Reviewing the Flat Classroom Pedagogy & Structure

In reviewing the Flat Classroom Project wikis, I was struck by how much has changed even since I first participated with a class. The projects keep evolving and improving, but they also seem to be getting increasingly complicated. I raise this point because there is an inherent complexity to the nature of the Flat Classroom Project, no question about that. However, complexity should never be confused with complicated. Complexity is desirable, challenging and invigorating for students. Complicated is undesirable, labyrinthine and confusing for students. As the scale of these projects continue to grow, there needs to be safeguards to limit how complicated the project gets while preserving its complexity. Of course this is easily said than done, but seems well worth pursuing. Nevertheless, the benefits continue to far outweigh any drawbacks.

Since first participating, I have thought that the central pedagogy of the Flat Classroom Project, a collaborative group wiki and a primarily individually student produced video, was a genius pairing of tasks. Still do. In fact, I have convinced my own team of ninth grade teachers of its merits, and we are developing a stripped down localized riff on the same premise, collaborative video and individual video.

As an English teacher these projects offer a lot of different kinds of composition opportunities, text, multimedia, individual, and collaborative. Very few, if any, projects provide the volume of opportunities in the a single project. Add to that the exposure to the number of tools, students are asked to think deeply about a range of issues related to producing multiple demonstrations of their understanding about a topic. The must engage in a substantial amount of reading, writing, and viewing as they conduct research. There is a fundamental inquiry disposition. In turn, there are significant demands to synthesizing the information gathered. Ultimately, creating two separate but related products.

The wiki component, which is primarily text based, requires understanding the rhetorics of hyperlinking, citation and referencing sources, as well as rich media content integration. These requirements, while rooted in traditional text-based composition practice, call for more than traditional research paper assignments and even eclipse many multi-genre research assignments. Combine this with the collaborative nature of the product development and there are multiple opportunities for deep and varied skill development as well as differentiation.

One of the other less obvious strengths of the collaborative wiki is that involves writing, but it is writing that is situated in such a way that it demands conversation among participants and involves a significant degree of explicit and implicit negotiation. It also provides a challenge to certain traditional notions of authorship, which present a variety of choices to each individual writer participant. All are supremely authentic writing experiences. Moreover, without a single individual being responsible for all creation, each individual can contribute their strengths and continue to develop areas of weakness. This outcome can be strengthened through direct observation and interventions as well as the design of the assessments.

The video component, which is primarily visually based, requires understanding of basic design principles, grammar of motion pictures, as well as a host of audio and visual production techniques. These requirements, rooted in media composition practice that is both old and new, call for far more than levels of communication than a typical written assignments and inherently furnish interdisciplinary connections. Creating a multimedia artifact is primarily an individual task, with the exception of an outsourced clip, extends opportunities for varied and differentiated levels of production experience.

The less obvious strength of the video is also related to writing. However, this is the digital writing, for lack of a better phrase. Many, if not all, elements of authorial skill and craft are at play in the development of a multimedia artifact. It provides technical challenges that also present a number of choices to the creator. Plus, the task begs for the employment of documentary techniques, which mirror development of traditional text-based essay but renders a richer, more expressive product. It is the more independent task of the two and allows for greater individuality of expression and assessment.

Together these core aspects of the project are a rare combination of products to accompany the completion of a project. For one, most projects render a single product. Additionally, most projects lead to a product that is either an individual achievement or the result of a group effort.  The Flat Classroom Project affords a lot of economy of instruction, where multiple wide-ranging demands, result in deep engagement with higher order thinking skills and involve two separate demonstrations of understanding.

One area that does warrant systematic and frequent review is the number of tools that are necessary for full participation in the project. This is where the projects can grow more complicated than complex. Of course part of what drives the various versions of The Flat Classroom Project is a commitment to Web 2.0 tools. Additionally, the projects encourage participants to develop their own personal learning environments. As a result, an ecology of Web 2.0 tools can play apart in both the administration and participation of the project.

Within this ecology there are both critical features and unnecessary redundancies. Add to this the individual preferences of each teacher and class full of participants and suddenly the list of potential tools used grows pretty long. This can at times hinder more than enhance productivity and can lead to a certain degree of fatigue, especially regarding inter-project communication. It also tends to be at the main intersection of confusion for students.

Considering there is only so much that can be accomplished within the given time frame of the projects, it is critical that each potential new tool must be examined closely and pass a high critical threshold before being folded into the project. It is particularly important for organizers to demonstrate a circumspect restraint. Choices about additional tools that individual classes or students self-select is and should remain free and open. It is primarily in the list of tools needed for teachers to administrate and students to fully participate that needs to stay as lean as possible.

I do think that the forthcoming Flat Classroom book may well provide enough prerequisite understandings for any teachers contemplating participation. Yet the pace of change in Web 2.0 tools will always necessitate some vigilance in this aspect of the projects.

Still, one of the greatest virtue of The Flat Classroom Project is the pedagogical framework. it is flexible and can easily be modified to suit many purposes and has a certain degree of overall content neutrality, while promoting progressive methods of technology integration and skill development.

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