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Lydia Dobyns Headshot

The Students Are All Right -- It's the Adults Who Need to Learn to Communicate

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Thousands of students, teachers and administrators will commemorate Digital Learning Day on Feb. 1. The effective use of technology in the classroom may be reaching new levels of acceptance, but for many of us in the educational arena we live and breathe technology daily and consider its use as natural as using calculators or pens. To our tech savvy students, all the hype around technology or digital learning evokes a 'what took you so long?' attitude. I look forward to Digital Learning Day because we can highlight innovative teachers and instructional strategies in the digital world with a simple goal in mind: transform teaching and learning into relevant and rigorous experiences that prepares students for success after high school.

Students today think and process information fundamentally differently because they've been surrounded by technology since birth. We don't always find effective ways to communicate with these students. Adults need to adapt to the learning modes of their students, not the other way around. Why not meet students where they live, outside the classroom and in today's world? That means recognizing they are connected 24/7 and have multiple devices capable of connecting to their friends anytime and anywhere.

We've all read the arguments for and against technology in the classroom. Discussions are taking place everywhere challenging the effectiveness of digital learning. Let's stop asking the same archaic questions. Technology in the classroom is not the question. Digital readers instead of textbooks are not going to ruin future generations of readers. The key question is: How do we assess and measure whether technology is helping the learning process? Is digital learning resulting in deeper learning -- where students master core academic content, think critically and solve complex problems? How can we determine if we are teaching the skills and knowledge students will need to succeed in a world that is changing at an unprecedented pace?

If we agree that deeper learning is our ultimate goal, then we also need to establish measurable outcomes linked to digital literacy and citizenship, creating students and teachers who seamlessly use web-based resources regularly and effectively. It's true that our schools have made great progress in digital literacy, yet much still remains to be done. It's important to teach our students how to learn anything - anytime -- anywhere.

There are two consortia working towards deeper assessment. These groups are working to develop next-generation assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards that accurately measure student progress toward college and career readiness.

To promote success, we need to ensure that our teachers have a high degree of digital literacy, so they can communicate and work efficiently and effectively with their students. To accomplish this goal, it's important to establish professional development programs to help bridge the gap between students and teachers.

To engage today's students, we must speak their language -- the digital language. As an example, a class at Tech Valley were asked to determine how to heat food without using fossil fuel. Of course, this was a wonderful environmental and biology lesson, but thanks to technology, these students were able to take this one step farther. They skyped to a village in Haiti to share with the villagers how to adapt a solar oven adding global awareness to an already rigorous biology project. How much more meaningful is that assignment when it is made useful and relevant through the use of digital technology?

Digital literacy enhances our ability to work collaboratively and communicate effectively. This mimics what is happening around the globe today, whether that is social change such as the Arab Spring or the rapid growth of virtual employees who must rely on connectivity as their primary means of working with colleagues. As Thomas Friedman has written, products today are "Made in the World" -- no longer "Made in the USA."

We argue about the advantage or rather the necessity of the deep use of technology in the classroom, but what about the deeper professional development to get this message to the teachers? As an example, at New Tech Network, we offer almost 800 hours of professional development towards technology, education and culture. We make use of #PBL Chat -- a free forum to talk about effective Project Based Learning in the classroom (available on Twitter) and use virtual roundtables to discuss subjects like employing smartphones as polling devices for surveys. Training sessions are offered that take common core tasks in literacy and math and map them to technology in a thoughtful way.

On Digital Learning Day, let's start or extend the conversation about real digital literacy. Perhaps a great place to start is by asking our students to teach us about how they think education could be improved by using the very social networking tools they rely on outside the classroom.