Teaching New Media Literacy Skills without Technology

Let me start this post by saying, “I LOVE TECHNOLOGY!” I do; I love how it makes the world smaller and larger simultaneously.  I love that I have all of human knowledge at my fingertips, available within an instant.  I love that, when someone says, “Hey, that’s that guy from that movie!  You know, the one where Keanu Reeves pretends he can act!” I can have an answer for them in 10 seconds (the answer is Gary Oldman, by the way).

However, as much as those of us with ready access might feel that smartphones, laptops, and tablets are ubiquitous, the fact is that they’re not.  Just a few short years ago, before I made the transition to my new life as a professor, I was a classroom teacher.  The last school I was at was a high need school near East Los Angeles.  Our technological resources were, in a word, sad.  Just sad.  My classroom had 3 old iMacs in the back of the room.  You know, the ones with that annoying round mouse? Yep, these:

image from 512Pixels.net

I hated those damn computers with a passion.  They occasionally worked.  We often had to take the mice apart to get them to track properly, and the only really useful thing they’d do was run the AR tests.    I brought my personal laptop from home, because the teacher laptop I could have checked out was equally as bad.  Unfortunately, there were only a couple of digital projectors for the entire school (1500 students).  Once a teacher snagged one at the beginning of the year, it was very hard for anyone else to get a hold of them.  If you got one, you didn’t tell any other teachers you had it, you packed it up when you left the room and hid it, and you hoped it would still be there when you got back.  Otherwise, you’d be using the overhead projector.  We did have access to the computer lab occasionally, but it was ONE computer lab of around 35 computers for the whole school.  I tell you all this to say, I understand.  I understand that when someone tells you, a seasoned educator, or a new, and overwhelmed teacher, that you need to teach your students technology, and new media literacies, what you’re thinking is, “Have you been in my school? Have you seen the resources I have to work with?”

I hear your frustrations, because I have been there myself, but I promise you that if you can consider what I’m about to tell you with an open mind, both you and your students will greatly benefit.  You’ll also go a long way towards closing the ever widening gap between the haves and the have nots in terms of education.

First, we need to shift the conversation away from talking about teaching technology.  It’s not about teaching technology. Sure, knowing how to use Word is helpful, but that’s not the point.

If you’re spending your time in the computer lab teaching keyboarding, you’re doing it wrong. 

Instead, you need to be teaching new media literacy. New media literacy, according to Jenkins, involves a set of 11 skills that are critical to being able to function successfully right now and in the future world:

“Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation
and discovery
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand
mental capacities
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with
others toward a common goal
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information
across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting
multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.” (Jenkins, 2006, p.3)

The beauty of these skills is that you don’t need to have access to technology to teach them.

Let’s look at play first.  There are numerous ways, in every single subject area, to engage students in experimentation with their surroundings without having to be on a computer.  Could you maybe, in a math or physics class, have students determine the proper angle at which to throw a super ball to get maximum bounce?

How about performance?  This one lends itself easily to an English class, or a social studies class, where students can act out roles and improvise based on the character or historical figure they’re representing.

Simulation certainly seems like it would require a computer, but with some basic materials like old cereal boxes, plastic wrap, paper towel rolls, scissors, and tape, students can create aqueducts to track water movement and volume.

Appropriation seems like a tricky one.  After all, how can you remix and sample media when you don’t have a working computer, or when your district blocks access to websites like YouTube?  Simple. Media doesn’t have to mean video or audio files.  Media can be magazine images, tape recordings of students’ own voices, student artwork, etc.  Use what you do have to encourage the same kind of skill.

Multitasking is probably one of the most critical skills on this list.  Being able to monitor a phone, a computer, and the real world simultaneously, for example, is a very important skill for professionals.  However, we can still teach the skill of multitasking in the classroom.  Perhaps we can have several different related activities happening in the classroom, and let students choose where to focus attention and when.

We could encourage the skill of distributed cognition in our students by allowing students free access to tools like calculators, formula sheets, dictionaries and encyclopedias, other students, and ourselves when trying to solve a problem.

This also lends itself to developing the skill of collective intelligence.  Allowing students to work together in collaborative groups to create products and solve problems encourages this skill; no computer is necessary.

Now, judgment is a bit different.  You can certainly teach judgment without a computer.  You can bring in various print resources, and talk with students about how they know which sources are reliable.  But this is the one instance where I’m going to encourage, nay insist that you bring in technology as well.  Why?  Well, because telling fact from fiction on the Internet is a challenge, and the only way to learn it is to interact with it.  You can start by making “screen shots” of websites on chart paper, for when you can’t get everyone on a computer.  Make some different kinds of websites, with different indicators of trustworthiness, for example, and talk to students about how they know which sites are legitimate.  Once you, hopefully, have the opportunity to take them to a computer lab, or give them turns on a computer, engage them in the process of exploring various websites and online sources of information (Twitter and Facebook are excellent for this, if they’re not blocked by your district).

Transmedia navigation, however, is able to be taught without computer access.  When you teach a unit of information, instead of giving a lecture, provide all of the important information in pieces across a variety of sources.  For example, put some information in a poster-type image.  Put some in an article they need to read (including extraneous information is important here).  Have another teacher or volunteer come in, and tell students that they can interview this person to get information, but that they need to know which questions to ask, and that only certain answers will be available.

To teach the skill of networking, you can create a print- and image-based network across multiple classes.  Have a blank bulletin board in each room, or in hallways, and have students search for and synthesize information in a visual format, and then share their work with other classes by posting it on the boards.  Allow students to comment on each other’s posts (productive feedback only, of course).

Finally, we have the skill of negotiation.  This one involves getting students out of the classroom.  Take them places, either in person, or virtually, if possible, and have them be in control of managing their assimilation or adaptation to new situations.  Coach an encourage them, but let them take the lead.

Obviously, the above are only a few of the many possible ways you could approach teaching these skills without technology.  The specific approaches you choose to use aren’t important.  What’s important, instead, is that you are teaching these skills.  Your students may have very limited access to advanced technology right now, but you can prepare them to be able to interact in meaningful and productive ways once they do have access to the technology.  These skills will transfer, so that one day, when they are, hopefully, sitting down to write their first blog post (or whatever the equivalent of that is in 5 years, 10 years, etc.), they will have the skills they need to work through the technology.

Have you had experience teaching new media literacy skills in a high need school? What challenges have you faced? What successes have you experienced?

2 Problems with Flipping the Classroom

There has been a lot of talk lately about this idea of “flipping the classroom”.  For those of you not familiar with this concept, it most often involves putting teacher lectures and explanations on video, and hosting those videos online so that students can watch them outside of school; teachers can then spend more time working one on one or with small groups of students during class time.  It can also encompass any kind of plan where technology accessed outside the classroom replaces the traditional lecture format. Knewton provides this excellent flipped classroom infographic.
Flipped Classroom
Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

On the surface, this seems like an excellent approach; after all, what teacher wouldn’t love to see these results?  I see two significant problems with the implementation of a flipped classroom, however.

  • Limited applicability in high needs schools
    • The flipped classroom model relies on students interacting with teacher created videos or other web-based resources outside of classtime, in order to gain a basic understanding of the content.  In a high need school, there may be a lack of video recording equipment or webcams on computers and there may not be access in each classroom to high speed internet.  School districts may also have blocked access to websites like YouTube where teachers can easily upload video.  Additionally, students may not have access in the home to a working computer, much less one with reliable high speed internet access.  If they do have access, it may be shared among several family members, limiting the time they have to sit and watch video or interact with web-based resources.  Certainly smartphones are becoming more and more common, but not common enough for teachers to be able to rely on them for a flipped classroom model, especially among younger students.
  • Misunderstanding the nature of the flipped classroom 
    • When people refer to the flipped classroom, they are often referring to the model of teachers recording lectures, posting them online, and having students watch them at home.  If, however, the lectures are a 30 minute long, monotone speech, then obviously this is going to be no more effective than an in-class 30 minute long, monotone speech.  Gradually falling asleep in front of your computer, in fact, may be even easier than gradually falling asleep in the classroom.  The same goes for the work in class.  Teachers cannot simply take what they’ve been assigning for homework and plop it into the classroom.  If students are sitting at their desks independently filling out a worksheet, you’re doing it wrong. Not to mention, that method of flipping the classroom sounds horribly time consuming.

This isn’t to say that the flipped classroom model isn’t useful; any teacher or administrator thinking about flipping the classroom should be well aware of these potential issues, however.

Thinking through these issues made me consider what it is that teachers are trying to achieve with the flipped classroom; I pored through what people online are saying about the flipped classroom and found a few common themes.

  • More one on one interaction between teacher and student.
  • More time for students to collaborate.
  • Increased student choice in the learning process.
  • Higher student achievement.

The last item is often touted as the end result of the flipped classroom model.   The first three, while certainly possible through a flipped classroom model, are not exclusive to the flipped classroom model.  While I am a big proponent of teachers becoming tech savvy and new media literate, I don’t think more technology is always the answer.  Perhaps what we need to be recommending, instead of the flipped classroom, is inquiry-based learning, student autonomy, and authentic assessment, with the flipped classroom being just one of the potential options available.  Certainly these approaches can be applied regardless of the amount or type of resources available to students, and will encourage the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage.”

Have you had experience with flipping your classroom, or being a student in a flipped classroom? Share your story! Was it effective?

Google Glass and the Future of Education


“When you grow up, you won’t be walking around everywhere with a calculator in your pocket, so you’d better learn this!” How many of us heard some version of that statement as justification for the rote memorization of times tables, or the endless repetition of problem sets? I know I did. But we ARE carrying calculators in our pockets now, aren’t we? My iPhone is never more than 5 feet away, and it’s not only a calculator, but a portal to access the collective knowledge of the entire human race for all of history. Take that, 3rd grade teacher!

It’s certainly convenient, and is having a huge impact on the way we teach. Once Google Glass rolls out to consumers (and within a few years becomes as ubiquitous as the iPhone), we’re going to see an even stronger reaction from students to that old school (pun intended) mentality. What possible justification, after all, could we have for requiring students to memorize the names of all fifty state capitals, when they will be able to, with a quick voice command, bring up the state capitals, and state birds, and state flowers, etc.? I’m not envisioning many scenarios in which your future-specs have stopped functioning, but knowledge of Topeka, Kansas is critical (residents of Topeka, feel free to argue with me on this one).

Why would we waste precious teaching and learning time on learning knowledge that requires zero critical thinking, and to which immediate access will only become easier as technology improves? We need to shift focus to teaching students how to think, how to problem solve, how to collaborate, how to analyze, how to synthesize, how to create, how to design.

The Common Core Standards are beginning to address this, by incorporating new media literacy skills into the standards, but a set of standards isn’t sufficient. Every teacher needs to be given professional development and/or support to help them create ways to prepare students for a future in which it isn’t encyclopedic knowledge that is valued, but the ability to think and communicate in innovative and dynamic ways. Instead, we’re throwing money down the drain on standardized tests, which encourage exactly the kind of teaching we don’t want, and creating students that the future doesn’t need.

I wish I could say that teachers are already teaching the future, but my own experience, as well as the research, shows that, by and large, they’re not. In fact, a recent study of teachers, librarians, and administrators showed that “keyboarding is a high priority among many educators at all levels within the district.” Keyboarding. I’ll let you take a moment for that to sink in.

Ready? Ok, let’s continue.

We, as a profession, are standing on the precipice of irrelevance; drilling formulas into someone’s head, aside from being unnecessary, can now be done by a computer, and much better than you or I could. If we can’t shift our focus to creating the learner of the future, then, as the late Arthur C. Clarke stated “Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.”

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

The Case for Wikipedia in the Classroom

I’ve heard this comment time and time again from professors and teachers alike: “Do NOT use Wikipedia to write *insert name of boring assignment here*”  But is this really the best approach?  I have many memories of pulling yellowing and slightly funky smelling World Book encyclopedias off the shelf of the school library, opening my college ruled notebook, and scratching away at a report.  Certainly, many of us have those same memories.  The location of the encyclopedias and other tomes on the shelves of the library lent them a kind of gravitas that appears to be lacking with modern repositories of information.  Today’s educators bemoan the inaccuracies of Wikipedia, and students’ reliance on the copy/paste function of their word processing software.
I put forth, though, that the problem isn’t Wikipedia.  While Wikipedia does have it’s share of inaccuracies (up to 60% of pages have been reported to have errors), scientific analysis has shown that Wikipedia is actually on par with the Encylopedia Brittanica for accuracy.  The question I’ll let you ponder is whether that means that Wikipedia is remarkably accurate, or that Encyclopedia Brittanica is remarkably inaccurate.
The problem is not one of accuracy.  The problem is one of judgment.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve failed to understand that students need to be taught information literacy skills.  (Yes, I just linked to Wikipedia there!) They are bombarded with information on a daily basis, but we’re not teaching them how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for any kind of research, but only if you have the skills to determine fact from fiction, and to judge the reliability of sources.  In fact, when reading research articles on topics I’m not familiar with, I often have the article open on one half of my screen, and Wikipedia open on the other, in order to help decipher unfamiliar terminology.
So what we really need to be doing is not telling students not to use Wikipedia.  Instead, we need to be teaching them about Wikipedia. What exactly is it? Who contributes to it? How do you know if the information presented is accurate? How do you use Wikipedia to lead you to relevant peer-reviewed sources? How do you synthesize information from a variety of sources to create your own original product? These are the skills and knowledge students need.  If we take the time to teach these information literacy skills, what Jenkins identifies as the new media literacy skills of judgment and networking, then we won’t need to waste our breath naming which individual sources are acceptable and which aren’t.  We’ll be able to trust students to be critical consumers of information.