Diana Suddreth, USOE teaching and learning specialist, participates in a workshop on iPads.

Are you 21st Century? That’s the question the Utah State Office of Education is asking today, knowing the future of education is already in students’ hands, on mobile devices. Through a federally-funded program, Utah’s education leaders have access to a lending library of iPod Touches and iPads. They’re learning how to use the new technology and brainstorming ways to integrate the hand-held devices into the classroom.

Students are already comfortable with this technology, says RU21? participant Diana Suddreth, a USOE teaching and learning specialist for secondary mathematics.

“Because we’re dealing with children and teenagers who are already used to these devices, if we don’t keep up we’ll be delivering 19th Century education, and we can’t do that,” she says.

“It is critical for the state office to lead out on this,” says Robert Austin, who is a K-12 Social Studies specialist for USOE, among other duties. “It’s important for the right hand to know what the left hand is doing,” he said, noting the dozens of lessons on Utah’s iTunes U channel teachers might not know are there.

The possibilities are exciting: Think multi-media-rich, interactive curriculum available at the touch of a button on hand-held devices. For instance, apps can turn iPods and iPads into a variety of musical instruments, such as flutes, drums, guitars and keyboards that music teachers could use where access to traditional musical instruments is limited. On these same devices, students studying history could download historic film footage to get a real sense of what it was like during the Depression or World War II or the tumultuous Civil Rights Era. Lessons in a variety of subjects not always available in brick-and-mortar classrooms, like photography and Navajo language, are already available for free on iTunes U.

But perhaps what’s most exciting about integrating mobile devices into schools is the impact it has on students, says Doug Jones with Utah Education Network, who is one of the team members in the RU21? Project.

“It’s like a switch flips and immediately we become relevant: The app is relevant, the teacher is relevant and the content is relevant,” Jones says.

In fact, experimenting with ways to engage students by embracing new technology isn’t just an idea being floated within the walls of the State Office of Education. Three Utah schools split $3 in federal stimulus dollars to bring this technology into the classroom. In Salt Lake County, Kearns High School used its $1 million to purchase about 1,700 iPod Touches. Kearns has a challenging student population and attendance went up immediately after the school distributed the iPods to students.

Kearns High and the other Utah schools adopting these 21st Century learning tools are giving students an expanded opportunity to create and share online, says Carl Lyman, another RU21? team member.  He says this gives students a real sense of accomplishment.

“When students can publish their work for the world to see, it has real value. This technology is a mechanism for them to be recognized for their good work,” he says. “When kids develop the content, they’re creating more than just a project for a teacher. It’s a project for the world.”

Utah students are already collaborating on iTunes U by publishing the Utah Stories Project, a series of Utah History podcasts. Lyman says it’s easy to imagine other ways students could publish their work, like school literary magazines, flash animation projects, or even by developing apps of their own.

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