In a national survey that reveals K-12 students’ use of technology at home and at school, students overwhelmingly agreed that access to digital media tools and the ability to collaborate with peers both inside and outside of school can greatly enhance education.
“Speak Up 2009: Creating Our Future: Students Speak Up about their Vision for 21st Century Schools,” the latest education technology survey from the nonprofit group Project Tomorrow, identifies the emergence of “free agent learners”—students who increasingly take learning into their own hands and use technology to create personalized learning experiences.
“For these students, the schoolhouse, the teacher, and the textbook no longer have an exclusive monopoly on knowledge, content, or even the education process, and therefore it should not be surprising that students are leveraging a wide range of learning resources, tools, applications, outside experts, and each other to create a personalized learning experience that may or may not include what is happening in the classroom,” the report says.
The survey indicates that students increasingly are seeking out and obtaining technology-based learning experiences outside of school—experiences that are not directed by a teacher or associated with class assignments or homework.
“Students, regardless of community demographics, socio-economic backgrounds, gender, and grade, tell us year after year that the lack of sophisticated use of emerging technology tools in school is, in fact, holding back their education—and in many ways disengages them from learning,” the report says.
Those activities include using Facebook to collaborate with, share information with, and tutor other students; taking online assessments and tests; using cell phones and applications for self-organization and productivity; using podcasts and videos to improve in challenging subject areas; taking online courses to learn more about interesting subjects, and not necessarily for a grade; and finding experts to connect with online and share new ideas and content.
The report identifies three essential elements of a new emerging student vision for American education.
A common theme for all the elements is innovative use of a wide range of emerging technologies, including online learning, mobile devices, Web 2.0 tools, and digital content.
And while the three elements offer the potential for remarkably new approaches to teaching and learning in a classroom, students likely will see the use of these emerging technologies as a “natural extension of the way they are currently living and learning outside of that classroom.”
This presents educators with a unique opportunity to inject classroom lessons with real-world applications and to begin closing the “digital disconnect” that exists between students and educators when it comes to teaching and learning with technology, while at the same time using students’ ideas about technology use in new and meaningful ways.
The three elements identified in the report are:
- Social-based learning: Students want to leverage emerging communications and collaboration tools to create and personalize networks of experts to inform their education experience.
- Untethered learning: Students envision technology-enabled learning experiences that transcend the classroom walls and are not limited by resource constraints, traditional funding streams, geography, community assets, or even teacher knowledge or skills.
- Digitally-rich learning: Students see the use of relevancy-based digital tools, content, and resources as a key to driving learning productivity, and not just about engaging students in learning.
Fifty-one percent of responding students in grades 6-8 said they use communication and collaboration tools to communicate with other students for completing schoolwork, and 28 percent use those tools to communicate with teachers. More than 60 percent of high school students use these tools to communicate with other students on schoolwork, and more than 40 percent communicate with teachers in the same way.
Forty-three percent of students in grades 9-12 said their primary method of communicating with friends online is through a social-networking web site.
When it comes to communication and collaboration outside of school, 72 percent of ninth through 12th graders, roughly 65 percent of students in grades 6-8, and almost 30 percent of students in grades 3-5 use instant messaging, eMail, and text messaging to communicate with others.
Of “free agent” learners who use technology on their own for learning, 26 percent of high school students and approximately 17 percent of middle school students sought help from other students via a social network.
About one-third of middle and high school students reported they are unable to access personal communications accounts or send messages to classmates during the school day—something the report notes is a “major obstacle to using technology more at school.”
Students also indicated they would like to use those same communication tools to correspond with teachers electronically.
Ninety-one percent of parents communicate via text message, instant message, or eMail, and 51 percent use a social networking web site.
But when asked which technology tools would best drive student achievement, only 20 percent of parents identified collaboration tools such as blogs, social networking sites, or wikis. One-third cited communication tools such as eMail or text messaging.
Almost half (47 percent) of middle school students and 40 percent of high school students said discussing how to solve a problem with classmates and helping other students with their problems would be the most helpful instructional techniques or learning methodologies in mathematics.
The same social-based learning approach also appeared in middle and high school students’ responses to how they would like to learn more about science, technology, engineering, and math career fields. More than half of students in both groups said that meeting successful role models and talking to professionals about their jobs would be helpful.
More than half of middle and high school students have access to iPods, desktop computers, laptops/tablets/netbooks, and a cell phone without internet capabilities. Nearly 60 percent of students in grades 3-5 and almost 40 percent of K-2 students had access to an iPod.
But although students have access to a wide range of personal technologies, when asked to identify the major obstacles preventing technology use in their schools, the top response from students in grades 6-12 was, “I cannot use my own cell phone, smart phone, or mp3 player.”
That marked the first time school filters and firewalls have not been reported as the No. 1 obstacle for student technology use in school.
If allowed at school, 70 percent of high school students and almost 65 percent of middle school students would use mobile devices to look up information on the internet. More than half of both groups would work on projects with classmates, and nearly half (48 percent of high school students and roughly 45 percent of middle school students) would access online textbooks.
When asked to recommend how schools could make technology use for schoolwork easier, the top five student responses indicated that access is key. Students (1) want to use their own cell phones, smart phones, or mp3 players; (2) would like to use their own laptops or netbooks; (3) said unlimited internet access throughout schools is important; (4) reported that social networking access is desirable; and (5) said they would like tools to help them communicate with classmates.
Teachers’ biggest concerns about using mobile devices in the classroom include student distractions (67 percent); access issues, with not all students having mobile devices (55 percent); and concerns over students cheating with the devices (30 percent). Roughly one-fifth said they do not know how to use the devices within instruction effectively (21 percent) or would need curriculum resources to support the use of mobile devices in class (20 percent).
While students say internet access is essential at school, many parents said they are concerned about their children meeting strangers online (75 percent), sharing too much personal information (73 percent), encountering child predators (72 percent), and encountering inappropriate web sites (67 percent).
Fewer than half of parents (41 percent) said they believe their child’s school has effective processes in place for internet safety and protecting personal information. Forty-one percent of high school students and 38 percent of middle school students said they know how to be safe and protect themselves online.
Student interest in online learning is increasing, but students reported that a lack of information about available classes and logistical steps for taking an online class are their primary barriers.
High school students’ top reasons for taking an online class are working at their own pace (51 percent), earning college credit (49 percent), and taking classes not offered at their own schools (44 percent). Middle school students reported the same reasons, as well as a desire to obtain extra help on schoolwork.
Digitally-rich learning experiences
Students’ use of digital media tools and mobile devices in their personal lives also applies to their school lives. More than 30 percent of both middle and high school students use digital resources to take tests online. Seventy-nine percent of high school students and more than 60 percent of middle school students use these resources to complete writing assignments.
More than half of third through fifth graders use digital tools to play educational games, and nearly 30 percent use the tools to create slide shows, videos, or web pages for school.
Outside of school, nearly 60 percent of high school students and 65 percent of sixth through eighth graders use digital resources to upload or download videos, podcasts, or photos to the internet.
Roughly 65 percent of third through fifth graders play online games, and slightly more than 40 percent participate in 3D virtual reality.
Almost 45 percent of high school students and 40 percent of middle school students create or modify digital media.
Top student answers for the value of using video or online games as part of regular schoolwork or classroom activities included making it easier for students to understand difficult concepts, learning more about a subject, becoming more engaged in a subject, and making practice problems more interesting.
Seventy-six percent of parents said that gaming appeals to different learning styles and increases student engagement. Fifty-seven percent said gaming develops problem solving and critical thinking skills.
Online textbooks are a hot topic with students as well.
“When asked to design the ultimate online textbook, the students focused on … interactivity and relevancy of content, fostering collaborative learning, and personalizing the learning process,” the report says.
Students said games, online tutors, links to real-time data and web sites, and animations and simulations should be included in an ideal online textbook.
And students would use those online texts to personalize learning through electronic highlights and notes, search terms, quizzes, brain teasers, cell phone downloads, and organizational tools.
Ninety-three percent of parents said they like the idea of online textbooks, and 47 percent believe online texts would be good investments for schools to make to improve student achievement.
On the brink of educational change
“Groundbreaking policies, programs, and plans are being unveiled to jump-start a new standard for 21st-century learning in America,” the report says.
“Our nation’s students already have a plan in mind for how to effectively leverage technology to drive student achievement and ensure that all students are well-prepared for the future, and they are, in fact, with or without the rest of us … executing a 21st-century education.”
Project Tomorrow surveyed 299,677 K-12 students, 26,312 parents, 38,642 teachers, 1,987 pre-service teachers, and 3,947 administrators representing 5,757 schools and 1,215 districts nationwide, including public (97 percent) and private (3 percent) schools. The student report is the first in a series of soon-to-be-released reports on technology and education.
Schools were located in urban (38 percent), suburban (31 percent), and rural (32 percent) communities. More than one-half of the schools were Title I eligible, and 42 percent of the participating schools had a minority student population of more than 50 percent.
Speak Up is a national initiative of Project Tomorrow, an educational nonprofit organization that works to ensure that today’s students are well prepared to enter the college and the workforce.