Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at a very innovative approach to making distance learning more authentic. It is by Michael L. Rodgers and David A. Starrett and is #36 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 16, Number 1, December 2006.? Copyright 1996-2006. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.
UP NEXT: Change Management
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Virtually Authentic: Using the Internet to Bring the World to Students
Tim Gore and Jim Sturm are recently retired teachers of gifted middle school children in the
Clayton, Missouri School District. Their interest in distance learning led them to the Lewis and
Clark Project, which became the focus for their work with satellite-enabled interactive
videoconferencing involving students in the classroom and experts in remote locations. We learned of Tim and Jim's work at the Missouri Distance Learning Association Annual Meeting in July 2006. Their session, "Taking the Classroom to the World and Back Again," showed how remote Internet access could facilitate authentic learning. Their compelling story motivated Mike to interview them for this column.
M: Tell us about the technology you are using.
J: The technology was developed by Bob Dixon at Ohio State University. He used off-the-shelf components to create a satellite uplink that allows videoconferencing from anywhere. He developed a mobile unit - a trailer - and in it we have a satellite uplink with its own electrical system, power supply, and wireless Internet access. It's a robust unit that can go anywhere, [operating for] 50 hours on a generator or four hours on battery. The satellite provider is Tachyon, and we work through ADEC, the American Distance Education Consortium.
M: How did you learn about Bob Dixon's design?
J: We were trying to figure out ways to make the Lewis and Clark Project educationally sound for kids and we started talking about how it would be great to bring kids along the trail. The original plan was to go from school to school with videoconferencing units, but Connie Coy at MOREnet suggested Bob Dixon's system. I got a good look at [his system] and knew that's the way we had to go: we needed to get out in remote areas of the country, and let kids be along the trail. The National Parks Service had a cost-share challenge grant that provided enough money to purchase the satellite transmitter and get release time to do the project. As that part evolved, the Apple Learning Interchange really helped us by giving us Web space and a way to get what we were doing live from the trail to kids all over the country.
Before Tim and Jim did live satellite videoconferences, they did three pilot videoconferences with school groups around the country on topics related to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They wisely added features to each pilot: first coordinating with multiple schools, followed by collaborating with experts, and finally adding the satellite transmitter. The pilots helped them become comfortable with the technology, develop strategies to make the sessions interactive and interesting to kids, and gain experience using questions from the kids. Tim and Jim also learned how to use preparatory materials to maximize the value of live program time. Importantly, they learned how to interview both experts and kids, and to bring kids in as information presenters, not merely receivers. They did their first full-featured program on August 31, 2003, in Elizabeth, PA, at the reenactment of the Expedition's launch.
M: You must have had exciting experiences: maybe an 'aha!' moment or something that turned out differently than you planned. Do you have stories to tell along those lines?
The Dust Storm
J: We were in Fort Yates, ND, on the border of South and North Dakota. The program was dealing with grasslands prairie. We had experts talking about prairie, and we were on the prairie, in the open. As we're doing the show we're noticing the wind picking up. And the experts are talking about how sometimes you can have dust storms. All of a sudden I looked up and I see this wall of dust heading towards us. It looked like the movie, Hidalgo, where you see the big wall of dust coming through . . . the tumbleweeds started flying around us. I turned the camera so that you could see the tumbleweeds, and then all of a sudden you could see this wall of dust come through. It was neat for the kids on the other end, 'cause they were living a moment with us, and it was pretty exciting.
The Glass Artist
T: When you're connecting to experts working in the field, there's the chance that something may happen in a different way. We started doing a second project, Inside the Artist's Studio, and we were with a glass artist who was creating a glass object based on the kids' descriptions of what they wanted. They were showing her pictures, saying, "Make it bigger," or "Let's try this . . ." As that was happening, the glass actually broke: it all went bad on her. You could hear the kids saying, "Ahhh! You lost your glass!" And she was just sensational, explaining that, "When you work with things in the artistic world, sometimes things work out and sometimes things don't. So we're going to take the stuff we've got left, and we're going to try to recreate it into something different." Those moments are really cool; that's what makes the live experience wonderful.
Preparing for Serendipity
Much of the power of Tim and Jim's approach derives from its apparent serendipity: the kids came to expect the unexpected. Ironically, for this seeming spontaneity to work, much careful
preparation had to occur prior to the programs:
T: We sent preparatory materials to students and teachers in advance. You knew almost immediately when you started working with those kids during the live program, which of them had been prepped well, and which had had almost no prep. The questions would be very different. We were doing a program on geology, talking about rocks and the fact that [Lewis and Clark] had looked at rocks during the expedition. We had a geologist there, and a fifth grader begins interacting with the geologist, saying "What kind of 'extrusive igneous rock formation' did they find?" And the geologist starts answering the question. So I said, "We need to stop for a moment because there may be other people out there in the world who're watching us, who may not know what an 'extrusive igneous rock formation' is." And so, the geologist talked about that, and then went on with the question. That kid had information that other kids didn't have. That was part and parcel of the excitement: the physical things that happened, but also the wide variety of kids' responses, and their excitement about seeing things live from the field, or talking to people who do the work that they are studying in class.
Authentic Learning, via Satellite
Could there be a lesson here for those of us who advocate approaches to teaching that reduce the instructor's authority (informal learning, and student-directed learning, for example)? Tim and Jim seem to be telling us that there are ways to exert control over the learning experience that do not quench the sense of excitement fostered by spontaneous or student-guided experiences.
M: In your presentation at the MoDLA conference, you talked about authentic learning. How does your vision for authentic learning fit into all of this?
Lewis and Clark's Lead Canisters
J: That's something we've always pushed. Kids have to do things that are real and make a difference. To give you a quick example: among the things that didn't survive the journey were the lead canisters that contained powder. The research on it was somewhat limited and the cool thing was that there was enough powder inside the canister to shoot the balls made from the lead that the canister was made of, so they were a matched set. We had the kids figure out what size these canisters were, and they had to think of a lot of things. They had to figure out how many balls could be made, and the amount of the lead. So they did primary source research about how much lead and powder Lewis and Clark bought, and started working the process through and figured the thing out. That was authentic; they were able to publish it and get an award. The kids were doing something real and meaningful that wasn't done by somebody else, and they added to the greater knowledge. We tried to get that point across all the time: kids are much better than we think they are at doing that kind of thing.
T: How could we take [authentic learning] on the road? They are studying all sorts of things in class, but how does that play out? How do people in the real world utilize mathematics? The students learn graphing in upper elementary and middle school. Well, those techniques are actually used to figure out river speed and water flow: Clark was trying to figure out how fast and deep the river was going. So how can we take the Expedition, apply it to the curriculum, and let kids see how it works out authentically in the real world? We did a reenactment of Clark's experiments with a USGS guide, the kids got that data as the show was happening, and they graphed it. Then the USGS guy showed them acoustic Doppler technology, and how that was used on the river. He gave them that data, and then they charted that data and compared it. And they said, "Oh, wow, they're close!" It was amazing how close Clark's work was to what acoustic Doppler technology finds today. Seeing this stuff applied in real, authentic ways, and then presenting work that they had done in a real, authentic way to an audience, the kids got their chance to have experts respond to what they were presenting in a program, and they got the chance to have other kids ask them questions about what they were presenting.
M: How would the satellite facilitate that? It seems that you might construct a class where students are given the information, say, on a handout, and they could come up with this. So what is the satellite adding that really makes this come alive?
J: It made the experience even more exciting and more authentic for the kids, because they were there seeing it happen.
T: Right. And it was connecting them live to these people, and they were presenting as well. The satellite put them in places that they could not go normally. You could take pictures of the Missouri River and show them those pictures in class. You could have video of the Missouri River flowing, and you could even have video of this guy talking about acoustic Doppler. But something else happens for kids when that becomes a live moment. It is that man who does this work on the river, in the boat; the river is flowing, the acoustic Doppler thing is on the river, I'm hearing him talk, I'm watching the numbers come across, like watching an EKG. All of that creates a sense of time and place that really ups the intensity level for their involvement. They feel that they are part of the process, of doing the same thing that this guy does daily in his job. And they would never get that feeling if a teacher brought to the classroom a video and the charts alone.
Interactive videoconferencing caused Tim and Jim to think deeply about how to interact with their kids. They realized that, without the immediacy of the room - not being physically there with the students - they needed to "up the ante" for interactivity, and this they did! The technology gave them a way to put their kids in places and situations that they would be very unlikely to experience otherwise, and they did it live with all that suggests about uncertainty, unusual circumstances, and unexpected challenges. Such a learning environment will be extremely attractive to the 21st Century Learners that have been the focus of our previous two Techped columns.
Looking to the future, Jim and Tim see opportunities for programs in higher education: college students' access to facilities and experts are similar to those faced by middle school kids, but the need for authentic learning is just as great. Where would you like to take your students? What experts would you like them to see, working in their own laboratories, studios, factories, and ecosystems? We hope that Tim and Jim have given you some ideas!