Same school, new tools

Saturday, Feb. 27
This is a generalization, of course, but some of us of a certain vintage consider those pesky hand-held gadgets favored by the younger generation to be digital distractions, nothing more than devices used by teenagers to relay gossip via text message.

" U r lame" and " LOL" can sound like digital gibberish to those of us who grew up with manual typewriters and rotarydial telephones. But not everyone is so daunted by the new media revolution, including some local educators, who say digital technology is playing a growing role in the 21st- century classroom.

While the trusty pencil and eraser might still be the preferred classroom tools of the Baby Boomers and members of Generation X, many of today's students are inclined to take notes with a so- called " smart phone" than to whip out a pad and pencil. "A lot of the traditional linear ways of teaching don't make sense to students," said Keith Babuszczak, the assistant superintendent for Care Vocational Technical Education in the Pittsfield School District, which embraces both traditional and cutting- edge learning methods.

"We have a lot of students now creating podcasts and videos, so it's not a passive consumption of the media," said Babuszczak. "It's students really taking control and demonstrating their learning through the technology."

Online blogs and podcasts - digital or audio files that are broadcast via the Internet - are now common classroom components.

"We're mostly using them as a new-age film strip," Babuszczak said.

The term "podcast" is the marriage of the words "pod," from the Apple iPod - a brand of portable media player - and "broadcasting." Despite the etymology, one doesn't have to use an iPod to create a podcast, but rather any computer that can play media files.

Although Babuszczak still likes to bring a pad and pen to meetings, he said, it's not unusual to see Pittsfield students using an iPhone or cell phone to take notes during a field trip. Those notes can be e-mailed to a laptop computer, for example, where students can then incorporate them into a homework assignment or research paper.

"The use of technology for just about anything is transparent to our students," Babuszczak said. "They do everything with technology."

Data indicates that digital technology plays a significant role in the lives of cyber-savvy students, with most teenagers confirming that they own cell phones and regularly send text messages or use Internet social networking sites such as FaceBook and MySpace.

In other words, today's students are embracing the new media revolution, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Nearly three-quarters of all teenagers and 72 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds report using social networking sites, while 93 percent of people between the ages of 12 to 29 use the Internet, according to a Pew report titled "Social Media and Young Adults."

The report states that a majority of teenagers and young adults have gone wireless, with 81 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds preferring wireless laptops to traditional desktop computers.

Cell phone ownership is "nearly ubiquitous" among teens and young adults: 93 percent of 18- to 29- year- olds and 75 percent of teenagers own cell phones, according to the Pew report.

Today's students communicate with hand-held, wireless gizmos that make yesterday's walkietalkie look like the horse-drawn carriage of portable electronic devices.

But just because technology is more prevalent doesn't mean that teachers will become obsolete, according to Babuszczak.

"The use of technology in the classroom is really reliant on the teaching strategies of our teachers," he said. "The teacher is still instructing. The teacher is still in charge of the teaching and the learning."

Karen Shields, the Pittsfield School District's technology professional development coordinator, is responsible for bridging the technology gap for those teachers who came of age during "the generation gap," the popular 1960s term for the cultural schism that existed between the young and old of that era.

Part of Shields' job is to help teachers figure out what new and emerging technologies work best for them.

"It's more like which parts of it do I want to use, and for what purpose," she said. "Most teachers, no matter what stage they're at technologically, rely on the computer." Shields also works with students and parents.

" I'm working with another group of parents at Egremont School who want to make a newsletter, which will be a blog," she said. "We're encouraging the use of student blogs."

Today's digital technology is transforming the way people teach and learn.

"There is less writing on paper," Shields said, noting that many librarians are no longer strictly reference librarians, but rather "emerging media experts."

For Babuszczak, accepting and adopting new teaching technologies is a natural part of the evolution of education.

"My goal is to have a rich learning environment using all of the tools available," he said. "I try to think of technology as value neutral, and that we put the value on it depending on how we use it."


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