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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Students as Digital Rebels, Wanderers, and Pioneers (Craig Peck, et. al.) Part 2 (by Craig Peck)

Craig Peck and his colleagues studied two high schools in Southeastern U.S., one–Downtown–was urban and minority while Newlands was mostly white and suburban. Part 1 described student and teacher use of school and personal devices in Downtown high school. The full text including citations is in DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools.

We discovered that, as the old ways of schooling such as bell schedules, paper tests, and seats in rows intersected with tech-savvy, [personal media device-or] PMD-equipped teenagers, a “digital disconnect” (Selwyn, 2011) surfaced between digital youth and their brick and mortar schools. This situation produced a setting fertile for cultural incubation similar to the creative tensions present in an examination of technology in two American high schools a decade past (Peck, Cuban, & Kirkpatrick, 2002).

In that case, nascent ICT integration in schools helped foster the development of two types of students: “Open Door” students who improved academically and gained social acceptance through technology, and “Tech Gods” who played a crucial role in helping technology coordinators maintain the schools’ technology infrastructures.

Roughly 10 years later, during our study at Newlands and Downtown, we recognized three new types of students emerging in addition to the Open Door students and Tech Gods profiled a decade earlier. Two of these new classifications, Digital Rebels and Cyber Wanderers, included students from across the socioeconomic status spectrum. The other group was more homogeneous: eLearning Pioneers were primarily White, high-achieving students at Newlands High School. …

Digital Rebels

….We encountered students who utilized their PMDs as means to rebel, overtly or surreptitiously, against school and teacher rules. Skilled students sent text messages routinely during lessons. Without the teacher’s (or at times, the observer’s) knowledge, these students used their clothing and objects for cover; some typed responses in their pockets without looking at their device. A few students pushed the bounds further by setting up proxies on school computers to bypass school district filters and access popular social media sites. In addition, students who possessed mobile phone data plans (or shared those of their parents) could use their PMDs to access any online social media they wished, given that the school district’s Internet filters could not block such activity on proprietary wireless networks.

A White male 10th grader at Newlands High School proved particularly adept at evading classroom rules against PMD usage. He explained that he was able to type text messages without looking, so he only had to read incoming messages. He stated, “I’m normally a two-hander with my phone, but if I was just sitting here like this I could send a message just fine [in my pocket].” He later revealed that he did in fact send a text message during his interview, unbeknownst to the researcher. He also explained that he possessed skills that would have enabled him to help fix instructors’ ICT issues, much like the Tech Gods profiled in a study a decade ago (Peck et al., 2002). But he also revealed that he was reluctant to share such knowledge: “I don’t speak up about it. . . . Not big on fixing things like that.” When asked to explain his reluctance to provide technology aid to his teachers, he remarked, “Don’t want to help the teachers—it’s time off class . . . ‘cause they’re going to have to call someone to fix it.”

This Digital Rebel, in essence, seemed to express a willingness to undermine a lesson through silent inaction.

At Downtown High, an 11th-grade African American female student described when and how she text-messaged during a lesson: “Well if I’m in class and I get a text, usually I wait until the class is working on some kind of work, but it’s mostly after the teacher explains it.” She estimated sending about 100 text messages on a typical day, with far fewer during the actual school hours. In fact, she described concerns with having PMDs in schools.

In her own words, “There’s cheating. They give the answers during text messages. Or if someone’s planning to have a fight, they’ll just do it through the phones. They’ll text and meet up there and everyone will know where to go. And that kind of blocks the way of it being broken up [by adult supervisors], which is kind of dangerous.”

In this sense, seemingly innocent acts of rebellion could actually transform into significant acts of danger.

Teachers possessed limited means to fight back against the apparent digital insurrection. As we shadowed students throughout their school days, teachers confiscated student PMDs that had been used in ways that disrupted instruction. Yet, most often the teachers simply returned the devices to the students at the end of the period, seemingly satisfied to have induced a brief respite in their ongoing digital communications. Other teachers ignored student PMD use or adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach of benign neglect. Still other educators did go to great lengths to disrupt student technology use.

In one case at Downtown High School, a coach made all her players turn in their phones to her at the beginning of school as a tactic for preventing PMD-inspired confrontations during the day; a student participant revealed that a friend of hers circumvented this deterrent by carrying multiple mobile phones: one to turn in to the coach, and the others to keep and use. In another case at Downtown High School, two teachers used personal funds to purchase cell phone blockers in the hopes of eliminating student PMD usage during class time. Administrators subsequently sent all teachers a memorandum forbidding this solution. The principal explained that the blockers interfered with the administrators’ cell phones, which constituted a safety issue. The principal added that any teacher using the cell phone blockers would be held personally liable in the event that aid was delayed to a sick or injured school constituent.

An administrator at Newlands discussed how the possible release valve provided by a student-appropriate PMD use policy did not always lead to student acceptance of usage rules. She explained,

“One student told me, ‘You know, this is a new world and this is a new age.’ And I had to [confiscate his cell phone] because he refused to give it up in gym. And he just said, ‘It’s a new world, a new age.’And I explained the policy and I said I realized that. And he said, “You check yours all the time, too.”. . . It is a new world and we have to start to identify and look at all that we are trying to impose on students. Is it old values? It’s not the same.”

Such technology-fueled conundrums carried over to her relations with her own teenage son. She described some of the virtues of PMDs: “I know that any time I want him, I know I can get him.” She still struggled like many parents with what she called the “trust issue,” stating that she needs to know who he is texting, or, as she stated it, “making sure that when you text—who you’re texting, what are you texting, making sure I know all that.”

A White male 11th grader at Downtown High School perhaps best summed up the dilemmas regarding PMD use and access that educators face today. He stated,

“You’re never going to stop it, there’s no way you can. I mean, [there are] people that know computers. They know technology, it’s like they could do it all on the back of their hand, sleeping. I mean, they know their ways around technology. I mean you just give a guy a new technology and let him play with it a couple of days and he’ll figure it out like nothing…..”

Cyber Wanderers

During our research, we also met students for whom, much like the Open Door students profiled in a previous study (Peck et al., 2002), technology proved essential. One such student from Newlands explained,

“Main reason I love this school is because: Wi-Fi throughout the whole school, which is great. You can go on the web like during lunch or whatever. I’ll be in the library during lunch and I’ll open up my laptop and whatever, browse the web and everything. Sometimes, most of the time when I’m in math or English I’ll write my notes and write my essays on my laptop.”

By this student’s own testimony and that of his teachers, technology enabled his academic success and social adjustment. Some students in our study, however, became so immersed in or overwhelmed by new media technology that they meandered between the real and virtual worlds. To such students, whom we dubbed Cyber Wanderers, the lure of technology presented a possible danger: They could succumb to ICT as a powerful distraction rather than seize it as a powerful tool, or use ICT to engage in an environment that offered the potential for anonymous hostility.

At Newlands, for example, we met an African American 10th-grade male student who was an avid online gamer, explaining that sometimes “people will wind up cursing when I do something wrong or mess up.” Conversely, he admitted using the screen name “heartless jerk” in an online gaming forum and “made one member quit” because of his harsh comments.

We also encountered a White male 10th-grade student at Downtown High School who checked his phone during our interview to discover, to his surprise, that he had sent 18,287 text messages the previous month alone. He described his text messaging as almost instinctual:

“Well I start sending text messages usually ‘cause I haven’t talked to somebody in a while and [there are] some certain people you know that I maintain a constant texting conversation with. You know and I’ll just text them sometimes to ask them something in particular and sometimes just to start up a conversation, so it’s just kind of I realize that I’m you know, starting a conversation but I don’t really think about it, if that makes sense . . . I just kind of do it.”

He also seemed cognizant that his text messaging had serious consequences:

“My texting has probably gotten in the way of some learning . . .In Algebra 2 . . . if you don’t get it at the beginning it kind of puts you in a hole. . . . So I’ve kind of had to play catch up here.” Adding to his issues, he explained, “[I] definitely play a lot of video games while texting . . . in a way that kind of runs into a problem sometimes.” Cyber Wanderers such as these could find themselves thoroughly lost in electronic worlds while being inattentive to the formal curriculum.

eLearning Pioneers

In the media center of the predominantly White and affluent Newlands High School, a small group of female students spent a fair portion of their days immersed in online learning. Loosely monitored by the school’s media coordinators, youth whom we called eLearning Pioneers sat at computers and studied advanced Chinese or AP computer science while most other students throughout the school attended traditional classes. During one typical period during a school day, each of three students sat individually at one of the 30 desktop computers arranged around the media center; two of the students were engaged in online learning activities. The online courses could be noticeably self-paced. A staff member who participated in our research reported that one of our study’s students took a virtual 8-month-long biology course; the student expended little effort for 6 months before completing all assignments successfully over the final 2 months of the allotted course time.

The eLearning Pioneers at Newlands included another of our study participants, a White 10th-grader who took two AP classes and a math class online in the school media center and attended two regular classes before going home. For her online courses, message boards and email provided the central means for teacher–student and student–student interaction. She noted,

“In online classes . . . generally speaking, you pace yourself. Especially with my English class . . . she gives you the assignments and she gives you a syllabus for where you should be. But you turn them in at your own pace and you take tests when you can . . . you have a tab that you can click on and go to your ‘My Grades.’ It has the assignment, and what grade you got, and out of what and all the assignments you’re going to need to complete for the rest of the year . . . it’s easier to keep up with things. You know, like, I’m supposed to post to the discussion board today. You go and do that.”

Our shadowing of our participant during a typical day neatly captured the hybrid nature of her educational experience. In AP environmental science, she sat with 18 classmates and completed a written unit examination; once finished with the test, the class watched a nature DVD played with the teacher’s laptop computer and broadcast by digital projector. Our participant returned to the media center to complete an assignment for her AP computer science course, which was offered through the state’s virtual public school program. She returned to a classroom with 20 students to engage in a lesson for Latin II, during which the teacher led students through a line-by-line translation of a text excerpt. Our research subject then departed from campus, with designs on completing an assignment for her AP English course offered through another state’s virtual education program. Her AP English instructor, whom our student had met only virtually but described as “amazing,” posted pictures of her own children, wanting to connect more personally with her students. Our subject reported,

“I’ll do an assignment and I’ll turn it in, like an essay or something,and then she’ll send me feedback and say, ‘This was good but your introduction’s a little weak.’ Or ‘You need to do this.’”

We wondered whether our participant—an independent, self-motivated eLearning Pioneer—offered a glimpse into the American high school future (Christensen et al.,)

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Craig Peck

Craig Peck is an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. ...

Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...