Thursday, May 24, 2012

Practically Applied: A Month of Creation in #digcit

As educators, we need to bring back the curiosity that is
natural early in childhood. Unlearning the routines may help
One of the struggles that I have had teaching computer classes and even adult professional development over the years is the artificial nature of the exercise. While there are a few notable exceptions and tried & true lessons, the teaching of computers is typically taught as a series of artificial "problems" and walk-through solutions. Students for the most part recognize this and go through the motions to a greater or lesser extent depending on how much they value their grades.

Thus, when we decided to recast the curriculum for Computer Applications as a course in Digital Citizenship (#digccit) based heavily on the ISTE National Education Technology Standards for Students, one of our implicit goals was to make the student experience more real and more relevant. We had some ideas on how to do this: let students drive the agenda within the NETS forward through co-planning the areas to be covered, create a hands-on environment with real experiences whenever possible, integrate the students' own technology into the course, and make connections between the skills and content in the class and its application outside of the course.

The Rough Map for #digcit. The teacher resource room
has two large white boards for planning -- #win
But despite this ambition, when you frame a course based on themes like social media identity awareness and effective communication using end up with a lot more time in the semester than when you are teaching a series of push-button steps at the pace of your slowest learners. (Note: I credit the individualization that #flipclass affords me for a lot of this added time as well)

So we made the decision to step back even further...and give the last month of class to the students.


Brebeuf Jesuit runs a modified-modular schedule. In practice, this means that in a typical five-day week, my class will be 4 times: 2 40-minute periods and 2-one hour periods with a one day break (plus weekends).

The course has built-in discussion time where students bring in articles on technology trends, news, or events that they have discovered and share with the class. The ultimate goal of this portion of the project is to give student an opportunity to analyze claims and evidence made in articles as part of the information literacy practice. In practical terms, it means that one day a week becomes "discussion" day.

Thus we are looking at a 12 days for complete student control:

Students have been operating in a flipped-classroom environment, thus they are used to operating with some level of independence during the class as the assignments and context are given the night before and projects and work time are used in class with the teacher giving most guidance 1-on-1.


Students were given a review on the elements of #digcit and the NETS-S. They were walked through a reflection of the types of activities and experiences they had encountered for the last semester. They were encouraged to identify the "lights and shadows" of the semester.  They were then told that this reflection should serve as the lead in to their next assignment: The Pitch

The Pitch: Students were asked to write a memo explaining a final project. The project should deepen their understanding of some portion of the themes covered before. If it used similar tools, they should be enriching the use, exploring new ways or techniques.

Students were also encouraged to create workflow timelines for how they would use the class. These timelines were to incorporate conversations with teachers from other disciplines, so that if there were integration activities in other classes, the Computer Science classroom became the instructional lab complete with brainstorming partners and guidance in all-things-geeky.

When it became clear he needed two hands...
...a truer collaboration was created.

The operations of the day mirrored the conduct of the #flipclass. Students worked independently, but often shared work that they were doing with others:
Struggling to make magic with MotionPaths

  • One student helped another film his step-by-steps for solving a Rubik's cube. These clips were edited and tied into an instructional website complete with diagrams created using AVIARY and GoogleDraw.
  • The entire class would occasionally stop and stare at the student who decided to test the limits of PowerPoint MotionPaths.
  • Another student, struggling to build an interactive game, got help from another who used Photoshop to tweak the shading, lighting, and perspective of game elements.
Check-ins were made daily with the teacher. As necessary, the focus was drawn back to the student-created objectives and the identified connection to a standard or element of #digcit. Very little time was spent off task for almost all students. Students who were consistently off task began to panic as the final project deadline drew closer.


At the end of the day, students were comfortably drawing applications from work they completed in class to the standards and norms of digital citizens in an authentic way. That alone justifies the time spent.

Things to improve: 

Putting Teachers in the Loop: Teachers in other areas were not prepared to have students come to them with a month to go saying "will we have any opportunity to integrate technology into our assessments? I need it for my computer class". Some of them were actually pretty upset, as if we were sitting in judgement. So, what was originally another assessment opportunity, became a "take the time if you need it..we'll be here to help."

Incorporating Language: The focus on #digcit and NETS-S, while there from the inception, was not an explicit part of the language of the classroom until late in the semester. It felt tacked on to the project by some students and took more discussion than necessary to draw the themes through all the previous work after the fact.

Reflections: Increasing the number of formal check-ins (written) as part of the ongoing reflection might help improve the overall quality of work. What was fascinating was that, as expected, some students were aiming for the minimum quality to get X-grade. But since there was no real clear rubric (beyond -- enrich what you have done previously, connect it to a standard you care about, be excellent) then the students kept tweaking and improving based on the quality of work they were seeing from other in the room. Some projects were completed very early but went through three or four informal drafts!

Adaptation and Struggle: There is some struggle with time and...well...struggle. It is not uncommon in this environment for students to hit roadblocks and the need to walk away, do more research, talk through the issue. For someone used to working in technology or any environment that is not mechanical repetition, this is the essence of value. But our students don't know that. As one student put it in her final reflection:
"I would have taken more time to outline how I was going to make the game. I had a lot of "malfunctions" throughout that it took me a little while to figure out what the problem was and then how to fix it. If I had planned better and worked more in an order some of the problems could have been avoided."
It is difficult to explain to a student who is not used to this environment that the struggle cannot likley be planned away and that the results from it are of a better quality, from a learning perspective, than having an experience with no "malfunctions" at all.

Achievement Unlocked: We needed to build in time to showcase the work of the students who worked right up to the deadline.

In the end, this may have been one of the most useful twelve days of the year. The projects had ownership. The standards were a natural part of the learning process and not an afterthought on an evaluation form. The creativity was inspiring. And all it took was handing control of the class over to a bunch of Freshman.

Creativity = Freedom within Structure*

This final project, created by a student who self-describes as "struggling" with the final project,
uses over 30 photos, some drawing, lots of filters...and a touch of creativity. 

*You should have seen the Final Essay :-)