Feature Story

Open Technologies Open Doorways For K-12 Students

by Melissa Jun Rowley

Always on, always connected—that pretty much sums up students today. Now a series of High Tech Charter schools is making sure learning about technology is a priority for hundreds of students.

Always on, always connected—that pretty much sums up students today. Kids embrace their digital lifestyles consuming, curating, editing, and distributing content via the web and their smartphones consistently throughout the day. It's been a long time coming, but thanks to networked and open technologies designed for learning and a new zeal for collaboration, K-12 curricula is beginning to catch up with the everyday social habits of kids. Unique innovation labs and high tech high schools are laying the groundwork for 21st innovation for students and teachers.

Through the support of the Ford Foundation, New York-based EDesign Lab brings educators, technologists, and designers together to prototype tangible examples of interactive digital learning tools for K-12 students.

"In practice, the lab is basically like an extended and facilitated hackathon/designathon," shared EDesign Founder Hsing Wei. "The big idea is to shake up the K-12 learning technologies marketplace a little to be more learning and end-user focused. We wondered what would happen if we brought together teachers thinking deeply about the design of learning experiences with technologists thinking deeply about the design of digital experiences. Could they come up with ways to re-imagine digital education for K-12 students that neither could have come up with on their own?"

It appears they can. So far, the EDesign group has managed to rapidly generate and transform user-driven concepts into trial-able prototypes for schools. In their most recent cycle, the lab built two prototypes. They are Reading Robot, an iPad app exploring teachable agents to support active reading and Evidently, an open, youth scientific community.

Disqus: What challenges do technology-driven schools face?

Wei says she'd like to keep the projects as open source as possible. While the organization is still in the midst or refining some of the code, the objective is for other designers to potentially build upon specific prototypes.

Open technology platforms and project-based learning curricula are major drivers of collaboration for students at Southern California's High Tech High, a network of K-12 schools that integrate project-based learning into their classes.

"We're trying to put what we think is better teaching into core classes," shared High Tech High Chief Academic Officer Ben Daley. "So having our students make robots in physics class is standard."

High Tech High art teacher Travis Sevilla says on any typical day on campus, one might see students building algae biofuel reactors, designing solar-powered boats, writing their own plays in humanities class, or designing their own shoes made out of recycled materials.

In such a collaborative environment, the cloud lends itself nicely to High Tech High curricula. In addition to students using Google Docs to create and share work, instructors who work with schools in other countries use video conferencing technology to teach lessons. The students on location regularly publish their work online, using software such as Google's Sketch UP for 3D rendering in service of their projects.

While the integration of digital learning tools is becoming more sought after by educators in the U.S., Daley says he and his faculty are aware of how the "hype" around technology can lead to a skewed sense of security.

"We don't think technology is some kind of silver bullet," he said. "We don't automatically think that if you put technology in schools, it's going to make everything better. We try to use technology as a tool. Our big thing is we're trying to get kids to produce work for a real audience."

Another challenge High Tech High faces like other schools is coming up with funding for up-to-date hardware and software. Fortunately, more than 90 percent of High Tech High's students are accepted into college, giving the faculty and community plenty to celebrate. And, schools across the country have innovation from collaborative groups such as EDesign Lab to tap into for inspiration and new ideas.


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