Sunday, January 24, 2010

Engaging Today's Digital Learners - Where Do We Begin?

Ashley had just returned from a skating practice preparing for tomorrow’s skating competition, when I met her. So of course, we talked about skating, school, the latest movies, and other things ten year old girls talk about, including technology. As an educator, I was interested to hear about how she used technology at school, but she was more interested in talking about technology in her world outside of school – and I’m so glad she did.

I wasn’t surprised that Ashley likes digital photography, and that Ashley has her own blog, or that she spends time in a social network called WebKinz. But what I was surprised at was that she spends time in WebKinz with her grandpa. Ashley bought and mailed her grandpa a Webkinz and then helped him learn to navigate the world of Webkinz so they can play together. They can go over to each other's Webkinz houses and check out the new room decorations. Webkinz also has game rooms where they can meet to play online games. They can even send gifts and notes to each other through Webkinz post. Now that they have Webkinz in common, when they have a chance to visit, they talk about the latest Webkinz games or items they have purchased. They usually spend time together at the computer doing Webkinz. Her grandfather wasn't very tech savy and this gave him a way to share in Ashley's world.

We all know that technology can help grandparents and grandchildren who live hundreds of miles apart stay connected. I’m fortunate enough to have face to face playtime with my grandson in my basement filled with toys he loves. But for many, technology is the way kids and their grandparents stay connected. My grandson could answer a Skype call from great grandma when he was two. My mom learned to use Facebook so she could stay connected with her teenage grandchildren spread across the country. But it wasn’t until I met Ashley that I thought about playtime with grandpa happening on line. For those old enough to have a Facebook account, there are lots of ways to replicate the checkers game with gramps we remember from our childhood. But who would have thought about inviting gramps to your online playground?

Ashley’s brilliant solution of using technology to solve a challenge in her life, sent me off thinking about how often we look for ways to use technology in our classrooms that is limited by our awareness of the technologies available along with limited understanding of how today’s learners are truly different than those of previous years. How many of us try to find technologies that FIT into our way of teaching, instead of increasing our understanding of new ways kids who have grown up digital learn and interact with their world. What is our responsibility as educators to understand our new audience and learn new methods to reach this audience? I remember the first time a young lady with Asperger's Syndrome joined my class; her special educator provided me with materials about teaching kids with Asperger's Syndrome and I took my professional responsibility very seriously to increase my understanding of what learning was like for her. Infinite Thinking blogger, Julie Duffield, enlightened me about how technology can help us understand learners with autism. Most recently I rearranged the computer lab and installed new software to make it more accessible for a blind student in one of our fifth grade classes. His teachers and I are learning many new techniques (including new technologies) to make learning accessible for him.

But where do educators begin to increase their awareness of new learners, and of new technologies available to engage and reach those learners? Where do we begin to blend our content knowledge, our understanding of good teaching, with increased awareness of new technologies and new types of learners? Where do we find the time admist a teaching day jammed pack teaching children and fulfilling professional duties? I know very few teachers who don’t want to better understand today’s students or new ways to make learning relevant to them. Can we take this challenge to our students? Ashley found a very creative way , that very few adults would have thought of, to connect with her grandpa – I bet she was lots of ideas about how teachers can make learning relevant for her. Have we asked her for help in solving this challenge?

(P.S. I’d like to do a follow up post with ideas from readers about ways we can work on this challenge)