2012: The Connected World of Our Learners

June 3, 2012

2012 AHS graduates

Memorial Day signaled this week’s graduation events that were laden with all the “pomp and circumstance” that we’ve all come to expect.  It’s always wonderful to see our young people wearing their school colors, bright eyed and ready to walk across the stage to pick up diplomas – even if some were a bit nervous. They, and their families, anticipated all year the traditions of the graduation ceremonies and we believe that each of our ceremonies provided a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our 2012 graduates.

Our children today have, in many cases, family members all over the world. In past years, they would have waited for graduation photos to arrive in a letter or, in recent years, more immediately through an email attachment or a text message.

However, a photo isn’t the same as being there. Because of recent technology advancements, our technology staff were able to provide our graduates’ family members with live graduation ceremony access via the Internet.

This year, we again streamed the ceremonies for all four high schools. Three years ago, this new addition to our tech-enhanced communication suite took people by surprise. We heard from astonished grandparents in Maine and England of their appreciation for being able to see their grandchildren walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. Today, streaming the graduation ceremonies so family members serving their country in Afghanistan or who live across the continent can watch our four graduation exercises is just a routine service.  This year, we already know from our viewing data that family members from around the globe watched Albemarle’s four graduation ceremonies.

Technology is changing the way our young people and our families connect with the world. Graduation is just one example.  Our learners from elementary to high school are developing new sets of skills as a result of the technology available to them formally in our schools and informally at home.  Here are some examples from this year.

Learning from Albemarle to Hungary

A Stone-Robinson Elementary music class Skyped recently with Hungarian children of the same age. The teachers figured out how to surmount time zone challenges so that they could share music and ask questions of each other. Our class was ready with a translator, but found they didn’t need it because the Hungarian children and teacher were relatively fluent in English. Our children played their recorders and questioned their overseas peers about what they learned in school. The answer came back with the slight delay of signals bounced across the vast Atlantic Ocean, “we learn music, art, physics, chemistry, history and maths.”  Their children also sang and played musical instruments for our children – the flute, piano, and trumpet.

In an Issues in the Modern World class taught at AHS, I observed seniors in another Skype session dialogue with an Egyptologist about the shifts politically and socially that have occurred in Egypt since the Arab Spring. They heard first-hand in April from him about candidates for the presidency, his frustrations with slow movement towards true democracy, and the economic challenges in front of the nation. One student wondered if our forefathers who led the American Revolution had experienced similar feelings.

Director Jennings and Bearettes

In February, a Saturday “practice-a-thon” of Burley’s choral and band students beamed out to parents via live stream. The teachers shared with me that they wanted parents to have the chance to observe what it takes for students to prepare a program for performance. What surprised the teachers was finding out how many parents, including one on a business trip, tuned in to watch. Opening up the classroom for parents to look behind the curtain of what young musicians do in class creates a different context for understanding how and what chldren are learning.

We also recently offered students the chance to stay after school to participate in our first Coder Dojos at Crozet Elementary and Monticello High. These multi-age coding academies support children to learn to write script, or code, creating everything from games to websites. In doing so, students move from being content consumers to content producers, exactly the kind of critical and creative thinking work that’s needed to refresh the U.S. economy. How did we learn of the Coder Dojo movement? Educators connected through social learning media found out about this Irish educational movement over the Internet.

These stories describe how technology is becoming more than just a tool to search for information. In this decade, technology has moved far beyond being just a word processor, a search engine, or a content practice option. All of those functions are important, but today’s learners and educators use technology routinely to search, connect, communicate, and create. They are in the middle of a turning point in which the nation and the world is moving from the Information Age to the Shift Age.

The Shift Age represents economic globalization, individualization, and virtual electronic connectivity across the globe. The skills today’s learners need to exist in a world of rapid technological change aren’t new skills. They’ve have always stood learners in good stead. As in the past, learners today need to be able to problem-solve, work independently as well as in teams, research what they need to know, communicate using a variety of tools, and continue to see learning as essential for the rest of their lives. However, these shifts in technology make the work of educators more complex and challenging as they refocus skills and content through technology applications.

Parents and staff alike know that young people need to be able to use both tools of yesterday and today as well as anticipate changes that will come next. This means that our teachers can’t ignore their own professional development as they themselves learn to use interactive technologies instead of static boards, to communicate virtually, and to search and connect content via the Internet rather than through print textbooks that are out of date as they roll off the presses.

Contemporary learning tools change the capabilities of what our young people can learn, how they learn, and even what they need to learn. The next five years will bring even more changes. Virtual coursework will grow in scope and complement face-to-face high school classes. Beginning with the entering freshmen of 2013, all Virginia graduates will be required to have at least one virtual course on their transcripts.

AHS MESA students routinely use virtual resources as learning tools

Will we adapt schools to the coming changes?  Of course, but it will demand commitment to learning new ways of teaching, assessing, and constructing curricula. It also will mean an increased commitment to tool accessibility for all learners. Change challenges most organizations, but the need to change PK-12 education is inevitable as technology changes the way we do business everywhere else – in big box stores, colleges, auto repair shops, libraries, doctors’ offices, and our homes.

At the same time, I believe that education will always be, first and foremost, a people business. I use social media for some communication and also to make professional network connections. However, I believe that face to face communication, teaching, and learning offers to humans what’s always been the best of education – the opportunity to interact and engage with each other as we learn how we can maximize our strengths within a community.

Jim Davis, Garfield cartoonist, works with Community Charter student

Even as change comes to education at a much faster pace than I ever envisioned, I still return to the idea that humans developed the competencies of survival through their work within communities, as teams, and from and with each other. I don’t want to lose that focus even as the tools evolve.