April 23, 2007

Elk Noodle Soup, anyone?

Thankfully, this project went very well. I was able to learn from the problems that I encountered with the Advanced Photography project, leading to a website that will be very usable in the classroom after a few last edits, and a lot of authentic learning about not only landscape photography, but how to work together as a group whether in person or not. Where the last application, I was faced with a lot of unmotivated students, this group got excited about the tools and went above and beyond. One student taught himself some more advanced html code and volunteered to help with formatting for other students. Another small group of freshmen girls created an extra website about the fate of a female Elk, her roadkill husband, and the future of their family. The elk story wasn't Pulitzer prize winning fiction, but I felt that it represented how the technology not only made it easier to access and teach the same information, it created a more interactive and fun environment within which to do that learning, or additional learning. I know those girls worked outside of class to finish their project and that the three of them worked collaboratively in much the same way that I had modeled to the class for our main project.

The idea of collaborating all at one time on a document through Google docs was definitely a new one for my students. Of course for the most part, Google docs acts like a word document, but the linking of links, the idea of "publishing" to make things public, and how html code works, were new things to get used to... We started by gathering and citing images from the internet. Most students were not familiar with how to gain the url of only the jpg. Students needed to have basic web browsing skills, which most appeared to... By the end of the assessment most students were operating at higher levels of internet browsing, and were creating media content within the scaffolds of Google Docs and ArtsConnectEd, something which most of the students had not already done. There was a lot of procedural knowledge to learn and that was one of the main objectives of the project... to work in collaboration and to move from basic to more advanced skills in search, citation, and media transformation. Students largely were in an inquiry based activity where with basic scaffolding from the teacher they found content, chose what themes and techniques could be gleaned from what they saw and then put that into a format that could communicate all this to others. The content knowledge was authentic, but it wasn't gained from direct instruction via instructor, it was information that they "owned," through their own inquiry. The technologies that were a struggle became easy as students worked with them, because their understanding had risen.

The technology allowed a real world aspect otherwise inaccessible, that content could be viewed and reviewed by themselves, the instructor, and anyone else they wanted to invite. Both individual and group learning was had, so that the tasks could be accomplished. Students did need initial help from the teacher to understand the technology and the goals of the assignment, but from there they were able to quickly explore on their own, and get the results they wanted. Back to the freshmen girls that created the Elk website.... I had had those girls in a different class last semester and struggled to get two words out of them. The technology provided a platform for creativity and voice that I had not otherwise accessed from those students... and they provided it themselves.

So, if you've ever had a group project, raise your hand...

In my Digital Photography class, I did two applications, and this was the first. This class is largely quick to understand new concepts and is quite interactive. My idea was to try again, in a sense on using the internet for research (see my posts on the Advanced Photo class application), and creating a website as a learning experience that leaves behind an artifact. I also wanted the students to get more savvy with basic html code, and media remixing. I wanted it to be collaborative to build energy and share ideas. I also wanted citation to be a bigger priority, and to be more clear with the students in what I wanted.

A huge motivator for me in developing this lesson, was my excitement about the possibilities of Google Docs. I wanted them to see the possibilities for group work now in high school, not to mention the future possibilities for business etc. Google docs was new to me, so I wanted the final platform to be familiar. The result is that the final product would be published on ArtsConnectEd.

So, the plan is to have them work through a scaffolded process of gathering images, gleaning understanding by looking at them, summarizing themes, then sharing the themes with others through a website. The website will be a large group effort, but the individual parts will be created by a combination of small group and individual efforts, which contain accountability measures within them. My hope is that all the students will have fun, learn about two free web-based platforms, and learn content and procedural knowledge about landscape photography.

How do the History and English teachers do it?

Well, overall this project had mixed results. Initially, the students were very interested in the software, and exploring what it could do. When it came down to making the actual website, many students lost interest and didn't want to invest time in research and properly citing. I can think of a couple reasons for this. First, I am still fighting a mentality among the students that art is supposed to be a fun class with no homework. Second, out of 18 students, 13 are seniors with senioritis. Anyway...

The searches for photos and biographical information was more difficult than I thought. Even students that chose well known photographers struggled to find enough images. The school does not have scholarly subscriptions and many images were either embedded into museum websites or simply not present in the electronic databases the museums provided. Finding scholarly images was one struggle, but finding scholarly information was even more difficult. Students who chose contemporary photographers usually had no trouble finding photos, but also struggled with the biographical component of the requirement. The platform is basic enough that it can be used in different ways, but it doesn't scaffold citations in ways that some eduational technologies like TrackStar do.

Even though students were all doing similar tasks, this group was less likely to share techniques, information, and what they'd learned. As a result, in the end, even though the websites all had published urls, many of the students did not actually see, nor benefit from each others' work. The project had already extended past what I had anticipated, so we just moved on. This was my first integration and thus had a higher learning curve than the other two projects.

The research component was challenging, but when we got to the actual websites being turned in, the lack of citations was appalling. Many students lifted whole chunks of text word-for-word without references. When confronted, one student seemed surprised that this was an issue and gave the excuse that they didn't believe that they would be able to find the sites again (forget about taking responsibility for not having documented that in the first place). They showed even more surprise and slightly more embarrassment when informed that they could simply put portions of their text back into google as I had done.

This was the first time that I was teaching this class, and so even without the web access, I would have had them writing a paper, and likely faced the same issues of copyright and citations. Obviously, these are issues that many teachers face every day, but they were new to me, and I was unprepared for how clueless the students seemed to be about accountability and what to me is cheating. Before doing this assignment again, I would spend significant time addressing issues of copyright, citations, and consequences within the class and in federal and state law for copyright infringement.

ArtsConnectEd is somewhat self explanatory, but it is also not that intuitive as far as where tools are and what the site will even look like in the end. Without the inservice that I had, I would have been unlikely to use it within my classroom. Now, having used other technologies and media publishing platforms, I may not be as likely to use it in the future (ArtsConnectEd). On the other hand, now that I have used this for several projects, I am more familiar with it than some of the other platforms.

The technology allows for group learning, but within the context I set up, it really only provided individual learning... though, the potential exists to reuse these websites as resources to show other students (of what to do and not to do). If I were using ArtsConnectEd again, I would probably create a class login, so that I could also access all the projects, then spell check and basic editing could be done before reuse. In the end, the problems with this assignment weren't with the technology, but with the lack of scaffolding within the technology coupled with some inexperience on my part. Among other changes, I would provide a list of photographers that I had checked to see that sufficient resources existed on, along with some starting points. One thing missing from this project, that I liked in the (soon-to-be-discussed) landscape photography website was the positive nature of the interaction and motivation involved in making it a group effort. One idea would be to make this project into a webquest where the final product is a website, and roles coincide with pages that should appear on the site (i.e. biography, summary of major works, critique of work, influences from the past and on the future). As a project in the calendar of a semester class this would probably be more motivating, less time consuming, and a more interesting product.

Back to the Beginning

So, as I said in my first entry, the disadvantage of logging your blogs all at once, is that you run the risk of putting things out of order. At the start of the semester, when we began discussing our technology applications, I was sitting on a new technology which I had recently been trained in, but hadn't used. Enter: ArtsConnectEd. The tool that I had been trained in is called Art Collector and it allows students to do searches of all the digitally archived works from both the Institute of Art and the Walker Art Center. Students can immediately link to whatever information the museums have digitally linked to the works. Sometimes it is just the basic tombstone information... who, what, when, how. Sometimes, though, there is a write up on the artist, or the time period, or technique. So, it is a slick tool as just a search and learning tool. What I wanted to try with Art Collector, though, was the function that allowed gallery creation with text and images from elsewhere on the internet, for the purposes of writing a report on a photographer.

To start with, I introduced the task by having the students view a website I had made about a painter. Their instructions in general were to create a website (instead of a paper) on a photographer of their choice. They had to come up with 500-750 words on the biographical, factual information available about their photographer, and 500-750 words on the work of the photographer, including why they thought their work was significant, and a close look at one work. To me, this seemed a simple task that shouldn't take that long. Our kids write lengthy papers all the time, and I wasn't even going to be strict about formatting. We were, after all, in Photo class.

My hope was that the students would learn new information about a photographer that was creating or had created work that they liked or related to. I thought that the easing of formatting requirements would speed them up, and save me a few groans. I also hoped that in the end, I would have a group of websites and information that could be looked at by future students to learn about some significant photographers. I also thought that the idea of sharing websites would be interesting to them, and motivate them to do better work.

Delving into Trackstar, a successful experiment

While we are still experimenting in class with infrared, I think we are done using the TrackStar track this time around. Overall, I really feel that this technology accomplished what I wanted it to. This technology is very user friendly, both on the front end in producing the track, and on the back end when the student is trying to access the information. The user really only needs to understand where to enter the initial web address, then the track #. Beyond that, they need only point and click on the links, and navigate the individual pages. No html code is needed, and there are tutorials and examples on the homepage of the website.

This technology supports whatever kind of knowledge that is found on the internet, or that the teacher can activate using questions and notes above the viewing frame. In the example that we used in my class, I gave a short introduction, then students began by taking in images of infrared photography, and then reflecting in written form in their journals on what the "look" of this technique was. At this point, they have not been told, so they are using their visual observations to describe a form of photography that is really unique. Next, students looked at another gallery where a college student shows his infrared work, and offers various tips and tutorials. Most students only looked at his photos, the first time, but a number of students came back to his site without prompting, once they understood the basics of how the process worked. A wikipedia article summarized some scientific definitions of infrared and showed how infrared had been used in the past in film photography and also in more modern security systems. Finally, students watched a video on the procedure of make an infrared filter for their digital camera using household items and some scraps of exposed color film.

The technology allowed students to work through the information at their own pace, review as needed and reflect as they continued their learning. My preparation for teaching was focused on research and understanding, rather than tedious creation of documents, handouts, and photocopying. Students will also be able to access the information from home, if needed, both now and in the future. Future access of the information is not dependent on whether or not they purchased a textbook or lost the handout. In the initial reading of the track, the knowledge is individual, but once we had a group discussion it was clear that we were discussing shared knowledge. It was as if the students had been to the same lecture, or seen the same power point presentation. There is of course varied levels of understandings, but these can be assessed later in reading the journal reflections. By using this technology, students successfully and quickly moved from a surface understanding of infrared photography to creating a tool, then creating a product. All of this learning and processing was initially accessed, then sped along by access through technology, leading to authentic results in the world outside the computer.

Infrared sounds good, but I don't have time or money for an elaborate project at this point in the semester...

So, a colleague was describing a technique using digital cameras to capture infrared imaging. "Interesting," I thought, but he was rambling and we needed to get the theater set done in our after hours free time, so my mind was on other things. Later on, he brought it up again, intent on making sure I knew how to come across the information about this technique. "All you need is a television remote control to test if the camera can do it," he said. All you need to know is on this website, and it even has a video. My interest was finally piqued and I tagged the site he pulled up, to look at it later.

When I read and viewed the info on the Instructables website regarding Infrared photography, I realized that this was neither elaborate nor costly. If you haven't seen it before, let me put in a quick plug for Instructables. Here is a collaborative community on how to make whatever you can think of... It is like an educational listserve or chat room, but in 3-D. No, you don't get to see your little friends like in Second Life, but the meat of what you are talking about is illustrated in pictures and/or videos, and then people discuss it in comments below, critiquing or giving additional tips.

I was sold, but how to communicate this info to my students in an engaging, effective, authentic manner? How about quickly? I recorded some additional web research onto Google docs and within about 45 minutes, I had all the info I needed for a track on TrackStar. (316442, once you've hit the link). I actually started the research about 10 minutes before lunch, and I was getting so excited I worked right through lunch. After school, I had plugged everything into TrackStar within another 40 minutes or so. (If you aren't familiar with the technology, check out the link above. Basically, it allows you to walk students through a series of websites, step by step. On the left of the website, the student can keep track of where they are in the "track." On the top, you can provide notes, questions, thoughts, etc. that they are to read as they look at the site.)

My hopes for the lesson were varied. I wanted the students to have a background in what infrared photography looks like, what the word even means, how this kind of photography has been used historically, and finally how to make the filter. The way I saw it, all these things could be explained quickly, authentically, and time-effectively through a track. This technology did exactly what I wanted to do with the class. Without this technology, I would have either regurgitated the information in low-tech fashion, or given the access to the computer lab, I would have made a handout with all the urls and annotations, but the kids would have had to type the links in by hand and had to track themselves. TrackStar provides some nice scaffolding that would provide them with a very smooth browsing experience.

Ultimately, TrackStar helped me provide the background information, foundational facts, and motivational video in a very sharp, user friendly manner. In the end, I wanted to have the track be the source of instruction and interaction for the first class period, then be able to move on to making the filter, and taking the pictures... referring back as needed.


So, the point of a blog is to catch your thoughts on things over time. I get it. Unfortunately, this blog will have multiple entries that reflect thoughts that happened over time, but that will get put here pretty much all at once. Hopefully, despite that flaw, any readers will find this information to be helpful and informative.