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November 2008 | Volume 66 | Number 3
Giving Students Ownership of Learning
Sylvia Martinez and Dennis Harper
For help with technology integration and tech support, schools need look no further than their students.
Most school or district technology plans call for the inclusion of all stakeholder groups as key to creating a sense of ownership and support that will lead to long-term success. However, these plans often ignore the largest stakeholder group of all—the students.
This situation is especially unbalanced given the fact that today's students are increasingly savvy about the role technology plays in modern life. And most schools are not keeping up in this area. Project Tomorrow's Speak Up survey,1
which polled more than 300,000 students, parents, and administrators about 21st-century skills and technology use in school, found that students are increasingly discontented with rules that limit their access to technology at school and prohibit them from using the tools and devices they use outside school, such as cell phones, e-mail, and text messaging. In addition, more than 40 percent of students polled in grades 6–12 cited their teacher as an obstacle to using new technology in the classroom.
However, schools can teach students the 21st-century skills they need by involving them in technology planning and implementation. By empowering students to work with adults to solve real-world problems, schools can engage students in meaningful dialogue about technology use, Internet safety, online learning, and filtering. In the process, they hone students' skills in problem solving, collaboration, civic awareness, ethics, leadership, and information and media literacy. Schools benefit from students' insights and experience; at the same time, they show students how their education is relevant for the world today. This kind of involvement captures students' enthusiasm, creates new communication pathways to parents and the community, promotes deeper understanding of the school technology policy, promotes student leadership, improves technology integration schoolwide, and builds respect and trust among all groups.
To avoid using students simply as free labor and to maximize the educational benefits, schools should carefully plan the process of student involvement in technology decision making and implementation. Over time, five models have emerged that balance the benefits of service learning and leadership with the needs of schools struggling to integrate technology.
Last year, Shorecrest Preparatory School, the oldest independent day school in Florida, found itself dealing with several technology-related challenges: privacy issues related to social networking tools like Facebook, a situation involving a student using another's online identity, and students posting inappropriate videos on YouTube. Deciding to proactively address the situation, the school formed a Digital Citizenship committee, consisting of 2 high school students, 10 faculty members, 2 administrators, and 2 parents. The committee immediately tackled a rewrite of the school's 5-year-old technology Acceptable Use Policy. This document needed to accommodate the quickly changing technology landscape of the Web 2.0 world and communicate ideals of citizenship and academic excellence. New guidelines now apply to all technological devices on campus—those the school purchased as well as those that students bring in.
Students provided invaluable insight to the process, bringing real-life examples and different points of view to the discussions. They shared how their fellow students use computers and other technological devices in and out of school, and they helped write one of the hardest parts of the Acceptable Use Policy, which pertained to cell phones and handheld devices. Students helped shape what they thought were appropriate consequences of misuse. According to Anna Baralt, the Digital Citizenship committee chair, "The Acceptable Use Policy is not only better and stronger because of the students, but for the first time, I believe it will be the catalyst for real school change."
Students also collaborated on a wiki, creating a living document that students, teachers, and parents could access to view the school's Acceptable Use Policy. The document also describes the many ways in which students use online tools for doing homework and schoolwork and provides parents with answers about social networking and online safety. Students maintain the site and keep it up to date.
As with any initiative promoting student voice, there are pitfalls and practical considerations. Students must have a real say and a vote that counts; otherwise, they will lose trust in the process. Meeting times need to accommodate student participation, and students may need coaching to understand why committee meetings are so long and sometimes seem to stall as participants strive to reach a consensus. If student participation and involvement are schoolwide goals, it pays to have an adult who can be a liaison to students, encouraging them and teaching necessary collaboration and communication skills.
In the San Juan School District in central California, five middle schools have implemented GenYES. In a GenYES school, a group of students participates in a class or club in which they learn technology and trouble-shooting skills. A designated GenYes teacher shows students how to collaborate with adults, plan technology lessons and assessment activities, and manage projects. GenYES students then work one-on-one with teachers throughout the school to complete projects that help the teachers integrate technology in the classroom, often teaching the teacher how to use the technology. GenYES students also provide tech support that time-strapped and technology-reluctant teachers need to get going with classroom technology.
According to Pete Ribadeneira, math and GenYES teacher at Louis Pasteur Middle School,
Having the GenYES kids teach teachers technology has changed the culture of our school. We make sure the program is available to all kinds of students, not just the ones who are already successful. It lifts their self-esteem, and it translates to other classes. And teachers who would never use technology before are asking for student help.
Last year, Pete made sure that Sophia was placed in his GenYES class. Sophia had already been a low-performing student who was disinterested in school—and then her mother passed away. At that point, nothing seemed to matter to her; both punishment and praise were met with the same indifferent shrug. Pete assigned her to partner with an English teacher who was trying to help students understand Accelerated Reader's reading assessment process. Sophia and her teacher partner decided that a video would be the most helpful. Sophia learned to use a graphic design program and video software and created a video showing students how to check books out of the library and take the assessments. The video was so successful that all English teachers are now using it. Pete noted, "Now Sophia has a reason to come to school. She's part of the team and valued for her contributions."
Gregor was one of those kids you couldn't count on, unless it was to be in the middle of a fight. He was raised in a Russian-speaking household and was failing English. Pete decided to put Gregor to work with an English teacher. At the start of 7th grade, all English classes at Louis Pasteur create an auto-biographical project. Usually, the students make a journal, paste in pictures of themselves, and write a bit about themselves. This year, Gregor showed his partner-teacher how to use Comic Life software, which creates a comic strip–style book. The plan was for Gregor to teach the entire class how to scan their pictures and use the software to complete the assignment.
Other students in GenYES videotaped his practice sessions presenting this lesson. As they showed the video to the GenYES class, Gregor sat in the back row with his head down, sure the other students would laugh and make fun of it. However, student comments were positive, which surprised him. Other students were excited about the software and wanted Gregor's input on additional projects. At the end of the GenYES class, he was sitting up straight with a smile on his face. Said Pete, "He walked out of the classroom that day 10 feet off the ground."
Students can be excellent trainers for instructional technology. In Hudson Falls School District in New York, GenYES students have been helping teachers for more than 10 years. Students attend vendor trainings along-side teachers and bring their knowledge back to the school. Students are often patient and supportive with teachers, who can feel overwhelmed by new technology. Student workshops on high-end graphic programs like Photoshop, Web design tools like Dreamweaver, or 3-D modeling tools like Google SketchUp can be popular with teachers, students, and the community. As instructional technology resources become scarce and budgets are cut, students can provide one-on-one support where teachers need it most—in the classroom.
Mr. Viles is trying to record his students for his weekly class podcast, and it's not working. Doran is a student on a mission; he has to troubleshoot the problem, correct it, and explain the fix to Mr. Viles, all before an upcoming history exam. Sliding into the classroom, he quickly notices what's wrong and shows the teacher how to make it work. Then it's off to class.
Eleventh grader Doran is one of the Tech Sherpas at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport, Maine. To become Tech Sherpas, students must learn how to handle troubleshooting and repair tasks. They help teachers with any number of tech problems, from updating Web pages, to videotaping classes, to setting up iPods. But more than that, they learn communication and collaboration skills that will serve them well in their future careers and academic pursuits. As Doran noted,
I've learned so much, and not just about the technology. It's made me realize that you have to connect with the teacher you're helping. I think the teachers have become more comfortable with the tech, knowing there are students who can help them right in their own classrooms.
Many schools worry that student tech-support agents will be security problems or cause more issues than they can fix. Technology integrator Kern Kelley, advisor for the Tech Sherpas, doesn't see this as an issue. "We believe that students who are given real responsibility will be more invested in their school," he explained. "If they have a personal connection with the teachers and technology, they're far less likely to be a security threat. Keeping the system up and running becomes their concern—because they're part of the team that has to fix it!"
Students can create curriculum resources, user manuals, documents, presentations, videos, and Web sites for class, school, or community use. Students can be involved in monitoring safe and ethical use of new technology tools, such as e-mail and Web 2.0, along with planning and implementing their use in classroom instruction as well as in communications with parents and the community. They can form a student committee to decide on rules and punishments for students who violate e-mail use policy. Trained, responsible students can moderate forums and blog postings for their own classmates or younger peers who are using online collaboration tools. Students can be in charge of posting new information to the school Web site and can keep these sites up-to-date. Students can be the communicators to "walk the talk" of student empowerment to the community and the school board.
They can also play a major role in conferences. This is the case at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, which opened in partnership with the Franklin Institute. The academy focuses on science, technology, mathematics, and entrepreneurship. In January 2008, in collaboration with the teachers and principal Chris Lehman, students helped run an education conference called Educon 2.0. Students were on hand to meet and greet, videotape, and stream the 50-some conference sessions live on the Web. Students also organized the day for the 150 educators from around the United States who attended. Sessions had such titles as We're All Student Teachers; New Media Literacies for the 21st Century; Yes, All Students Should Learn to Program; Advisory: The Soul of School; and Engineering: The Constructivist Curriculum.
The students didn't just help—they participated. These teens waded into discussions and spoke their minds. They facilitated discussions of diverse education issues—such as the role of technology in the classroom, project-based learning, student involvement in governance, and school reform—sharing their opinions and experiences with people they'd never met before. It was obvious that the academy listens to these young adults; they know they can share their voice.
In June 2008, students created, edited, and produced a video documentary about the Science Leadership Academy to raise money for the school. The documentary premiered at the Franklin Institute; students provided all the publicity, flyers, and community outreach. Most important, the students were able to create an original piece of media that spoke to their vision of their school.
Peer mentoring is a well-known and research-proven strategy to increase students' ownership in their work. It is often as rewarding and academically enriching to the mentor as it is to the mentee. English teachers often use peer editing to improve student work, provide a wider range of reactions and comments, and teach editing and mentoring skills.
Peer mentoring is also a perfect complement to technology. By teaching peer mentors technology skills, schools can support a wider range of technologies, software, and hardware. Mentors can free up a teacher from having to be a tech guru on a variety of new tools and technology. Students can easily work with students of various ages, ability levels, and home language backgrounds.
At Nevada Middle School in Nevada, Iowa, David, Amber, Maddie, and Joe are TechYES peer mentors. TechYES is a technology literacy certification program for students in grades 6–9. To obtain certification, participants must successfully complete a project that meets state and local technology proficiency requirements. As part of TechYES, a structured peer-mentoring program creates a cadre of trained peer tutors who help other students complete their TechYES projects and achieve certification.
This year, these four Nevada Middle School students are devoting their study halls and summer to doing just that. They love computer programming and are adept at such multimedia tools as the iLife suite, which students use to create, organize, view, and publish pictures, movies, music, and Web pages. They naturally are the ones called on when student projects use these elements. Although they have not always been the most stellar students, they have been working hard to keep up their grades so they can remain in the TechYES peer-mentor group.
The peer mentors make it possible for the school to offer a much richer and more varied technology experience. They become role models and get positive attention for their strengths. In addition, at Nevada Middle School, almost one-half of the peer mentors are girls, showing that girls can be just as tech savvy as the boys. According to Ann Malven, the advisor for the TechYES Peer Mentor club,
The younger students, and especially the girls, really react to seeing how competent and knowledgeable the peer mentors are, and I'm hearing more and more from other teachers that my peer-mentor team members are helping them with technology, too! I have to work hard to keep challenging these kids. One of the big benefits for our district is that these students help with summer staff development classes. We are offering four technology integration classes this summer. The peer mentors have volunteered to help us teach the teachers and staff. These digital natives are eager to show the adults what they have learned, and the staff is very receptive to their assistance and praise them often for their expertise.
Student involvement in technology planning and implementation is more than just kids helping out. As students share their knowledge and enthusiasm for technology with adult educators, they come to know real human beings who are striving to make the world a better place. In return, as teachers and administrators collaborate with students, they share their expertise and passion for education with a new generation, and they come to see students in a new light—as competent partners. Using these five time-tested models to include students as true stakeholders in technology planning and implementation fosters a new respect for everyone's role in improving education.
Creating a plan that includes students in school technology decision making and implementation is just the first step. Keep the following in mind:
Project Tomorrow. (2008). Speak Up 2007 for students, teachers, parents, and school leaders: Selected national findings. Irvine, CA: Author. Available:
Project Tomorrow. (2008). Speak Up 2007 for students, teachers, parents, and school leaders: Selected national findings. Irvine, CA: Author. Available:
Sylvia Martinez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President and Dennis Harper
(email@example.com) is Founder and CEO of GenerationYES, 2584 R.W. Johnson Blvd., SW, Olympia, WA 98512; 888-941-4369.
Copyright © 2008 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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