Four years ago, Empire High School in Tucson, Ariz., became the first textbook-free public high school in the country. Students learn via digital content -- an innovative idea at its introduction that has now become standard procedure.
Many districts visit the high school to learn how they, too, could adopt such a structure. What's been observed is that school leaders often struggle with words and definitions. They know what the technical terms mean, but it is often much harder to define precisely what they intend to do with a piece of technology. Without that precision, school leaders have difficulty defining what student outcomes they expect and how the student will demonstrate knowledge. By not knowing how to define what teachers intend to do with a device, and without understanding how student knowledge is demonstrated, it's unclear which device or product to purchase.
At first, it seems that what educators intend to do with a device is easy to describe. Perhaps students need Web access, e-mail capabilities, CD burners and word processing, to name a few. These technologies only define tasks a computer can do, but not how the students will be learning. Many educators can't define precisely how they will know what -- and how -- students are learning with digital content.
To answer these questions and help teachers understand their curriculum, imagine a horizontal line with an arrow on each end. At the left end of the line, you have the word "consumption," and at the right end, you have the word "creation."
On the "consumption" end, students are literally consuming content -- reading, viewing and listening to material created by others. Most of the time, people are on the consumption end of the line -- reading online news, watching YouTube videos and listening to music on iTunes.
At the other end of the line is "creation." This is where users create content for others to consume. Moving away from consumption on the line, you'll find e-mail and digital documents, requiring low technology skills. As you move further down the line, you begin to encounter page layout, Web page creation and digital photography. These activities may be done individually, but are often created collaboratively, as they require more technical acumen.
As teachers and students draw nearer to the creation end, they find digital movie making, music composition, DVD authoring, Web site creation, Flash animation and photo compositing -- the digital heavy-lifting that takes time and practice to do right. This is the end that we associate with mastery of the technology.
This Creation Continuum becomes a useful tool because it provides educators with a way to define what they intend to do with technology, how the students will demonstrate knowledge and which device classrooms need for the results they're looking for.
Consider this example of using the Creation Continuum: A student is assigned a research paper. The individual consumes content by others and compiles the information in a 10-page paper, remaining on the consumption end of the Continuum. If teachers wanted to push students toward the creation end, this was nearly impossible in the pre-digital age.
But today, students may start in consumptive activities -- reading Web pages or PDFs -- then the teacher can offer a variety of ways to express their knowledge of that content. Text-based activities, such as blogging, would be more creative. Teachers should push students further across the Creation Continuum, expecting more skilled use of the technology and expression of ideas.
The Continuum becomes a useful metric for self-evaluation. A teacher can evaluate a lesson in terms of where it falls on the Continuum: "Will my students only be consuming content or will there be some creation as well?" A student could perform a task further across the Continuum as an alternative to traditional pen-and-paper tasks. Teachers could also display a Creation Continuum poster in the classroom to have students come up with tasks and place them accordingly.
The Continuum is also useful in conversations with colleagues. Teachers could ask one another where particular lesson plans are situated on the Continuum. It's a visual way to outline an activity that is understandable by everyone, even those who don't understand technicalities.
Perhaps most importantly, the Creation Continuum can be a powerful tool for selecting the appropriate technology. Do you need tools for the consumption of content, the creation of content or both? For example, Amazon's Kindle is made for reading content -- purely a consumption activity. At the other end, you have computers with DVD burners, cameras, fast processors and hard drives for content creation.
With Kindle at the consumption end of the Continuum and computers at the creation end, what's in the middle? Where should students be on the Continuum? They're usually somewhere in the middle. Typically, they consume content and create some: They write e-mails, post to their blog, read their teachers' blogs and check their grades. A pure consumption device, such as Kindle, is not enough for them, but a laptop may be too much.
If you know your technology activities fall in the middle of the Continuum, then it makes sense that the technology you provide for your students is in that range as well. The emerging netbook is an example of a device in the middle since it allows students to access content and create some of their own.
This doesn't mean that educators shouldn't provide the means to reach the end of the Creation Continuum, but it may not be provided on every device. Schools may have a lab or machines available for checkout that have the features necessary for the creation activity. The answer will be different for every school, but the Creation Continuum helps decision-makers reach appropriate answers. By placing activities and expectations on the Continuum, the devices needed become more obvious.
With the tremendous attention given to digital instruction and a desire to move aggressively in this direction in many districts -- even in the face of declining budgets -- common terms and definitions are critical. Let's continue pushing teachers and students across the Creation Continuum toward a more varied use of tools. But let's also be wise purchasers of technology by choosing the appropriate tools to keep students on the suitable part of the Continuum. Teachers, curriculum specialists and technologists can use the Creation Continuum to find common ground in these conversations going forward.
*This story is from Converge magazine's Fall 2008 issue.