For More Virtual School Blogging

I should have posted this a long time ago, but the presentation associated with this blog was given in October 2006. As such, this blog is no longer maintained. I have kept it online so that the discussion would not be lost.

If you are interested in a blog about virtual schooling that is actively maintained, I would direct you to my regular blog – Virtual High School Meanderings. I should also note that after the presentation on this topic at AECT in Dallas I re-posted each of the entries from this blog at Virtual High School Meanderings, so they are all available in the archives there as well.

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Where To Next?

At present I am currently finishing my dissertation study, which was a case study that looked at how a virtual high school was being implemented in one rural school.  As a follow-up to that, I have copied below a section of a proposal that I wrote for a one year post-doctoral fellowship to continue research with this virtual school.  I believe the proposal below is a good example of the type of research that is needed with virtual schooling.  What do you think?

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Many of the early examples of distance education programs across North America were primarily designed for a select group of high school students, specifically those with higher aptitudes, higher achievement, and greater aspirations for postsecondary education. For example, in their second year evaluation of the Virtual High School (VHS), Espinoza, Dove, Zucker and Kozma (1999) stated that “VHS was serving a fairly narrow range of students, those who were academically advanced and college bound” (p. 48). Roblyer and Elbaum (2000) concluded, “only students with a high need to control and structure their own learning may choose distance formats freely” (p. 61). In distance education programs where student selectivity is not maintained, retention rates have decreased significantly (Ballas & Belyk, 2000; Barker & Wendel, 2001; Roblyer, 1999). These findings have led some to question whether web-based distance education is suitable for all secondary-level students (Mulcahy, 2002).

Cavanaugh (2001) found that there was “a small positive effect in favor of distance education” (p. 73). Given that distance education for high school students in North America had primarily served a more selective group of students, it should not surprise anyone that these early comparative studies in K-12 distance education yielded better results than most other comparative studies in other technology-based fields (Clark , 1983; Reeves, 2005). Interestingly, Cavanaugh, Gillan, Kromrey, Hess and Blomeyer (2004) reported a small negative effect size in their meta-analysis of an additional 14 studies representing over 7500 students from 1999 to 2004. It seems reasonable to conclude that this more recent sample of distance education comparative studies was conducted with a more diverse population of students.

The Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) in Newfoundland and Labrador came into existence in 2000 and offered its first courses during the 2001-02 school year. During that first year a limited number of enrollments were made available in an effort to field test the method of delivery and the content material that had been developed. Beginning with the 2002-03 school year, any student from across the province was given permission to enroll in any course offered by the CDLI. No longer was secondary distance education just for the elite students. Indeed, with their decision to develop a number of non-highly-academic courses, such as Art Technologies 1201, Communications Technology 2104/3104, and World Geography 3202, their student population has come to include students of all ability levels. Given these developments, the CDLI is an ideal context for conducting this research study.

An analysis indicated that over the four year period that the CDLI has been in operation there has been some fluctuation in both public exam scores and final course averages when delivery model and location are considered. However, little difference was observed in the overall performance of students on both performance measures based upon delivery model alone (Barbour & Mulcahy, 2006). Given the fact that some performance results of distance education students in Newfoundland and Labrador run counter to what is traditionally found in the literature, i.e., “no-significant differences,” discovering what factors account for these results is an important undertaking.

The purpose of my dissertation study, entitled What are they doing and how are they doing it? Student experiences in virtual schooling, was to examine the nature of web-based learning in Newfoundland and Labrador secondary education. Specifically, this qualitative case study examined how students at one rural all grade school interacted with their web-based courses and the process they undertook when they needed help. Two of the findings from this study were that the students’ use of their scheduled asynchronous learning time was often inefficient and that teachers’ nature of asynchronous instruction typically assigned practice problems from the textbook as asynchronous instruction. While there were some deviations from these patterns, overall there was regularly little more than independent seat work such as that assigned by the typical classroom teacher. This is troubling because the original model proposed for the CDLI was to be based upon the web-based model that was not “totally dependent on high bandwidth technologies [and have a] minimal reliance on synchronous communications, fixed schedules or other constraining elements” (Sparkes & Williams, 2000, p. 65). Students’ minimal reliance on synchronous communications is a concern and worthy of further research.

At present the model of delivery utilized by the CDLI includes anywhere from 30% to 80% of the students’ scheduled time (which is 10 one-hour periods over a fourteen day cycle) in synchronous instruction using Elluminate Live®, a real-time virtual classroom. One of the main differences between the CDLI and the majority of other virtual schools in North America is the CDLI’s high percentage of synchronous instruction. As the original proposal of minimal reliance on synchronous communications is still one of the overall goals of the CDLI, and one on which they hope to act in the near future, there is a concern that without more effective asynchronous teaching strategies, students in the CDLI will report the same achievement as students in other virtual schools – where only a select group of students are able to perform at levels comparable to their classroom counterparts, but these online learning opportunities will no longer be available to the majority of students because of this change in delivery model that relies on higher levels of internet access.

The purpose of this study is to identify effective asynchronous teaching practices and develop strategies that can be implemented by e-teachers within a context of secondary distance education. This general purpose lends itself to two primary research questions:

  1. What effective asynchronous teaching practices are currently in use?
  2. What asynchronous learning strategies do students find useful?

The theoretical framework is focused on social constructivist learning theories (e.g., Vygotsky, 1962, 1978) through a lens of increasing the instructors’ social presence (e.g., Tu, 2002) in an effort to minimize the transactional distance (Moore, 1973; Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Given the goals of this study, naturalistic qualitative approaches are appropriate. The specific case for this study will by the CDLI. I will conduct interviews with teachers to explore their current strategies for asynchronous instruction and students to determine what they do and their impressions of their scheduled asynchronous learning time. I will also use participant observations of both teachers using asynchronous learning environments, which include the course materials and assignments available to the students in their learning management system, and students engaged in asynchronous online learning, along with surveys of students as a means of triangulation.

The CDLI is an optimal choice as the site for this research study for a number of reasons. First, prior research (see Barbour & Mulcahy, 2006) indicates that CDLI students have had success despite their diverse range of abilities. Second, the researcher is familiar with this setting and has built a professional relationship with the organization in many facets over the past five years. Finally, the purpose of this study is well aligned with the second theme of the recent [description of an existing research grant secured at a post-secondary institution].

To date, much of the published literature on K-12 web-based distance education is based upon the personal experiences of those involved in the actual practice, while much of the research is only available in unpublished Masters’ theses and Doctoral dissertations. The results of this study will have useful implications for web-based distance education programs in other jurisdictions. Meta-analysis, such as the ones reported in Cavanaugh, 2001; Cavanaugh, et al., 2004; Ungerleider and Burns, 2003, do not go far enough in specifying design guidelines for practitioners. Research studies such as the one proposed here are clearly needed to examine in a systematic way best practices for these practitioners.

Bibliography and Citations

Ballas, F. A., & Belyk, D. (2000). Student achievement and performance levels in online education research study. Red Deer, AB: Schollie Research & Consulting. Retrieved on July 31, 2005 from

Barbour, M. & Mulcahy, D. (2006). An inquiry into achievement differences in traditional and virtual high school courses. Roundtable presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

Barker, K., & Wendel, T. (2001). E-learning: Studying Canada‘s virtual secondary schools. Kelowna, BC: Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education. Retrieved July 31, 2005 from

Cavanaugh, C. S. (2001). The effectiveness of interactive distance education technologies in K-12 learning: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 7(1), 73-88.

Cavanaugh, C., Gillan, K. J., Kromrey, J., Hess, M., & Blomeyer, R. (2004). The effects of distance education on K–12 student outcomes: A meta-analysis. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates.

Clark, R. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-459.

Espinoza, C., Dove, T., Zucker, A., & Kozma, R. (1999). An evaluation of the Virtual High School after two years in operation. Arlington, VA: SRI International. Retrieved on July 31, 2005 from

Moore, M. G. (1973). Toward a theory of independent learning and teaching. Journal of Higher Education, 19(12), 661-679.

Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems view. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Mulcahy, D. M. (2002). Re-conceptualizing distance education: Implications for the rural schools of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Morning Watch, 30(1-2). Retrieved on July 31, 2005 from

Reeves, T. C. (2005). No significant differences revisited: A historical perspective on the research informing contemporary online learning. In G. Kearsley (Ed.), Online learning: Personal reflections on the transformation of education (pp. 299-308). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Roblyer, M. D. (1999). Is choice important in distance learning? A study of student motives for taking internet-based courses at the high school and community college levels. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 32(1).

Roblyer, M. D., & Elbaum, B. (2000). Virtual learning? Research on virtual high schools. Learning & Leading with Technology, 27(4), 58-61.

Sparkes, R., & Williams, L. (2000). Supporting learning: Ministerial panel on educational delivery in the classroom. St. John’s, NL: Queen’s Printer for Newfoundland.

Tu, C. H. (2002). The measurement of social presence in an online learning environment. International Journal on E-Learning, 1(2), 34-45.

Ungerleider, C. S., & Burns, T. C. (2003). A systematic review of the effectiveness and efficiency networked ICT in education: A state of the field report to the CMEC and Industry Canada. Retrieved on October 26, 2005 from

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language (E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychologist processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, E. Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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September Non-Research Entries

Here are the non-research entries from my Virtual High School Meanderings blog for the month of September.

Until next month…

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We Don’t Get No Respect!

Okay, I’ve been sitting on some of these entries for a while in my Bloglines account, and since it has been a while since I posted here and since AECT is coming up in less than a month, I figured I should deal with them.

The first that I’ve wanted to chat about was an entry called Research in Distance Education in Canada that I found at e-Learning Acupuncture. Essentially the entry is about an article in International Review of Research in Open and Distance Education about that status of distance education research in my home country.  The author of this entry goes on about the interesting things that can be found in this article (and I’m not disputing that) and somewhat of a commentary on the overall state of research in distance education in general.  The problem for me is that when I look through IRRODE or any of the other main distance education journals, I see very little in the way of research that is focused upon a K-12 audience.

This is probably best evidenced by the article described by Darren in his entry on A Review of Research on Teaching Courses Online over at Teaching and Developing Online. This was a recent Review of Educational Research article that we read as a part of our group last year.  A comprehensive look at online distance education. Not one mention of the K-12 environment.

Now I understand that virtual schooling has only really be around for a decade, but distance education at the K-12 level in North America has been common in rural areas for the past thirty to thirty-five years.  Even online distance education at the K-12 level has been around (although not as extensively) for the past fifteen to twenty years.  So, why is the K-12 environment alays dissed?

Maybe it is partly our own fault. I’m only a doctoral student, so I haven’t been at this trying to be an academic thing for that long a period of time.  But most of that time my interests have been squarely focused upon distance education at the K-12 level and, specifically, on virtual schooling.  For example, I came across this article this past week:

A Comprehensive Look at Distance Education in the K–12 Context
Kerry Lynn Rice

Read more…

And given that I am working on my dissertation and I was sure that if I didn’t include something like this in my chapter two, I’d never be given the chance to defend, I downloaded a copy of it and began to read.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed. The comprehensive look wasn’t that comprehensive at all.  The title of the article, and even the abstract, imply that all forms of distance education at the K-12 level would be considered, but the majority of the article looked at online forms of distance education with a real focus on virtual schooling.  But even more disappointing than that was in looking through the bibliography and seeing how much was missing.

So I ask, are K-12 distance education researchers partly to blame for the fact that everyone else ignores us, particularly when we also tend to ignore much of our own area of interest?

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Is Being A Digital Native A Good Thing?

Since we started this Blog Track, I’ve written a fair amount about digital natives (see More On Digital Natives) for the most recent entry.  Most of what I have written about has focused upon whether or not there is such a thing as digital natives.  This past week I’ve read some entries posted by Ian Jukes at the The Committed Sardine Blog that have me asking a different question.  The entries that caught my attention were:

So, assuming that digital natives exist (and if you haven’t read the earlier stuff I think that they do) my new and I think more important question is:

Is the fact that our children today are hard wired differently today a good thing?

I ask because much of the thought behind being a digital native rests on this notion of constant passive attention.  Is this constant passive attention manifesting itself in negative ways, doin more harm to our children than good.

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Struggling with Virtual Schooling Issues

A colleague of mine, Derek Wenmoth, has posted an entry to his blog (see Derek’s Blog) which I think is particularly interesting.  The entry, Tackling online learning in our secondary schools, talks about some thngs going on down in New Zealand in K-12 online learning and then proceeds to ask a long series of questions to specific groups of individuals involved in almost every aspect of K-12 schooling.  His questions include:

General Issues 

  • Is what we are doing truly learner-centric?
  • Are we simply replicating the practices of the f2f classroom?
  • How can we get policy change to provide the flexibility we require?
  • Is our view of the technology future-proofed?
  • Where is the evidence that what we are doing is supporting the claims we are making?

Policy issues

  • How can student funding be shared between schools?
  • How can staffing, including management units, be shared among schools?
  • What evidence needs to be gathered to demonstrate the worth of this?

Technology issues

  • Connectivity and interoperability – who sets the standards?
  • Networks – VPNs or MUSH etc?
  • Bridging – what is required? What technologies must be supported?
  • Scheduling – enable direct access and school level control?

Curriculum issues

  • assessment – developing consistency in approach
  • reporting – enabling a unified student report from several ‘schools’ etc
  • modularisation – a different view of ‘course’
  • RPL – includes recognising the value of informal learning

Staffing issues

  • Creating more flexibility in recognising teacher roles: e-teachers, m-teachers, c-teachers,
  • How to involve those with real subject expertise as mentors, hotseats etc?

Pedagogical issues

  • “personalisation” – what does it mean? How do we make it happen?
  • staff training – how to train a large group of the teaching force in these new approaches?

Leadership and coordination issues

  • Where does the leadership come from?
  • What form should leadership take?
  • What coordination is required nationally, locally etc?

Learning Resource issues

  • How best to provide resources for learning to support teachers in this environment?
  • Learning objects, repositories, search tools – who provides them, who manages them etc?
  • How to cater for user-generated resources?
  • Copyright and IP issues – how are these to be managed?

Quality issues

  • What is best practice?
  • What are quality indicators?

What is most interesting about this list of questions/issues is that even though Canada and the United States are about a half a decade ahead of New Zealand and Australia when it comes to K-12 online learning or virtual schooling, I don’t think that we have really tackled many of these issues on this side of the Pacific pond yet either.

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July Non-Research Entries

Here are the non-research entries from my Virtual High School Meanderings blog for the month of July.

Until next month…

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Virtual Schooling Evaluations

One of the more commons ways that research has been conducted on virtual schooling has been through the process of conducting evaluations.  In May and June I posted a series that outlined the research studies that I have conducted with virtual schools, specifically the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation.  In that discussion I failed to mention one of the more recent evaluations that I conducted.  While it was two years ago now that it began and about a year ago that it concluded, it is worth mentioning here and discussing what I found.

Evaluation of the Illinois Virtual High School Course Development Process

The purpose of this evaluation was primarily formative, i.e., to provide the client with the reliable information needed to improve the course development process utilized by the IVHS. When the IVHS was first established, it relied heavily on packaged courses from external vendors to quickly populate their course offerings. Over the past five years, the IVHS has continued to rely on external vendors but has also developed courses, using teachers as subject matter experts and course authors, and external design and production staff (eCollege) to support their efforts.

Unfortunately, there was great variability between each of IVHS’ offerings. The productized nature of vendor-based courses led to uniform navigation, interface, and instruction but only within a single vendor’s offerings; IVHS’ multiple vendors deployed different models. Also, despite the shared experience of the design tutorial and the support of a core team, IVHS course authors’ development was executed with more of a course-by-course approach, introducing even greater variability. Over time, IVHS has worked to alter the course development process and deliverables and provide greater design support to course authors. As the IVHS begins to develop more of its courses internally, particularly using this new tool, and its total number of course offerings continue to grow, consistency within and between courses will become more important.

Overall, course developers are pleased with their experience in developing courses for the IVHS. The IVHS has had fourteen of their thirty-three developers design more than one course. A majority of those developers who were surveyed would develop yet another course if asked and would also recommend course development to a friend or colleague. This is indicative of the fact that the developers are generally pleased with their course development experience.

The IVHS course development process is fairly open-ended with a lot of room for developers to create the kind of course that they want to create. Compared to the course development process of other virtual schools, the IVHS is very open-ended. Developers with the IVHS are given pretty much a carte blanche for the structure and style of their courses, whereas developers with other virtual schools are typically expected to work within a structured template. This reality has resulted in many different “looks” and “feels” to the IVHS courses, to the point where there is so little consistency between courses that it is entirely possible for a student to feel like they are actually taking courses from two separate entities. In addition, the IVHS appear to provide their developers with guidance from both the IVHS and eCollege on an ad hoc or as needed basis and payment is made upon completion of the course, whereas the contracts for development utilized by other virtual schools spell out specific deliverables by specific dates for a specific portion of the overall payment (which is actually two to three times the amount offered by the IVHS).

Also, the vast majority, if not all of the course developers for the IVHS are former or practicing teachers with little experience in the design and development of structured learning activities outside of their own classroom. While this has been a positive aspect of the course development process, as these individuals bring a wealth of classroom experience into the development of their virtual courses, it is also provide many challenges for these developers. Many of the developers expressed concern about the lack of guidance provided by both the IVHS and eCollege in terms of how to go about creating their courses to what to include in their courses to formatting issues. However, many of the developers also commented on the helpfulness of the people at the IVHS and eCollege in their course development process.

Approximately half of the IVHS courses were developed by a team of two or more developers and this has worked well in some instances and not so well in others.  From 2001-02 to 2003-04, the IVHS has fifteen of their thirty-seven courses developed by a team of developers. In instances where the two or more developers got along, the partnership appeared to work well and even some of the individual developers commented on the usefulness of having more than one developer.  However, there were instances where a team of developers simply did not get along or they had differences of opinion in terms of what the course should include. In these instances, the two parts of the final course were very different in their style and substance, and even in the nature of the content of the course. In addition, these teams did not benefit from the act of two professionals coming together to develop a shared product.

The course developers for the IVHS were trained as teachers and unable to utilize the technology of the web to its fullest capacity. It was state earlier that the vast majority, if not all of the course developers for the IVHS are former or practicing teachers with little experience in the design and development of structured learning activities outside of their own classroom. Many of these individuals also possessed few of the technical skills that could be used to really enhance their courses by taking full advantage of the medium of the World Wide Web.  In other course development processes technical experts were hired in addition to subject matter experts to develop the courses. In these course development systems, a course developer who had shown themselves as capable with the technology could be offered a full contract, while others who were only able to handle the content were offered two thirds of a contract with the remaining third going to someone to specifically design the multimedia content of the course.

Overall, the course developers reported to having a relatively positive experience in designing their courses for the IVHS, however, there were also a number of suggestions for improvement in the system. There were five main recommendations that came from the data generated as a part of this evaluation.

1. Create a structure for the course development process so that the IVHS, eCollege, and the developer are under the same impressions when it comes to the nature of the assistance that can be provided and the expectations of all parties within the specific deadlines of the course development process.

2. Divide the course development process into timed segments that describe the nature of the deliverable due at the end of each period, with partial payment for the successful delivery of each of the segments.

3. If the IVHS continues to use a team of developers for a single course, determine a method of select team members that will work well together.

4. Provide training in multimedia software for course developers or split the course development process so that technical developers can add multimedia components to courses after the content has been developed.

5. Any tool used to guide the development of course developers needs to be open enough to allow for the creativity of the developer.

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More On Digital Natives

Continuing on this theme of digital natives (see What Are Virtual Schools Doing For Digital Natives? for the most recent post), let’s get back to this issue of whether or not they exist and how they are defined.  When I look around the blogsphere I see entries like:

One of the more interesting blog entries I’ve seen comes from the horse’s mouth, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: Origins of Terms from Marc Prensky’s Weblog.

Even in my own writing, in a recent manuscript that I am working on I wrote (and please excuse the notes to self included):

The covers of Time and Newsweek for the last week of March and first week of April 2006 read “Are Kids Too Wired for Their Own Good?” and “Putting the ‘We” in Web” respectively. The idea that today’s students are somehow different than previous generations and these differences are caused by access digital technology, such as the Internet and cell phones, is becoming common theme in both the popular media and is even being introduced in the academic literature (although there has been little actual research reported or conducted into these perceived differences). One of the first to discuss this in the literature, Tapscott (1998) labels these students the Net Generation. Basing his categories on David Foote’s 1996 book Boom, Bust, and Echo, Tapscott includes the echo generation or those born after 1977 as being a part of this Net Generation. While Tapscott acknowledges that not all of those born during this time frame have access to the Internet yet, he claims that they all have “some degree of fluency with digital media” (p. 3).

Similar to Tapscott, Howe and Strauss (2000) have also given the next generation a label based on a specific date of birth: millennials. [Add in sentence or two about the millennials once I get that recalled book] On the other hand, Dede (2005) groups these students – which he calls neomillennials – based upon a set of learning characteristics and can include the next generation of students that we now see in our educational institutions, but also baby boomers, Generation X’ers, or the children of the echo. The learning characteristics that he believes makes these students different include:

  • fluency in multiple media and in simulation-based virtual settings,
  • communal learning involving diverse, tacit, situated experience, with knowledge distributed across a community and a context as well as within an individual,
  • a balance among experiential learning, guided mentoring, and collective reflection,
  • expression through nonlinear, associational webs of representations, and
  • co-design of learning experiences personalized to individual needs and preferences. (¶ 2)

While these various labels have been introduced over the past decade, most have not caught on outside of their immediate fields, with the exception of the label “digital native”.

Prensky (2001) has dubbed this next generation digital natives, as he feels that they “are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet” (¶ 5), with those of us who are not native to this digital language are considered digital immigrants. Today’s teenager has grown up with digital technology (e.g., cell phones, video games, computers, DVD players, video cameras, MP3 players, etc.) around them since birth, and according to Prensky (2006) the average kid by the time they have graduated from college has “spent fewer than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but often more than 10,000 hours playing video games, another 10,000 on their cell phones, and more than 20,000 watching television” (pp. 27-28). While he doesn’t provide a specific date, like Tapscott, Howe, and Strauss, Prensky alludes to the fact that this generation of digital natives began at a specific time – in the same way that an immigrant is one who comes to an existing place, these natives were born during the digital age.

So, I guess this boils back down to some fundamental questions:

  1. Are today’s students actually different than previous generations?
  2. Are these differences physical (i.e., are they actually wired differently)?
  3. How do we define these differences?
  4. What do we do about these differences?

Selected Bibliography (University of Chicago formatting):

Dede, Chris. “Planning for Neomillennial Learning Styles,” EDUCAUSE Quarterly 28. (2005):

Foote, David K. and Daniel Stoffman. Boom Bust & Echo: Profiting from the Demographic Shift in the 21st Century. Toronto, ON: Stoddart Publishing Co., 2000.

Prensky, Marc. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants – Part II: Do They Really Think Differently?,” On the Horizon 9, no. 6 (December 2001):

Prensky, Marc. “Don’t bother me mom – I’m learning!” (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2006), 27-28. 

Tapscott, Don. Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (New York: McGraw Hill Inc., 1998), 3.

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