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In US classrooms, 'tech sherpas' assist teachers with computers

In a role reversal, students provide the tech support, creating a 'culture of respect' between teachers and teens.

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Kelley says the most valuable assignments he can give are "authentic" tasks – of real use to the school or the community.

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Project-based and student-driven learning have been an emphasis in this district for about 15 years, adds Ms. Gee, so teachers here are generally open to the creative options offered by new technology.

Other benefits realized

There's some evidence that having students teach teachers in this way is linked to improved academic performance. A study of the Generation Yes model, for instance, found that over the course of three years, students in the program had higher increases in math and language-arts test scores than their peers.

Maine recently joined the state leadership initiative of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which encourages school systems to incorporate technology, critical thinking, teamwork, and other key talents that will be required in the future workforce. In a national poll of 800 registered voters, the Partnership found that 87 percent thought computer and technology skills are important, but only 48 percent thought they are being taught well in schools.

At Nokomis High, social studies teacher Dan Viles has embraced digital technology to the fullest. Students who are used to blithely reading through textbooks face a new challenge, he says, because he asks them to collaborate on documents and discussions online.

"At first they tend to think this is going to be great, and then they realize it's going to be more thinking and sometimes more work, and they kind of reflex against that. But after the dust settles, they tend to stick with it and enjoy it," he says.

In Mr. Viles's honors history class, Doran sets an iPod – with a small black microphone popping out of it – onto the center table. Later he'll post the recording of the class on iTunes, where students can access it if they want to listen again. Students hash out their views about truth, faith, and science – with several veering into a debate about creationism and evolution. As they prepare to write persuasive essays, Viles makes clear that part of the point of this class is to practice having civil discussions when they disagree.

One student tells him she's excited to have her mom listen to today's class recording. "Transparency is really important," Viles says after class. "I want every parent who thinks this may be a sensitive topic for their child to have the option of hearing every word that's said in class."

Kelley, the technology integrator who works with the high school and middle schools, has found that some of the students who are used to success with technology need to be nudged into situations where they might hit roadblocks.

"If you never fail at anything, you never really learn anything," he says. "The biggest thing I can give [them] as a teacher is not the tech stuff ... it's the opportunity to speak with others and learn how to teach – that empathy; empathy is huge."

By relating to people and not just computers, Kelley says, "later in life, they won't be the ones sitting in the cubicle working, they'll be the boss."

In the broadcasting trailer – where paths are cleared between jumbles of cords, computers, cameras, and creaky furniture – the words "geek" and "nerd" are tossed about unselfconsciously. That reputation is one reason only a fifth of the 20 or so tech sherpas are girls. Kelley says he's working hard to recruit more girls, and now that digital technology is becoming a part of everyday life even in middle school, he thinks he'll see the gender gap in the high school start to shrink.

An issue of filtering Internet content

Schools here have had their share of incidents in which kids break the Internet-usage rules. A common complaint among the techno-teens is that the school district blocks too much with its Internet filter, which teachers can override with a password.

"Our job is to protect students," says Gee – to help them discern what's valuable online and what's inappropriate or dangerous.

But at the same time, she's working to build that culture of mutual respect – involving students in discussions about whether some rules need to change to give them more flexibility to do legitimate work. "What I'm really trying to do is open up the communication with them.... We're trying to teach them to be ethical citizens," she says.