As technology continues to advance and become more accessible around the world, experts who study how children learn are developing fresh paradigms designed to reach the new generation of students dubbed “digital natives.”
The term emerged in 2001 from the work of Mark Prensky, a thought leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and game designer in the field of education and learning. Prensky is also an outspoken advocate of forming a more relevant system for teaching our children.
According to Prensky, digital natives are the young people growing up in the digital world. They cut their teeth on tech gadgets, smart phones, and the Internet and can’t conceive of a life without technology. Digital immigrants, on the other hand, grew up prior to the tech boom and have taken pains to adopt and adapt to e-mail, Web surfing, and entertainment on demand.
Scientists have discovered that digital natives’ lifelong exposure to technology means that their brains are developing differently. Educators are beginning to understand that reaching them requires a new style of education that accommodates the ways in which these students learn. Blended and hybrid learning programs offer powerful benefits in reaching and challenging digital natives. (Editor’s Note: See the sidebar for a brief introduction to hybrid learning.)
Technology has transformed the world around us. American education, too, can evolve to better prepare students to navigate that world.
Teachers are learning the hard way that students struggle to sit through a lecture and quietly take notes. Students are not accustomed to such passivity. Instead, they shine in an interactive environment where talking, touching things, and processing information from every angle is encouraged. Gone are the days of rote memorization.
Most important of all, today’s students do best when you give them a sense of purpose and control over what they’re learning.
“They want to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” says Rolin Moe, a creative writing teacher and doctoral student working toward a D.Ed. in learning technologies at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. The teachers who are most successful at reaching their students are those who are able to contextualize lessons, communicating their value in the real world. “Teaching to the test” is painfully ineffective.
“Today’s students are incredibly sophisticated,” agrees Rajeshri Gandhi, Dean of Education at Fairmont Preparatory Academy. “The availability of the Internet has conditioned them to ask questions and get answers instantaneously.”
Students’ intuitive skills with everything tech-related can intimidate teachers who haven’t mastered the media themselves. While that can raise doubts in some learners’ minds about what their teachers can offer, it’s not a fatal flaw. The key in reaching students appears to lie more in the interesting situations teachers are able to create and the learning experiences they design that go beyond the ones typical of more traditional classroom settings.
While integrating technology is becoming more commonplace in the classroom, adopters of hybrid models know the best learning has always blended new ideas – with the student-teacher relationship holding everything together. And that’s just what hybrid programs do best.
Today’s students – despite all the inherent difference of being digital natives – are still kids. They still gravitate to interesting people. They still want mentorship and someone giving them skills. Students then take those skills to the next level, testing the information for themselves and always responding best to lessons whose value in the real world is readily apparent to them.
How hybrid education supports teachers and schools
The ideal hybrid curriculum utilizes the best online tools to support a teacher-led classroom – making the concept incredibly effective. Young learners are encouraged to explore and follow their own paths with computer-based modules, but a teacher who can bring those lessons to life and give them meaning beyond the classroom in an organized structure shapes and propels that exploration.
The online components of hybrid education may seem impersonal to some teachers, but utilizing interactive online tools is really all about personalizing the learning experience for each student.
Teachers can take advantage of the digital tools to communicate with students at their level, targeting their interests and providing them with opportunities to interact with and explore the world around them. Providing these young people with choices gives teachers the chance to work with students who are more interested in learning.
“If I can post five discussion board subjects, students can choose the one they’re interested in,” says Moe. “If students can choose their own experience, they’ll have a better outcome.”
Teachers wishing to create highly personalized learning environments for their students can do so easily using the hybrid framework. The technology leaves teachers free to focus on developing strong relationships and inspiring kids to be motivated and build learning momentum. Those relationships, along with peer interaction, remain an important avenue to helping students develop interpersonal skills with both peers and adults.
Teachers who can guide kids to figure things out for themselves are an important ingredient in discovery-based learning, according to Josh Cook, Faculty Advisor for UCLA’s GSE&IS (Graduate School of Education & Information Studies) Teacher Education Program.
“You learn through talking and getting your hands on something and manipulating it,” Cook says. “The computer is just a tool.”
With computers, students can reach far beyond the walls of a school library to assemble the resources that shape their education. Whatever their interests, the Internet can immediately provide opportunities to learn more.
The technology used in hybrid education can engage students unlikely to participate in other educational models. While some are more comfortable performing in a conventional classroom, others are more adept at online coursework. Introduction of the online component offers those students the opportunity to better engage in the learning process.
Transforming education to accommodate the way kids learn
“Either we can try to fit square pegs into round holes, or as teachers, we can change how we are passing along information,” says Moe. “Those educators who dig in their heels and narrow their focus onto traditional techniques alone are ignoring the way today’s students learn.”
“Some teachers think kids aren’t going to get as much out of hybrid education because that’s not the way we learned,” says Minda Fitzgerald, a teacher at California High School for the past 15 years. “But it isn’t there to replace classroom learning; it’s there to increase students’ ability to grasp information. The hybrid idea is research-based. Students’ pass rates increase every time.”
The data proves that students learn best by doing. Offering them choice and control increases a student’s motivation to learn. Hybrid classrooms encourage them to pursue their own paths and reach their own conclusions.
Multimodal education and multiple intelligences
Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner came up with the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983, which holds that traditional environments that focus on logical and linguistic intelligence ignore many cognitive abilities. While a student may quickly memorize the multiplication table, that doesn’t guarantee that she has as deep an understanding of multiplication as another student who learns the table more slowly. It’s likely that many of the students labeled “slow learners” may just learn better with a different approach. And many students may possess intelligence that our conventional testing methods are failing to measure.
Today’s digital natives have used technology throughout their lives. Their brains have formed differently and they require a broader range of stimulation to achieve literacy. Research has shown that their brains are physiologically different from those of digital immigrants. The concept of multimodal education essentially updates the theory of multiple intelligences to account for these differences.
Because we know that interactive media exposure has shaped the way young people make mental connections, the tools teachers use to share information must evolve to reach and inspire digital natives. Kids no longer learn in a linear path. They extract data from multiple sources simultaneously. And they need educators who can understand the difference and can help them select and prioritize information in a way that’s useful and meaningful.
Programmed to help digital natives succeed
It’s no secret that traditional techniques have fallen short for many of our youth, and hybrid education offers promise for engaging students who are demotivated by the lack of meaningful use of technology, and associated opportunities for skill-building and efficiency, in many lessons today.
“With so many students coming through the school doors, it’s been extremely difficult to challenge the kids at the top without losing the kids at the bottom,” says Gandhi. The hybrid model helps teachers bridge those gaps. “I can design lessons and have different things available for different groups of students. I don’t have to do 20 assignments on the same topic.”
Whatever their levels of sophistication when it comes to technology, today’s budding scholars are still kids with many of the same needs as those who grew up without computers. They have different methods of connecting with the world, but they still need nurturing and guidance from trusted adults.
“What’s exciting about [hybrid education] is it’s the perfect synthesis of classroom teacher and leveraging everything that’s great about online learning,” says Cook. Hybrid education still emphasizes the importance of teachers. It simply provides them with the resources that bring more students into the process.
“Any student can learn better when lessons are personalized and individualized to that student. Making a student feel comfortable and safe can help them learn, and this environment can do that,” says Gandhi.
Hybrid education shows incredible promise as a model that supports teachers and inspires students. And when it comes to digital natives, few alternatives show as much promise in revolutionizing American classrooms.