Freedom, Autonomy, and Digital Media at an Indiana High School

Freedom, Autonomy, and Digital Media at an Indiana High School Blog Image

“Freedom and autonomy are the key words for this class,” says Don Wettrick, describing the “Innovations” course he teaches at Franklin Community High School in Franklin, Indiana. I believe these words also convey the most important reason for using digital media in schools. While the availability of open education resources is indeed a bonanza for those who know how to use them, and iPads can lighten backpacks by holding hundreds of books, these new ways of delivering traditional texts and lectures multiply the power of old media, but don’t otherwise change the role of learners as absorbers of content created by others. Digital media are not worth their price if they aren’t generative – stimulating creation and collaboration as well as consumption, enabling students to make productive use of partners and communities in the classroom and the World Wide Web – and networked, bringing guests from around the world into the classroom, supporting the cultivation of personal learning networks, and enlisting the attention and collaboration of networked publics. Blogs, wikis, Skype, YouTube can be learners’ power tools, but their creative and pedagogical potential is only activated when learners get to think, work, create, and do for themselves.

In a networked world, the teacher is more important than ever – as a guide, facilitator and coach who provides frameworks, methods, and inspiration. I’m a believer in Wettrick’s recipe – freedom, autonomy, guidance, outreach, collaboration, digital media and networked publics, and an insistence that students can learn by doing projects that matter in the world. Fortunately I can show you as well as tell you how well these ideas are working out at one high school: I guarantee that you are going to have a better feeling about future leaders (because you will meet one) after viewing my video interview (below) with Wettrick’s student Paige Woodard, or hear what her classmates have to say.

I found Woodard when I noticed that she had retweeted me and was following me on Twitter (personal learning networks are about who pays attention to you as well as who you pay attention to). Her Twitter profile led to her blog, which could have been written by someone twice her age. I was particularly drawn to the blog’s description: “One Student’s Mission to Explain the Benefits of Social Media in the Classroom.” How could I not interview her? You can see right away how well she has mastered the art of evocative titles for her posts: “How the Internet enables intimacy,” “Online presence is a permanent tattoo,” “School counselors and social media,” and “My digital education mission.”

The Innovations class is project-based. Woodard’s project is to create a DVD for educators, parents, and students about how and why to use social media in schools. When I first contacted her by email, Woodard explained: “We use social media daily to make connections (which is why I followed you) and to document our progress (particularly through blog, vlog, and podcast). Other than this class, our school corporation is pretty adamant on preventing students from accessing social media during school hours, which is the main reason I began this project. Once my DVD is finished, I hope to collaborate with my school board and jump-start a more educated future in using social media in the classroom.”

Wettrick’s students research potential projects, then find collaborators, identify the Common Core educational standards that their projects demonstrate, then blog about the process as well as their findings, which can be in the form of a DVD, a television program, an app. Paige is exceptional, but in the “Innovations” class she’s far from being an exception: classmate Connor Shank worked with the Indiana General Assembly to promote education reform and produce a roundtable cable television talk show with local decision-makers. Grace Schaffstall collaborated
with elementary school students and their teachers to create and publish a book about the growth of a bird. Other students collaborate with a developer in Beijing to create a collaborative study app and worked with local schools to get off the grid and install solar energy.

So many institutional policies banning Internet use in high schools are based on fears that outweigh perceived opportunities. The Internet does have its dangers and its cesspools (as does any city), but they have been exaggerated. Teachers do need to help young people learn how to self-regulate their attention and exercise judgement about who and what they pay attention to. But they also need to trust their students and more – they need to convey their assurance, as Don Wettrick does, that students can create on their own learning activities that matter to them. Why confine yourself to writing a paper when you can reach out to an expert on Skype, blog to the world about your project and engage those who respond, publish persuasive videos to argue your case, start a business with a developer on the other side of the world, convene local decision-makers for televised roundtables?

Banner image credit: Paige Woodard http://paigeawoodard.wordpress.com/