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By Nick Pernisco

As originally published in The Journal of Media Literacy in 2009.

When I was growing up as a child in the 1980s, I couldn’t help but to be excited about the new technology and media around me.  I was raised on a steady diet of television, video games, and computers, and so it’s no wonder that technology and media were strong influences on who I am today.  Technology influenced my career goals of being a digital media producer, wanting to record and edit audio and video using the wonderful new tools just emerging when I started.  And when I began teaching media courses, I knew that technology would be a large part of what I taught.  But until recently, I never thought that technology could be used as a teaching tool as well.  Beyond just using a CD player to play music or a DVD player to watch a movie, technology has proved itself a great way to relate to today’s youth, most of whom are even more tech savvy and media saturated than I was.

Today’s young people have been using computers since they were 3 or 4, and sometimes earlier than that.  They’ve been watching TV ever since their parents first propped them on their laps, learning about culture through the magic window.  And they’ve been online and using cell phones for as long as they can remember.  They spend more time on social networks like MySpace and Facebook than they do doing homework.  Whenever they have a question about their homework, they skip their parents and find the answers in a place that holds all of the answers: Google.  And when young people need to contact a friend, they do it with a text message on their cell phones, using acronyms like LOL and abbreviations like “U” instead of “you”.  Clearly, young people interact with the world in a new and interesting way.

Many parents and other concerned adults I’ve spoken with believe that this is the end of the world as we know it.  Literacy rates are spiraling downward.  Kids don’t know basic spelling or grammar anymore.  Many adults are quick to blame technology and the media.  Afterall, when they can be instantly gratified by Google or Wikipedia, why should kids put in the extra effort to go to the library to do “quality research”?  But what if it’s not the kids that are failing, but instead it’s us who are failing them?  What if teachers and parents are so adamant about kids following the rules of life, that we don’t realize that the rules are changing, and that kids are the ones changing them?  What if we could increase literacy rates, SAT scores, high school graduation rates, and overall learning, all by just listening to the kids?  The world is changing quickly, and the world our children will inherit will be quite different than the one we leave behind.

What we need most in 21st century education is a new way of teaching tomorrow’s citizens.  While we rely on textbooks written by “experts” to teach children about the world, they rely on social networks assembled by people like them to teach them about life.  Instead of one person deciding what is right or wrong, an entire community decides.  Today’s youth uses technology to learn about facts and opinions, and unlike with textbooks, they have a say in what those facts and opinions are.  Instead of a single expert on a particular topic, kids rely on millions of witnesses to events and issues, helping to form a collective intelligence that helps make everyone smarter.  Instead of cramming their brains with a huge amount of facts, terms, and data, we should be teaching kids how to search through the data to come to their own conclusions.  We should be teaching kids research skills, not research results.  And we should be doing it on their terms.

We need a new way of looking at the media and technology being consumed by kids.  We should stop looking at playing video games as an activity that “rots their brains”, but instead look at the data that suggests that kids are actually smarter, more physically agile, and better socially adjusted when they play video games.  We should stop saying that texting is ruining the English language, and start realizing that the English language is changing, just as it has for hundreds of years.  We should be happy that kids are learning to put their thoughts into concise, 160 character messages, as they do with texting and Twitter.  Instead of telling kids that too much time spent on social networks is bad for them, we should encourage them, since this will likely be the way we communicate in the future (not to mention the way that elections will be won).  They’re learning to communicate using methods that are quickly becoming highly valued.  Encouraging kids to embrace technology and media in education will make my job easier when adults finally accept reality.

No matter what subject I’m teaching, my classrooms are always filled with technology.  Whether I’m teaching an Introduction to Communications course, or a Radio Production class, I use technology to better relate to students.  As an example, assignments and projects traditionally written on paper are now being delivered online.  There is no point in having students keep a written journal if they can keep a blog to accomplish the same objective.  Instead of turning in a CD or DVD of a finished project, students now create MP3 files and e-mail them to me.  Not only does this allow students to use the skills they already know to complete a project, but it also saves money, saves time, and helps save the environment.  Students are encouraged to use laptops in class to keep notes, and later upload those notes to Wikis for review by the rest of the class.  My classrooms contain less lecturing and more discussion, allowing students to discuss new ideas and concepts with each other.  My role turns from “know it all expert” to moderator, and this earns students’ respect and makes them want to learn.  Difficult concepts become fun, boring lectures become interesting, and learning actually happens.

I’m often asked to speak at conferences about using technology in the classroom.  I enjoy talking to teachers of all grade levels, and sharing my thoughts on technology’s role in the future of education.  I also speak directly with students and ask them how their learning environments can be improved.  At the recent Media Literacy Café held jointly at Santa Monica College and via teleconference with Audubon High School in Wisconsin, I asked the local students a simple question: “What can make you want to learn?”  One response I received was “Learning has to be fun.”  So I asked them if they thought learning Math, English, and Science could be fun.  This started a discussion about how students want to have an active role in their education.  They want to use things like texting, video games, and social networks to learn.  My own research and classroom experiments have shown that this type of learning is possible.  We can use technology and media to teach kids the skills they need to succeed, but it will take some initiative on the part of teachers.  It’ll take a fundamental shift in thought about pedagogy in general.  The good news is that this is happening little by little today.

Teachers around the country are starting to find new ways to teach today’s young people.  I belong to a social network for teachers using technology to make learning a better experience.  The community called Classroom 2.0 has over 15,000 teachers as members.  Some are already technology experts, using technology to help change students lives.  But most teachers on Classroom 2.0 are still trying to find their way.  Just like their students do on MySpace, Classroom 2.0 allows teachers to post their profiles, chat in discussion forums, write blogs, exchange ideas, and create new knowledge.  A teacher shares a single idea, that idea is discussed by other teachers, and in the end an entirely new idea is formed.  This is collective intelligence, and it’s how our students are becoming smart about the world.  At Classroom 2.0, teachers not only learn new ways to teach students, but they’re learning in the same way that today’s students learn.

Education is changing – of this we have no doubt.  Student’s abilities are changing, and the skills they need in order to succeed in life are changing.  As teachers, we have responsibilities to meet students on this new playing field.  Only then, will we be able to increase learning, raise success rates, and produce students prepared for the challenges that await them in the 21st century.  I’m proud to be at the forefront of this coming change, and I hope others will join me to help make our educational system better.