Why Digital Natives Aren't Digitally Skilled

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Why Digital Natives Aren't Digitally Skilled

Frank Catalano reports on trends and disruptions discussed among biz execs and educators at EdNET 2012

By Frank Catalano (Columnist)     Oct 3, 2012

Why Digital Natives Aren't Digitally Skilled

With a strong tilt toward the technology faithful, more than five hundred education industry execs filled the halls of the Hilton Baltimore at the EdNET conference this week. Market transition and uncertainty undergirded many of the sessions at the 24th annual event, which held attendance numbers steady from last year even as those present bemoaned a challenging 2012.

Among the quotable tidbits across the two-plus days:

Digital rules. BrainPOP General Manager and COO Din Heiman set an unsettling tone by opening the conference with the observation that disruption was happening, but not just the disruption of paper instructional materials by digital. We’re at a point, Heiman stated, where “digital plays will be disrupted by digital plays” as the transition progresses through newer product generations.

CEO Tyson Greer of Ambient Insight confirmed in her information-rich presentation that, “We see a pattern in a recession that more people invest in educational technology.” Greer also thoughtfully provided a link to choice research her firm has conducted (including her EdNET presentation on international markets here).

Dan Caton, president of McGraw-Hill School Education, neatly summed up the primary tension between top-down and bottom-up digital instruction material decision making as coming down to a matter of “crown-source versus crowd-source.”

But the digital “rules” are full of surprises. In a session for members of conference host MDR’s EdNET Insight market research service, educators who have been leading digital programs proved that not everything always goes as expected.

Blended learning program manager Gloria L. Keaton of Annapolis Road Academy in Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland, says though initially skeptical, she’s found herself convinced that “anyone can learn online.” But that doesn’t mean all students know how to start, despite the pervasive bath of tech in which current kids are immersed. “Facebook and texting does not count” as a student being tech ready for learning, Keaton discovered, and her program wound up teaching students how to use email and other skills needed to navigate a digital learning environment.

Similarly, Dr. Kathleen Toms, executive director of Research Works, said they were surprised to learn from a survey issued to evaluate a learning repository that students “didn’t know computers could be used for learning”--a whopping 96% were unaware of how to use computers for research. The disconnect, she implied, was personal tech is often seen by teens as being for entertainment and communications. Being surrounded doesn’t equate with being knowledgeable.

The seventies are back. Dr. Geoff Fletcher, deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, urged the industry to take a broad perspective of the impact of what it puts into the market and make sure it meets more than a point need. And, he said, make sure teachers understand how it all ties together.

Gone, he said, are the days when a change to one area--like standards--were relatively isolated in effect. With the Common Core tying math and English language arts across the curriculum in almost all states, "My contention is we live in the age of the waterbed right now in education and education technology,” where pressure applied to one area generates waves everywhere. “Professional development needs to be a part of every single thing you provide.”

Digital isn’t the only issue. Teachers aren’t just dealing with the bright and shiny. Principal Peter DeWitt of Poestenkill Elementary School in New York (and Education Week’s “Finding Common Ground in Education” blogger) says educators are currently inundated--and overwhelmed--by preparation for many things all coming at them at once, including Common Core standards, new tests and teacher evaluations. It’s a tricky, delicate environment that companies have to be aware of when they approach educators: “At any moment, I can make teachers cry. I can even make myself cry.”

And all of the opportunity isn’t digital. Karan Kehmka, partner and head of the International Education Practice for the Parthenon Group, noted “international is growing--and nobody has figured it out yet.” Pulling out a plethora of stats, he identified one opportunity as “transnational” education--or attracting international students to U.S. institutions.

As proof of the draw, while he cited 30% of Australia’s higher ed enrollment is international and the U.K.’s is 17%, it’s “just three percent” in the U.S. And of the international students coming to the U.S., most don’t even attend colleges in the top 200 schools. So Kehmka sees unmet demand. “This is America’s ultimate lifestyle product,” he concludes. “This is what the rest of the world wants from you.” (And, no matter how cool the tech, in this case a web-based MOOC experience probably won’t suffice.)

Frank Catalano is an industry consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a consulting senior analyst for MDR’s EdNET Insight service). He's a columnist for the tech news site GeekWire, a regular contributor to the NPR/KQED education site MindShift and generally takes a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults at Intrinsic Strategy.

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