Educators should embrace—not castigate—video games and TV.
Second, addressing America’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) crisis must always include language learning embedded in digital knowledge and skills beginning in the early grades. Many people think that learning science has nothing to do with language or literacy and everything to do with concepts and facts. However, these subjects are accessible only through the language and other symbol systems they use to represent their concepts, content, and practices. And science is not unique–this dependence on language is true of all academic domains and, indeed, most professional domains. Furthermore, different academic domains develop different forms of language and use different sorts of symbols. By the time a student is in high school or college–not to mention a high-tech workplace–the ability to handle complex forms of language and other symbol systems is crucial. It is an entry ticket into the forms of thinking, problem-solving, and knowledge production that are the essences of higher-order skills today.
Third, new digital tools can transform learning and innovation if they are wisely and equitably deployed. Simple access to digital media for learning will not narrow achievement gaps. What is crucial is access to support and structured mentorship as well. In a recent study of high-end computers and reputable learning software placed into libraries in economically diverse communities, it was found that well-off parents accompanied their children to the library and mentored them to read at or above their reading levels, to sustain their engagement with particular learning activities, and to do so in strategic ways. Poorer families engaged much less in such mentoring, which means their children will likely gain less school-based knowledge from digital media and print literacy, read less well, be more passive in their activities, have less of a foundation to build on, and thus fall further behind. In contrast, the more-well-off students progressively build on their achievements. In this way, digital media–much like print literacy–can make "the rich richer and the poor poorer."
These findings do not mean that parents are the only effective source of mentoring. Good digital media made for learning build into themselves important mentoring devices such as well-ordered problems and artificial (virtual) or real tutors. However, they can only be useful if parents, teachers, and more advanced peers help children seek out good learning media and fruitfully draw on their internal design features for learning.
The crucial issue is how to address new digital literacies–that is, expertise with digital media as a form of communication and knowledge production–without forgetting traditional literacy. America’s goal must be to close both the reading gap and the digital gap at the same time and in ways that create learners who are able to innovate and produce knowledge, not just recapitulate standard answers on tests.
Digital media hold out the potential to enhance the new skills necessary for success in a global age. They can integrate oral and written language and real-world interactions as well as provide an enormous source of images, actions, and dialogue, all of which help users learn to situate meanings in a great variety of domains, including school subjects such as algebra, science, social studies, art, and literature. They can help level the playing field for learners whose families have not introduced them to a wealth of experiences connected to these domains. In today’s marketplace, being tech-savvy, literate, and constantly learning new content is the equation for learning to innovate.
The Digital Promise
Current early literacy practices and policies have cost tens of billions of dollars over the past decade with almost no integration of the new digital tools and teaching practices that have the potential to build the skills and knowledge demanded by universities and employers in the twenty-first century. Of course, this is a new area and more research is needed, but there is enough agreement and pioneering models to show that digital media can have an enormous impact on children’s learning. Three major policy steps can leverage their potential.
Build a Digital Teacher Corps
Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. Unfortunately, the skill set needed to modernize early literacy learning is not being transmitted in teacher education programs in the United States. We need to radically transform the almost Stone Age approach to using digital technologies in the preparation and professional development to transform classrooms for discovery and problem-solving. Teachers need to master content at much higher levels across vital STEM, language, and literacy areas, and they need to learn to collaborate with other educators and children to become guides of others’ learning, not mere conduits of information or “storage.”
As a "down payment" on new teacher capacity, why not establish a Digital Teachers Corps of some 6,000 literacy leaders, two for each of the 3,000 lowest-performing school communities in the U.S. that all told serve approximately three million learners? Modeled after other programs such as the North Carolina Teaching Fellows, which has successfully recruited strong new teachers from underserved minority groups, or Teach for America, which has a track record of attracting the "best and brightest" young minds, the Corps would recruit members from university-based preparation programs, community organizations, and technology-oriented businesses. They would be deployed initially to integrate new digital content to reverse the fourth-grade reading slump, attack the weak performance of English language learners on basic literacy problems, and use new strategies to teach higher-level content in STEM subjects and world languages.
Digital media can then enhance the development of teachers and can create a new team of adults who would support children’s learning across school and extended learning settings. Funds from the new infrastructure investments in schools and libraries supported by the Obama Administration should be accompanied by a new provision in the teacher-quality portions of the Higher Education Act to support both the Corps idea and new online communities so teachers can interact with each other and young people to mentor them. Games and simulations can be used to teach and introduce rich content in areas for which young children have a natural affinity, such as environmental issues and civic participation.
Create a "Digital Place" in Every Community
Many elementary school children are gamers and emerging tech-savvy "digital natives." They crave engaging experiences with new technologies and want to use digital tools that allow them to participate in learning communities. Their evident skills usually outstrip those of adults around them, but they still need teaching applicable to the digital world. They often need help with evaluating information available online and putting their tech skills to the most productive uses. Kids’ enthusiasm for digital activities presents a great "hook" for teaching, but if schools ignore the digital world, that world becomes reserved for home and the resources only more privileged families can marshal.
Despite billions of dollars invested in infrastructure programs such as E-Rate, enrichment efforts like the Supplemental Educational Services, and expanded community after-school programs, most low-income and minority children have no or little access to the best technology-assisted learning available today. Beyond access, they also lack appropriate guidance and attention from grownups on how best to use and leverage the technology.
Building on important models developed by corporations such as Intel (Computer Clubhouses), national informal education leaders such as the Boys and Girls Clubs (Club Tech), and the federally supported Community Learning Centers, it is time to create a place in every community where young children can gain confidence in their literacy and interactive technology skills. These centers, funded with what Andy Rotherham (in Democracy’s spring 2008 issue) has described as "after school coupons," should expose children to high-quality, engaging digital worlds and tools that integrate language and literacy development with deep content learning. The knowledge tools would include simulations, games, and media production capabilities delivered on mobile and handheld devices. And these centers should be staffed in part by knowledgeable members of a Digital Teachers Corps who can help children make the most of technology.
In addition, over the past two decades, governors, philanthropies, and business leaders have created choice or magnet schools on key themes ranging from science and math, to arts and culture, to international education, with some notable successes. Secondary school models such as High Tech and New Tech High Schools offer helpful lessons on new school creation and how to teach essential skills in a digital age.
These schools, funded with innovation dollars provided by a newly structured NCLB, would be laboratories for testing different digital approaches to learning and assessment, as well as for breaking down the barriers between in- and out-of-school learning. They could become a hub for the professional development of digitally savvy teachers. The model schools could also link to state innovations such as virtual high schools to deliver strong instruction in key areas that most children have no access to, such as high-quality second-language instruction, which is associated with higher levels of performance on native language skills in the early grades. Finally, these schools could become a fulcrum for demonstrating how businesses could get involved by donating mentors, training teachers, or funding model initiatives.
Modernize and Recommit to Public Media
Educational television media for young children, stimulated by the pioneering "Sesame Street," have accumulated a four-decade track record indicating that under the right conditions, basic reading, math, and social skills can be enhanced for young children, especially those from underserved communities. It is past time for these television-based efforts, largely paid for with taxpayer dollars, to be modernized to advance a public trust to meet the needs of low-income children and families.
A first step would be a radically redesigned "Ready-to-Learn" program financed by Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, which now reaches millions of low-income children with quality television broadcast fare but which has paid little attention to extending learning on new platforms, or widening low-cost, linguistically diverse distribution in schools and community settings. Successful shows like "Blues Clues," "Ghost Writer," and "The Electric Company" demonstrate that television can teach skills in ways that encourage adults to be involved with children’s learning as an interactive experience between parent and child. The digital media and games spawned by such shows have been used informally to accelerate children’s cognitive growth, language development, and affiliation with school learning. Digital media may provide opportunities for the more intensive exposure needed to accelerate struggling students’ performance that these television programs have not delivered in the past.
To that end, a modernized Corporation for Public Media should follow a framework for production that includes wider experimentation with new formats such as games, virtual worlds, mobile learning, and social network communities to engage children on both traditional and newer literacy skills. Any new taxpayer commitment should promote the development of different business models and incentives to ensure that intellectual property is more open, available for modification by children and teachers, and widely distributed to schools and other learning centers.
Five decades ago, the threat to our nation’s security posed by the Soviet launch of Sputnik galvanized an education reform movement that invested wisely in basic research, higher education, and area studies. As a result, the United States catapulted to dominant leadership in math, science, and technology. Today, the threat is to America’s economy, and it comes from the inexorable but less visible currents of globalization and substantial self-imposed hemorrhages in our financial systems. American leadership in the new economy can be assured only if students are prepared to read for effective content learning and if we promote the types of knowledge, creativity, communications, and innovation skills young people will need to compete and cooperate in a global age. Leveraging the power and potential of digital media for literacy learning, starting now, can play a pivotal role in ensuring a bright future for all of our children.
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