Ed-tech consultant Alan November believes in the power of student-centered learning.

Ed-tech consultant Alan November believes in the power of student-centered learning.

The most important change that technology brings to education is that it enables students to take charge of their own learning, said education technology consultant Alan November. Yet, this is happening in too few classrooms, he said—and a key reason is that schools are blocking access to the very tools that allow such activity.

November was speaking at a Jan. 14 session during the Florida Education Technology Conference in Orlando. Sponsored by Lightspeed Systems, the session focused on how to balance safety and learning in the digital age.

If you were to ask teachers or administrators what one indicator they would look for to show that real learning was occurring in a classroom, most people would say they’d like to see that students were engaged in the lesson, November said.

But in most classrooms where educators would describe students as engaged, there is still a dependency on the teacher to direct the learning, he said—rather than the students themselves.

“I think we have to redefine what it means to have engaged learning,” November said.

One of the resources that companies value most in this new global economy is a workforce that is self-directed, November said. He proposed two questions that school leaders should ask to determine if a class is engaged in student-directed learning:

(1) Are students adding value to the learning of other students?
(2) Is information flowing out of the classroom to the larger community—and not just in?

“The real power of the web is that it enables global collaboration,” November said. “Yet this isn’t going on in most schools. We’re blocking all the social tools that enable this.”

November recommended that school leaders give their teachers access to Skype, which is software that lets users make free phone calls over the internet. A former history teacher himself, he described how teachers could use Skype to engage students in a lesson about the American Revolution, for example.

If you use Google to search for information on “American Revolution,” November said, and you add the phrase “site:sch.uk” in the search bar, you’ll get a list of results that are limited only to web sites with the domain “sch.uk”—which is the domain used by British schools. Perusing these results will allow American students to see what their peers in the United Kingdom learn about this pivotal event in U.S. history.

After reading British accounts of the American Revolution, he said, American students could reach out to their peers in the U.K. and arrange to debate them using Skype.

“What’s going to get kids more excited about learning and drive them to prepare more thoroughly?” November asked. “Telling them: ‘You’re taking a test on the American Revolution on Friday,’ or saying: ‘You’re debating British students about the American Revolution on Friday?’”

Members of the audience in this give-and-take session seemed intrigued by what November was saying, although they noted that many school leaders block students’ access to online social tools because schools are responsible for what goes on in the classroom. If a student misuses a social tool such as YouTube, and the press hears about it, the resulting publicity could ruin a school leader’s career.

November responded: “You’re blocking access to YouTube because it’s bad—but have you taught your students to use it correctly?”

If you teach every student how to use YouTube for lifelong learning, showing students how to find valuable educational information that is also appropriate for the classroom, then you’re giving them invaluable life skills, he said. If you don’t, then by default students will use YouTube only for entertainment purposes.

By blocking access to social tools in the classroom, and not teaching students what constitutes socially and ethically responsible behavior online, schools are shirking a key responsibility, November said. He added: “Facebook might be blocked in your schools, but kids are still going to go home and use it.”

A Lightspeed executive suggested another solution for school leaders to consider: Monitor, rather than block, students’ use of online social tools.

Lightspeed’s software can block access to certain web sites, but it also captures and reports on students’ online behavior. The company executive suggested that educators apply a different set of rules for different types of web sites: Block access to sites that have no educational value whatsoever, but take advantage of monitoring and reporting tools to keep students in line when they use sites that have some educational value but also inappropriate content or uses.

Making students aware that their online behavior is being recorded, and that they will be held responsible for this behavior, can discourage students from using social tools inappropriately, the executive said. He likened this approach to the discipline used in classrooms every day.

“Johnny can’t say the ‘F’ word in the back of the class,” he said. “Well, he can—there’s now way to physically stop him—but he knows he’s going to get punished if he does.”