Inside NCI

During 2007-08, I held a Fulbright Chair position at the National College of Ireland, located in Dublin.

It was a great experience for me at a place, which is very different from the University of Illinois in scale, but with surprisingly many common interests, especially in areas such as community studies, learning, and computing. In case you’d like to see more about the College, you could look at the February issue of Inside NCI, just out.

The student as the axis of change in the university

Univest 08 I just returned from the Univest 08 conference: The student as the axis of change in the university, which was held on June 2-3 in Girona, Spain. There were excellent presentations and discussions, for me aided considerably by simultaneous translation from Spanish or Catalan into English.

I thought that it worked very well to have students respond to the major presentations. It’s also hard to think of a more pleasant place to hold a conference than Girona, with outstanding restaurants, a beautiful old city, large parks, rivers, and great museums.

Girona wall, cathedralOne motivation for the conference was the European Convergence Process, a scheme to make Europe competitive with the United States in tertiary education. Beginning in 2010, more than 40 European countries will participate in the European Space for Higher Education, in which students, professors, and researchers will be able to move about without borders.

img_73581The aim of the process, which began in 1999 in Bologna is to produce a higher-quality, more homogeneous system, which is also more competitive in its teaching methods. A hope is that it will help build a society based on European knowledge, manifesting in culture and education the convergence that is already underway in the political and economic arenas.

The conference brought together teachers, students, administrators, and people from government and industry around topics, such as:

  • Student-centered instructional planning
  • Learner self-regulation
  • Student supervision and tuition
  • Student participation in university life
  • Experiences outside the classroom

My own talk was on student-centered learning, particularly on helping students by getting them to focus not on themselves, but instead on their communities.

Technology in Docklands Education

One of the most interesting experiences for me this year in Dublin was to work with Abi Reynolds and Leo Casey on the Technology in Docklands Education (TIDE) project. The aim was to meet with 24 Docklands-area schools and other partners to investigate the current use of technologies in teaching and learning, to document their experiences, and to report on current and future needs. Most of the schools are in one of the DEIS categories (officially disadvantaged). You can see the entrance to one of the TIDE schools, the St. Vincent’s Girls School on North William St., in the first photo.

St Vincent\'s, North William StThe research design involved face-to-face interviews with principals and teachers, followed by an online survey. We learned about the school library, computer resources, interactive whiteboards, digital cameras, and other resources. We also observed some ICT-based activities in the classrooms or neighborhood.

For the analysis, we used scenario-based design (Carroll & Farooq, 2005) to describe the current situation and to identify needs. This led to producing scenarios of use—stories about exemplary projects, such as a stop-action animation involving Little Red Hens (see second photo). We also identified scenarios of support—stories of ways that the schools could be helped to enhance learning.

Visiting the schools gave me a good sense of education in inner-city Dublin, but also of the local communities. I became familiar with landmarks such as Five Lamps, Sheriff Street, and Ringsend, and learned about how Fairview Park near the River Tolka originated through landfill.

Many of the joys and challenges in the schools seemed similar to what I’ve seen in schools in China, Australia, Russia, the US, etc. But I also found myself expecting to be surprised as each school revealed its own special identity. One Principal told us that they had a large population of Filipino children, in part related to the demand for health care workers in the nearby hospitals. He said it had transformed his school, with all of the children becoming more interested in language, culture, and geography.

References

Bruce, Bertram C., & Reynolds, A. (2010, February, in press). Technology in Docklands education: Using scenarios as guides for teaching and research. Educational Studies, 36(1).

Carroll, J. M., & Farooq, U. (2005). Community-based learning: Design patterns and frameworks. In H. Glllersen, K. Schmidt, M. Beaudouin-Lafon, & W. Mackay (Eds.), Proceedings of the 9th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (Paris, France, September 18-22, 2005), pp. 307-324. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Our presentation to the Principals and teachers:

The Fís Book Club

Fis Book Club

The Fís Book Club has received an enthusiastic response from schools here in Ireland, and now in the UK. Fís means “vision” in Irish, and also stands for Film in Schools. It’s been developed at the Institute of Art, Design, and Technology in Dun Laoghaire.

The Fís Book Club is essentially a web-place where children post video book reviews based on their independent reading. The methods for making and posting the reviews are simpler and more straightforward than on other sites I’ve seen, thus allowing the focus to be on the reading and response.

The collected video book reports form a child-friendly online video Book Review Catalogue, which is accessible only to the participating schools. Teachers and children within the project can watch the videos of other children’s book reviews, find books they might like to read, or compare responses. There are no advertisements in the site.

Learning at work seminar

Learning at Work Seminar

The National Centre for Partnership and Performance (NCPP) and National College of Ireland are today hosting the Learning at Work Seminar: Practical Responses to the Future Skills Challenge.

Participants will discuss responses to the challenge posed in video case studies, as well as learn about:

  • Organizing learning opportunities
  • Public and private-sector workplace initiatives
  • What motivates people to take up skills courses
  • How to nurture a learning culture
  • Blended learning

My slides are below:

The fountain of knowledge

Edessa waterfallsWhereas many Greek towns might be dusty and dry, Edhessa (Έδεσσα) is lush and wet. Much of it is free of cars as well. The reason is a river cascading down from the mountains to the north. It flows through the town, allowing park spaces along the banks and a complex array of paths and bridges crisscrossing the waters. Then, at the edge of the old town (Varossi), the river descends rapidly, culminating in two large waterfalls, which I came to see as fountains of knowledge.

Following the Networked Learning Conference earlier last week in Halkidiki, Greece, we had headed west through Thessaloniki to the region around Edessa. This is where Alexander the Great was born and where his father, Phillip II and Aristotle went to to school together. It includes what are now the major archaeological sites of Vergina, the site of the ancient Macedonian royal city of Aegae, and Pella, the later capital. Alexander, of course, was the one whose conquests spread Hellenistic culture throughout Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, and eventually the entire Persian Empire, going as far as India. Supposedly, he slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow throughout the campaign. His exploits might not represent the origin of the knowledge, but they certainly helped it flow and created an early version of a global culture.

The oracles of Delphi and other sites might allow Greeks to claim the fountain of knowledge. Towns with names like Grammatico make one feel that love of knowledge is intrinsic to daily life. Add in the beginnings of Western science and philosophy and the whole nation would seem to be a bubbling fountain of knowledge, if it just weren’t so sunny and dry!

Edessa libraryI thought we might be approaching the fountain when we came to Meixa, the location of Aristotle’s school (from the Greek schole), where Alexander had studied. But it was just north of there in Edessa, that the fountain revealed itself.

The pleasure of experiencing the water town was only enhanced for me when we visited the wonderful town library. Staff there helped us access the internet and told us more about Edessa.

The library has a unique logo combining two of my favorite things, books and water. It suggests that the ideas of Plato, Sophocles, Hippocrates, Thucydidies, Heraclitus, and all the rest flow from the library, providing pleasure for the mind as the cataracts do for both body and mind. I like the way the logo incorporates the @ sign, too. Fortunately, knowledge is never owned by any one time, place, or people, but Edessa and its library make as good a claim as any to being its source.

Make your own electronic whiteboard

One of the more interesting, and on-going, inquiries around technology and learning is related to a device–a low-cost, multi-touch, interactive whiteboard using a Wiimote. As most people know, an interactive whiteboard is a large interactive screen on which a projector can mirror a computer’s display. Users can then control the computer using a special pen, finger, or other device. They’re used in a variety of settings including classrooms at all levels, work groups, broadcasting, etc., but cost thousands of dollars. A Wiimote is the remote controller from the Nintendo Wii computer game, which costs just a few hundred.

Johnny Chung Lee, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, has a variety of interesting projects involving human-computer interaction. He discovered a way to build an interactive whiteboard using a Wiimote. His version is portable and can be built for a tiny fraction of the cost of a commercial whiteboard. He’s recently come out with the Wiimote Whiteboard v0.2.

Lee’s inquiry continues with his writing and reflections in his blog, procrastineering. There he writes:

One of the great, unexpected, and perhaps most influential aspects of creating these videos has been how many people they have inspired and sparked an innovative spirit in. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from young students that express this enthusiasm. But, perhaps one of the best testimonials is this news article about kids in the Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School’s Lego Club in Williamsburg, VA. The students there, led by Kofi Merritt, are getting excited about innovating in technology by creating their own electronic white boards.

Merritt worked with four fifth-graders and a parent volunteer to build the whiteboard. It’s a great example of making the tools for one’s own inquiry.

Best stories for digital story (re-)telling

Digital storytelling can be for any kind of story, but one application I see a lot in schools is essentially responding to a story by retelling it in a digital form, often with interesting rewriting done by the students. This is carried out using software such as Comic Life or PhotoStory, or sometimes with full video. There’s often the use of clay or puppet animation.

I’ve seen all sorts of stories and media used, such as claymation in a 1st-grade class around The Little Red Hen or in a third grade around The Three Little Pigs. You can see in my blog a post about The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog in a fourth grade.

A teacher asked me whether there were any best stories for this, especially in the context of introducing the technology to other teachers. Other than thinking that stories with distinctive characters and action plots lend themselves well to digital storytelling, I hesitated to recommend any particular stories. But he wanted to have some suggestions of what has worked well, or is likely to work well, in terms of engaging students and making good use of the media.

Do you have any experience with this, or suggestions about his question?

Ching-Chiu Lin, who works in this area, says:

I thought about an article in Art Education that discusses ways that illustrators tell stories in picture books, such as pace of turning the pages and arrangement of images (see below). Instead of seeking exemplary books for teachers to use, another suggestion is to think about the possibilities of transforming/applying these artistic storytelling styles into digital form.

For example, David Wiesner’s Tuesday and Flotsam (style of combination and arrangement of images) may encourage students to write their own unique stories (scripts) based on the same images they view. The use of diagonals and geometric patterns in Gerald McDermott’s Anansi The Spider may be easy for younger students to making their videos by using the collage style animation. Or students can use a story from one book and represent it by borrowing another book’s style.

This line of thinking may help teachers not only thinking about the story itself, but also ways of presentation, learning objectives, and learners’ prior knowledge.

Eubanks, P. (1999). Learning to be a connoisseur of books: Understanding picture books as an art medium. Art Education, 52(6), 38-44.

Dáil na nÓg Fairsay campaign

The Youth, Media and Democracy conference concluded yesterday at Dublin Institute of Technology. There was an excellent program, with presentations from youth groups using a variety of media–film (documentaries, personal stories, what-ifs), comics, hip hop, remix (VJ-ing, web video mashups), object animation, radio, and more. There were also interesting talks about the Fresh Film Festival, media policy, the 5th World Summit on Media for Children held in Johannesburg, the Story of Movies, Digital Hub FM, and much more.

I was also impressed with the Dáil na nÓg campaign to encourage mainstream media to provide more balanced coverage of youth, especially to show the diversity of youth activities and not just negative images. A small group of Dáil na nÓg representatives has conducted this campaign, called Fairsay. They’ve had multiple meetings with media and policy makers, assisted by Anne O’Donnell from the Office of the Minister for Children.

Dáil na nÓg means “youth parliament”. Young people come as representatives of their local area to tell decision makers in Government what they think of issues that affect their daily lives.

The young Dáil na nÓg representatives gave excellent presentations and participated fully in panel discussions, demonstrating by their presence how young people can learn social responsibility, communication skills, and connected understanding through active civic participation.

So, it’s ironic that the Fairsay work is only partly sanctioned by the schools. For example, when they were waiting for a media callback they had to have their mobile phones on vibrate during class. When a call came it had to be taken down the hall in the study room. The classroom might be a place to teach about government or media, but not to actively engage with it.

Any teacher knows the many distractions available today for young people, mobile phones being near the top of the list. Still, it’s unfortunate that we can’t find better ways (this applies to US schools even more) to make actually participating in democracy take precedence over just talking about it. The young people at the conference showed how they could use media in diverse ways to move beyond the spectator role to become active participants.

Slow learning

Many people would say that new technologies speed up life, indicated by terms such as “fast forward” or “multitasking.” The same people might add that because young people live in a fast-paced, digitally-enhanced world, we need to change schooling accordingly. If we don’t use technologies to match their pace, we’ll lose them. Moreover, there is so much more to learn today. We need to use podcasts, mobile technologies, video, on-demand resources, blogs, SMS, and other tools to speed up learning for the millenial generation.

Other people question the rush to new learning technologies. They argue that it’s good to learn in a slow, considered, and reflective way. Better to immerse oneself in a book, to read, even re-read difficult passages. Schooling should counter, not acquiesce to, the blur of modern life.

This debate is unlikely to reach an easy resolution. But as is often the case, the polar opposites here share some unquestioned assumptions. Both seem to think that the new technologies accelerate; they just disagree about whether that’s a good or bad thing.

However, when I’ve observed learning in classrooms with a thoughtful use of new technologies, I’ve often seen the contrary: Learning seems stretched out or slowed down. For example, in my last post about The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog, I talked about a primary-level class doing digital storytelling around a book they had read. They built dioramas for scenes in the story, constructed clay figurines for the characters, photographed events in each episode, wrote narration for the scenes, checked grammar and spelling, and eventually created a photostory. This took many class sessions and involved discussions about the story, choices in design and presentation, and referring to the text for details. Certainly the new technologies (digital camera, computer) made it easier to carry out aspects of the project. But the overall effect was to engage the students in a deeper, more critical form of reading and response.

During this time, they didn’t read as many stories as they might have, or write as many words. One might say that their learning slowed down. At the same time it had become more substantive and meaningful. In contrast, their usual activities are sometimes rushed and unreflective.

So now, I’d like to flip the debate. Those who embrace the new technologies need to say that they’re good, not because they accommodate the fast pace of modern life, but because they slow it down. And those who oppose them need to realize that we often use the old tools in cursory, shallow ways which might be corrected with new technologies.