Teachers, Technology, Equity and Connected Learning: Reflections on the 2012 Digital Media & Learning Conference

March 08, 2012
Sarah Jackson
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Common Sense News, Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy

We’re just back from the Digital Media and Learning Conference that took place last week here in San Francisco. Scholars, teachers, learners, and technology lovers gathered to talk about the power of new media for learning. The theme of this year’s conference was “Beyond Educational Technology: Learning Innovations in a Connected World.” 

For educators, it was a powerful few days beginning with the keynote from John Seely Brown on “Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Learner in the 21st Century.” Brown spoke about play, interest-driven learning, and the opportunities technology affords to invent new ways of thinking about learning and teaching. You can watch the keynote in its entirety on YouTube courtesy of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. We also liked this interview with Brown over at Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning.

Common Sense Media was one of many organizations showing off their latest and greatest digital tools at the Mozilla Science Fair, described as a “giant hands-on show and tell.” I had fun playing Scratch with founder Mitch Resnick. Scratch is a kid-friendly computer programming language developed by Resnick and colleagues at MIT. I also got a tour of the interactive learning tools developed by the Spark network – a group of educators, game designers, and roboticists (new term for me) from Pittsburgh who have been working together since 2007 to use technology, media, and the arts to create new learning experiences for kids and families. Ryan Coon and Dustin Silver helped me demo their new circuitry kits and interactive digital math manipulatives. Mental note to plan my next family vacation to Pittsburgh.

The conference panels were far too broad and rich to cover in this short blog post, but I wanted to share with readers one powerful session called “Digital Innovation and Equity in Schools.” Several groups of young people spoke, including students from the UCLA Council of Youth Research, who shared stories of the outdated and often absent technology resources at their schools and how this affects their lives and opportunities. Students from five high schools in Los Angeles—Crenshaw, Locke, Manual Arts, Roosevelt, and Wilson—described outdated hardware and software, and lack of internet access, which prevented them from completing assignments. One student described his difficulty completing a scholarship application because his school lacked a scanner. A teacher came to his rescue by taking a picture of the document with her personal cell phone.

Last year, a Common Sense Media study “Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America” found a continued substantial digital divide in student’s lives, including in  both computers and mobile devices. The report found that just 48 percent of young children (birth to age 8) from low-income families have a computer at home, while 91 percent of children from higher-income families did so.

Panelist Katie McKay, a fourth and fifth grade ELL teacher from Austin, Texas, said she doesn’t think the term “digital divide” is appropriate to describe the inequalities her students face.  “The word ‘chasm’ is more appropriate or the word ‘gorge,’” she said.

McKay said her students are attracted to projects that integrate technology into the curriculum, creating “positive identity poems” using Wordle, for example. But administrators at her school, discouraged technology use because they think it takes time away from instruction in core subjects.

In a separate panel, Connie Yowell, director of education for the MacArthur Foundation, said the question of equity is one of the reasons why the Foundation is investing so many resources into “connected learning.” This new learning model aims to tap into the potential of online collaboration and interest-driven learning available to youth outside the classroom. [See my prior post on Connected Learning at Common Classroom].

Young people, especially those in low-income communities, are disengaged from and often dropping out of school at alarming rates, Yowell said. That’s one reason why researchers believe it’s so important to pay attention to the connections between peer culture, interest, and what’s going on in school.

“It’s really through this connected learning model that we are trying to bring relevance back into the learning experience,” Yowell said.

Teachers, we’d love to hear from you. Do you teach in a low-income community? Do you have adequate computers and technology resources at your school? What role do you feel technology plays in keeping your students engaged?

Photo by DMLCentral.