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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.

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.