I’m a digital junkie, plain and simple. I’m a Senior Fellow and active member of the Teacher Leaders Network, an online community of accomplished educators that have been engaging in powerful conversations about teaching and learning for the past four years. I’ve moderated online networks of National Board Certified Teachers in both Wake County and the state of North Carolina.

I reflect here on The Tempered Radical and on several other blogs that provide me with space to think—and I’m driven by comments from colleagues who I may never meet! I’ve truly embraced digital dialogue because it provides me with the opportunity to be challenged and to grow all at once—and on my own time. The traditional barriers of time and space that prevent teachers from learning from one another are eliminated by technology—and the terms “relationships” and “professional development” are being redefined by new opportunities to connect and create together.

Last year, I tried to pass that digital enthusiasm on to the sixth graders of my classroom. Together with peers, my students collaborated on a wiki, recording nearly everything that we learned in my science and social studies class. The collective efforts of 90 motivated kids resulted in nearly 80 pages of content that had been revised and refined almost 400 times.

They also joined an effort to create a classroom podcast program that earned over 20,000 page views from visitors in 125 countries ranging from Bolivia to Burkina Faso. With over 110 posts, our “little adventure” drew recognition from technology experts like Will Richardson and was spotlighted on national resource websites like MiddleWeb.

Not bad for a bunch of kids, huh?

The children of my classroom grew as digital citizens throughout the year. They learned to see the Internet as a tool for collaboration and communication—rather than simply as a vast online research encyclopedia. They practiced posting on our own digital discussion board, polishing the unique skills that it takes to engage others electronically. They judged the reliability of online resources together, became experts at questioning, grew willing to open their work to review and revision, learned Internet safety practices important for protecting themselves and saw the potential of becoming citizens of an electronic world where content is being created at a blinding pace.

Motivation levels were high in my classroom. Quite simply, I’d found a vehicle for delivering my curriculum that appealed to students who’ve spent their entire lives online. Comfortable with instant messaging and born to text, my kids took great pride in the work they were doing together. “What are we going to do with our wiki and blog at the end of the year?” they asked often. “Can we take it with us to seventh grade and keep recording what we’re learning? It would be neat to see what we had at the end of middle school!”

For me, the benefits of these learning experiences were clear: Not only were my students exploring content in a meaningful way, they were learning to use technology to connect with others—a skill that will be essential for success in a digital tomorrow. Our students will buy and sell from countries across the world and work for international companies. They will manage employees from other cultures, work with people from different continents in joint ventures and solve global problems such as AIDS and avian flu together.

Oh yeah—and they’ll have to compete with people worldwide for jobs in the flattening marketplace.

That’s the point I was making to my students one day towards the end of last year. “Learning to be comfortable working with digital tools is important, guys, because more and more jobs are going to be open to people from around the world. Those of us who master digital collaboration are going to be hired and those who don’t are going to be fired!”

“But Mr. Ferriter,” said Kristen—one of my favorite kids. “It’s not like someone in another country can do our jobs. We’re not competing with them, are we?”

Kristen’s question left me somewhat stunned! After all, we’d been using digital tools to collaborate for months. I’d pushed my students to consider the connections that were possible time and again, sharing stories about my own work with peers that I’ve never met and employers that were thousands of miles away. If anyone should have understood that success in the future means working across boundaries, it was the kids in my class!

But what I’ve grown to realize is that very few people have really embraced the changing nature of a tomorrow that remains poorly defined. We know that the Internet today is far more powerful than ever before—and have heard about companies that are capitalizing on these changes—but we haven’t figured out what that means for us. We’re jazzed to have access to information and geeked by interactive content providers, but our digital experiences remain somewhat self-centered.

No where is this gap between practice and possibility more evident than in schools. Despite millions of dollars of investment in computer hardware and a drive to make Internet access universal in states and districts nationwide, little new is happening in classrooms. Nicholas Negroponte–of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology–describes this as technology’s saddest condition.  He writes:

In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint. I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing–not running office automation tools.

Negroponte’s point is reinforced by the new National Educational Technology Standards for Students being developed by the International Society for Technology in Education. These standards reflect an increased need to teach children how to use the Internet in new and different ways. Perhaps the most challenging—and important standard—for educators to embrace will this one:

Communication and Collaboration:

Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others. Students:

A. Interact, collaborate and publish with peers, experts or others employing a variety of digital environments and media.

B. Communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats.

C. Develop cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with learners of other cultures.

D. Contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems.

Does that sound like the digital work being done in your classroom, school, district or state?!

If not, then it’s time to invest in programs like one here in my home state known as North Carolina in the World. Self-described as a “statewide collaborative effort to strengthen K-12 international education,” North Carolina in the World has worked diligently to “create a state plan to help prepare students to thrive in the global marketplace of the 21st Century.”

Together with the Center for International Understanding, North Carolina in the World is developing partnerships based on digital collaboration between schools in North Carolina and nations ranging from China to Mexico. Teachers and students in partnering schools are learning to use Web 2.0 tools like web-conferencing and wikis to connect kids across continents. Not only do these efforts help to build a general knowledge of other countries in our children, they are providing concrete opportunities to use technology in new ways.

The work of North Carolina in the World—like many of the other innovative educational efforts in our state—is widely recognized and celebrated as essential by leading educators and businessmen in our community. Consider the thoughts of John Black, 2004 North Carolina Principal of the Year and NC in the World advocate:

“We have to teach our kids what it is to live and work in a global society. By the time they join the work world, they’ll be working not only with people from other countries, but businesses from other countries, whether they are in marketing, engineering or furniture making.”

Black’s thoughts were echoed by Tom Rabon—the Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Red Hat—who wrote:

“We are a global community. If we can create partnerships with people who are different from us and are arguably our competitors, this will lead to a stronger economy in North Carolina.”

The time has come for schools and districts to pair efforts to develop international understanding with the digital tools and technologies that are connecting continents.  Organizations like North Carolina in the World are uniquely qualified to support such efforts—and should draw recognition from those who develop the policies that affect our classrooms.

After all, until we get to the point where every child is prepared to accept a place in a rapidly changing world, we will have failed in our charge to leave no child behind.

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