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Closing the Gap Between Education and Technology

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According to Apple curriculum evangelist Mark Benno, we live in a time when "our kids are being pushed harder, faster, and in ways we never would have imagined." And that, he insisted, is creating a variety of challenges for today's educators.

During his recent talk at the FETC 2009 conference in Orlando, FL, Benno opened with an interesting factoid: "Nine out of 10 students don't wear wristwatches," he said. "And the one that does doesn't use it as a timepiece; they use it to make a fashion statement." So why does that matter? It matters, said Benno, because it speaks to the fact that kids use technology in very different ways from what most of us are used to. From cell phones to iPods to a wide array of Web-based tools, "kids today are very fluid and open about their use of technology," Benno said. And if we are going to prepare them for a world that is constantly changing, he added, we need to rethink the ways we use and interact with these very same tools in the classroom.

Not so long ago, Benno mused, students learned by consuming professionally developed media. Audio, video, written documents; things were developed, reviewed, approved by committee, and then, after all that, produced and distributed. But now students are producing their own media. From videos to podcasting to blogs, kids are creating the content themselves, or else interacting with media that is being produced by their friends and contemporaries. And that has a lot of educators struggling to keep up.

Part of the problem, he suggested, is the time it takes educators to move from learning about a piece of technology to actually integrating and manipulating its specific uses for the classroom. "If you take the five stages from the evolution of thought and practice," he said, "starting with 'entry' and moving through 'adoption' to 'adaptation' to 'appropriation,' and finally 'innovation,' research shows it takes seven years on average to go from the top of that list to the bottom. That's a long time." Too long, according to Benno. Which is why, as educators, "we have to figure out how to close the gap."

For Benno, staff development is the key to making that happen. "With professional development that number drops from seven years to around two and a half years," he said. "That's a huge difference." And a big part of the value of professional development, he argued, is that it gets educators to start thinking about new ways to use technology; ways that seem foreign, but that may be quite common in the minds of 21st century learners.

Benno urged those in attendance to rethink their current understanding of how many of the tools we interact with today can, and should, be used. MP3 players, for example, do not mean by default that the student is listening to music. Recounting a recent experience in an airport, Benno reminisced about asking a college student sporting an iPod and a set of white earphones, "what are you listening to?" Her reply: "Which ear?"

The young woman he was referring to had two MP3 players and was listening to a chemistry lecture in one ear and music in the other. "It helps me get in the zone," she told Benno, who shared his amazement at the revelation. Kids use technology in ways many of us would never think of, he said.

Other tools Benno touched on during his talk included video, used for everything from recorded lectures and lesson plans to student-generated news broadcasts; audio, used for podcasting and commentary; and wikis, used for collaboration and information sharing across a range of stakeholder groups. The key to all of these, said Benno, is that they allow students to collaborate with one another in order to collect and share information. "This kind of activity," he said, "is not about 'can you manipulate a mouse.' It's about asking, 'If you've got a problem in front of you, do you know what technologies to use to solve it?'"

Benno concluded his talk by touching on two projects currently being implemented by Apple: ACOT2 (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow2)--an extension of the original ACOT program launched in the 1980s--and the Apple Learning Interchange.

ACOT2, he said, is a program designed to address the current need for reaching high school students through technology and 21st century skills development. The program is based on the "six design principles for the 21st century high school" and include:

  • Understanding 21st Century Skills and Outcomes;
  • Relevant and Applied Curriculum;
  • Informative Assessment;
  • A Culture of Innovation and Creativity;
  • Social and Emotional Connections with Students; and
  • Ubiquitous Access to Technology.

The Apple Learning Interchange (ALI) is a Web-based community aimed at helping educators connect with their peers in order to create, collaborate, and share information and ideas. The site contains a range of media, materials, and resources intended to help educators establish relevant learning environments.

Both of these initiatives, he said, are an effort to address the fact that--whether we're ready for it or not--kids are collaborating on a global scale. And this new way of interacting with content and community is redefining the ways we are able to reach them.

"The important thing in all of this," he reminisced, sharing a phrase he heard while attending a conference in Stanford, CA, "is that you let the verbs drive the nouns. Figure out what you're trying to do," he said, " and then figure out what nouns will help you accomplish that."

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.

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