Our Year 2 classes do a project each year called Great Inventions. The students learn about various inventions and how they have changed over time, and over the past few years they have demonstrated that learning by producing a PowerPoint file that summarises the history of these inventions.
As you may have read in my previous post, two of my pet hate phrases are “do research” and “make a PowerPoint”. Whenever I see these two phrases in the same sentence I can almost guarantee that we’re looking at a fairly low level task that focuses more on recall and summary of facts than it does on authentic learning. I’m also wary of any time I see students “making a PowerPoint” that simply gets handed into the teacher for marking, rather than being used as a presentation platform since it is usually a sign that it’s being used as a glorified note taking tool; a place to write text complete with the distractions of bright colours and annoying graphics. Don’t get me wrong… It’s not that I’m against the use of PowerPoint as such, but unless you use it for what it’s designed to do – namely to providing a set of effective visuals that support a speaker as they present persuasive ideas – then I think it’s use is probably leading us down the wrong path.
In previous years, the PowerPoints made by the students displayed some good computer skills, but I had the feeling that the technology was there as an add-on rather than an integral tool for completing the task. The teachers also felt that the students had trouble collecting and synthesising information from the web as the level of most information found online was simply too difficult for the students to deal with. I also pointed out that taking information from the web and simply rewording it onto a PowerPoint slide was not a big benefit to the students and I questioned the value of such a task.
After a bit of group brainstorming we made a few subtle but important changes to what we asked the students to do. Firstly, recognising that the language on most webpages were too difficult for kids of this age, we started a wikispaces wiki and created our own pages of information in language pitched at the right level for Year 2. It was a bit of extra work to create these summaries and took us an hour or so to do, but it meant we now had a permanent set of pages that were exactly what we needed. The use of a wiki was relatively new to the teachers but they picked it up very quickly, adding text and images. I had my laptop open and I was creating pages and helping cleanup pages if necessary, as the teachers worked on the IWB to brainstorm together what content needed to go on them. It was actually quite an energizing experience, and in that planning session of an hour or so I think we all enjoyed the buzz of coming up with a better idea and taking immediate action to make it happen.
The nature of the PowerPoint that the students were being asked to create got an overhaul too. Rather than just submit the PowerPoint file, I convinced the teachers to reallocate their class time to allow the students to get up in front of their peers and actually present their finished work. I also suggested that we needed to somehow introduce an opportunity for the kids to create and invent, and to use their imagination rather than just retell facts that others have already provided. To this end we decided to scaffold the PowerPoint into three slides only (I suppose four if you count the title slide). Each child’s presentation was about a particular invention, and slide one would be about the past history of that invention, slide two about its present and slide three about its future. We also agreed that the students would only be allowed to use pictures on the slides, no words.
So, slides one and two would tell the story of the invention’s past and present, and this information would come initially from the students looking at the summaries created by the teachers. Naturally, because the teachers had vetted those summaries for both content and language, it was reasonable to expect that the students would be able to identify and deal with the information appropriately. The visuals for these slides would come from images the students found online that captured the past and present of the various inventions. All the other information about the inventions would have to be delivered verbally by the student when they stood up to give their presentation, since there were to be no words (and therefore no slabs of text and no bullet points!) on the slides themselves.
But slide three was about the future, which clearly hasn’t happened yet. For this, we would ask the students to create a drawing of what they thought their invention might look like in the future. They were free to be as imaginative and creative as they liked (and it was amazing what they came up with!) Their drawings were scanned or photographed and added as the picture on slide three.
Remember, we are talking about 7 year olds here. I think what we did to improve this task was to effectively scaffold it, stripping it down into the really important components and providing a guide for the students to work with, while giving them opportunities for creative, imaginative thought as well as researching existing knowledge. We simplified the technology requirements and realigned the task around the content we wanted them to learn. The technology became the environment for what they produced, and not the focus for it. I was quite please with what we did.
I then suggested that, if the students were going to get up in front of the class and present their work, it would be a shame to not share their presentations with a wider audience. To this end, I suggested that we use UStream to create a live broadcast to the web so that parents and relatives could watch the children present live over the Internet. The Year 2 teachers were really receptive and excited about this idea. I told them I’d do a bit of testing for them to make sure UStream would work smoothly through our network, and I’d investigate how we could control the broadcast and perhaps just limit it to parents and invited viewers.
That’s often the other big part of my job, to not only come up with ideas that push the teachers’ use of technology, but to do the leg work to make sure the technical aspects of those ideas are actually feasible. After a few days of trying various configurations and running a few live tests, it was clear that it was very feasible and would in fact work really well. I then worked with the Year 2 teachers to draft up a letter to parents explaining what we were doing, when we would be streaming and the passwords required to watch it. (Let me know if you’d like me to email you a copy of that letter)
The finished results were really very pleasing. The work that the students did to create their presentations was very good (and importantly, we were now referring to what they were doing as “presentations”, and not “PowerPoints”… I thought this was a great sign to indicate that the focus was off the technology, and instead was on what the technology was enabling)
The final live broadcasts, which ran over several days, were a lot of fun! I rigged up my Macbook Pro so the webcam was broadcasting the video, and we hooked up a very nice Rode Podcaster mic on a stand in front of the students so the audio was actually pretty good too. Although the actual media stream was quite good, we unfortunately had trouble getting UStream’s backchannel chat to work through our proxy. But UStream does at least tell you how many people are watching at any given moment, and after each presentation the kids would all turn around and ask “How many people are watching now?!” There’s nothing quite like an audience to spur kids’ enthusiasm and willingness to do their very best! We did the presentations in a number of sessions over the course of the week, and I eventually started tweeting out to my PLN before we started broadcasting… this added to the parent watchers and raised the audience numbers considerably, and it also provided a sort of backchannel as well. At one point, we had more almost 50 people watching the stream… that was more than double the number of people in the actual classroom! The kids were really excited by it all, and as we got encouraging tweets back from schools in other parts of the world, the raised level of commitment to doing a good job with their presentations was a joy to watch (some even insisted on doing theirs a second time because they felt they could do better!)
The Year 2 teachers were really quite amazed at how it all came together, and especially to think that there were more people watching from outside their classroom than there were inside the classroom! We also had an unexpected visit from the principal, who had heard about the project and dropped in to watch a few of the presentations, It was really cool to have him there, sitting on the floor being king of the kids. Overall, I have to say it was a much better experience than simply submitting a Powerpoint file to the teacher for marking!
From my perspective, I was really pleased with what we’d done. We took a task that I thought was a little mundane, a little dull, and quite frankly lacking in higher order thinking, and with a few simple tweaks we redesigned it into something that everyone felt was a much better, richer, authentic and more meaningful experience. I felt we shifted the use of technology away from being an end in itself, to being an enabler of richer learning. I thought the quality of the presentations was really good. Again, was it all perfect? No, there are things that we can improve next time, but that’s what it’s all about… learning and getting better.
Here’s a video of one of the presentations…
People sometimes ask me whether all this effort to integrate technology into our classrooms is worth it, and whether it really makes any difference. To answer that, let me share part of an email I received from one of the Year 2 parents the next day…
“It was such an enjoyable experience for my husband and I to be able to watch our daughter in action from the comfort of our office and home respectively. Extended family members logged on later that evening to view the recorded event, which sent a ripple of excitement through the family. Our daughter was thrilled.
Upon reflection, it’s been made apparent to me that our daughter is not just being taught basic skills, but that talking and listening, reading and writing can have a purpose and an audience far greater than their teachers and peers. What an amazing learning experience. How wonderful it was for mothers and fathers to at last be the fly-on-the-wall in our daughter’s classroom and to see the girls use technology so innately and with such confidence.”