3 Tips for 'Digital Learning Day' Lessons

Kelsey Sheehy

Teens are no stranger to technology.

Nearly all middle and high school students use the Internet, 80 percent are on social media and almost 40 percent video chat with friends using programs such as Skype and iChat, according to reports by the Pew Research Center.

Teachers are slowly getting hip to the tech teens are so familiar with, but there is much more educators can do to bring their classrooms into the 21st century. Digital Learning Day on Wednesday, Feb. 5, aims to spotlight how teachers can do just that.

[Discover three tech trends for teachers to try in 2014.]

The national event, now in its third year, encourages teachers to get in on the digital action by joining events occurring in their area and around the country. Teachers can have students participate in live debates broadcast via Google+ Hangouts on Air, participate in statewide challenges or, better yet, plan their own activity.

Brainstorming an event for Digital Learning Day may seem like a daunting task, especially when dealing with a classroom of disinterested teens. But teachers can hit the right note if they keep these three things in mind, says John Sessler, manager of program engagement for PBS LearningMedia, which provides free online media for educators and is an official partner of the event.

1. Find a hook: Tapping into what students are already interested in is a great way to build engagement.

For Emily Dawson, a science teacher at Riverview Junior High in Illinois, the hook was a video about weather balloons, Sessler says.

"It was a video clip about students launching a weather balloon. This really caught the attention of her students, so she latched onto that," he says. "That was the hook for her students to decide they wanted to launch their own weather balloon."

[Learn how to hook high school girls on STEM.]

Dawson, winner of the 2013 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator award, guided students through the project and the local public television station broadcast the launch online.

Teachers struggling to generate an idea their class will get excited about should bring their students into the brainstorming process, Sessler says.

2. Think beyond your classroom walls: Whether it's virtually or literally, taking students out of the classroom will help build engagement, Sessler says.

This could mean using Skype to connect with students across the globe, or designing a water filtration system for the local community garden.

"Expand the walls of the classroom beyond just sitting at a desk and have really a hands-on experience," he says.

[Get tips for transitioning to project-based learning.]

3. Take a risk: Experimenting with new tools and technology can be frightening, especially in front of dozens of teens who can text with their eyes closed, but don't let that fear stop you from trying something new.

"A huge part of innovation is taking the risks and knowing that you're going to encounter problems," Sessler says. "Part of cultivating those skills that foster innovation is really becoming a problem solver."

Software can crash, robots can break and sometimes things just don't work, but figuring out how to make it work becomes part of the learning process for students.

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