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What do students want from their schools?

Looking for ideas on how to spend federal stimulus dollars to enhance educational technology? Project Tomorrow has a suggestion: Listen to what students say they’d like to see in their schools.

The nonprofit organization is touting the results from its annual Speak Up survey as a means of giving lawmakers–as well as state and local education leaders–some guidance on how stimulus funds can be used to improve teaching and learning.

Project Tomorrow highlighted the results from this year’s survey during a March 24 briefing on Capitol Hill. According to the group’s report, students can be viewed as a digital advance team: They are early adopters and adapters of new technologies, creating new uses for various technology products to meet their sophisticated needs.

"What kinds of technologies are students using, and which are the types of things that students can use in school?" asked Julie Evans, chief executive officer of Project Tomorrow. Those are questions many educators are now asking as well–and the survey’s results provide some answers.

More than 280,000 K-12 students, 28,000 teachers, 21,000 parents, and 3,000 administrators responded to the online Speak Up survey between October and December 2008.

The report focuses on five areas where schools can better incorporate technology: increasing the use of mobile devices, creating different types of spaces for learning, incorporating Web 2.0 tools into daily instruction, expanding access to digital resources in the classroom, and getting beyond the classroom walls to explore careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Students say there should be more use of mobile devices in their learning. Students’ access to mobile electronic devices–including cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, and smart phones–has increased dramatically in the past year, and these students are discovering the "computers in their pockets" can play a significant role in all aspects of learning, the report said.

"There’s an acceleration of students’ access to mobile devices, with the largest increase being seen in middle schoolers," Evans said.

Students who took the online survey said they would like to use their mobile devices to communicate with classmates or other students via eMail, instant messaging, or text messaging; work with their classmates on projects at home or school; and play educational games. They also said they would use their mobile devices to do internet research, record lectures to listen to at a later time, receive alerts about upcoming homework and tests, or access their school’s web portal.

Student interest in taking an online class is on the rise, the survey found. Among high school students, interest in taking an online class rose 21 percentage points from 2007 to 2008, with a 46 percentage-point increase seen among middle school students. According to one-third of the sixth- through 12th-grade students surveyed, online classes make it easier for students to succeed, because they are more comfortable asking questions and can review class materials as many times as they want or need.

Students currently use eMail, instant messaging, and text-messaging tools for communications, with nearly one-half of students in sixth through 12th grade using the tools regularly, according to the report. Students also heavily use social networking, online games, blogging, and virtual-reality environments. Evans said schools and districts should find ways to create instruction that runs parallel to how students are using collaborative tools and Web 2.0 technologies outside the classroom.

Student respondents also offered ideas for an ultimate digital textbook. The survey showed students are interested in leveraging a wide range of capabilities to produce a new kind of textbook. "For many students, the idea of using a hard-copy textbook that is out of date as soon as it is printed is as archaic in today’s world as the abacus in a math class," the report states.

Sixth- through 12th-graders listed features they would like to see in their ultimate digital textbook, such as having the ability to personalize their book with electronic highlights and notes and being able to tap into the expertise of an online tutor whenever necessary.

Both parents and students affirmed the importance of science and science careers. More than one-half of parents said they will be likely or very likely to encourage their children to pursue careers in a STEM-related field. Students said they would want to learn about potential and future jobs and careers in STEM fields by talking to professionals in the field, gaining on-the-job experience through part-time jobs, downloading "day in the life" videos and podcasts to their mobile devices, and using authentic tools to solve real-world problems with their peers.

Yet, only 39 percent of the high-school students who were surveyed said they thought their school was doing a good job of preparing them for the jobs of the future.


Project Tomorrow

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