Reflections on Unit 4: Looking, Seeing, and Visual Literacy

Image: Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.

Having graduated high school and beginning my university studies as an art major only to eventually graduate with a bachelor of fine arts in theatre, visual literacy is an area that has been something on my radar for a long time.

Once I entered the field of education, I quickly surmised teachers who understand elements of design  are at a distinct advantage. Educators create and generate an enormous amount of media for their curriculum and students. Given that all media is constructed, good design is one of the primary factors in determining the quality and success of media generated.

Importance of Visually Literacy

Quite simply, we see before we speak. We see even before we reason. We see long before we learn to read.

Visuals can be universal and a way that we communicate when our language breaks down. For that reason alone visual literacy is necessary, especially in an ever increasing global community.

Perhaps it is the immediacy and utility of sight that fools us. Initially, we tend to think that everyone sees what we see. In the most simplistic terms, this may be true but intuitively we know it is not quite accurate. It takes considerable time to fully realize everyone does not see what we individually see, that it is far more complicated than all that. Gaining visual literacy aids in this understanding.

I tend to agree with Brian Kennedy in the idea that everything is an image. Yet I also advocate that we need to expand our notion of text.

I think this is because the principle way we interact with visuals is to see, whereas the principal way we interact with text is to read but we must get to the reading action in visuals to become literate. That is where the work is to be done.

I like the idea that the single word literacy be all-encompassing, much like the New London Group’s concept of “multiliteracies.” In my mind, “multiliteracies” should de facto mean literacy.

Design Principal Teach to Students

For me, the first principle I share with students is a meta one that all media is constructed. Regardless of format, genre, whatever, all media is designed and constructed to communicate and on some level influence. I start from there. Everything else follows.

Consequently, I try to have students zero in on how they feel about something as a precursor to what they think. I have often believed that feelings are not given nearly enough attention in school as a gateway to thinking. Once students can identify how they feel in response to an image, text, music, or whatever, we can begin to ask why and how.

Deconstructing communication in a way to reveal how and why it works and makes us feel what we feel is a pretty powerful way to begin.

From there, I zero in on the mother of all design principles ‑ composition. For me, it is the one that has the most crossover with creative efforts of all kinds. How and why all the other elements and principles are combined and put together. So whether we are looking at images, text, video, or music we have a common language to begin our investigation.

I have often begun the discussion of composition after screening the video below. It is one of the better introductions that I have found that has broad reach and application.

Reflections on Unit 3: Flipping, Loading, and EdPuzzling

flickr photo shared by highlights6 under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.

Redefining Flipped Learning

I remember first hearing about two science teachers from Colorado (Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams) doing some interesting things with video in the classroom really early on, almost ten years ago. I had come across some story on television, I think, or perhaps just Internet travels. At the time, it was kind of a novel idea. Use video to present lectures and make the classroom a laboratory was the gist of how it most understood it.

That was before the term “flipped” became part of educational parlance and its own kind of niche cottage industry. Of course, I am not sure that the above oversimplification was ever entirely accurate. Still, it was an interesting idea.

Almost more interesting is recalling just how challenging creating videos were when this idea began to truly get legs. At the time, Bergmann and Sams were garnering attention for their work, creating instructional video was no easy task. Now almost everyone is walking around with a mobile video studio in their pocket with more than enough free tools to enable flipping almost everything about a class. In fact, it is easier than ever to synchronously facilitate a class from a remote location even.

Precursor to Flipped: Traditional English Instruction

As a former English teacher, I would even suggest that English teachers had been flipping their classes long before there was even a term for it. In nearly every English course I can ever remember taking the remit was pretty flipped, read the book at home and work on it with related activities during class.

A good English class might replace the laboratory aspect of a science class with a workshop model but the essential shift and effect remain similar.

Articulating that essence, however, is where a more nuanced understanding and redefinition occurs.

Creating and Loading Experiences

If I carry the workshop model a little further, class time is about students doing things, actively engaged in some work that invites learning. At the core, this is what Jackie Gerstein is getting at when she references Dewey and writes in blogpost The Flipped Classroom Model: A full Picture, “It is the teacher’s responsibility to structure and organize a series of experiences .” In my mind, class time should be primarily devoted to structured and organized experiences. This is not exclusive to flipped classrooms but is an essential component of one.

There is another wrinkle in the flipped notion that I think is more subtle and often ignored. As typically explained, it is easy to fall into the belief that flipping is a patterned sequence of video based introductions that students view prior to class, be they lectures or some other presentational format. It is essentially a front-loading model. Yet, that is entirely misguided. Back-loading can be just as effective if not more so.

Again, Gerstein’s Flipped Classroom Model encourages this back-loaded sequence. The Experience phase is most likely constructed as an in-class activity. Of course, it doesn’t need to be but the interactive, engagement aspect suggests that it happens in real-time. The What phase is where the flipping most likely occurs, which students can complete outside of class.

Recognizing that flipping can both front or back load class sessions is a far more liberating idea. Not only does it open up greater possible applications of flipping, it broadens the possible resources and strategies that sensibly qualify as flipping. Instead of using video to exclusively introduce a concept, video can serve to summarize, review, consolidate, or raise entirely new questions.

Forgotten Power of Audio

I would even push further to advance the idea that video is not necessary for a flipped lesson. Audio is an often overlooked resource but can serve just as well as video, in some case it may even be preferable.

I would even push further to advance the idea that video is not necessary for a successful flipped lesson. Audio is an often overlooked resource but can serve just as well as video, in some case it may even be preferable. Students can listen to media even easier than they can watch it. Plus, audio travels better than video, making it easier to engage while on the bus, in the car, or walking.

With the long and steady rise of podcasts and other archived radio production, there is a nearly untapped trove of resources available. There may not be quite the same search functionalities as video already has, but video search is not exactly fantastic either, to be fair.

Personal Impact of Flipped Learning

Honestly, I am not entirely sure that I completely buy the notion of flipped learning. On one level, there is a part of me that thinks it is a great idea, although not terribly new. However, on another level, I fell like it is just one more phrase that has been consumed by the edtech Tower of Babbel, where terms go to become so muddy they cease to really have any value or mean anything.

I must admit that the things that I have done that resemble a flipped model, I have rarely ever thought of that lesson as being flipped. Oddly, almost anytime I have made a deliberate effort to conceive of a lesson as being flipped it has gone terribly. So, I continue to remain not entirely sure about it all.

Yet, I have begun playing with EdPuzzle for the first time. I had heard of it, but never really investigated it until the last week. This session’s Hangout with Quim Sabria was one of the more interesting to me for that fact. The mere fact that this one of the newest elements to me that we have covered in the course so far seized my attention.

After playing around with it a little, I am more intrigued and want to actually explore it further. There are definitely some things that interest me, like the layering of the content development. Where the found video only becomes a foundation for a more customized experience. I believe there might be some real power in adding EdPuzzle to a constellation of other tools for a richer student experience but I am going to reserve judgment for awhile.

Perhaps most striking about this investigation into flipped learning is that it reminded me of the power of students making their own instructional videos. This is something that my colleague Lorelle Govoni really embraced recently to exceptional effect, in my opinion.


Reflections on Unit 2: Project Based Learning and Derivatives

flickr photo shared by Brande Jackson under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.

Looking Back

The project based learning unit only affirms my idea that projects offer many of ideal learning opportunities that teachers hope students create. Through projects, there is an economy of learning that goes on that is hard to match in a more discrete, linear unit-based approach. When constructed well, projects afford students a broad array of knowledge and learning. They are deep into doing something. When that something matters to them those affordances only grow.

Projects amplify the notion that learning is complex, messy, and often does not follow a sequential pattern.

Consequently, this complex messiness does not easily fit in an environment obsessed with standardization and test metrics. It can work but by no means is hand-in-glove. Of course, being messy, complex, and not sequential in nature is also what makes them so problematic. They violate traditional norms of schooling that continue to generate a lot of inertia.

Of course, it is not at all that black and white.Clever teachers have been devising creative projects as a context for deep, dynamic learning for years. So projects have been around nearly forever and, in this way, project based learning has a rich tradition all its own, existing long before the trendy label.

However, pairing student agency with project based learning in this unit cleverly connected two elements that go a long way toward creating an environment where genuine learning can happen. Yet, the very nature of that environment belies efforts toward standardization and the like.

For the student to truly possess freedom, they must have the opportunity to explore, experiment, fail, and repeat.

Too often that opportunity is cut short in an environment that values test scores and easy accountability over other indicators of learning. Outcomes that can be gleaned from projects tends to be more qualitative and often considered, sadly, too soft in comparison to the normed, standardization of International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement efforts. Again, the two are not premade for a good fit.

Yet, if teachers are to create environments for students to be faced with exercising their own agency, there are few opportunities that can deliver so fully as project based learning or one of its many derivatives.

Looking Ahead

I hope that in a year’s time student agency grows considerably. Everyone learns by doing and it is in the doing that student agency can be released and exercised. By creating environments that encourage choice, narration of the work, and reflection, student agency can be strengthened considerably.

In line with this thinking, I especially like the idea of providing a loose collection of options that can demonstrate learning and allow students to choose which ones would best suit them, even opening the possibility for something altogether original. This would provide some structural supports without limiting outlying possibilities.

The options might be a collection of learning tasks connected to a broader concept that might involve a project or larger product. Or maybe they are just a series of tasks that students can demonstrate their learning in a portfolio-like way. These tasks would be best if they were preparatory and included a spectrum of difficulty. In this way, they could build or lead to a project or larger product if the student desired. I also really like the idea of ranking learning tasks in terms of difficulty, especially with students crowdsourcing the rankings.

A lot of my thinking on these topics has been deeply informed by DS106. To me, it remains a shining example of how to construct a framework that does many of these things so well. From using things like the methodology to The Daily Create, Assignment Bank, and star difficulty rankings for individual assignments they have managed to build something where choice and agency is baked into the nature of the course.

I would love to implement a system that worked in a similar fashion, especially the star system, with the possibility of it facilitating a better, more organic self-directed project design. There are so many smaller tasks that are critical to research, project management, or engaging in deeper learning that give students a genuine reason to feel pride in what they have achieved. This goes for the work that I do with both students and teachers.

It is ambitious stuff.