Redesigning Learning Tasks: Part 3

My role at school is all about trying to helping teachers leverage technology to come up with more interesting and engaging ways to help their students learn.  Some of our older students are in laptop programs which gives them fulltime 1:1 access to their own computer but many still do not, especially in the junior years. Which is a bit of a shame since there is, I think, so much scope in the younger grades to use technology in interesting ways that support the curriculum.  Unfortunately, with the way things are structured at the moment, our primary kids get scheduled into a single one hour lesson in the computer lab each week.  That’s not really my preferred option, as it’s hard to get technology integration working in an ongoing, embedded way when it involves trotting off to the computer room once a week.

Ironically, all our primary classrooms do actually have a small pod of four desktop machines in them, but unfortunately I don’t really see them getting used in any consistent, meaningful way.  Technology integration is still, by and large, reliant on that one hour a week of “computer time” in the lab.  However, whether I like it or not, it is what it is, and until the system changes it’s a limitation I have to work with.

Ludus - our school Blog ServerOur Year 4 students are doing a unit of work on Australia at the moment, so I started the term by having a planning session with the Year 4 teachers to look at how we might weave ICT into the unit.  A couple of years ago, the ICT component was – you guessed it – making a PowerPoint about Australia, but thankfully we’ve tried a some new approaches over the last few years. For the past two years we’ve been using blogs to get the kids writing about Australia, in fact I think we’ve come up with some good ideas for structuring the writing process when blogging.  We started off using Edublogs, but after having a particularly frustrating series of outages, the school decided to set up our own WordPress MU server and gave every student their own blog on that system. It took a bit of fiddling to get the feeds on the front page working the way we wanted, but that internal WPMU site worked quite well for us.  Because we run Moodle, we recently installed Mahara as well, which also provides blogs for students and so I guess we’re a bit spoiled for choice at the moment when in comes to school blogging.

Although the blogs had worked quite well for us in the past, for the unit of work on Australia the Year 4 teachers felt that they wanted to try something a bit different, so we brainstormed some ideas and came up with an idea that I think has worked very well.

For me, ICT integration becomes far more interesting when it involves lots of little skills used in a lot of different ways that student have to piece together into a finished product.  I like it that way because it give them a broader understanding of the way that technology tools fit together, and I think helps their understanding of how technology can assist them cross over into many areas.  I also like the idea of providing a structure, a scaffold, so that even our struggling students have a clear framework to work within.  However, surrounding that scaffold should be flexibility, options, choices, and a way for more able students to scale their work up and allow for that important differentiation.

What we came up with was a project called 25 Moods of Australia.  We brainstormed a collection of words (it started as 25 words, but grew to 50) that described various moods – haunting, hostile, creepy, effervescent, etc. Using a free wiki (where every student and teacher was given their own login) we published a list of all the words.  Working in pairs, the students then adopted a word from that list. There are 50 students in the two Year 4 classes, so working in pairs required 25 words.  The reason we came up with 50 was to give them a choice of what word they wanted to select, and to provide some extra words in case any students wanted to do a second one.

Armed with their chosen words, each student pair started by creating a new blank page on the wiki for that word. Then they had to find a clear, concise definition for the word (so that they understood it) and they then added that definition to the wiki page.  They used both regular paper dictionaries as well as online dictionaries. It was useful to compare the two.

The next job was to use Flickr to find a photograph taken somewhere in Australia that they felt captured the meaning of that word.  This was quite tricky… the Flickr search engine is not as sophisticated as Google’s and so to find a photo that both described their word and was taken in Australia required some thinking.  It involved looking carefully at the images, at the tags, at the captions, and using a bit of detective thinking to find photographs that met all the criteria.  To make it even trickier, we had a talk about copyright and the use of other people’s photographs without permission, which led to an interesting discussion about Creative Commons.  The students picked up on this idea very easily, and now know how to use the Advanced Search feature in Flickr to find photographs that are free of traditional copyright restrictions.  (I was feeling very encouraged to hear from their teachers that they are also now being much more mindful of copyright in other areas of their school work, and they’ve been observed looking for Creative Commons images for other projects as well! I consider that a major win!)

Once they found an image they like, they then used the All Sizes selector in Flickr to find the 500 pixel, medium-sized version of the photo and they copy it to their desktop. They also copy the URL of where they got the image so it can by pasted into the photo caption as an attribution, required by all CC licenses.  Once the photo is copied to their computer, they then upload it into the wiki (we used Wikispaces) and insert it into their page.

The next job is to go to Google Maps and find the location of where that photograph was taken on the map. This is also tricky, since not every photo makes this clear.  Some photos are geotagged with the exact location of where they were taken, but many are not.  We talked about geolocation.  We learnt to look at the tags, the keywords, the captions, the other photos in the Flickrstream, and to look for clues that might give us an idea about where the photo was taken.  And sometimes, when their were no clues, we had to make educated guesses about where the photo could have been taken.  Once we decided on a location – either a definite location based on real clues, or an imagined location based on common sense, the students found that place in Australia on the map.

Using the Link option, they then generated the embed code for the map, copied it, went back to the wiki and created a widget. They pasted the embed code into the widget and saved the page to reveal the embedded Google Map of their best estimate for the location of the photograph.

The last step is for the students to then write a couple of paragraphs talking about their photograph and why they think it represents their focus word. This can be quite a challenge, as they have to think very carefully about how exactly they will justify their selection, describing the photo and linking it back to the key ideas in the definition of their word. They also need to write about the map location and explain how they knew (or guessed) that the photo was taken in that place.

As you can see, it’s a task that contains a LOT of small pieces.  It contains lot of ICT skills and techniques and understandings in a number of areas. It is a task of small pieces loosely joined.  It’s also not a task that can be plagiarised.  It’s not a task where there is a “right answer”, as any answer could be right if it was justified well enough.

Remind yourself, these kids are 9 and 10 years old. And they have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of moving information around, remixing, repurposing and restructuring it in fairly sophisticated ways.  They quickly pick up the ideas of bringing all the pieces together to make something new. I think they are using some reasonably advanced information skills, as they learn to search, evaluate, synthesize and create with the information they find, and then add value to that information by interpreting and summarising and justifying it.  In short, I’ve been really impressed with what they can do. And even more impressed with what they can’t do, but can learn to do.

You can visit the wiki at, although at the time of writing it is still a work in progress.  The final stage, when everything is complete, will be for them to use the discussion tabs on the individual pages to leave comments and feedback for each other.

I think it’s been a really good task, with plenty of really worthwhile ICT skills built in, as well as an integrated use of literacy, writing, geography, thinking and reasoning, collaboration, and so on.

If only we had more than an hour a week to do this stuff…

Virtual Busking her way to Japan

My daughter Kate loves to sing.  She discovered this ability a few years ago when she came home from school and announced that she wanted to try out for a solo part in a local performing arts concert.  Although we always thought she had a nice voice that could carry a tune, we had totally missed the fact that she was actually quite talented vocally and so her intention to sing solo at this concert was a bit of a surprise.  Long story short, she has discovered her voice and is working hard at developing it further.  She’s done workshops and music camps and is now working with a singing coach.  She really does love to sing.

She was recently selected to be part of the Talent Advancement Program (TAP), a program for kids with musical talent aged 13 to 18.  For the 23 kids selected to be part of TAP, it’s a pretty special group to be take part of.  They get to learn and grow by actually performing in front of people.  Tomorrow, they are all performing at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, next week they do a gig for some senior citizens, and so on.  All great experience.

From the 23 kids involved, 16 of them were chosen to take part in a cultural exchange to Japan later this year.  Our local city, Bankstown, has a sister city arrangement with Suita, a city just outside Osaka.  The kids will be going over in October, performing in local schools in Suita and living with a host family for 5 days. They also get to travel on the Bullet Train, see a bit more of Japan, and even perform at Tokyo Disneyland.  It will be quite the experience for a 13 year old girl!

As parents, you want your kids to have experiences like this.  The things she will see and experience on this trip will be amazing. To be immersed in a different culture for 10 days, especially one like Japan which has such different customs and food, will be awesome and unforgettable.

Of course, it comes at a cost. Despite the fact that the TAP program subsidises part of the airfare, there is still a significant cost involved in going. As excited as Kate was to have been selected, she was also quite apprehensive about accepting because of that cost. Despite that, her mother and I will try to find the money because we think it’s an experience worth having.  To help out, the TAP kids were encouraged to come up with ways of doing some fundraising to help contribute to the costs of the trip.

So Kate came up with an idea. She collected a bunch of videos of her singing and put them together on a website as a sort of “virtual busking” site. The videos were added to YouTube and embedded in the site so that viewers can watch, and a “tipjar” connected to Paypal in case anyone wants to make a donation to her trip. She asked me for a hand with some of the technical stuff, but the rest of it was all her idea.

I’m very proud of her, not just for being part of a group like TAP, but also for her initiative in wanting to find an innovative way to raise some money to cover this cost.  She’s telling family and friends about it, but I said I’d also try to help spread the word about it via Twitter and the blogosphere. I hope you take a moment to check it out, leave an encouraging comment on the discussion tabs, and possibly even drop a small donation in her tip jar.  I know she would appreciate it greatly.

The site is at

Why the Many are smarter than the Few

WikipediaOf all the tools that are shaping our new information landscape, perhaps none is more controversial than Wikipedia. As an encyclopedia that can be written and edited by anyone, it certainly attracts its fair share of skepticism.  There are even some educators who refuse to allow their students to use Wikipedia as a research source, claiming that there is no verifiable level of authority in its articles and that it is far too easy for it to contain information that is inaccurate, misleading or just plain wrong. They argue that students should not trust an encyclopedia written by just anyone.

Others take a more positive view, believing that the overall level of quality in Wikipedia is as good, and possibly better, than commercially available encyclopedia products created by qualified professionals.

Both viewpoints are, to some extent, valid. It’s true that Wikipedia has the potential to be full of errors, silly facts and misinformation, and that anyone, even an anonymous user, can edit a Wikipedia article, changing facts and adding spurious nonsense.  And yet, a casual glance through Wikipedia reveals a collection of information far more detailed, sophisticated and nuanced than its method of creation might suggest is possible.

We need to teach our students to critically assess their use of resources like Wikipedia rather than just declare it “bad” and not use it. The issue is not really whether Wikipedia might have a few inaccuracies – the issue is how do we teach our students to be astute users of ANY resource, not just Wikipedia.

Firstly, it is important to understand what a wiki actually is, and how articles are created. Essentially, a wiki is a collection of webpages that are read/write enabled, meaning that users can, if they have the appropriate permissions, edit each page. This ability to live-edit pages enables a wiki to be a dynamic, constantly-evolving, highly-scalable resource that is easy to keep current. Wikipedia is built on an industrial strength wiki tool called MediaWiki, and it is this ability to be easily edited by anyone that is Wikipedia’s biggest strength over static printed resources like traditional encyclopedias.

Wikipedia started life in 2001 as an offshoot of the Nupedia Project, and has grown to become the largest single constantly-updated encyclopedic source on the planet, containing well over 12 million articles on all manner of topics, with nearly 3 million of those in English. Many of these articles are written on extremely niche topics, and in terms of its overall depth, detail and ability to stay up-to-date, Wikipedia has few equals.

It is important to understand that the articles in Wikipedia are generally created and maintained by people with a vested interest in their chosen subject areas. This means they generally care deeply about the articles they edit, whether that means adding content, cross referencing facts to verifiable sources or just correcting spelling and grammar.  Where errors or page-vandalism occurs, mistakes are generally fixed quickly by the “keepers” of those pages. Despite the concerns that pages can be vandalised, it needs to be remembered that pages can be fixed even more easily, and that there are always far more people who keep them fixed than people who vandalise them.

Most Wikipedia articles are not written by a single person. In fact, most Wikipedia articles are written and co-edited by dozens, if not hundreds of different authors. Although it might seem like having so many people contributing to a single article could see it quickly descend into chaos, in practice it is the wide diversity of viewpoints that actually helps Wikipedia reach a consensus of truth, and helps achieve its all-important Neutral Point of View (NPOV).  Every article is accompanied by a Discussion page and a History page.

Any time a single author expresses an idea, he or she exhibits some degree of personal bias. The strength of Wikipedia’ Discussion page is that it facilitates debate and is a place where each writer’s interpretation of the facts can be thrashed out and argued. According to Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, an article approaches the truth when the arguments about what constitutes the truth finally subside.  The Discussions page helps Wikipedia zero in on truth and neutrality, while the History page keeps track of every change made to each article.

As an example, take a look at the Wikipedia article about the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.  Both the event and the first Wikipedia entry about the event happened on the same date, April 16, 2007… in other words, the article was being written as the event actually unfolded. The development of the article can be traced by using the revisions list on the History page, where it is possible to see how the article actually grew minute by minute.

It began with two simple sentences, “The Virginia Tech shooting incident occurred on April 16th, 2007. One person has been reported to be slain.” Three minutes later, the second sentence was amended to read “The Virginia Tech shooting incident occurred on April 16, 2007. One person has been reported to be slain and one person is reported wounded.” The next revision came 2 minutes later where a citation link to a newspaper report was added. 7 minutes later, someone else corrected a minor grammatical error. The article quickly continued to grow in this manner, with over 100 edits taking place in the next few hours, each one improving upon or correcting the one before it. There was a clearly evident group of people whose names keep appearing in the edit history list, demonstrating how some people emerge to become the “keepers” of these articles. This is a completely organic process. No one is elected to be in charge. No one has to hold a meeting to delegate responsibility. It just works.

The article has now been edited over 500 times, with each revision building on the one before it. Reading the article as it currently stands reveals a high standard of writing with each fact hyperlinked to actual news stories. The article appears to be of a quality and standard that one would expect in a “real” encyclopedia.
Many people who are critical of Wikipedia don’t seem to fully understand the community behind each article. Their assumption is often that articles are spuriously written by individuals wishing to cause trouble by spreading misinformation. They sometimes miss the point that articles are written by large groups of people who, through a process of self governance and wisdom-of-crowds thinking, manage to refine and evolve high quality articles through a process of constant iteration. Articles written using a wiki are never truly “finished”, but as each article matures, many hundreds of people have often contributed to it and thousands of eyes have looked at it. How long could a spurious edit or a damaged paragraph really last? Would the volunteer army that helped create this information truly stand idly by and allow their work to be ruined by fools or vandals?

Over the last few years there have been a couple of high profile media reports of inaccuracies in Wikipedia. The nature of a wiki – in that they can be edited by anyone – is such that inaccuracies can and sometimes do occur. There is no dispute about that. However, those few cases of reported inaccuracies need to be placed in their proper perspective of over 12 million current articles, most of which are highly relevant and incredibly accurate.

Despite the apparent potential for biased, vandalised or just plain wrong information, the overall accuracy levels of Wikipedia remain extremely high for the vast majority of articles it contains, and the fact that it is constantly updated means it can offer content that cannot be found elsewhere.

It may be true that many students (and many adults too for that matter) find it difficult to detect incorrect or misleading information, but this is as equally true of text found in other sources as it is of Wikipedia. Students should be made aware of the possibility of errors or bias in Wikipedia, just as they need to be aware of errors and bias in all information sources. Rather than being a resource we discourage, perhaps Wikipedia offers educators the best possible environment in which to teach students about this idea of critical analysis of information. At least students can approach Wikipedia with an expectation that there may be errors and keep their guard up.

Still doubtful? Try this exercise… Pick ten subjects in which you consider yourself somewhat of an expert. Look up these subjects in Wikipedia and see how accurate they are, compared to your own knowledge. Try looking up the same ten articles in a traditional encyclopedia.  You may be surprised to find the level of information in Wikipedia to be as good as it is.

And of course, if the information is not as good as you think it could be, you can always click the Edit button and fix it, adding your own personal voice to the vast well of human knowledge that is Wikipedia.