The Changing Face of Public Education

On Friday I had the honor of talking to 7th and 8th graders at Bell Street Middle School in Clinton, SC.  Bell Street Middle is your quintessential public school in a regular town in the southern United States.  A group of hard working teachers attempting to educate young minds in a world that is changing so quickly that it is challenging to keep up.  George Goings, who is the father of my roommate in college, had me over to talk with his Career Ed students.  Career Ed is a program where kids are exposed to some important experiences about preparing to find a job.  This includes everything from deciding what you would like to be when you grow up to preparing your resume.  Part of this process involves speakers coming from various fields to talk about their work with the kids.  That is where I come in.  I found the visit extremely interesting.  If you noticed the flurry of comments on some of my resent posts, it looks like some of the students explored my blog a little.

Besides simply talking about Information Technology and Web Development with the kids I was fortunate enough to sit in on a few of George’s classes.  Some of Mr. Goings classes spend the entire period working on computers.  They run a computer program called Classworks and spend time on Math and English material to boost core learning principles.  It was absolutely fascinating to see how computers and software are being used to educate these kids today!  The school district recently purchased a substantial learning software package that remedial students can learn core principles at their own pace.  Watching, it looked to me like playing educational video games.  This new program has incentive based rewards to encourage these students to apply themselves to the material. 

Using the technology each student can learn at their own pace.  If they fail a section two times in a row then they get a personal lesson from an instructor to help them along before redoing the lesson.  To me this is a great idea.  One of the things I remember from my days of math class growing up is I was always ready to just work problems and not listen to the teacher lecture over a new section.  This allows those students to dive right in while others can get more hands on training and work at their own individual level.  The ability for each student to work at their own speed and have personal assistance when needed is a new sort of learning that I feel challenges students to attempt to figure things out on their own instead of expecting others to do it for them or asking for help before even attempting the problem.  I’m sure there are some bad eggs to this system, but you don’t hold your gifted kids back from reaching for the stars because others in the class have to get taught something twice which requires a teacher in a traditional setting to go over material that everyone might not need to have repeated.  I would imagine with the difficultly of managing kids today this ability to let each lock into their own speed of learning on their own computer helps to keep control of a class.  I would imagine that you wouldn’t have the same level of issues with kids talking and not paying attention to the collective because each has something to focus and hold their individual attention.  The teacher isn’t demanding everyone pay attention to him or her because each student is focused on a lesson tailored to their specific needs.

Some of the negatives that I would caution around this sort of learning are the isolation, loss of interactivity and communication.  Students are all locked into their own computer with their own headsets to block out background sounds.  This is good for concentration and individualism, but you sacrifice interaction and teamwork.  Also the incentive based program sounds great in theory I’m sure there are some cases of jealous as certain individuals excel and others don’t hence not winning prices.  One of the prizes is $5 gift certificate to McDonald’s.  Personally I don’t eat there and although I realize they have done much to clean up their act it is still an overall unhealthy alternative. 

With all that being said I commend the school district for finding innovative ways to use technology in learning!  Maybe this is going on in every middle school across the nation and I’m just not aware?  I believe long term the potential benefits of these extra computer proficiencies and individual learning will pay off.  I am jealous that when I was a middle school student we didn’t have computers in classrooms.  It wasn’t until my junior year (1997-98) of high school that I can recall a decent computer lab and I believe it was my senior year that each classroom had a computer in it. 

With the United States no longer a leader in education it is refreshing to see innovative things that are going on behind the scene that you simply do not hear about.  For Higher Education this presents a new set of challenges as more students will be flowing in with more advanced computer skill sets and expecting learning on those levels to continue.  We already see some of this with online classes and systems like Blackboard.  It will be the institutions that can continue to press the limits of technology and the web for education that will survive. 

Finally getting to the end of the day and talking with the kids revealed some additional insight.  The kids were interested, engaging, and quite inquisitive about the Internet and what goes into building and maintaining a website.  One of the questions I asked the kids was who likes to spend time on the Internet surfing the web.  I spoke to about forty students and every student except for one (and I think she was just doing it to be different) raised their hand.  These are children between twelve and thirteen who don’t remember a time before the web and their days are spent freely sharing on Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube.  By the flurry of comments they have left around this site it’s quite obvious sharing their opinion and views online is something they instinctively do without a second thought of the possible repercussions. 

From this new found insight a revelation hit me.  We who are web developers have our hands full. 

Intentionally Set Trap

The steps that we make today will have much larger impacts on the future that I think any of us realize.  The Internet will be a part of life in the future just as simple as driving a car or reading a book.  It has already revolutionized the way business is done, but we have a generation of individuals coming who understand the Internet maybe better than they can interpret a magazine or book.  The Internet provides a much more flexible medium because anyone can share their opinion about anything and you can have a personal presence in the mass.  You aren’t just a number or a faceless being, unless of course you want to be.  Sites that we web professionals design and knowledge that we gain from years of experience with this medium will impact the world more than television, radio, newspaper, or any other form of communication before. 

We have the responsibility to clean up spam, protect against viruses, organize site architecture, optimize graphics, establish standards, and nurture the Internet that exists today into something that people of a future time can better utilize.  The semantic web, virtualization, and cloud computation are three new developments that will lead us in this direction. 

Today our entire admission process is paperless and possible online.  This was done not for the obvious reasons (efficiency and costs), but because it is expected and demanded by the wave of college students of the future. 

In closing, wow this turned into a lot longer and more in-depth than I had ever planned, I challenge every reader to think more outside of the box and develop the web in new and innovative directions.  Don’t do it because you can become rich (although that is definitely perk), but do it because our future demands and expects it.  Also because hopefully you have the same passion that I have for this never stale, demanding, and ever expanding field that is the World Wide Web.

Update: Mr. Goings sent me an email this morning (3/17/2007) with the following comments that I wanted to include.  I think they help explain the program in more detail.  Because I only spent a few hours soaking it up I knew there would be things I missed.

I read your blog and I really appreciated and enjoyed your comments. I do want to mention a couple of comments though.

The first is about the incentives. We implemented the incentive program to encourage the students in Classworks to try harder and go farther than they normally would in a regular setting. The way my incentives are set up, each student will receive some type of award for working hard. I also have the authority to give “on-the-spot” awards to students who appear to be going the extra mile to improve themselves. This incentive awards program has been a success in that it has students scoring higher on their Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) tests. In fact, some students did so much better on their MAP, they were placed back in a regular classroom setting.

The second is about the headphones. The primary reason for the headphones is so the students can listen to and understand the directions/instructions that they are given prior to beginning an activity or lesson. Yes, it does create a quiet learning environment for the student, but can you imagine what the noise would be like in my room would be like if all this was coming out of 23 different computer speakers at the same time. And you just know that the students in the lab will have the volume level set on high.

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10 Responses to “The Changing Face of Public Education”

  1. Says:

    Oh man!!! I can’t beleev u put us on your site!! oh man thats such an honor!!! TTYL
    -BSMS Student

  2. Says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I most enjoyed your reflections. It’s a bit hard to get used to the probability that this generation will probably never read anything printed on paper but I suppose it was a challenge for an earlier generation to get away from clay tablets.
    Anyway, nice work, and I see you have a new reader!

  3. Says:

    Dennis - Glad you enjoyed it. It was definitely an eye-opener to me. Speaking of the effect of generation reading printed material, Wired just posted a story today about the changing landscape of Jouralism -

    I’ll break out one of my weekly links a little early this week. :)

  4. Says:

    I’m speaking to some 7th/8th graders at the end of April for a career day, hopefully my experience will be just as good as yours! That’s pretty awesome that they are checking out your blog; looked like a bunch of spammers at first! The next generation is here. :)

  5. Says:

    Brad, you will be impressed by how much they already know. I tried to keep it simple and instill a few values in them. I told them you need to have customer service skills (what job doesn’t need this), troubleshooting, listen (because what good does solving a problem if you don’t solve the correct problem), and passion.

    They ate it up. :)

  6. Says:

    golly, i’ve never been 2 this site b4 but it’s great. FounderU’RE SUPER CUTE!!!! U GOTTA EMAIL ME. i don’t have a myspace so u’ll just have to do that. i’m 20 and ready for super fun

  7. Says:

    thank you for using my spider web image as a metaphor for the internet. I like it~

  8. Says:

    Christy, I’m glad that I found it and THANK YOU for posting it under a public license so people like me can look through Flickr for appropriate photography!

  9. Says:

    Thanks for giving out your know-how. I truly liked your indications.

  10. Says:

    Although computers definitely serve their purpose and are a great tool, I don’t know that it’s a great thing to have children using computers for everything in the classroom. It seems that subjects such as math can be done just fine with pencil and paper. Using the computer for various resources that it offers, such as the internet, is a great idea. It almost feels as if people think everyone should use computers for everything, and it’s a little over-the-top. And I do also believe that excessive computer use fosters isolation. But then again, that’s the direction we’re headed.