Here There Be Dragons…

technologyAs parents, we all understand the draw of technology for our children. Indeed, modern youth often seem to spend more time on technology than in the “real world”. With the wide availability of connected devices like cell phones, computers, tablets, ChromeBooks and video game consoles it’s easy to see how our youth tend to “glue” themselves to screens. As adults, it can be difficult to understand how they spend their time. For example, one of the most popular genres of YouTube video consists of passively watching others play their favorite video games!

The favoured way of communicating with their peers amongst teens seems to be through through SMS text messages and social media sites like SnapChat, Kik and Ask.FM. Many of us find we need to put restrictions on “screen time” to ensure that our children get enough sleep and are able to socially interact with others.  Research warns us of the dangers of this over abundance of screens.Uhls et. al (2014), for example found that the simple act of taking technology away from teens for the space of 5 days increased their ability to recognize facial expressions and nonverbal cues! Other harmful effects can include difficulty keeping up with homework (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016) and even a difficulty making friends (Margalit, 2016)!

Wait… Isn’t this blog supposed to be about Hope and Opportunity?

For my own children, we work to ensure that screen time doesn’t become the primary way that they interact with the world. Our children have a limit on screen time and we strive to be aware of how that screen time is being used. We give our kids that daily “push” out the door for that all important fresh air. Most importantly we engage with our kids on how they use their online time… which brings me to my story.

A few weeks ago, as often happens, my teenage son had made it home from school before his mom and dad, and had chosen to spend this time on our computer. At the time, I was facilitating a collaborative session with a group of our teachers. My cell phone buzzed and the following text message appeared:

text message

When I got home, rather than finding him watching his favorite YouTube channel, playing a game or watching Netflix, his cell phone was sitting on the desk with his friend on speaker-phone. They were using a free tool to write a musical score using its live, collaborative editing features.  Most significantly, this wasn’t even for school. They were composing music just for fun!  The idea was their own.  No teacher had posed the problem to them; neither had heard of prior to the project. Together, they had initiated the idea, searched for a tool that would help them realize it, and then just got to work!

What makes this fascinating is not that these two teens were creating and publishing an original work without being “assigned” the task by a teacher, instead it is that this practice isn’t that unusual for modern teens. For proof of this, all one has to do is take a quick glance at the most popular videos on YouTube. Most creators are teens or young adults and they’re reaching an audience of thousands!

Youth today have grown up in a world where they have the ability to follow an idea from inception, to creation to publishing. Depending on where their personal strengths lie, our youth are creating and publishing images, original video, music, mobile apps and more!  If we pay attention to what they are viewing through these social media, we see that they are listening and watching other youth! They are using readily available tools to create and re-mix. They are creating “mashups” – the art of taking two forms of media like images and text or videos with different sound tracks – to share their beliefs, ideas and understandings of the world they live in. Likes and views have become the new social credit.

What does this tell us about student learning?

Factual content is no longer enough for our students. They live in a world where facts and multiple perspectives about those facts are merely a click or tap away. Our students are using technology to create and contribute content and their own perspectives. How then do we leverage this to engage them in our classrooms? How do we help them to uncover those learning outcomes through rich authentic tasks that use the technology to pose and solve worthwhile questions?

In Foothills, we have several strategies to support this work.  Our schools are moving away from classic libraries to learning commons – from passive sources of information to places where students have access to the spaces and tools that support these actions. Many of our schools have developed Maker Spaces (Hertz, 2012) that provide tools such as robotics, 3D Printers and other digital technologies to help students explore their own creativity.  Our learning commons facilitators have received training and support in these areas as well as in digital citizenship, digital copyright and online safety to support our students understanding of the opportunities and risks associated with their globalized world.

Our three year new teacher mentorship program supports our young teachers to build skills in the areas of designing authentic learning experiences, using assessment to inform instruction and using technology not only to remove barriers but also to create and contribute their own perspectives.

Provincially, our curriculum is beginning a shift towards a competencies driven model. In addition to the knowledge, skills and attitudes that constitute a comprehensive program of studies, current curriculum development intentionally supports our students to become:

  • Critical Thinkers
  • Communicators
  • Problem Solvers
  • Collaborators
  • Managers of Information
  • Cultural and Global Citizens
  • Creators and Innovators
  • Custodians of their own Personal Growth and Well-Being

Perhaps the question isn’t only how much time do our children spend online, but also how do our children spend their online time.  Food for thought.

Yours in learning,
Doug Stevens
Director of Distributed Learning
Foothills School Division