21st Century Learning: Making Technology Relevant in Today's Classrooms

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"21st Century Learning" is currently the hottest catchphrase in education, but what it means has yet to be fully determined. Technology is a part of students' everyday lives, and substantial advances in technology have profoundly affected the way they learn. As a result, educators are working hard to meet the ever-evolving needs of 21st century learners. Translating the ongoing technological revolution into a learning experience is a fundamental part of that challenge.

Technology as a Standard Classroom Tool
The Nassau BOCES Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology (CIT) is on the frontline of educational technology, facilitating the integration of its various forms into the classroom. During the course of their work, CIT liaisons have learned that students are not as interested in the technology itself as they are with the experiences it provides. Chief among these is connectivity. Whether through cell phones, iPods, laptops, or desktop computers, students are connecting to the world and each other.

The world is seeing an exponential increase in online collaboration, as evidenced by the huge success of Web 2.0 and the skyrocketing popularity of social networking applications such as MySpace and Facebook. Students are processing their world through video, audio, and electronic chat. They communicate through podcasts, blogs, videoconferencing, e-mail, and text messages as a matter of daily routine. In keeping with this trend, it is becoming increasingly important for schools to provide students with a relevant environment for virtual learning.

Building Virtual Environments for K-12 Schools
In the case of technology, familiarity breeds expertise. Today's students are well versed in a multitude of computer skills and ready for the next major innovation. Yet teachers are using virtual learning environments that are not designed to meet the complex learning needs of the students who use them.

The average parent, teacher or school administrator would not think of sending a sixth-grader to college to fend for themselves, yet many districts attempt to educate their students using virtual learning environments designed for universities. This also puts a strain on teachers, who must utilize limited instructional time to retrofit these college-level platforms for use in the primary or secondary classroom.

Nassau BOCES is currently implementing a new system (Dynamic LearnSpace Studywiz Spark) designed strictly for K-12. Its pre-loaded "plug-and-play" interface is immediately ready for use in any classroom, from the primary grades through high school. The system is both relevant to 21st century learners and user-friendly for teachers, allowing more time to be devoted to instruction, rather than implementation.

One can spot the difference between a fourth-grade textbook and an eighth- or twelfth-grade textbook at glance; the primary-level text uses larger text, larger graphics and more colors. But the differences in the virtual learning environment the Nassau BOCES uses from grade to grade don't stop there. These distinctions include:

No class registration: Students are not responsible for building their own schedules. Instead, content is provided for them in the dynamic learnspace. There is also a built-in support system for teachers, to assist them in building the initial introduction for their students.

Individualized learning: Teachers can tailor the curriculum to each student, which enables them to accommodate a diverse group that ranges from gifted students to those with special needs. Even assessments can be customized to evaluate individual learning needs. All of this is done in a private setting, ensuring that no student is aware of the differences in content for other students.

More control: Instead of sending students out onto the Web, elements of the Web are brought into the virtual learning environment. Thus valuable Internet resources--including video feeds, chats, avatars and other Web 2.0 tools--are immediately available to the learner, without the distractions or potential dangers present on the Web.

Parent involvement: Parental access to the learning experience is an essential component of our system. All assignments are posted on the system, providing parents with the opportunity to see what is being learned at any given time, as well as to e-mail teachers with questions or observations.

Content in Action, Across the Nation and Around the Globe
The one-to-one learning environment may be a reality for many college students, but at the K-12 level it's still a work in progress. Yet providing K-12 students with valuable content wherever they can access it--whether at home, in the computer lab, or at the library--is of paramount importance. The Maine one-to-one initiative, among the most renowned state initiatives in the country, is proving how vital the dynamic learnspace is to providing a one-to-one learning experience. Currently, students in all of Maine's middle schools are connecting and learning in ways they never have before.

In Arizona, just outside of Tucson, Empire High School has eliminated the need for textbooks. While a built-for-K-12 virtual learning environment is a vital component in the success of this bold move, excellent content and curricula are absolutely essential.

Nassau BOCES recently put our "learnspace" to the test in a collaborative project with students in Australia. The talented teens at the Long Island School of Performing Arts made a global connection with a school in Canberra, Australia, sharing their respective dramatic interpretations of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." Students uploaded videos of their performances to the learnspace gallery and discussed each others' work via chat rooms and video blogs. The end result of the project was students' increased global awareness and active learning through direct, personal experience.

When built to suit K-12, virtual learning environments can complement educators' and students' best work, resulting in true 21st century learning opportunities.

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About the author: Fred Podolski is the executive director of the Nassau BOCES Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology, Long Island, NY, which uses the Dynamic LearnSpace Studywiz Spark.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

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