Tech Leadership

Misconceptions of Student Affinity for All Things Digital


According to a national survey of almost 300,000 K-12 students last fall (Speak Up, facilitated by Project Tomorrow), 70 percent of the respondents considered themselves “average” technology users.

This is an interesting statistic in that many superintendents would more likely consider their students “above average” tech users. In other words, our students feel their use of digital resources is typical and expected behavior. This disconnect in perceptions can cause unintended consequences in student use of technology resources in our schools.

TLHirschJim Hirsch

Characterizing your students as “millennials” or “digital natives” served a purpose a few years ago to illuminate the large differences in student technology use versus adult technology use. Now, 10 years into the 21st century, those monikers no longer serve the same purpose. The latest Speak Up survey showed the portion of teachers who increased their personal use of social-networking tools shot up from 15 percent in 2008 to 48 percent in 2009, the largest single-year increase in any technology use. Teachers are definitely waking up, at least personally, to more robust use of the resources at hand.

While students indeed may need to unplug when they enter a school, simply plugging them in is no guarantee to improved student engagement or achievement in their learning. Now is the time for administrators and teachers to take a leading role in the use of technology resources in classrooms and beyond the school doors.

Gadgets Galore
The most common misconception is that our students’ native comfort with technology resources provides them with the ability to be the consummate multitaskers, capable of consuming various inputs of information and synthesizing those inputs into actionable and understandable knowledge.

In reality, our students can best be characterized as operating under a “continuous partial attention” syndrome, or CPA. This unusual condition was first applied in 1998 in a presentation at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference by Linda Stone, who was a Microsoft researcher at the time. CPA is what results when someone pays ongoing attention to multiple streams of inputs but can only provide limited degrees of attention to each. What’s limited is not just seeing a message but understanding its meaning. Here is where we as educators must step back into conversation with our students about technology use in schools.

To truly leverage our students’ innate technology comfort and understanding, it’s important for teachers to take a more active role in helping students strengthen those areas of learning that technology alone cannot address. In short, we need to help our students become better “netizens.”

While students may have a natural inclination for technology acuity with regard to operating gadgets and finding information on topics in quick fashion, the core of learning deals just as much with making sense of the information in relation to prior learning and applying it to new settings. That ability is simply not an integral part of a 21st-century student and must be learned and practiced.

Superintendents should consider policies and practices that ensure our students today have the necessary guidance from teachers to become responsible and integrity-filled netizens. They should be expected to become active contributors to the class knowledge base and not simply consumers of bandwidth.

Every school district should have policies in place that encourage use of student-owned devices in schools and provide guidance for responsible use of the devices in pursuit of greater student engagement and academic achievement. These policies should be derived from conversations among students, parents, teachers and administrators.

Further, students should be given clear expectations when choosing to use digital resources. These expectations should include the use of multiple sources, appropriate citations of digital references and a focus on content rather than presentation in both print and digital projects.

Gathering Spots
Finally, as teachers make use of digital resources such as social networking in their personal lives, they should be encouraged and expected to take that newfound interest and look for meaningful ways to allow students to use similar tools in their school learning environment.

For example, a blog or bulletin board makes good sense as an efficient method to use when discussing novel studies. Social-networking software and wikis provide great gathering places for students to share their understanding of concepts while contributing content to the ongoing learning of fellow students.

Having teachers and administrators take an active role in encouraging and supporting student use of digital resources naturally leads to discussions about appropriate use and behavior expected of netizens. Helping students understand and practice online safety, courtesy and general netiquette is a role that teachers need to embrace.

The assumed superiority of today’s students with regard to technology use needs to become a fully shared endeavor with teachers who may still wrongly believe the millennials have a natural affinity for all that is technical in nature. That chapter of 21st-century learning has run its course.

Jim Hirsch is associate superintendent for academic and technology services in the Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas. E-mail: