Effective educators understand the importance, and the challenge, of engaging their students in active learning. Several studies have found evidence of a positive correlation between student engagement and academic achievement. Historically, media such as television, music, and movies have often been viewed as distracting competitors in the business of engaging young people in education. In the view of many educators, the rise of digital media and the Internet have only compounded the problem of engaging students in active learning.

There is no doubt that media, especially digital media, is a powerful force in the lives of today’s students.

A national survey sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children from eight to 18 years old now spend an average of more than 7½ hours per day consuming various types of media (Rideout et al., 2010). The study found that young people spend about an hour and a half each day using a computer, an increase of almost 30 minutes per day from just five years ago. The authors attribute the increase to “the development of applications that hold enormous appeal for young people—especially social media sites such as YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook.”

Meanwhile, computer activities such as playing games, surfing the Web, and instant messaging have maintained and even increased in popularity. The study also found that young people increasingly see their computers as a focal point for all types of media. Young people spend an additional hour each day using their computers to listen to music, watch TV, and play DVDs. In stark contrast to the 2½ hours young people spend using a computer for entertainment each day, the average eight to 18 year-old spends only 26 minutes per day using a computer for schoolwork.

Digital Media and Social Learning

In view of these overwhelming statistics, any strategy for engaging today’s students in active learning that does not include digital media and the Internet seems doomed to failure. The annual Speak Up survey has found that of today’s students, “53% would like for their schools to let them use their own mobile devices within instruction to support their schoolwork”, whilst a staggering 50% of middle school students feel “online learning makes it easier for them to succeed” (Project Tomorrow, 2014).

The good news for educators is that cutting-edge research sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation has uncovered an astonishing amount of learning that takes place within and around digital media websites. Many young people are so drawn to the social interactions and creative opportunities afforded by these technologies that they become members of informal learning networks. MyVRSpot is a web-based tool designed to enlist digital media as an ally in the battle to engage students in 21st century education.

The study found that young people use voluntary social networks as opportunities for self-directed, peer-based learning to explore a wide variety of new interests and sometimes “geek out” by delving deeply into specific topics or talents. Accordingly, the key characteristics of these voluntary social networks are low barriers to individual expression and engagement, strong support for creativity and sharing one’s creations, and mentorship of less experienced participants. In successful informal learning networks, individuals believe their contributions matter and care about how their creations are viewed by others.

MyVRSpot provides students and faculty with a secure website where they can upload their own digital media, including text, images, audio, and video. This one-of-a-kind shared learning environment encourages creativity among students and faculty and allows them to become publishers in their own right. However, MyVRSpot requires all digital media uploaded and shared by students, be approved by an educator before they can be published on the web. This vetting process helps to maintain a secure and safe environment for all students. Each student has a profile page that provides access to uploaded media, most popular media within the school district, their own “favorites”, and quick access to media uploaded for their specific classes. The favorites feature allows the student to “tag” or identify content that is of particular interest to them, and eliminates the need to have to hunt for the content in the future.

MyVRSpot is unlike other media hosting services, as it is focused around the hierarchy built around K-12 education. This gives students the ability to upload and share content for class projects or just for fun, but also provides the teacher control over what content is made available for others to view. It is important to note that students are restricted to viewing videos and interacting with other students within their own school district. However, MyVRSpot offers a consortium option that allows schools and districts to share digital media within a much larger “repository.” When schools or districts join a consortium, students and teachers can access content uploaded by any member of the consortium. This feature enables collaborative learning among students and teachers in different schools in the same region, or schools that want to collaborate with other schools across the globe. “MyVRSpot is a fun, and safe way for students to share their work, and is also a great tool for professional development and communication,” explains Jason Borgen of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. “MyVRSpot can bridge geographic and socio-economic gaps that exist by creating a closer community.”

Motivation and Engagement

MyVRSpot helps educators engage their students in active learning, especially at critical developmental transitions when children are most likely to become disengaged from school. Research has found that student engagement in school declines steadily from elementary school through high school (Gallup, 2013). In other words, the challenge of engaging students in school becomes more daunting in the “tween” and teen years, just as their use of computers and the Internet explodes. Children from ages eight to 10 years old spend about 45 minutes per day on computer activities compared to about one hour and 45 minutes for young people ages 11 to 14—with digital media and social networking accounting for most of the difference (Rideout et al., 2010).

MyVRSpot is designed to leverage the capacities of digital media and to increase student engagement by bridging the divide between the way today’s students learn inside and outside of school. “Students are looking for a classroom environment that more closely replicates the way they are using digital tools outside of school to support greater communications and collaboration” (Project Tomorrow, 2014)

MyVRSpot encourages students to become more active participants in formal learning opportunities through a safe and secure website that allows them to use and build upon social and technological skills developed outside of school. Even students who might ordinarily choose not to become involved in school activities are likely to become active on the MyVRSpot website. Jeff McMahon, Academic Technology Officer for Indianapolis Public Schools, concludes “I have evaluated and purchased a lot of products for our district over the years, and MyVRSpot is at the top of the list in regards to relevant use of today’s technology to engage our students and enhance our educational process.”

Differentiation and Personalization

Teachers and students increasingly agree on the importance of differentiated and personalized learning experiences. A recent study of teachers investigated the necessity of differentiated learning, and that teachers thought “differentiated instruction was an essential approach to teaching that assisted teachers in meeting varying student needs” (Burkett, 2013).

Looking towards personalized learning, a defining comment comes from the 2012 Speak Up survey, where a teacher responded “Personalized learning means to me that I am teaching a child where they are and what they need in order to be successful. It means that I am not just teaching the curriculum, but teaching a child.” (Education week, 2013)

Teachers can differentiate and personalize learning by modifying the content, process, or product of a lesson for groups of students or individual students based on their needs and preferences for learning. Content refers to what students are expected to learn and the materials used in the lesson. Process refers to activities designed to enable students to learn the content. Product refers to the artifacts that student produce to demonstrate what they have learned. MyVRSpot’s Group Pages enable teachers to leverage digital resources to differentiate the content, process, or product of existing lessons, more easily and efficiently.

Teachers can use Group Pages in MyVRSpot to organize a variety of digital media—ranging from videos created by teachers, to commercial content such as online subscription services, to free content from websites such as YouTube. As MyVRSpot allows teachers to upload videos through an embedded link from the YouTube site to their MyVRSpot account, teachers are able to link to digital content that is appropriate and relevant to the curriculum without opening access to all YouTube content. Providing students with centralized access to a variety of digital media enables teachers to differentiate both the content from which students learn and the processes through which students interact with content.

MyVRSpot also makes it easier for teachers to differentiate the products through which students demonstrate what they have learned. Students welcome opportunities to demonstrate their learning in a variety of formats—such as slideshows, podcasts, documentaries, or how-to videos. The Speak Up survey results show that students are focused on creation and education using multiple media devices, as one boy’s answer to the survey reveals, “Kids in my class would have everything on their smartphones, or tablets, and they could download apps for science, math and reading. It would be a lot of fun if there were smartphones, tablets, and websites at school. The kids in my class would really love it “ (Education week, 2013). Students can even keep digital portfolios to show growth in both their learning and their ability to communicate what they have learned using 21st century skills.

21st Century Literacies

The ability to communicate in a variety of media is not only engaging to today’s students but essential for their lifelong success in the global economy and society. The growing importance and convergence of technology, information, and media have rendered the traditional conception of print literacy incomplete and insufficient for the 21st century. In 2008, the Executive Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) adopted a definition of “21st century literacies” to emphasize that a literate person must now possess a wide range of abilities and competencies. This policy has been continually updated and today we stand at the present ideas (NCTE, 2013). With its revisions, the NCTE suggests that 21st century readers and writers need to:

• Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
• Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought
• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
• Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

The NCTE definition builds on a framework created by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills with four categories of 21st century student outcomes: (1) interdisciplinary themes in core subjects; (2) information, media, and technology skills; (3) learning and innovation skills; and (4) life and career skills (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, n.d.).

MyVRSpot is designed to leverage the capacities of digital media to extend 21st century learning opportunities inside school. With a familiar interface and similar functionality to popular online communities, students are able to easily share and critique photos, podcasts, videos, and more. Teachers can integrate the website into core subjects by asking students to post projects, journal entries, or questions. Teachers can also model 21st century literacies on MyVRSpot by posting original work of their own, critiquing the work of students, and contributing to discussions.

According to the Partnership, 21st century interdisciplinary themes—such as global awareness, entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, and health literacy—can enable students to understand academic content at much higher levels. Students can explore these themes and use their information, media, and technology skills to produce digital artifacts that demonstrate their understanding of core subjects. MyVRSpot provides communication and collaboration tools that encourage students to use and develop learning and innovation skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. MyVRSpot can also provide opportunities and motivation for students to develop life and career skills such as self-direction, accountability, leadership, and responsibility.

Standards for 21st Century Learning

MyVRSpot allows students to use digital media and social networking to develop deep understanding of content regardless of subject. Previously known as The National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) have since updated their standards to become the ISTE Standards for Students, the most recent update of 2007 emphasizes the use of technology for 21st century learning across content areas. The six categories of refreshed ISTE Standards for Students are:

• Creativity and Innovation: Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
• Communication and Collaboration: Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.
• Research and Information Fluency: Students apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.
• Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making: Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.
• Digital Citizenship: Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.
• Technology Operations and Concepts: Students demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems, and operations.

Similarly, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) calls for 21st century learners to: (1) inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge; (2) draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create knowledge; (3) share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society; and (4) pursue personal and aesthetic growth. ISTE and AASL provide a variety of publications and professional development resources that schools and districts can use to support implementation of MyVRSpot across content areas.

Guidance for integrating MyVRSpot in the core curriculum can also be found in national content area standards. National standards for the English language arts include use of visual language, media techniques, and a variety of technological and informational resources. Another example of 21st century learning in content area standards can be found in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) process standards that highlight ways of acquiring and applying mathematics knowledge. The five categories of process standards are: (1) problem solving, (2) reasoning and proof, (3) communication, (4) connections, and (5) representations. The rigorous strategies involved in mathematical problem solving and reasoning can be demonstrated and communicated through digital media.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative represents an important step toward more systematic development of 21st century literacies. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation research Primary Sources focuses on the effect of the introduction of the Common Core Standards, asserting that “, 73% of teachers who teach math, English language arts, science and/or social studies in Common Core states are enthusiastic about implementation in their classrooms” (Scholastic, 2014), and this beneficial effect is certainly be design. As outlined during their initial introduction, “Just as media and technology are integrated in school and life in the twenty-first century, skills related to media use (both critical analysis and production of media) are integrated throughout the standards” (Common Core, 2010). Some examples from the Common Core standards for English language arts and mathematics include:

• Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
• Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
• Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
• Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

Common Core standards are designed to provide clear and specific guidance for higher academic expectations and to encourage college and career readiness, application of knowledge through higher-order skills, and success in the global economy and society. MyVRSpot is an ideal tool for enabling teachers to integrate digital media and social networking into a 21st century standards-based curriculum and empowering students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding using 21st century skills.


There can be little doubt that the swift adoption of digital media by today’s youth in all demographic groups has shifted the balance of power away from schools toward more informal personal learning networks. MyVRSpot provides an efficient and effective way for educators to tip the balance back in their favor by providing students with a secure website where they can upload and collaborate on their own curriculum-based digital media. “MyVRSpot is a perfect addition to the Illini Cloud computing model that our district has adopted. It has allowed us to create our own unique Learning Network across the whole district,” observes Jim Peterson, Technology Director of District 87 in Bloomington, Illinois.

Leveraging digital media to bridge the divide between the way students learn inside and outside of school increases motivation and engagement and results in more time on task. Integrating digital media into the curriculum enables teachers to personalize learning by differentiating content, processes, and products to meet the individual needs and interests of all students.

“MyVRSpot is even changing the way our college students learn and is giving our up and coming teachers a great tool to help support their curriculum. Our Student-Teachers are uploading their daily lessons plans to the system so their students have access to them at any time,” says Marsha Lifter, College of Education, California Polytechnic University.

The best news for educators is that emerging evidence suggests Web-based online learning approaches can improve student achievement and engagement. The Project Tomorrow study for instance noted that “Nearly 50 percent of virtual high school students say they were interested in what they were learning in school, while only 32 percent of traditional high school students said the same”, whilst “Students participating in online learning environments demonstrate greater usage of digital tools including use of those tools to develop enhanced writing skills” (Project Tomorrow, 2014).

Review and Results – Three Years Later

MyVRSpot was created with the knowledge that modern students are actively engaged in the creation and distribution of user-created content. With this knowledge, we set out to develop the system to harness some of this enthusiasm that students possess outside of the classroom when creating and viewing content, and to move it into an environment that supports the curriculum being taught.

MyVRSpot empowers students and encourages them to become those “push-button” publishers, becoming the writer, director, actor, and editors in the creative process. We created more than just a webspace where students can store their content, but created an environment where students could engage other students, as well as their teachers. The most student-centric features of websites such as YouTube and Facebook, were integrated to the fullest extent while still maintaining a hierarchy of users, which allows the system to be safely implemented in a school environment.

The MyVRSpot system is thus a true “disguised learning environment,” where students can not only upload and share their user-created content, but can also view content uploaded by others within their school and district. The results that we have observed over the past three (3) years have shown that the MyVRSpot system engages students in ways that Learning Management Systems (LMS) and traditional classroom assignments do not.

In districts where MyVRSpot has been fully implemented for a minimum of one year, the average student stays logged in for an average of 37 minutes per session. In addition, during normal school hours, these same students spend 23 minutes per day on the system.

Todays students are by no means the sole creators and consumers of media, as we have found that teachers are just as excited to have their content hosted and viewable by students and other teachers on the MyVRSpot system. We discovered that teachers were using the system as much as the students, and were creating their own media sharing networks. Many of the districts researched had created “teacher only” groups, where a learning community was created where teachers that are teaching the same curriculum, were directly sharing lesson plans and associated media with their peers. This “best practices” approach of media sharing and collaboration amongst teachers has created a new level of networking within the media sharing scaffolding.

The usages of the MyVRSpot system are not limited to the purely “core subject” educational applications either. The system is regularly used within school clubs and academic competition teams, and even used by athletic team coaches.

The average teacher has 3 hours and 35 minutes of video content stored within their MyVRSpot account, mainly consisting of topic discussion, interactive whiteboard lesson demonstrations, and teacher-created instructional content.

By facilitating an environment that empowers both students and teachers to become creative purveyors of educational content, we have created a system which bridges the in-class and out of class lives of students, leading to a situation where students are actively engaging with educational content, even when it is not required of them. Students are now spending 2.6 hours per week logged into their MyVRSpot account, where they are uploading and sharing their own content, searching and viewing content shared by others, and where the learning process is disguised as “just another media website.”

MyVRSpot is an indispensable tool for schools and districts seeking to increase student participation and engagement through a 21st century model of learning called for in the new National Educational Technology Plan. “The model asks that we focus what and how we teach to match what people need to know, how they learn, where and when they will learn, and who needs to learn. It brings state-of-the-art technology into learning to enable, motivate, and inspire all students, regardless of background, languages, or disabilities, to achieve. It leverages the power of technology to provide personalized learning instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, pace of teaching, and instructional practices” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).

With MyVRSpot, students and teachers alike become researchers, developers, and producers of their own online webspot. From student-created videos giving book reviews, demonstrating science experiments, or explaining a math formula, to teacher-selected and teacher-created videos in support of daily lessons and best practices, MyVRSpot has quickly become one of the greatest online resources for K-12 fostering 21st century learning.


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