In the first installment of the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access’s new online discussion series, “Digital Directions in Learning”, academic researchers highlighted the Young Writers Project, as an example of an innovative high-tech community that allows students to write, revise and share their writing with students at other schools. It began as an after-school program in Vermont, but is now used nation-wide in classrooms.
Prof. Mark Warschauer, Associate Dean of the School of Education at University of California, Irvine and director of the Digital Learning Lab there, pointed out that the Young Writers Project has created an online community for creative expression. It differs sharply from other high tech educational programs in which students passively complete an online version of a worksheet.
Richard Culatta, Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, praised the Chicago Summer of Learning, where students can earn online badges for real-world experiences. But Kylie A. Peppler, Assistant Professor at the Learning Sciences Program of Indiana University, Bloomington, cautioned that students should not just be counting up their badges, but also building portfolios where they can show their work.
The academic researchers were particularly interested in how to stimulate a child’s passion for learning, particularly in scientific and mathematical fields. They felt that museums and after-school programs are important places to give children an opportunity to do a “deep dive” into a subject and develop a passion that could later be pursed in high school or college. “You get the interest activated in an out-of-school setting … then build upon that in a school setting,” said Kevin Crowley, Professor of Learning Sciences and Policy, School of Education and Learning Research & Development Center and Director, University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-Of-School Environments (UPCLOSE), University of Pittsburgh.
Crowley argues that it’s very important to spark these passion before middle school, after which school takes up too much of a young person’s time. Crowley says in his interviews with scientists, “more than 85% of scientists were passionate (about the subject) before middle school.” He says that it’s never too early to start and that there are ways that parents can even talk to a one year old at a museum that helps a child find his interests. Early fascinations with dinosaurs and trips to the natural history museum, for example, can end up leading to an interest in science.
Warschauer argued that young people need more access to subject experts. Ideally, parents should think about expanding their child’s network to adult scientists. He thought technology — even simple Skype interviews — could play a greater role in exposing children to real world experts.