Do You Listen to Your Students?

Expanding the role of students in technology decision-making at the school and district level.

GUEST COLUMN | by Theresa Soares and Jon Phillips

CREDIT Dell Youth Innovation 3If ever there was a generational divide between faculty and students, it has never been greater than now. Rather than a challenge to be overcome, this presents a phenomenal opportunity to change the role of students in traditional education institutions and empower them to take a more active role in their learning. It has been widely stated that many students in school today will work in jobs that do not yet exist. While districts nationwide are striving to meet the challenge of preparing tomorrow’s workforce with century-old models of education, consensus is building that we must find a way to bring about substantive changes. The use of technology in the classroom holds much promise to bring about that change but we’ve failed to leverage it to its full potential, maybe we need a new perspective?

If ever there was a generational divide between faculty and students, it has never been greater than now.

As ultimate end-users of technology in the classroom, students possess a unique understanding of our modern learning environments and certainly have their own opinions for how technology can best support their learning experiences. But have you ever asked them? We hope to make a case for dramatically expanding the role of students in technology decision-making at the school and district level.

Why Students?

We should think about students with their boundless energy, potential to innovate and capacity to explore, as advisers and highly influential members of our community. Who else do other students most admire and imitate if not their peers? Students have a way of seeing, listening and observing that is drastically different from any administrator’s. Their day-to-day experiences, their body chemistry and brain development are on an entirely different level. This new perspective, when coupled with students’ deep familiarity and passion for technology could help administrators make better technology decisions and lead to better outcomes for students, faculty and administrators alike. Research shows that when students are empowered to take a more active role in their education, they perform better.

Why Technology?

Technology provides students with both learning opportunities within the classroom through traditional skills-based curriculum, and it has the opportunity to open doors to new experiences outside of the classroom. When we talk about student engagement and technology, of course we visualize students interacting with tablets or laptops in a blended learning environment. By focusing on this model, we limit ourselves to only thinking about student engagement with technology as being between the student and the device. And it’s so much more than that.

Specifically if you look at students who have learning challenges or those who have individualized education plans (IEPs), they rely extensively on assistive technology to help them read and understand materials. As a former administrator, Jon often discusses his interest in investigating how technological capabilities could help not just these students but all students. For example, the ability to have a device help read text aloud for a student who is struggling to learn reading skills.

New Forms of Student Engagement

It is also important to give students the technical tools to investigate and encourage them to explore beyond the curriculum. The internet provides endless opportunities for students to explore new interests and pursue independent investigations and self-directed learning. It is also amazing to see how students are seizing opportunities for engagement through social media and online advocacy. Student governments on campus are no longer the only place where young people are gathering to discuss solutions to problems in their communities.

New Paths to College and Careers

There are many examples of schools, districts, nonprofit organizations and multinational companies that have found innovative ways to incorporate the student perspective into their technology programs and decision making.

When Theresa was in high school, there was no computer science curriculum yet she taught herself how to build a computer through the power of online videos and forums. Eventually, her curiosity led her to overclock and tweak the voltages of the components and the experience helped her get a job as a research assistant with the Department of the Navy while she was still in high school. Exposure to technology and giving students the opportunity to explore their interests can yield some amazing outcomes.

Leyden High School District 212 and Morton High School District both started Tech Support Internship (TSI) programs that provide experiential learning opportunities for participating students and help schools support their 1:1 computing initiatives. Students play an active role in supporting the districts’ deployment of Dell Chromebook 11 laptops, performing maintenance, customer support and even visiting classrooms to help with set-up of printers, projector units and SMART Boards. It’s a “choose your own adventure” curriculum with six or seven different pathways – one of them might be certification. “The students were tremendous. They responded far better than we ever believed that they could or would,” said Weinert. “In some cases, we’ve had students graduate from Leyden, from TSI, and go directly into the workforce and get fantastic full-time jobs. We just had a student last year graduate and get hired by a pharmaceutical company to run their help desk, and they’re paying for his college education.”

You Can Join Them

Engaging students in your district’s technology challenges could yield unexpected outcomes. As an exercise, imagine some of their responses to questions like, “Who provides the technology we purchase?” “Which products and services fit my school’s needs?” “How do we address the challenges of professional development or better linking curriculum and technology?” If a technology committee exists at your school, consider having one or two students serve in an equitable capacity on that committee. We think you’ll be delighted in the perspective and voice that they bring to the discussion.

Jon Phillips is the managing director of Worldwide Education Strategy at Dell. Theresa Soares is a Junior at Mills College and a member of Dell’s Youth Innovation Advisors. Dell founded its inaugural cohort of Youth Innovation Advisors, partnering with the student-run nonprofit organization Student Voice to help formulate the strategy behind its engagement program.

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