The study of foreign languages has long benefited from technology in the form of audiovisual aids, but here too the computer connection holds out new approaches. Using an unusually effective software program called Transparent Language, for instance, language students can read classic texts on screen, clicking on any word or phrase for instant elaboration of its grammar, syntax, and meaning. And a teacher at Byram Hills High School in Armonk, New York has her class conversing by e- mail with fellow students in France and Spain.
Supported by a grant from IBM, Thayer High School in Winchester, New Hampshire is on the way to digitizing virtually everything students do. In Dale Courtney’s technical ed class, tenth-grader Dani Hopkins deftly manipulates the computer-assisted drafting tools she hopes could land her an architect’s job some day. Next to her sits the school’s acknowledged tech-head, [name redacted on request], who at sixteen can discourse knowledgeably with top IBM engineers when anything goes wrong in any of the school’s complex systems.
This case illustrates how technology can open up a curriculum both to cross disciplinary boundaries and to adjust to students’ individual needs. “[Student] was so uninterested in his regular courses that he had to go to summer school last year in algebra and English,” says principal Dennis Littky. “Finally we decided to let him devise a program whereby he can demonstrate mastery in all our nineteen skill areas through independent work in technology.” [Student] often arrives at school at six in the morni[ng and stays till late at night, Littky says, serving as the right-hand man of Thayer’s director of technology, Elliot Washor.
In Tom McGuire’s “networking” class, a dozen Thayer students meet daily to reflect on their own high school education and what it means. They visit younger students’ classes to explain the school’s new emphasis on mastering nineteen key skill areas (and new ways of demonstrating and documenting that mastery electronically). They survey student opinions on what qualities they will look for in a principal when Dennis Littky retires this year. And they use e-mail to exchange ideas about school change with other students around the country. In April the class will travel to Washington, D.C. for a national student conference which their technological wizardry has helped them organize from top to bottom.
“Technology is a hook,” declares McGuire. “It draws kids into work they wouldn’t otherwise be doing.” Whether that involves collaborating with their peers nationwide on a scientific database documenting the extent of acid rain (as a National Geographic Society electronic network is doing) or functioning as respected participants in education reform, it has the same effect, he believes: to make their experience of learning more authentic and meaningful.
The acid test of a school’s success comes when kids must demonstrate their intellectual progress and prowess; and new technologies offer a range of new assessment possibilities. By its nature much new technology is performance-oriented; so videotapes, audiotapes, and hypermedia add a dimension to student presentations and exhibitions. “It’s a shame how many student papers are only seen by the student and her teacher,” Kathy Juarez comments. “Using another form not only opens student work up to other viewers, but encourages us to broaden our assessments to include a range of student learning styles.”
Just as important, the larger community-parents, experts, other teachers and students, employers, and colleges can more easily witness and evaluate student work when it is made available in various digitized forms. With the help of an IBM grant, the Coalition is working with Thayer High School and Louisville’s Eastern High School on developing the prototype of a “digital portfolio” that would document and assess student progress in an elegantly accessible form. The two efforts differ in interesting ways, but both result in-a single disk or CD that can follow a student’s progress-in still pictures, audio, video, or written text- through his or her entire school career.
At Thayer, the technology promises to remove the burden of multiple record-keeping from the school’s attempt to assess student progress toward nineteen skills that must be demonstrated by graduation. “The logistics of documenting that is a nightmare,” says Rick Durkee, who oversees the school’s computer technology. “We had nineteen folders into which we would put any of the kids’ work that met that competency. There was a lot of duplication, and a tremendous amount of sheer bulk of materials.” Now students’ digitized assignments can be placed in one or more skill folders by the team or the student herself; comments and evaluations from any number of sources go alongside, making clear what skill areas they demonstrate and how well they do it.