Oct 31 2006

How Teachers Can Keep Students Engaged In Digital Environments

Today’s schools are filled with the first generation of truly digital students. As a result, schools must adapt to the challenge of meeting these students’ expectations about technology.

Let me tell you a story about my son, Tann, that has reshaped my vision for technology in our schools. Not long ago, I came home from work to find him sitting at my desktop PC, furiously banging away at the keyboard while visiting his favorite online game site. But this time, he had added a new twist to his play: He was also logged on to the game site with my notebook PC. He was, as they say, sandbagging the other online gamers with a second play designed to help his first play. Can you imagine the scene—each hand driving a vehicle madly around the site in search of the perfect play? He was very much the master of his cyberworld. But it didn’t end there. He had multiple instant messenger windows open where the dialogue between other fifth-grade classmates alternated between girls and the game sites that his classmates were logged on to. And he did all this while listening to the latest downloaded music blasting from his headphones.

As I watched him manage the “chaos” in front of him, I couldn’t help thinking about the classrooms in our district. We have great teachers in Pinellas County, Fla., but how could they provide this kind of environment for him and his classmates—something this engaging, this stimulating and so robust? For Tann and thousands of other kids across Pinellas County, a 24 x 7, 365-day-a-year amusement park for the senses is available at the click of a mouse.

Future Plans

Pinellas County, like most districts, has a technology plan that creates computer-rich environments, including mobile labs. The technology plan outlines the procedure for purchasing peripheral devices, talks about network drops and wireless local area networks (LANs), and occasionally recommends the replacement or upgrade of out-of-date technology. We have preferred student-to-computer ratios, plans for providing computer access to all staff and multiple training programs for teachers, support staff and administrators. We have state-of-the-art applications designed to support teachers and extend student learning. We even have a plan to continue the plan.

What we don’t have in education today is a clue about how kids use technology.

Now it’s a given that some great technologists back home will read this and think, “What’s the matter with our superintendent? Has he lost his mind? He knows we are working hard to keep the applications running, he knows we are keeping legacy hardware and software running that other businesses would never try to hold on to with not much more than a hope and a prayer. It’s time to send him to his next district.”

To each of them—and to those of you reading this—let me be clear: Our teachers, school-based tech-support specialists, and behind-the-scenes tech team who service our applications and keep the networks running are doing a great job. They have worked the plan masterfully and, in fact, have gotten significantly more from our plan than one could reasonably expect. However, I am proposing that it was a plan for yesterday. It is not the plan our kids now expect and deserve.

Leadership, Not Technology

This column, then, is about leadership, not technology. It is specifically about a superintendent’s leadership in a large public school system and the ability that a superintendent has to create a compelling vision for the acquisition and application of the technologies our kids will use in the 21st century. It is about the superintendent’s ability and responsibility to create passion around introducing and integrating technology into our classrooms in meaningful ways and the possibilities that it creates.

It’s about opening minds and developing talents to address a new way of work brought about by a new generation of learners. I am amazed by adults who say that kids today are the same as they were five or 10 years ago. They are not. We have the first generation of truly digital kids in our schools today.

These young people see no difference between the real world and the digital world. They have never known a world without computers, digital cameras, iPods, MP3 players, drag-and-drop technologies, e-mail, the Internet and online games. Music has always been digital and, for the most part, free. To them, multitasking is second nature.

Some readers might be thinking, “School shouldn’t be all that. And what does his son playing games have to do with school?” If you are thinking that way, exhale, because you have plenty of company. In fact, our district has policies forbidding almost everything Tann was doing: online games, almost never; music of your choice while you study, probably not; instant messaging your friends during class, not just no, but heck no, and if we catch you, we might take disciplinary action. We certainly don’t provide two computers for any student. We still talk about computer labs in schools as if somewhere in the real world people who want to use a computer will rush to a common room and compute together.

Making Home Movies

Let me tell one more story about my son that has a direct implication for the classroom. This past weekend, he wanted us to pitch the tent in the backyard for a family camping experience. Given the late hour and our family plans for the next day, we said, “No, maybe another time.” Tann went quietly upstairs only to emerge a half-hour later with my notebook PC and an iMovie, complete with music and sound effects, explaining why we should go camping in the backyard. He had never used the technology before.

Can you imagine the level of engagement he could bring to paper-and-pencil tasks when he can make a three-minute movie about something as simple as pitching a tent in his backyard? Do you think digital kids will be excited to do another diorama or poster for history day? Do you really expect digital kids to be fully engaged in such old-school activities?

So, here’s the superintendent’s dilemma: How do you create a compelling picture of our young people’s future with people who are less technologically literate? How do you move people from what they have known to what they have never seen and, in some cases, never contemplated? How do we educate today’s kids for their future rather than for our past?

Well, having seen the future, I know where I will start. I am going to tell the story about a boy and his friends who multitask with the best of them, who are not afraid of technology, and I’m going to tell all who will listen that students will gladly volunteer their time when something commands their attention. The great educators I know will find a way to do just that.

Maybe I missed the true nature of my dilemma. Maybe it’s not about creating the compelling vision of a different future for our kids because it’s here for all to see if we just look. Maybe, then, my role is to find the resources so teachers can command their students’ attention in a digital world.

Did I mention my son is 11—and he has a little sister?

If you are captivating your students’ attention with technology-based lesson plans, enter Ed Tech’s 2006 Technology in the Curriculum contest. For more details , see page 9.

Clayton Wilcox is the superintendent of schools in Pinellas County, Fla., which serves 115,000 students. He has taught in classrooms from elementary school to graduate school.