Sixth-graders at Schalmont Middle School may be digital natives, but they still have a lot to learn about living and working in a digital world.
“You think kids are great on computers because they grew up on them, but when you look at their research habits, they certainly aren’t for academic uses … ” said Kacie Rea, who teaches the school’s new digital literacy class.
In class Thursday, students were finishing up a unit on cybersecurity, playing games that forced them to strengthen login passwords and decipher the scam in two similar emails. During the unit, the students worked in groups to develop a presentation for fifth-graders about safe Internet use and wrote manuals that will be housed in the school library.
And it doesn’t hurt that students get to spend time on laptops in class each day.
“It’s the only class we can play on computers,” sixth-grader Elisabeth Calhoun said.
“It’s interactive,” added classmate Nick Phillips.
But district and school leaders hope the students are doing a lot more than just playing on their computers. The new digital literacy class, which all Schalmont sixth-graders will take beginning this year, is designed to prepare students for life in a world that relies so heavily on technology.
The class focuses on online security, research techniques, safe social networking, plagiarism and copyright, and other computer fundamentals. Using a project-based learning model, the students will take turns this year as cybersecurity consultants, computer programmers and more.
“The project is their life in this class. They live inside of the projects,” Rea said.
At Schalmont High School next door, the entire freshmen class started the school year with a Chromebook laptop, which they will carry with them for the next four years. The laptops are priced around $300, and students were given the option of buying a $30 insurance policy for a one-time replacement.
The digital literacy class and Chromebook initiative are part of the district’s broader technology plan, which also includes a transition toward more virtual textbooks and a new online parent portal that houses student and school information.
By giving the sixth-grade students the digital literacy class and starting to phase in more computer use in other middle-school classes, school officials hope those students will be positioned to short-circuit more introductory computer lessons once they reach freshman year and get the most out of online learning.
“In three years that bar will be significantly higher,” middle school principal Scott Ziomek said. “It’s a real jump-start.”
At the high school level, teachers and administrators trumpet the use of more technology in the classroom. They argue that technology allows students to move at their own pace and provides teachers with more flexibility in their lessons, while making assurances that traditional pen, paper and book methods will never go out of style.
There is at least one weak link in the system, high school principal Imran Abbasi said: When the school’s network falters, the students can’t log in to the Web-based programs that house many of their lessons and assignments.
“When the network is out, they are not as useful,” he said of the laptops.
Back at the middle school, students were more than willing to share advice on good digital habits — and indications of Facebook’s waning popularity. So what was sixth-grader Anthony Sylvester’s best online advice?
“The longer the password the better,” he said.