Students as allies and advocates in creating the 21st century schools

08/21/2013  |  Sylvie Martinez

Schools today are grappling with how to use digital devices and technology to create new learning opportunities for the 21st century. This is a profound task for many schools that touches every part of the learning mission. As part of the change process, there is usually a call for the inclusion of all stakeholder groups as a key factor in creating a sense of ownership and community support that will lead to success. Stakeholders from the community, business leaders, board members, parents, school administrators and staff are polled for their input, asked to attend meetings, draft plans, and finally to implement the plan. However, one group, the largest stakeholder group of all, is often not represented at all — students.

Common sense tells us that stakeholders who are left out of any change process are less likely to understand and contribute to the plan’s success. Research supports that this omission is a serious one.

Students make up about 92 percent of people in attendance in any school. Typically, technology planning and implementation focuses on the role of the other eight percent — teachers, administrators, adult technical support staff. This is especially unbalanced given the fact that today’s students are increasingly savvy about the role technology plays in modern life.

However the balance can be restored. When students are included in the vision of improving education with technology, many opportunities are regained:

  • Capture youthful idealism, enthusiasm and energy
  • Create new communication pathways to parents and community
  • Create a deeper understanding by students of school policy regarding technology
  • Increase relevance of education to students
  • Offer students leadership opportunities
  • Improve technology integration school-wide
  • Teach students 21st century skills
  • Build respect and trust among all groups

By engaging students in meaningful dialog about technology use, Internet safety, online learning, filtering, and what learning means in the 21st century, we not only gain their insight and experience, but we show students how their education is relevant for the world today.

Students in today’s schools enter a different world than that of their parents. “Twenty-first century skills” have come to mean skills beyond traditional core subject areas including:

  • Learning and thinking skills such as problem solving, creativity, and collaboration
  • Civic, cultural and global awareness
  • Life skills such as ethics and leadership
  • Technology, digital citizenship, information and media literacy

All these things are interrelated. For example, we miss a huge opportunity when we present “digital citizenship” as an out-of-context list of things students shouldn’t do. The word citizenship is a clue — it’s about belonging and contributing to a community, not about threats. As a citizen, being engaged in the community is a two-way street — the benefits and responsibilities should be balanced.

Engagement is an Outcome of Meaningful Work

You often hear people talk about how technology is so engaging for kids. But that misses the point. It’s not the technology that’s engaging, it’s the opportunity to use powerful technology to create and communicate something that is valued by the community and by yourself. Yes, a new device can be entertaining for a while, but when the novelty value wears off, what are you left with?

Engagement is not a goal; it’s an outcome of students (or anyone) doing meaningful work — meaningful to themselves and to the community, both in and out of school. It is meaningful because someone trusted them to do something good and they shouldered the responsibility. Engagement is not something you do to kids or you give kids, it’s the outcome of this cycle of experiences. Engaging students as citizen participants in the life of the school is educational, empowering and productive. To truly engage students, they must be seen as agents of change rather than objects to be changed.

Student involvement in technology can be beneficial for students, staff and the community. However, it needs to be carefully planned and guided to maximize the educational benefits to students and avoid simply using students as free labor.

Based on our 15 year track record of working with K-12 schools around the world, Generation YES advocates four models that balance the benefits of service learning and student leadership with the needs of schools.

1. Students as Trainers and Support Systems for Staff and Teachers

Students can be excellent trainers for instructional technology. They are often patient and supportive with teachers who can feel overwhelmed by new technology. Students can also give technology workshops to staff, students or the community. As instructional technology resources become scarce and budgets are cut, students can provide one-on-one support where teachers most need it — in the classroom.

2. Students as Technical Support

Many “tech support” issues in school are not really about fixing broken things. They are simply people – both students and staff – who need a reminder about how things work or questions answered. By teaching students to provide some of these support services, it can free up adult technical support staff to focus on the bigger picture.

Students can provide support in classrooms during free periods or the library in the form of a “Genius Bar.” By providing an important service to their community, students can learn technical and people skills that are valuable and empowering.

Many schools worry that student tech support agents will be security problems or cause more issues than they can fix. But actually the opposite is true. Students who are given responsibility and show they can be trusted are more invested in their school. They are far less likely to be a security threat because they are part of the team who built it and has to fix it.

3. Students as Planners, Resource Developers and Advocates

Students can support their school by creating curriculum resources, help guides, presentations, videos, and websites for class, school, or community use. Students can teach others about Internet safety and cyberbullying — and their peers are much more likely to listen. Students can be involved in monitoring safe and ethical use of new technology tools, along with planning and implementing their use in positive ways. Students can be the communicators to “walk the talk” of student empowerment to the community, school board, at conferences or other situations.

If a school is looking to update policies around social media, why not include a student or two? Students can provide invaluable insight to the process, bringing real life examples and a different point of view to the discussions.

4. Students as Peer Mentors

Peer mentoring is a well-known and effective strategy to increase student ownership in their work. In fact, mentoring is often more rewarding and academically enriching to the mentors as to those they mentor. English teachers use peer editing to improve student work, provide a wider range of reactions and comments, and teach editing and mentoring skills. Similarly, peer mentoring is a perfect complement to technology. By teaching peer mentors technology skills, they can support a wider range of technology, software and hardware. They can free up a teacher from having to be a tech guru on an unlimited range of new tools and technology. Students can work with other students across multiple ages, grades, languages, and ability levels.

Vision to Action —Walking the Talk

Planning to include students in real roles and authentic tasks is just the first step. The new roles, classes, organizations or clubs will need support and supervision to start up and sustain.

  • Provide access for students to training, hardware and software as needed.
  • Put an adult advisor in charge who has a passion for student empowerment, not necessarily a tech guru.
  • Allow time for the plan to come together. Students will not automatically know how to participate in these opportunities; there must be time and attention given to helping them grow into these roles.
  • Don’t forget your younger students. It’s never too early for authentic learning opportunities, and these students can be surprisingly helpful with concrete, well-defined tasks.
  • Plan for turnover. Constantly recruit and train new students. Allow veteran student leaders to mentor new recruits.
  • Look for ways to incentivize long-term student involvement. Make student involvement part of a credit-bearing class, qualify for graduation or service-learning credit, an independent study position, college credit or an internship.
  • Prepare staff and administration about the upcoming student involvement.
  • Don’t mistake the ease with which youth today use technology in their everyday life for knowing how it can be used in educational settings. Teach them appropriate use of technology and how it can be used to enhance learning.

The Bottom Line —Collaboration Builds Mutual Respect

Student involvement in technology planning and implementation is more than just eraser clapping for the 21st century. Students sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm for technology can provide much needed help. In return, they experience adults as real human beings striving to make the world a better place. As teachers and other adults follow their passion for improving education, they see children in a new light as competent partners. When caring adults share their expertise about navigating the adult world, students gain more than skills, they gain life experience of working with others to achieve goals that aren’t defined by tests and grades.

The notion that respect is one of the main by-products of collaboration about technology use may seem old-fashioned and quaint. Yet this theme rises above all others. When people of any age work together and learn that each has expertise that is valuable, it creates respect for one another and deepens the capacity of the whole community to learn and grow. This kind of healthy learning culture should be the goal of every school.

Sylvia Libow Martinez is President of Generation YES, a non-profi t with a mission of empowering young people to improve their schools and communities with modern technology
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