E-Learning | Research

Digital Learning: What Kids Really Want

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According to Project Tomorrow CEO Julie Evans, "Today's students have their own 'student vision' for how they want to use technology for learning. That vision," she said, "is really a statement of how students want to learn in general."

Speaking at FETC National Conference in Orlando, FL last week, Evans covered data from the 2010 and 2011 editions of the Speak Up Survey, with a specific focus on the use of digital media for learning. The Speak Up surveys include input from hundreds of thousands of teachers, students, parents, and administrators each year. What the data pointed to, she said, is a growing "frustration among students, not just with the lack of technology in their schools, but by the lack of sophisticated use of that technology."

According to Evans, the data from those surveys indicated that students:

  • Have a growing interest in social-based learning;
  • Want to connect with and develop a personal network of expert resources;
  • Are looking for tools that increase untethered learning; and
  • Want a digitally rich learning environment, unencumbered by traditional rules.

Taken together, said Evans, this information gives us a vision of "students that are enabled, engaged, and empowered." This is true, she added, for students at all grade levels, from elementary through high school.

The Opportunities
For the Speak Up surveys and focus groups, Evans's team asked specific questions about respondents' wants and needs when it comes to using digital tools for learning. "For example," she said, "we asked students to tell us what their ultimate e-textbook would look like," including all the features and functionality they would hope to see. According to the results, students are looking for materials that are interactive, relevant, collaborative, and personalized.

"Students don't want CD or e-reader versions of these materials," she said. They want Web-based tools that enhance communication and collaboration. Specific elements of the "ultimate" e-textbook include:

  • Available online tutoring for specific concepts;
  • Chat rooms for social, peer-to-peer interaction;
  • Digital, online assessment tools;
  • The ability to download resources to mobile devices, including phones; and
  • Virtual labs and lessons that include video, access to real-time data, games, animations, and 3D renderings.

One of the most interesting things, said Evans, is that, "students want to do real research, using real, relevant, online tools." They want to see how the material they're learning applies to the world around them.

Other things students at all grade levels are looking for include access to online tutoring, the ability to take online classes, access to real-word data and databases, greater access to teachers using SMS/text messaging, education-based virtual reality and games, and increased access to digital collaboration tools.

The Obstacles
Evans went on to reference data that showed, from the student perspective, several obstacles to using technology in schools. "According to students," she said, "the No. 1 issue is school filters and firewalls." It's not just about blocking Facebook, she added. "Students continue to be frustrated by their inability to access resources they feel are important and relevant to their learning experience."

Additional obstacles included restrictions on mobile device use, the inability to access social media resources, "excessive" rules governing technology use, and individual teachers placing limitations on technology. "That last one is interesting," said Evans, because "teachers cited personal liability as the primary concern" about student use of technology.

Teachers and Principals were asked similar questions about the barriers to providing relevant access to technology in the learning environment. Of primary concern, according to the data collected, was the school's ability to provide adequate infrastructure. "Principals, in particular," said Evans, "told us that, even though they might aspire to use all of this great technology and rich digital content, if the infrastructure isn't there to support it, it's all for naught."

Other barriers identified by teachers and administrators included difficulty balancing instructional time constraints, a pronounced lack of teacher skill with digital tools and resources, and the difficulty finding cost-effective resources and solutions.

Things to Watch
All of this, said Evans, contributes to "what we are now calling 'a persistent digital disconnect' between students, parents, and educators." What we're really referring to, she said, are the differing perspectives and priorities of the various stakeholder groups when it comes to delivering digitally rich resources to students.

"Still," she added, "there are some synergies among the various groups." According to Evans, everyone seems to agree on the value of things like tablet devices, online classes and tutoring, digital media tools, online textbooks, access to databases and video resources, and enhanced collaboration through the Web. "These are important trends," Evans said, that will have a real impact on how these technologies are implemented going forward.

Other trends Evans and her team said they're continuing to watch include:

  • The evolving conversation around what it means to be a "digital native";
  • The use of multiple computing devices per student (phones, tablets, laptops, handhelds, gaming devices);
  • How adaptation of technology has begun to trump adoption;
  • The importance of content creation and how process is becoming more important than the finished product;
  • The move toward 24/7/365 connected learning;
  • Increasing development of personal expert networks;
  • The focus on relevance of data to the individual learner;
  • The blurring between informal and formal learning; and,
  • The drive for increased productivity.

The real importance of this data, said Evans, is in its ability to get teachers and administrators to think differently about the impact technology has on their students at every stage of their education. "Actually seeing this information," she said, referring to the Speak Up survey results, "opens peoples minds to say 'Maybe my assumptions are not in line with where students really are today.'" "And that," she added, "creates opportunity for real change."

More information about the Speak Up Survey and its methodology can be found on the Project Tomorrow site.