Interview with the Director of Generation www.Y
Dennis Harper, director of the Generation www.Y program, talks about a staff development and technology infusion program that is sweeping the nation.
by Melissa Burgos
What you have for the first time in history is an area where the average kid knows more than the average teacher when it comes to technology. That's not to say that there are no teachers that know more than students about technology, because there are. We have to consider, however, that there's not one teacher in the United States that is teaching today, that went to K-12 schools when the World Wide Web was in existence.
--Dr. Dennis Harper
Harper, Director of the Generation www.Y (pronounced Generation Y) project, has worked as a professional
educator for over 31 years. He began his career teaching high school in East Los
Angeles. He then went on to teach in Australia, Germany, Liberia, Singapore,
Finland, Spain, the Caribbean, and Malaysia. He has been on the faculty of the
University of California, Santa Barbara; the National University of Malaysia; the
Institute of Education in Singapore; the University of Helsinki; and the
University of the Virgin Islands.
Dr. Harper is a recognized leader in the field of educational technology and is responsible for bringing computers in to the schools of 34 nations. He has written numerous books and articles. His first book, Run: Computer Education, was the first widespread text used in preservice education.
Here, Dr. Harper talks about Generation www.Y, a nationally recognized staff development and technology infusion project that has achieved great success throughout the country. Generation www.Y is headquartered in Olympia, Washington, School District where Dr. Harper has worked for the past seven years.
The Generation www.Y program is nationwide, how did this program get started?
Well the seeds came from projects that I've tried in other countries, in Finland and Singapore. The project is funded by the Technology Innovation Challenge grants. These are a set of challenge grants created in response to President Clinton's State of the Union address and the efforts to connect all the classrooms in the country to the Internet, by the year 2000. The question, of course, came up, 'What happens when those classrooms are connected to the Internet by the year 2000? How is that going to ensure that students are going to learn any better?' So the challenge grants were funded in order to develop models that could be used by schools to use that telecommunications and technology to help improve student learning. Generation www.Y is one of approximately 100 challenge grants nationwide. It's by far the most widespread, it's in the most schools, and is probably the most successful challenge grant that there is.
What is the premise behind the program?
Generation www.Y looks at staff development and technology infusion in a different way. If you look at other education reforms of the past, like when we tried to bring the metric system to this country, when we tried to do media literacy to teach students how to watch TV and other media, and when we spent billions of dollars to teach teachers how to do basic programming, and multimedia, very little changed. We know that the Internet would be great for students. With the information and the communication possibilities with people, there's no question about it. Yet, will we do it right? History says no.
A major premise of Generation www.Y is that teachers don't need to know technology skills in order to use technology. Perhaps we're wasting a lot of time training teachers to do all these tech skills and software when they could utilize this technology without knowing how to use it. A track coach doesn't have to high jump 6 ft. in order to train a kid to high jump 6 ft. A basketball coach doesn't have to be able to dunk a basketball in order to be a good basketball coach. A teacher doesn't have to know how to make a Web page in order to facilitate Web pages. We're not against teachers learning tech skills if they have the time, but let's face it, there are hundreds of new Web pages coming up every day. No teacher can keep up with that. No teacher can keep up with all the new software and the new versions of software. They've got too much to worry about with the curriculum and the discipline and the families. Generation www.Y trains students to partner with teachers to reform schools. It uses the student as a change agent rather than just an object of change.
"Normally, when you try to bring something new into schools or try to integrate
technology into the curriculum, you train the teachers how to do some skill or
use a piece of software. ... In Generation www.Y, you teach the
students the technology skill and you hope that by pairing the students with the
teachers, that the students will help the teachers teach better with
How is the Gen www.Y approach to technology integration different from other
staff development programs?
What you have for the first time in history is an area where the average kid knows more than the average teacher when it comes to technology. That's not to say that there are no teachers that know more than students about technology, because there are. We have to consider, however, that there's not one teacher in the United States that is teaching today, that went to K-12 schools when the World Wide Web was in existence. There is a real gap. Do you want to know how to fix something on the computer or how to find something on the Web or how to use a piece of software? Ask a kid! Generation www.Y tries to formalize that idea and come up with real strategies on how to harness the energy and the expertise of today's youth.
Normally, when you try to bring something new into schools or try to integrate technology into the curriculum, you train the teachers how to do some skill or use a piece of software, and then you hope that teacher is going to use those skills to help students learn better. In Generation www.Y, you teach the students the technology skill and you hope that by pairing the students with the teachers, that the students will help the teachers teach better with technology. You just can't tell a kid, however: 'Go work with this teacher and help the teacher make their lessons better by using technology.' Obviously that doesn't work. Generation www.Y is a program that trains students how to work with teachers in order to improve the education system.
Can you give some examples of the subjects and teaching strategies that are
used in this training?
For example, when they're learning how to do e-mail, they think about: 'How can e-mail help teachers? How can you find the e-mail address to the San Diego Zoo so that you can ask for information about an animal? How can you set up an e-mail keypal exchange with a class in Ecuador for a Spanish class?' When they're learning how to make Web pages, they learn how to create Web pages that would help teachers teach areas of the curriculum. All the skills that they learn are skills that can help them help teachers. The first thing they learn is the tech skills.
The first step in the project is sitting down with the teacher and choosing a subject for their lesson from the teacher's syllabus. Just like any partnership, the different partners bring different talents to the table. In this particular case, the kids are bringing their technology expertise, which exceeds, in most cases, the teacher's. They also bring a little bit of knowledge of how to work with adults and create lesson plans. The teacher, of course, brings to them the content, the teaching skills, the knowledge of child development, and experience creating lesson plans. Upon completing the project, the kid knows a lot about technology and a little about teaching. The teacher, of course, knows a lot about teaching and a little bit about technology. You put them together and great things happen!
"Every project is aligned to academic learning requirements or some curriculum.
By doing this project, the teacher is meeting their responsibility to teach the
curriculum. So the objectives of these lessons don't change from before, the kids
are still going to learn about the solar system, but now they're going to use
technology, rather than the old overheads or books or library resources that they
used to use."
What have you found to be the main strengths of this program?
One of the powers of the program is that it is nothing like a new program, it's something to help teachers deliver the present program. Every project is aligned to academic learning requirements or some curriculum. By doing this project, the teacher is meeting their responsibility to teach the curriculum. So the objectives of these lessons don't change from before, the kids are still going to learn about the solar system, but now they're going to use technology, rather than the old overheads or books or library resources that they used to use. The technology can be a million different things that could help that lesson. Since this is their major project in the Gen www.Y class, usually when the lesson is completed, it's pretty good. Anytime you spend this much time on one lesson; it's going to be a good lesson. A teacher is not going to spend 20 or 30 hours on every lesson they do everyday. A common reaction is that the teacher says, 'Wow, this is pretty good, I didn't realize this was on the Web, I didn't realize the technology had gone this far. I tried to use technology 10 years ago. It was a disaster, but now I can see things have changed and I'm going to use this lesson next year again, but I'm going to refine it even further. I'm also going to maybe try to use something in another class, now that I know what this can do.'
Another major advantage that teachers learn is that these kids are a resource and they can learn from the kids. One of the things that teachers complain about with normal staff development is that there's no support and there are no resources in the school. They take a workshop and then they go back to their school and there's no follow-up, they can't remember some of the details, and they don't have time. The Gen www.Y model produces the resources and the tech support in the form of the kids. A major benefit is that kids are learning things while they're doing project-based learning and becoming part of the reform. A lot of people now are beginning to realize that schools won't change. That technology will never be infused into the curriculum in meaningful ways, unless the kids are involved in a big way. Not just peripherally, but as leaders and as co-partners in this whole effort.
Are there any barriers you've come across conducting the program?
We've never had a teacher that said they didn't want to work with a Gen www.Y student again. In fact, we have two major problems. One is that we have so many students that want to take Gen www.Y that we can't cater to them. We have one school in town that had 203 students sign up for the class in a school that only has 600 students. The problem is that you can't take that many because the whole goal is that each student is partnered with a teacher and there's not that many teachers. The other problem is when you have big high schools with 70 teachers and you only have 25 students in your Gen www.Y class. Obviously, some teachers aren't going to get a partner student. They get frustrated when they have to wait one or two semesters, because they have ideas they want to infuse. They need that support to accomplish those ideas. We can't produce enough of these kids to satisfy the demands of the faculty, which I guess is a good problem because now they want to do it.
What happens once a student completes the Gen www.Y program?
Well that is the real power of the model because when the kid finishes the class, now they've done a technology lesson that's really been delivered to kids. They have also seen 20 other lessons that were done by other kids in their Gen www.Y class, depending on how many kids were in the Gen www.Y class. Now they know 20 ways in which technology can be infused into the curriculum in a wide variety of subject areas and grade levels, which is probably more ways than most teachers know how to integrate technology into the curriculum. Now they have all of this expertise as they continue in their schools.
For example: if you have a seventh grade kid, that has taken Gen www.Y, they've still got five more years of school left. They have six teachers a year, so that's 30 teachers that they're going to be working with as they go through that school system. That's 30 teachers now to whom they can suggest different technology applications to help improve a lesson. They can help a teacher make Power Point presentations; they can build Web sites on a topic being studied in class. You begin to see the power of the technology to infuse it in to the curriculum. Then eventually, schools end up with hundreds of these kids who've taken the class either in elementary, middle, or high school, so we have high schools that have 300 kids that have taken Gen www.Y. That's one fifth of the students in a big high school. So one out of every five of your students now is trained in how to infuse technology into the curriculum and knows technology. Well now you can see things start happening.
So now the kids are involved because now they have the chance to change this boring industrial type education, whereas before they had no power. The point to Gen www.Y is empowering kids. Not only that, but they end up helping kids that don't take Generation www.Y because they learn from kids that are in Gen www.Y.
Gen www.Y students, Graham and Ryan meet with Secretary of Education, Richard Riley and Dr. Harper.
| What types of activities do Gen www.Y graduates do
outside of their schools?
Just last night, we finished up our 18th college class that we taught, so we have our Gen www.Y kids training preservice teachers on how to infuse technology into the curriculum. They work with college faculty to develop experiences for preservice teachers. It has been an exceedingly popular and successful part of the model. So it's not only training in-service teachers in schools how to use technology, but also working with new teachers or preservice teachers.
In addition to helping with the college courses, we have lots of students that are working with government officials, state superintendents, and legislatures. They help them with their computers, work in retirement homes, and set up labs in housing projects. Juvenile arrest rates have gone from 20 arrests per month in a housing project to zero as we've developed computer labs that have been placed in community centers in Chicago and other places. Generation www.Y kids are there to help other students use technology in good ways. They help students in underserved populations communicate and learn using technology. When you're on the Net no one knows anything, they don't know your deformities, your religion, your relations, anything. You've got to have kids to make that happen.
| What about the issue of
equity, how does Gen www.Y address that?
We do a special emphasis on inner-city schools to address this whole equity issue. Twenty percent of all the Gen www.Y schools in this country have no white students at all. Equity is where a lot of our emphasis is because of the tremendous gap.
How can schools get involved in this program?
The first step would be to look at the Web site, there's information there on how to become involved, our e-mail address is there, our phone number is there, they can call us or e-mail us and we can send them information on becoming a Gen www.Y School. There are documents on the Web site. There's one called "The Anatomy of a Successful Generation www.Y school," which goes over what schools need to have in place in order to make the program successful. There's a nice question and answer on the Web site, and a curriculum guide. They can also contact ISTE [International Society for Technology in Education]. ISTE produces the entire Gen www.Y curriculum and has a curriculum kit. There's also a video that people can order that explains the program.
Generation www.Y is a program you put in place once you already have technology. One of the misconceptions of Generation www.Y is that it's a program where students are making patch cables and setting up servers and building the infrastructure in the school. That's not what Gen www.Y is.
"Getting kids involved in learning has been something that's been talked
about for centuries, but technology is finally a way to do it."
|| What type of reaction have
you had from teachers and students involved in the program?
The number one most often cited comment from partner teachers who have worked with kids is that they far prefer learning from kids than learning from adults. The reason for that is, teachers go into business because they like to work with kids. Now they're more willing to use technology in their lessons because they know they've got a partner. The teachers are still the teachers, except now they have an ally, the kids, at least with regard to technology.
The number one comment that students make is that they didn't realize how difficult it is being a teacher. Now they can empathize with the teacher because if they have this many problems doing one 50 minute lesson, what is like for 5 days a week, 180 days a year? Getting kids involved in learning has been something that's been talked about for centuries, but technology is finally a way to do it.
| Are there any new changes
or initiatives that you're excited about for the coming year?
Well one of the things we're trying to do is develop a Gen www.Y2 class or what we call Gen DID. When a kid becomes a Gen DID that means they've already taken Gen www.Y. So we're going to have a Gen DID class for students that have already had the class and continue to train them to become leaders in this whole ed tech revolution. There would be a community service-based part of the class. Students would have to go out and speak to rotary clubs, help underserved students in projects, help city governments with their new computers, work with elementary students and universities, etc.