In reality though, the thought that students might acquire technology skills simply by owning technology is absurd. It is like saying that there is no need to teach our students math because they already have a paper and pencil, and they should naturally acquire algebra if they just keep playing with that paper and pencil long enough. Oh, and by they way, they will also become artists, poets, and writers due to that same paper and pencil ownership.
Students owning technology does not mean that they know how to really use it. Technology does not replace the need for teachers, instead it demands it. Students need teachers to teach them how to truly use technology to do great and wonderful things -- unbelievable things. Without great tech projects students simply default to game play, or as I call it, “The learning of useless skills.” Much like the paper and pencil student without instruction would just scribble and learn the useless skill of scribbling.
The paradox of students gaining 21st Century Skills lies on one hand having technology does not give our students 21st Century Skills, and on the other hand a teacher cannot teach the skills without having the technology. Imagine trying to teach a student how to play the sport of baseball without every picking up a ball, bat or glove. Sure, you could explain all about the sport; how to keep score, the rules, how bats are made, etc. But until they actually pick up a ball and try to throw it, they would never be able to learn how to play the sport. The same is true with technology. Students need hands-on time with technology while working on well designed projects.
In the Spring of 2008, I was asked by my district to test 26 netbooks in a fourth grade classroom for 12 weeks. I agreed to the experiment whole heartily, excited at the possibilities of what netbooks could do for our students. I always suspected that a once-a-week tech class was not enough time to truly give my students the 21st Century Skills that they needed.
In the true nature of an experiment I gave these students a 21st Century Skills assessment before they got their netbooks. In fact, I gave the assessment to all the students in my school, so that I could have a solid baseline to help with my experiment.
So I asked my students a number questions based on the new standards of National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS-S) that had recently been published by International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Nothing formal, just some simple questions that I had written based on their grade-level. I then compared the results of the assessment to the amount of time the students had for technology instruction each week.
As you can see from my simple chart above that the students were lacking in basic 21st Century Skills and most students were getting less than an hour of technology instruction per week. This was very disappointing since I was their tech teacher and I thought they would have scored higher on this assessment.
The question now was, “Will students having netbooks increase their 21st Century Skills?”
Before beginning the trial, the fourth grade teacher and myself planned some projects that would take advantage of the netbooks and center the instruction around 21st Century Skills. With the students having all-day access to the netbooks, there were no limitations to the skills the teacher could teach. Take, for example, the NETS-S standard of Communication and Collaboration, the teacher used Google Docs for the students to work on the same document even though they were at different desks. This later expanded to collaborating with students in a different state. Something he could have never thought without the access to tools -- in the case, netbooks.
At the end of the 12 week trial I reassessed the students in my school and found the following...
Notice the direct correlation to the spike that occurred with this fourth grade class. They had nearly 12 hours a week of hands-on time using their netbooks and in return their 21st Century Skills were nearly 100%.
One of the fundamental keys to getting our students to have 21st Century Skills is the use of integrated technology into their daily school work by using great projects.
The netbooks alone would not have given the students 21st Century Skills, neither would the projects without the netbooks -- both part are needed. One cannot be done without the other.