Reflections on Microsoft “Partners in Learning” European Conference

I had the good fortune to attend the Microsoft “Partners in Learning” European Conference. I submitted our Digital Journalism course’s podcasting project to a contest for teachers in Switzerland and came in first place, earning me a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, for the week of March 19. I spent the week with some Microsoft employees, including a very skilled, very organized intern (and ZIS alum) who will begin her teaching career in Switzerland next school year, and many excellent educators.

The week included some sightseeing and a few brilliant moments of exploration, which I live for. We ate amazing food. We soaked in as much sunlight as possible. I was part of a Swiss team including an outstanding Spanish teacher from near Lucerne who organizes incredible projects between students in her town and students in Spain, culminating in an exchange of groups for a week in Spain and a week in her town. Incredible! For anyone who thinks gaming is interactive, I challenge them to virtually outdo the interactivity of a trip to live with a family in Spain.

The setup for the conference was another competition. We all set up booths, including, help me, posters. Mine was minimalist, linked to a series of examples via a hashtag and a QR code, which is so obscure, even to geeks, that it makes me positive that these will never catch on in their current form. Many other people incorporated a number of screens and projectors, beautifully produce glossy posters, gifts, candies (I took Swiss chocolates, for they are delicious), brochures, handouts, and even a flip animation book crafted for every project except mine – honest mistake, truly. Not so, me. I had a computer and headphones, though, which were useful.

I presented my project to three judges, interesting educators all, and greatly enjoyed these conversations. At the end of the week, I realized how useful the opportunity to reflect at length about my curriculum proved, and the resulting ideas will change both this curriculum specifically and my teaching in general. My project was entitled “Digital Journalism: Podcasting,” and that was the way I pitched it; curriculum rose up first, and was followed by the forms of assessment. I guess it worked, because our project came in first last place or “Third Runner Up” in the “Collaboration” category. This surprised me.

I was curious to see if the glitzy projects employing wild gaming tactics built on video game hardware would win out. My perception is that some teachers are stretching hard to do chapter or spelling tests with a panoply of gadgets, doing old things in new ways. Uniformly, these projects were not recognized.

A number of teachers created projects in which students created educational materials, not so much in the classic sense of teachers turning students into wee lecturers, but more in lines of creating progressive teachers with some level of cooperation with (usually) younger peers. Uniformly, these projects were rewarded.

As I take anything away from this conference beyond memories of a beautiful, if currently traumatized city, I leave dedicated more than ever to creating authentic opportunities for students to learn essential language skills and to explore texts and media in personally authentic, meaningful ways. I believe we owe it to students to move beyond the strictures of external curriculum and standards in order to teach in ways that we know are the best; Kristen Weatherby of the OECD made this clear when she posited that most teachers they interview know best practices but ignore them due to the contorting effects of standardized testing. I believe we must allow for connected, cooperative learning to take place in non-linear ways, for kids to learn how to “talk to strangers” as Bruce Dixon (quoting Will Richardson) stated, and for kids to take actual risks, venturing into what Liv Arneson called the “Uuhh-ooohhhh” zone in ways that they value, risking what that value, in order to make huge gains later.

For me, this means integrating service learning possibilities into the Digital Journalism curriculum when students are interested, making connections between students worldwide to allow for communities of interest to coalesce, and facilitating students in connecting with the world beyond the classroom. I am planning on creating a choice menu for the Digital Journalism final exam in which they get points in the creation of a reflective media piece on their growth as journalists by contacting and communicating with peers, peer experts, adult experts, networks, and so forth, practicing digital communication skills in the midst of proving their fluency in them. This is in the rough draft stages, but it’s a working concept.

Additionally, I recognize that, by gaining an invitation to the global Microsoft “Partners in Learning” conference in Athens in November, I have an opportunity that many of my colleagues worked hard to achieve. As such, I am hoping to revise my display and communication plan into something clearer and more powerful, giving the work of my students its due and honoring the challenge. As I do so, I want to expose my thinking and my process to students, modeling the writing or creative process as I go.

The Partners in Learning conference was a great chance to meet like-minded, powerful educators who are doing incredible work with youth. While I have serious doubts about the efficacy of competition between educators as a means of stimulating cooperation, I have freely entered this process and intend to honor it with my best work in Athens.

Digital Storytelling in 90 Seconds

I have been working on a variety of digital storytelling rubrics focused on specific types of journalistic reports lately, cooperating with students to reflect what they see as valuable or important in feature writing versus opinion writing versus news reporting, and so forth. My next project is video, breaking down what works in video in these various types of reports and adding investigative reports to the mix. It’s a work in progress.

But, I have also created a very, very brief digital story of my own this week: a “Virtual Classroom Tour” that may be found below. This project is part of the presentation on podcasting in my Digital Journalism course that I will make at the Microsoft “Partners in Learning” Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in a few weeks. The time limit of 90 seconds was set by the good folks at Microsoft, and, as I so often say to students, I learned from having my communication forced inside an imposed structure. I wouldn’t only want to tell a story this way, but it’s a good opportunity to boil the podcasting project down to its essentials. Therein lies the strength of an imposed structure, similar to the AP exam’s time limit or a prescribed “elevator pitch” layout like a Pecha Kucha.


So, please check out this very brief digital story produced in Camtasia Studio and offer any and all feedback. I took the video of students with the iPad 2, which lacks a good microphone. I tried to compensate for that, but it only worked to mediocre effect. I also had to convert the video from the iPad to use it in Camtasia, which created very small final products. Part of my thinks the little “window into the student” effect of the almost embedded interview video is interesting, while another part recognizes it’s kind of crap. Still, it helped me conceptualize the curriculum a bit to push it out in 90 seconds. I can see the value of asking for super-brief videos asking for illustrations of key concepts as a method of formative assessment a as result of this experience.

The iPad 2 for Learning: A Student Experiments

Recently, a student in my Digital Journalism class decided to do a feature article on the experience of closing his school-supplied Lenovo tablet laptop for the week and only using an iPad. His article is spectacular student writing in our nascent culture of journalism at ZIS, and I found the scope of his successes and challenges enlightening in one particular respect: We are not asking students to use their computers in new ways. Students like this are creative with their computers like I was creative with a darkroom and a typewriter in 1989, and the creativity is still great. Students also use their computers as textbooks, as notebooks, as Trapper Keepers, as easels, as paper, as media studios (this bit gets me excited), as telephones, as shopping malls, as billboards, as video game consoles, as televisions and movie theaters, as the conference social (think networking), and as printing presses. But, none of this is new, really. Almost everything our students do digitally has an analog in the real world. If this young journalist had to program, had to build new opportunities for other computer users, he would have had many more problems with only an iPad for the week.

Only. I realize, as one who taught in a very resource deprived American public school, how ridiculous that sounds. I know every teacher and student on Earth would take an iPad if offered, but they’d use it to keep doing the same things they are already doing. While he concludes forcefully that it would be a “huge mistake” to replace the laptop with an iPad, which I agree with, if the infrastructure at school supported Mac, much of what happens on a daily basis would still be possible for students. I don’t know exactly how to change that – maybe offer programming, as a start, and give lots of time and freedom for students to choose such courses – but I recognize that it is a problem. At any rate, if you’ve read this far, be sure to read the piece linked above.

Twitter Provides a Teachable Moment

My Digital Journalism students have been using Twitter to follow journalists, aggregate content that fits their interests, and promote their blog posts, but today they saw the cooperative power of Twitter first hand. And it was awesome.

We have just begun a nine-week long exploration of “The Feature” as a genre of journalism. The idea is a little artificial, but a convention of journalism, I think, and worth exploring. Students read a bit about what features are and how they are organized differently from straight news and opinion writing. The next step was to read the awesome piece about real life superheros published in GQ by Jon Ronson. Students had a few tasks to perform while they read, tying the initial instructional information about features to the example. Uniformly, they loved the piece, just as my IB students loved The Psychopath Test, also by Ronson, who uses a narrative style that is simply unique and engaging.

We discussed the piece and just had a great conversation. At the end of the lesson, a student wondered aloud if Ronson is writing notes the whole time, while crackheads and dudes in rubber masks engage in brinkmanship over a 3am Seattle street corner, or if he uses a recorder.  I started to speculate, then realized that I follow Ronson on Twitter and that we may be able to use a bit o’ social networking gold to find out. Twenty years ago, when I was in tenth grade, we could have chucked paper letters into the void after an author, never to hear of them again. Today, a boy fired off a Twitter direct message to Ronson and heard back 20 seconds later.

iPhone voice memos. Amazement. Engagement. And every kid in class has an iPad to pull off the same trick.

“Do I thank him, or is that just clutter?”

“Hmm. I don’t know. Do whatever you’d like,” I replied. And so he did, owning all of the experience.

My guesses about the impact are as follows:

  • Jon Ronson got 16 new Twitter followers
  • Students saw new possibilities in Twitter that they never did before
  • Authentic learning happened – students now know how a professional records interviews and thoughts and can already do this themselves
  • Young journalists got a little more stoked on writing

A big win, easily done on a whim, happened this morning. Oh, how these technologies may transform not just what we do and how we do it, but how we think about what we do.

OTM & dana boyd on Internet Age Restrictions, Privacy, & Implications for Schools

Ohhhh, so that’s where the 13-year old concept comes from! When teachers talk about Facebook – and we do, oh yes, we do – the age restriction is always in the background and often the subject of conversation. Cyberbullying in middle school? Solution! The age restriction on Facebook. Does it have the force of law? I always scoffed at the idea, but it actually does in the United States. On The Media‘s current podcast addresses the issue of the age restriction resulting from the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and parental perceptions and decisions around it. I found parental perceptions of the age restriction informative and the implications of privacy violations by the very free web services like Facebook or Gmail that kids are clamoring to use fascinating, particularly in terms of the implications for educators.

When educators speak about privacy concerns, they worry primarily about cyberstalking or cyberbullying – interactions between people, facilitated by technology, that go horribly wrong. However, COPPA isn’t built to protect children from other people, per se, so much as it is built to protect children and their personal information from institutions or corporations. That’s fascinating. This concept is a game changer – privacy is more about protecting children from becoming the products of free online services, sold to advertisers for targeted marketing and come-what-may, than about protecting children in public interactions online.

dana boyd points out, however, that parents have mixed views of the age requirements of Facebook: only 53% of parents reported knowing that Facebook had a minimum age, and 35% of those believed it to be a recommendation rather than a requirement. Only two parents from this group “referenced privacy. Amidst the open–ended responses, the notion of maturity or age appropriateness came up frequently. Some parents highlighted maturity with respect to content; others referenced maturity with respect to safety issues like bullying and strangers” (¶50). In short, most parents who know there is an age restriction view it more like a movie rating than a restriction. Privacy is a slippery concept that is obviously hard to define.

At my school, we are having discussions about the “Responsible Use Policy” and our school publishing policy as we move to more and more student publishing online – e-portfolios in the form of blogs, an online student newspaper, and multimedia publication via Youtube, Soundcloud, and so on. Our policies state that they are “informed by” COPPA, and our focus for protecting children’s privacy should focus on those under 13, generally students in the middle school. Of course, this is not to say that we should be careless with how we handle demographic or personal contact information for anyone, student or otherwise, in our institution. But, as dana boyd points out, a regular approach of law enforcement and others teaching kids about online safety is to suggest lying for safety. She states in this podcast that a large number of kids on Facebook identify their location as Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, because these come first and last in the alphabetical order of countries, respectively. The flip side of this message is that lying gets kids access, as boyd points out. Ironically, it is lying that subjects Facebook and free email providers to the vagaries of COPPA, because they are then automatically holding, mining, and marketing the personal information of children under 13. Students are opting into violations of their privacy through lying in ways that they believe will keep them safe from a threat that may not exist or is, in my opinion, quite overblown.

The implications for teachers are many. First, we should work with kids under 13 to identify the sources of actual threats to their privacy, that they are the products and not the customers of web services like social networks and free email. Second, we should craft an environment and a curriculum for students over 13 that focuses on personal responsibility, honest and ethical participatory citizenship in public communities, and conscious use of the Internet with its myriad tools and sporadic pitfalls. To that end, I have proffered an edited version of our online publishing policy that states the following:

Publishing via the Internet is encouraged at (our school). It is viewed as an effective way for students and faculty to publish their work and ideas to the broader world because it:

  • includes broad representation from all students/groups within (our) school community
  • reflects the academic and social values of the (school) Mission & Philosophy
  • encourages students to produce their best work for publishing through a process of revision and to accurately reflect their developing levels of skills
  • creates an opportunity for students to discover how to be positive, respectful, contributing members of an open community
  • serves as a springboard for peer review, reflection, and collaboration with a global community of learners
  • encourages the conscious development of a positive online presence or “digital footprint” for every child

The US Children‘s Online Privacy Protection Act, while not binding on the school, has informed (our school) guidelines with respect to Internet publishing and privacy. The US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act defines a child this way: “The term “child” means an individual under the age of 13.” As such, we recognize that (our school), in which all students are 13 or older, needs to provide a safe, guided approach to managing online presences or “digital footprints.” The following expectations apply for all members of (our school) community when preparing material for Internet publishing on (our school) Web Site or on external websites for school-related purposes, like blogging, posting media, or collaborating with others.

  • Students are solely responsible for what they choose to publish online.
  • Students publish material online with the understanding that their published content should adhere to academic and/or professional norms and appropriately reflect (our school’s) Mission & Philosophy.
  • No current, specific demographic or contact information will be published which will identify a student, faculty, or staff member (i.e. home address, telephone no., etc.).
  • Personal information regarding faculty or staff members will not be published without prior permission.
  • Online publishing is a public activity, and every effort is made at (our school) by teachers and administrators to teach and model appropriate public behavior in an academic context.
  • Students involved in specific academic activities which use Internet publishing as an integral part of their academic experience (i.e. student newspaper or literary magazine) should understand that their names and/or pictures may be published in relation to work undertaken as part of these activities.
Student Publishing Statement
Content published by students is not intended to be official (school) communication and does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the school. (Our school) is responsible only for official content published through official channels.
Can a change of policy result in any actual changes of procedure, values, or perception? I’m hopeful that a statement of values may be a first step in the right direction. I’d love any and all feedback on these policy ideas, as well.

The iPad 2 for Learning: Students’ Choose Laptops

These days, now that the shine has worn off, students involved in the action research project involving iPads more regularly come to school without them. This may sound minor, but considering the initial buzz around the iPad in the classroom and the school, it marks a shift. Indeed, when students are accessing information, consuming media, or producing media, their overwhelming choice is to use their tablet laptops, not the iPad. In fact, the savviest students use the iPad as a kind of sidecar, like an extra monitor for holding text that they can use while they make things on their laptop. This is anecdotal and it remains early days, but the sense I’m getting is that the iPad is not as good as a full-powered computer for what students do most.

The iPad 2 For Learning: Not So Great for Video

My students have just completed a unit of discovery based on creating video news reports. The idea in the course is that students are trying to use the iPad, but not past the point of frustration; in short, they are problem solving when the iPad gets in their way. Students found that it was difficult to get decent video with the iPad and that the audio was very poor. iMovie on the iPad was deemed by students to be useful for sprucing up a single video clip for quick upload to Facebook or YouTube, but not for anything else. Additionally, video was difficult to get off of the iPad. Email attachments have size limits and, for some reason that I am sure is related to copyright protections, they couldn’t put any video file longer than one minute into their Dropbox accounts.

When students had video off of their iPads, they opted not to use our Lenovo tablets’ native Windows Movie Maker, which really is awful in Windows 7, but opted instead to edit the video at home on Macs with the full version of iMovie. I found this really interesting, and wonder if Microsoft hasn’t punted a bit on their formerly useful Movie Maker software as a concession to the primacy of Macintosh in this arena. The Windows Live adaption is just weird and I can’t understand how this is better for users. Final video products, which I will share once I ask students for permission, show decent fluency with the medium, but also show clearly the limitations of the iPad for academic or amateur quality video products.

The verdict is clear. No students said they would edit video on the iPad. Only three said they would shoot video with their iPad again, and several said they would rather use their smartphones. The limitations of the iPad for quality media production appear obvious.

Digital Footprints, Networking, & Conformity

My school recently did a digital footprint exercise with our students, asking them to Google themselves and check out Intel’s Museum of Me. I found our the exercise interesting not so much for the ah-ha moments, which some students had, but for what I didn’t see. Truly, most students are on board with the basic concepts of what might be called digital citizenship or understand how to cloak their poor decision making with anonymity, protecting their footprint while being a poor digital citizen. Basically, I didn’t see surprise; I saw students who pretty quickly grasped the concept of building a positive digital footprint so that a namesake on MySpace can’t cast too long of a shadow over their relatively good names.

However, they’re not too worried about college admissions or job prospects, and I think that what I want to call the Dan Allen Effect is to blame for this. Like a kid in a giant metropolis, they see the odds are in their favor and don’t see that the graffiti is likely to lead to big problems down the line. They’re happy to have all the other Dan Allens create so much white noise that they can operate happily unnoticed. I calculated my digital footprint using the tool linked to Moodle and I’m well over a terabyte and climbing. That’s a lot of white noise. I can’t decide if I agree or if I see this as a self-defeating, tragedy of the commons sort of problem.

The other piece that I have sympathy for is that they hear a message to conform and blow it off. Articles like the USA Today bit just sound ridiculous – post a list of people who share the same name as me? Looking past the redundancy that seems so obvious to me, does it look worse that I cyberstalk my namesakes or that some dude in West Virginia with my name also goes by Tweek on his forgotten MySpace profile? The subtext of these pieces is submit and be predictable.

What I like much more is a focus on the power of networking and networking literacy. Like Clay Shirky points out, transparency is a sharing of ourselves in order to get back more in return, what he sometimes calls reputational capital, amongst other benefits. Surfing through my different groups of Facebook friends, I quickly see the social norms of their closest social group and cultural context; the Kyrgyz kids are sharing Pan-Turkish media and political messages, the folks from my small town deride the hippies at Occupy Wall Street and shout for them to get a job, and the members of my Peace Corps group post messages of OWC solidarity. I would argue that these people are creating identities and reflecting their identities beyond virtual networks in ways that they also do in the bazaar, at the tackle shop, or while waiting for the barista. Kids do the same thing in social networks, reflecting the identities that they think will win them the most reputational capital, or cool points, and are at their best when they employ these tools ethically, to contribute and build.

Of course, kids are slow to see social pressure as a force of conformity and quick to view messages from the elderly (like me) as demands for conformity. My bet is that the kids who will try risky, thoughtless, or silly behaviors online to look cool at one moment for a particular group are the same who will try these behaviors offline. When I was in Berlin, I saw a great quote from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “True education is concerned not only with practical goals but also with values.” I wonder if, amidst all the furor about digital footprints and citizenship, we should focus more explicitly on the nature of the behaviors we value, on footprints and citizenship. I know that we do this already, but the relationship is so clear to our discussion that it bears mentioning. By teaching kids to use their power to be positive contributors for their own sake, if not for the sake of others, empowerment might overcome the urges to be destructive to self or others. If not, at least we’d be exposing the values we teach rather than keeping them implicit, which sometimes feels coercive to me.

I Flip the Classroom, Sort Of

I maintain deep and abiding distrust of the “flipped classroom” model, because I see it largely as just the same boring lectures with more time to drill, baby, drill in the standardized testing-focused classroom. However, I see the possibilities of refining and recording moments of direct instruction for students via video lectures. Since I am missing two days of my IB course this week due to an adventure day with grade 10 and an IB conference (oh, sweet irony), I decided to revisit the mini-lecture from today and record the rest of the instruction I would try to give individually or in small groups as kids worked over the next two classes via screencasting. The focus of the series is “Essay Skills,” focusing on dissecting a prompt, writing a thesis statement, and organizing an outline while revising a thesis statement.

I used Jing and put the videos together in Camtasia Studio, thanks to a free 30 day trial. I managed to complete all of the screencasting, but then found that I only had the audio for the first two pieces of three. I was aiming for around 15 minutes total in length for all three videos and that should be about right. I’ve really doubted how useful this model would be for kids in the reading and composition classroom and am interested to hear student feedback after my return. I’ve embedded the videos below and welcome any feedback.

 

 

The iPad 2 for Learning – Podcasting Project Reflection

My Digital Journalism class has finished their podcast news reports and the process was as interesting as the products. We began this project by listening to model podcasts, such as Radiolab’s amazing short “Four Track Mind.” Once students listened to some models, they edited our English department’s oral presentation rubric, resulting in this modified podcasting rubric, which I expect to modify further. Students sought to build upon earlier news reports in these podcasts, so the subject matter was not an obstacle.

Students worked in a variety of processes. Some students recorded all their audio on the iPad in Garageband. Others downloaded free apps, recorded in those apps, and offloaded to laptops; still others recorded everything on their 1 to 1 laptops. In my opinion, the most fluent and engaging podcasts were those created entirely in the iPad. Students couldn’t upload their podcasts to their blogs via the Posterous iPhone app and the files were too big for Dropbox, so they emailed the files to themselves and uploaded them. Each student reflected briefly on the process and product once they were finished and all podcasts linked below include a reflection. All podcasts shared here are shared with student and parent permission.

The podcasts show incredible attention to the conventions of media, suggesting to me that “digital natives” may not come into the classroom equipped with media creation skills, but that they do bring with them a vast experience with media consumption and a finely tuned sense of how to sound cool in a medium. The structure of our course is discovery learning, so students struggled a bit at first, and then built a good deal of fluency in the podcast medium in only a week or so. This podcast features excellent aural variety, an engaging voice, good sound quality, and smooth editing. The subsequent reflection is here. This podcast mimics many aspects of the Radiolab model and even spins some conventions onto their head, messing around with a lighthearted sense of ironic awareness even in their first attempt. The second example is also a pair project, self-selected by the students. One student took the lead and allowed the other to stretch his legs a bit with the language and acting portion of the podcast, but also covering for some technological discomfort on his partner’s behalf. The reflection briefly alludes to this. For their current video project, all students will produce a single video, even if working in groups, in order to build skills in this introductory unit. The final podcast example is smooth and straightforward, lacking the depth and complexity of the other two, but featuring good use of details and facts, as well as a clear speaking voice and subtle use of radio-style conventions. The final reflection shows depth and specificity about the process employed.

The iPad works well for podcasting, but even as I made one myself as a teaser for a “Speed Geeking” professional development opportunity this week, I found that I liked playing with music on the iPad but preferred building the podcast in Audacity. In our current video introductory project, I see more laptop use. Students seem to be recording video on the iPad and transferring it to MovieMaker. We’ll see what they wind up doing in the end.