Not so long ago, students did most of their learning at school, and maybe while doing homework or during trips to the museum. Now, learning—like the internet—is everywhere thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and chromebooks.
“For young people today, learning is a 24/7 enterprise,” says Julie Evans, the CEO of education nonprofit Project Tomorrow. “It just happens to happen from 8:00 to 2:30 in the classroom. But that doesn’t mean learning stops when they leave school.”
Evans’ organization spends a lot of time thinking about how young people learn and interact with others. Or more accurately, it spends a lot of time quantifying it.
For more than 15 years, Project Tomorrow has run the popular survey effort called Speak Up, which polls hundreds of thousands of students and adults about learning trends and makes the local data available to individual districts. As it turns out, what students say they want from their school experience, or about learning in general, can be rather illuminating for those charged with teaching them.
Last month at FETC, a K-12 edtech conference in Miami, Evans joined us on the EdSurge podcast to talk about the social and collaborative learning students in her survey say they want. And we also talked about screen time, self-directed learning and why kids today don’t drust dot com domains.
Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Tell us a little about the Speak Up Survey. What is it?
Evans: Every year we create a series of online surveys and make them available to any K-12 school or district that wants to use them to collect feedback from their own stakeholders. We develop surveys for K-12 students, teachers, parents, administrators, community members—everyone that works within a school district or is impacting the lives of students. We ask questions that have to do with digital learning, but we also ask questions about school climate.
We asked parents, “What are your chief concerns about your children’s future?”
The parents told us that their No. 1 concern was that their child would have to take on too much student debt. And then the No. 2 was, “My child’s not learning the right skills in school to be successful.” When we ask students about the experience they’re having in school, they want to be successful—81 percent of sixth-graders said they want to be successful in school. Yet they find too often that their classes aren’t interesting, and the students themselves say they’re not learning the right skills.
One of the questions that we did a whole depth of study on was YouTube. The students’ experience on YouTube is now driving them to think about the skills that they’re learning, whether they are creating videos, posting comments or running a business. And in fact, the same percentage of students that tell us that they’re learning skills in school to be successful now say they’re learning skills through their YouTube experience to be successful [as well.] That’s equating this self directed—what some people might even think is frivolous—experience with their learning experience in school.
In the survey, you’re using sixth graders as a representative group to represent today’s students. Why them?
Sixth graders, from our data analysis, really are the epitome of the student learner today [as far as] leveraging the experiences that they have with technology.
When we talk about the student vision for learning, it’s predicated on three components: The students want to be involved and socially based learning experiences. They want those learning experiences to be untethered so they can take advantage of all the resources that are available. And they also want them to be contextually rich—to have a tie-in with the world around them.
Many of us, adults particularly, make this distinction between learning that happens traditionally and learning that happens digitally. Do students today have kind of the same distinction or is learning kind of muddled together?
For students today, learning is a 24/7 enterprise. It just happens to happen from 8:00 to 2:30 in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean learning stops when they leave school. Because of the exposure and the access that students have to so many different digital products—including being able to access the internet anywhere, any time—that learning experience is happening all the time. So the students don’t see the same distinctions. They don’t see the distinctions between school learning versus at-home learning.
And actually they have a very healthy balance of using print materials, using first-person materials, having opportunities to engage with people as well as digital tools. Sometimes it’s the media that say, “Oh, these kids, they just want to put their nose in their phone or in a computer and don’t want to interact with people.” Actually that is more of a symptom that we saw in Millennials than we see in this current generation. We’ve been doing this polling since 2003, so we’ve got quite an arc in terms of seeing the changes that have happened.
Another takeaway was that students want to co-learn with their teachers. Is this a teacher learning about something with their students for the first time that they themselves don’t know?
What the students will say is that because they are so used to looking up information themselves online, they are not looking at it that the teacher has to be the expert in everything. So where we used to think about the teachers being the repository of all knowledge, just waiting to fill the student with what they know, that’s no longer the case.
The idea that a sixth grade science teacher would know everything that’s happening in the world is probably unrealistic. I was in a classroom a couple of years ago in Texas doing a focus group, with sixth graders (in fact, a science classroom) and the students were telling me that one of the things that they do almost every day after school is they go home to look up information about what they learned in school. Good self directed learning.
They also said that they do that to check and make sure that what their teacher told them was accurate. This was a little bit of an awkward moment because the teacher was standing right over my shoulder. She came right up to me and she said, “I’ve taught them to do that. I want them to be good discriminators of information.” She said, “Quite often, there are times we’re discussing topics that I don’t know everything about, and we have to go out and look up that information and find experts and then we learn it together.”
The important part is for teachers to not still hang on to that belief that they need to be the experts of everything.
Did you get any sense of what the sources students trust most on the internet are?
I get that question a lot, and I ask that question a lot. In addition to doing the Speak Up research where we’re polling anywhere between 400,000 and 500,000 education stakeholders every year, I do about 30 focus groups out in schools and districts. And so, quite often, I will ask students as well as teachers, “How do you determine the authenticity of the sources? How do you know that something is accurate and you can rely upon it?”
Overwhelmingly what students tell me is the following, and I’m not necessarily saying this is the best way to authenticate resources—the librarians are probably going to have a heart attack—but this is the way students are being taught. What students will tell me is that they never use a dot com, they don’t trust dot coms; that dot orgs are okay; a dot edu is the best; and you shouldn’t really even trust the dot govs.
The first time I had students explain to me, I sort of chuckled to myself because I thought, well that’s kind of a narrow perspective on things—it must just be this one teacher. But I hear it all across the country. I hear it from teachers. I hear it from pre-service teachers and teacher-training programs. We need to do a better job of understanding not only for ourselves how to authenticate resources, but how to teach students the best ways to identify accurate sources.