Tag Archives: new media

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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A Flat Classroom Testimonial

After leading two freshmen English honors sections through a Flat Classroom Project experience each of the last two years, the prospect of joining the pilot certification program was an opportunity I couldn’t pass. Teaming up with Vicki Davis and Julie Lyndsay has been a fascinating and instructive journey. Thus, the opportunity to do so again in an even more formal setting was a pretty exciting prospect.

As part of the program, participants get a preview of the forthcoming Flat Classroom Project book. Any advanced preview is always a bit of a treat, fostering a feeling of specialness. In reading a draft of the second chapter, the testimonials made me think back on my experiences in the inaugural NetGenEd Project and subsequent original Flat Classroom Project. In retrospect, both experiences were highly successful but in very different ways.

Participating in the first NetGenEd Project was eyeopening for me, the students, key members of my school and district, to say the least. Having read about the first project on the ladies’ blogs, I envied them, feeling the ties of curriculum and wishing that I had the kind of freedom to engage in such an endeavor. So, I was quite surprised when the Technology Director and Integration Specialist approached me in early 2009 and asked if I would be interested in applying to participate in this new Flat Classroom-like project. To be honest, I am not sure that they believed I would be accepted, but I jumped at the chance. Three days later I was in and had to dive right in with a class of twenty-five freshmen. In a previous post, I wrote more extensively as I was preparing to jump in for another go.

Looking back on that first time, I remain amazed at how we got all twenty-five multimedia projects completed by the deadline. The Technology Integration Specialist attended every class during the project and was an amazing ally and advocate. I really couldn’t have pulled things off on my own. She rallied a lot of the resources we needed and had the administrative rights to deal with all of the technical obstacles that we would encounter, and there were a whole lot. I am quite fortunate that my school had a fair amount of available resources, a fact that has only gotten better and more sophisticated in the past couple of years. Yet, as my students and I embarked on that first project, we were really pushing the boundaries of what we were capable of accomplishing.

While we had more than enough PC laptops, they were at best a hodgepodge of missing drivers, limited battery life, and substandard multimedia software. We quickly found out just how poor a product Windows Movie Maker is, even though I was pretty sure we were headed for trouble. We broke any notion that our computers were really only used for basic Office software and surfing the Net. Consequently we were pressing the machines to perform in ways that they had not really been set-up to do.

In the final two day push to wrap the multimedia pieces, I had the twenty-five students frantically working and running into all kinds of unanticipated stoppages.  In addition to the regular presence of the Technology Integration Specialist, we had our Tech Support Specialist, Network Manager, video production teacher with two elite senior production student aids, and myself all assisting students to complete their videos. Also, the principal stopped into observe at one point. It was a pretty wild couple of class periods to say the least. Had I not possessed the technical skills and knowledge that I had, along with a fair amount of sheer determination and refusal to fail, we would have been in serious trouble. Still, the results were fantastic.

I spent about a week in post-project surveys and reflection on the project with the kids, who were fairly ambivalent about the whole affair. As I inquired and highlighted all of the things that they could explicitly say that they learned, their ambivalence lessened and they began to feel a certain amount of pride in how much they had achieved. Nothing they had ever done in school had been quite this ambitious, calling on so many different skills, and incorporating so many tools. All of the confusion started to dissipate.

Sure some students were still a little unsure about things, but that is always the case with any long project. More importantly, other people in the building had taken note. As a school, we had a much clearer idea of what it really took to fully engage in sophisticated, highly technology-driven efforts. Decision makers realized that most teachers, faced with the kind of technical obstacles we had overcome, could not be expected to be successful.

The next year as I prepared a group of nineteen freshmen for the Flat Classroom Project, I was supremely more confident and informed about how to shepherd a class through the experience. Plus, our school had switched to Macintosh computers and all of the technical problems that were experienced the previous year all but vanished. This time, I needed no additional technical support and led the group through the project solo. We had more and better audio/visual gear and computers that were much better suited for developing multimedia.

However, the timing of our involvement rendered the most serious challenge. Diving into the project so early in the year, meant that a lot of the students struggled more than the previous lot. The NetGenEd participants started the project over half way through the year and already had clear understanding of the class expectations, workload, and the privilege of being involved. The second time around we were barely a month into the new year. Most of the students were still dazed from the mere transition from the middle school. From a maturity and conceptual standpoint they simply were less ready for the fast and frenzied pace, let alone the initial confusion that is a normal part of Flat Classroom-like experience.

Ultimately, the second class had a more positive experience too, but the results were not quite as strong for the group. The one exception to that was the young woman in my class that ended up taking the grand prize and winning the multimedia competition. This was an enormous victory for a girl who was fighting back tears when we discovered an unanticipated technical problem involving screencasting, Flash, and iMovie that very nearly prevented her from submitting her work before the deadline.

Fortunately, the deadline was extended and, after a weekend of troubleshooting, I was able to convert all of her problematic footage into a form that she could then quickly assemble in a final cut. it proved to be neither easy or much fun and pushed my new MacBook to its capacity. I must have crashed the thing a dozen times while salvaging the footage. As good as her work was and deserving of mention, I can only wonder how much better it would have looked had she not encountered such tricky technical issues.

So, I guess this is my testimonial of sorts about my experience working on these projects. It has been fun reliving some of the trials and tribulations, especially when remembering how significant the challenges were and the quality of the outcomes. I absolutely believe that the students learn so much more than is quantifiable engaging in these projects.

The students may not always completely comprehend the connections to English class, but they all leave knowing that they got to do something completely different from what they have encountered in their education.  It is something intellectually challenging, conceptually deep, exceedingly current, and forces them to develop or hone a host of skills that schools typically don’t demand. That’s why even for those that still struggle with why we participated, I say, “When are you likely going to get another experience like this in school?” Their silence speaks resonantly.

Discussing Participatory Culture on Teachers Teaching Teachers

During the summer I attended the Boston Writing Project’s Summer Institute which made me a part of the network of education professionals that is the National Writing Project. As a representative from the Boston site, I also travelled to my first NWP Annual Meeting, in San Antonio this year.

While there I made it to a host of presentations and workshops, which will likely provide material for some time to come. All of them were fantastic. One specific session I attended,  Reading the Research: Media Education and Literacy in the 21st Century, was focused on on a white paper published by the New Media Literacies Project at MIT titled Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. It proved to be fascinating conversation with teachers of all different levels from around the country, encompassing media, technology, and 21st century literacies. There are even some photos from the session.

When asked to create a visual representation of our table’s thoughts on the article, we engaged in much metaphorical deliberation. Eventually, we settled on a rather creative synthesis that I sketched out in a hurry. It involved Harold, purple crayon in hand, creating a world where a king that had no clothes weighed scales of judgement, while his fool, Socrates, lectured on the unworthiness of living the unexamined life. As pretentious as it might sound out of context, it really was a rather nifty fusion of the table’s wide variety of viewpoints, which was no easy task.

The white paper that inspired all this semiotic silliness, although fairly lengthy, is definitely worth the read. In it are an array of interesting observations about challenges that education faces in addressing some of the emergent needs of living and working in the world today, with the ever-evolving new media developments. As a follow-up event, I was part of a panel discussion on a webcast episode of Teachers Teaching Teachers. Considering the fact that my listening to TTT on EdTechTalkis one of the primary reasons for my becoming involved with the National Writing Project in the first place it was a real treat. The podcast of the episode is now available for everyone to hear. Have a listen and let me know what you think.