Generation Next What are digital natives learning in today’s tech-filled classrooms?

The difference between a giraffe and a canary may just be the best way to explain how technology has changed the classroom. Or to be more precise, a second grade animal report about a giraffe and another about a canary.

Megan Shay, director of pre-K to 12th grade English language arts for Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), fondly recalls her second grade animal report on the giraffe, done in the B.C. (Before Computers) age. After summarizing the one-page entry on the giraffe found in her family’s Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, she handwrote her report, added a drawing and called it a day.

Students at Friends School of Baltimore work on a classroom project.

For her son’s recent second grade report on the canary, he started with Google. From a whopping 96 million hits on “canary,” he identified which of the online articles, websites, videos and photos were credible sources and which ones to use. Figuring out the answers to these questions is an important 21st-century skill, Shay explains.

“Reading is not as linear when you read on the web,” she says. “Today, we are teaching children how to problem-solve and how to manage the streams of information coming at them. We’re teaching them how to be digitally literate in a complex world.”

For the young Shay, that literacy included using different programs to create a chart, type information and then design and print graphics for his presentation board. When he wanted to include the sound of a canary’s chirp, Shay taught him how to create a QR code for viewers to scan with their smartphones for a recording. The result? An interactive, thoroughly researched animal report, and one very proud 8-year-old canary expert.

Computers have been in the classroom for decades, but it wasn’t until the first screeches of a dial-up modem in the early 1990s that technology, via the internet, truly started transforming teaching and learning. Today, most of the region’s independent schools have 1:1 laptop or BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) programs. Beginning in September, all BCPS students in first to eighth grade classes and three high schools (Chesapeake, Pikesville and Owings Mills) will receive county-owned tablet PCs to use during the school year.

“Anytime society goes through this kind of transformation, you need to constantly monitor its impact,” Shay explains. “As we move to 1:1, it’s not going to be all technology, all the time. How can we use it to leverage opportunities and offer a learning experience that students couldn’t have otherwise?” Her frequent collaborator, Fran Glick, BCPS’ coordinator in the office of digital learning, explains that the device is only a part of a five-year effort to help teachers move beyond the traditional classroom of “rows and recitation into a transaction of learning.”

Teaching today’s digital natives—often called the iGeneration or Digital Generation—to use the hardware or a software program is no longer in the lesson plan, as it was 20, 15 or even 10 years ago. Students now bring a fluidity with technology and an ease learned through using social media, playing video games and downloading apps. Don’t know how to beat a certain level on a game? Find a YouTube video to show you how. “Our kids know a lot about troubleshooting,” Shay says.

Gilman students work on technology and the soft skills behind the laptops.

That being said, “just because kids are digital natives doesn’t mean that they are digitally literate,” says Heidi Hutchinson, Friends School of Baltimore’s director of community partnerships and a lower school assistant principal. “This is an exciting and challenging time for us as educators and people. We all know what school looks like, but technology has changed teaching and learning in the K-to-12 classroom because information is at your fingertips. Technology is a tool that can take us a step further.”

This past year, the fifth grade class at Catonsville’s Hillcrest Elementary School’s read Sharon Draper’s novel “Out of My Mind.” The classes Skyped with the author about her writing process, then used the school’s makerspace to design tools that the main character, who can’t speak, could use to communicate. “Without technology, our students would not have had that experience, and without the rich, engaging novel, they would not have wanted to,” Shay says.

The technology also allows kids to become content creators, broadening their horizons. “Our kids can create products and evidence of their learning that can be shared with a global audience,” says Glick. “Participating in the global digital world is a critical element for career and workforce readiness.”

Creating content starts young: According to a 2016 Erickson Institute Study, the average number of tech devices used by a child under the age of eight is 3.1 and that does not include a TV; 59% use tablets with internet access and 52% use smart phones with video game consoles. Young children. know how to use devices to draw, take photos and make videos and avatars, among other creative uses.

But what is all the swiping, pinching, searching and downloading doing to traditional reading, writing and ’rithmetic?

“We are never going to eliminate books and writing with a pencil, but [as educators] we need to be mindful of how technology can amplify what we are doing,” Shay adds. “Just replacing a task with a computer is not what we are going for.”

Renee Hawkins, director of library services and educational technology for the Thacher School in Ojai, California, agrees. “Quality writing remains important. Technology is all about communication,” says Hawkins, who recently finished a 16-year tenure at the all-girls’ Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, serving part of that time as director of educational technology. “Students still need to build vocabulary and understand how to organize ideas and identify audience, but teachers also need to focus on other ways of communicating ideas via images, video, infographics, etc.”

Think back to the papers you wrote in high school—once they were typed, there was no going back to revise it. Technology, Glick points out, changes that process and emphasizes the recursive nature of writing.

It’s changed the research process, too. Consider again the canary and its 3.2 million search engine hits. Students need to learn to sift through the torrents of information and develop an eye for quality and the ability to evaluate bias, a skill that their digital fluency doesn’t necessarily bring. “The nature of search engines and the ease of access to all information, appropriate or not, is at the center of teaching digital citizenship,” Glick explains. “Just because you can find things doesn’t mean that you should.”

With its Common Sense Media certification, BCPS is creating kindergarten to fifth grade lessons in library and language arts to help children understand how to behave in the digital space. “With access and opportunity come responsibility, and being a safe digital citizen doesn’t come from eliminating access. As educators and as parents, we need to strike that balance,” she says.

Classroom technology, though, has revealed a gender disparity. “Boys are more often encouraged to hack, play video games and code, while girls are not,” says Hawkins, who uses the Scratch app to teach coding. “Coding tends to be an elective, which does a disservice to girls. The world runs on code, but only a few schools nationally are requiring it as a course. I saw time and time again that girls are as excited as boys to code and tinker.”

Recent statistics from the Advanced Placement computer science test underscore this. While only 27 percent of all students who took the test in 2017 were female—29,000 to be exact—that’s way up from the 2,600 female students who took it a decade ago. That enthusiasm has yet to extend to the collegiate level. Only 17 percent of university computer science majors are female, a disparity that continues in the workplace.

At the all-boys’ Gilman School, director of technology Tye Campbell is working hard to push past the assumption that boys are better at technology than girls. “Boys, more than girls, bring gaming experience, which makes up the bulk of their tech experience,” he explains. “Girls are more social with technology. I am particularly interested in helping boys leverage their experience, asking them if they’ve thought about how games are made or designed and using that to get to a great educational experience.”

He’s also passionate about bringing boys’ love of apps into the classroom: “I want them to think about developing an app that can help someone on a social issue.” The key, he says, is to apply lessons in empathy along with technology at an early age. “We talk a lot about soft skills—collaboration and teamwork, critical thinking, empathy, resilience—and I wish we had a better name for it. You need all these to create technology, but if not used properly, technology can hinder those skills.”

The Friends School’s Hutchinson recalls a field trip on which her daughter’s class was instructed to use their phones only for photos and not social media. “Kids will always figure out a way around it,” says Hutchinson, who taught a technology workshop this past summer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education School Leaderships program. “Part is teenaged rebellion and part of it is extreme creativity. They want to communicate and are better at thinking collaboratively.”

She advocates that teachers meet students where they are. “Technology has also tapped into the dark side of who we are and is changing us as a society. Every middle school teacher should know Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram and what those spaces look like, and the classroom should reflect that.”

Hawkins used a ninth grade girl’s prowess on Instagram to teach ethics in a required ninth-grade course she co-created at Garrison Forest four years. “I wanted the girls to express their knowledge in a way that best suits them and to value and elevate their social media experience,” she explains. Among the lessons in the “Digital Thinking: Apps to Ethics” course was examining body image on Instagram. They also talked about the unique lenses that social media creates. “Social media knows my political views and only feeds me that view,” she explains. “We need to learn to look for the other side and check the facts. How do you chase down a fact you read in a headline? We want to build the capacity in our students to doubt what they read, rather than accepting everything at face value.”

Many students continue to believe that there is a human fact-checker making sure that what search engines spew forth is true and vetted. In fact, 28 percent of 8- to 11-year-olds and 27 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds believe that if a Google search produces a website, it is trustworthy, according to a 2016 British study.

“How does technology help us to become better thinkers? Better global citizens?” Hawkins asks. “Teaching technology is about open-ended problem-solving. Teachers don’t have the answers, so they figure it out together. That’s what the future will be.”

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