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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.

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.