school policies put in place so they can use mobile devices within their instruction (without violating their school or district policies); only 9 percent of teachers say that cell phones are a distraction and should not be incorporated into classroom activities.

In many schools and districts nationwide, teachers are experimenting with the use of cell phones in the classroom, even where official school policies still prohibit student and teacher cell phone usage. At the direction of their teachers, students are being polled via their cell phones to provide their teachers with spot assessments on content knowledge and to collect and report data from science labs and field trips. Project Tomorrow is working with a project in North Carolina that is effectively using smart phones to extend learning beyond the school day with remediation-math video games (see story). Within that project, the students are peer mentoring each other by exchanging photos of how they worked through their polynomial equations. Most notably, the teachers in this project say their teaching practice has changed forever as a result of using this technology.

Despite what the Common Sense Media report notes about the ineffectiveness of cell phone policies at schools, students in our focus groups all across the country continue to complain about the rules and regulations that prohibit cell phone use at their schools–and the extraordinary means their school administrators and teachers are taking to protect the sanctity of test taking in this digital world. In many schools, cell phone collection boxes are now standard equipment in the typical classroom. Assistant principals in high schools are redefining their jobs as cell phone inventory managers, rounding up cell phones they see being used by students during the day and returning them at dismissal.

One innovative school in Maryland last year decided that it had more important educational tasks to worry about and tried a new cell phone policy, with great results. The school provided its students with an open internet café at lunchtime where the students can use any of their mobile devices to communicate, connect, or collaborate with peers–cell phones, smart phones, laptops, PDAs, MP3 players. The students understand that this mobile device “free time” is a privilege that requires them to keep the devices under cover during regular class time. Not only has the new policy eliminated the cell phone police routine, but administrators report that lunch time is now suddenly a quiet, orderly period. Most importantly, the students feel that their administrators respect their ideas, understand the value they place on using these devices, and are willing to address their needs.

The fact is, today’s students approach all aspects of learning differently because of technology. The Speak Up survey data shed new light on that topic each year. However, occasionally–as with the Common Sense Media report–educators and researchers want to roll back the clock and superimpose pre-digital-era techniques or learning approaches as a way to avoid the inevitable march of time.

During a recent focus group, some high school students told me how their English teacher was concerned about plagiarism from the internet, and so she told her students that their next assigned essay must be written in longhand. For these students, who have grown up writing with the power of editing at their fingertips, this new requirement seemed not only archaic but counterproductive. The students approached the assignment like every other, using their favorite word processer to write and edit their essay electronically as they have done for years. They then went through the tedious, time-consuming task of rewriting the electronically constructed essay in longhand to meet the teachers’ expectations. And while the teacher falsely felt that she had successfully nipped plagiarism in her class, her students gained a much different perspective on her competencies as a 21st-century teacher.

The conversation about academic integrity and values, and the use of emerging technologies within learning, is vitally important for students, teachers, parents, and the media.  While we at Project Tomorrow do not condone or encourage cheating or unethical behavior, we do not believe that these new technologies have enabled or empowered student cheating, no more than we believe that advancements in medical research have provided Major League Baseball players with the impetus to cheat with performance-enhancing drugs, or innovations in software designs have enabled business leaders to defraud their companies and investors. The sad fact is that people, including students, will cheat with or without technology.

What we have learned from the Speak Up project is that today’s students are looking at the use of technology for learning–and, in fact, the role of school in their learning lives–through a digital lens that is very different than the lens most of us bring to this discussion. We hope our insights about the context and perspectives of students have helped to advance this discussion, and we look forward to continuing the conversation with all education stakeholders through the Speak Up blog at http://speakupblog.tomorrow.org or via twitter @SpeakUpEd.

As we noted in our national data release in March, today’s students are functioning as a digital advance team for the rest of us, adopting and adapting these new technologies for increasing productivity beyond our expectations. Let’s take this opportunity to engage our youth in a new discussion about how to effectively, and appropriately, leverage these emerging technologies to reach the real goal we all are striving for–ensuring that all of our students are well prepared to thrive, compete, and contribute in tomorrow’s world.

Julie Evans is the chief executive officer of Project Tomorrow, which administers the national Speak Up survey on education and technology.

Note to readers:

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