Regular Radical readers know that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the role that digital conversations can play in classroom teaching recently.

My primary goal is to articulate a position that convinces school leaders and classroom teachers to create more opportunities for students to interact around school-based content online.  To me, such opportunities are a simple first step towards redefining our traditional visions for schools and moving towards blended learning environments that pair brick-and-mortar schools with borderless online experiences.

Here’s the second part in my digital conversation series:

Knowing that their students are already gathering with local peers in digital forums for communicating, accomplished teachers are working to craft school-based conversations that catch the attention of teens—who have traditionally turned away from online activities that seemed too academic. The key, not surprisingly, is to build forums around interesting content.

Students don’t automatically reject online conversations with learning related outcomes and higher levels of adult participation. They do, however, draw clear lines between opportunities to interact informally with peers and opportunities to study topics of deep personal interest.

As the researchers behind the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Youth Project concluded, “Friendship-driven and interest-driven online participation have very different kinds of social connotations…friendship-driven activities center on peer culture, adult participation is more welcome in the latter, more ‘geeky,’ forms of learning” (Ito, Horst, Bittanti, boyd, Herr-Stephenson, Lange, Pascoe & Robinson, 2008, p. 2).

Digital teens are also drawn to learning experiences that:

  1. Allow for self-directed exploration: In new media environments, students are surrounded by opportunities to experiment with new skills and ideas, to explore without predetermined outcomes or goals in mind, and to receive immediate feedback from diverse audiences.
  2. Allow peers to demonstrate authority and expertise: In new media environments, students regularly learn from one another—whether they are showing friends how to defeat a shared video game or being shown tips and tricks for working with new tools. These opportunities have fundamentally changed how today’s teens view authority and expertise.
  3. Allow students to wrestle with meaningful issues: Schools have traditionally been charged with preparing students for meaningful careers. As a result, instruction emphasizes the mastery of skills seen as essential for success in the workplace.

In new media environments, however, students are often exposed to concepts that are far more complex and morally pressing. Preparing them to play an active role in public conversations around these issues resonates.

(Ito et al., 2008)

The implications that the rapidly changing communication practices of the 21st Century teen hold for educators are clear.

First, our students are more connected to their local peers—friends from church, teammates, neighbors—than ever before. While digital tools allow for communication across geographic boundaries, most teens remain primarily interested in communicating with people that they already know (Ito et al., 2008). That means motivation levels for school-based conversations should be high.

What’s more, the persistent, searchable and replicable nature of digital conversations can create opportunities for marginalized students to gain social status in front of their peers (Ferriter, 2005). But in order to guarantee participation, school-based conversations must revolve around meaningful content, allow students self-directed opportunities for exploration, and respect the expertise and authority of all participants.

The challenge, however, is that one side effect of the standards and accountability push in education during the past decade has been a tendency to push self-directed learning and exploration aside in today’s classroom as a response to external pressures.

Communities convinced that end of grade exam scores are reliable indicators of the success and/or failure of students and schools have taken steps to systematically script instruction, crafting series of instructional practices that teachers are required to implement without variation (Perlstein, 2007).

While results—in the form of higher passing rates on standardized exams—show the kinds of positive trends that leave policymakers and district leaders convinced that our schools are succeeding, we end up with classrooms defined by instructional practices that are poorly aligned with the learning environments our students are creating for themselves beyond school using new media tools for communication and collaboration.

The question for Radical Nation, then, is what steps are you taking to create learning experiences that might just resonate with today’s teens?  How often do your lessons allow for student-led exploration around meaningful issues?  Are you willing to turn control over to your students, or are your hands tied by district guidelines and expectations?

What has to happen before the learning that your students do in your school better resembles the learning that your students are doing online?


Works Cited:

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Herr-Stephenson, B., Lange, P.G., Pascoe, C.J., & Robinson, L. (2008). Living and learning with new media: summary of findings from the digital youth project. Chicago, IL: The MacArthur Foundation.

Ferriter, W. (2005, July 1). Digital dialogue. Tech & Learning. Retrieved from

Perlstein, L. (2007). Tested: One American school struggles to make the grade. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Share this post: