Reflections on the BLC Conference: Day Three

Christopher Dede, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, provided the keynote address for the last day of conference. Debe began his presentation, titled “Tapping Global Communication: Increasing Student Motivation and Supporting Learning Styles,” by describing significant changes occurring in education including a shift in the knowledge and skills society now values, the development of new methods of teaching and learning, and changes in the characteristics of learners. Emerging information technologies are influencing all of these.

Dede discussed four learning styles (including sensory-based, personality-based, aptitude-based, and media-based), which tend to describe how people are similar rather than different. He claimed that media shape how we learn, regardless of age.

In this age of ubiquitous computing, video games, instant messaging, Skype, texting, and the like are reshaping our students’ social patterns, motivation to learn, and learning styles to the point that what they do outside of our classrooms is now more relevant to their future lives than what they do inside.

Students today prefer distributed forms of learning situations that combine face-to-face interactions with communication and shared experiences across distance and time. They seek products and services tailored to their individual needs rather than one-size-fits-all, homogeneous ones. They participate in multiple simultaneous conversations or activities online, all while listening to their MP3 players, doing their homework, and watching TV at the same time.

According to Dede, video games—a favorite form of technology use among kids today—will become an increasingly influential learning tool in the coming two decades. He described research into gaming (specifically Massively Multi-player Online Games, or MMOGs) being done at Harvard that has lead to the development of River City, which is a science-based learning environment where student teams form hypotheses about what’s happening in the town and compare then their ideas/findings with other teams.

Some of the initial findings of the River City project reported by Dede include enhanced motivation (students taking ownership of their learning); reaching learners who don’t do well in conventional school settings; learning involving both sophisticated content and higher order skills; and increasing students’ fluency in distributed modes of communication and expression.

Dede argued that the increasing presence of “neomillennial” learning styles in our classrooms calls for new pedagogical models and strategies to effectively accommodate students’ needs. He emphasized, among other things, situated learning, providing students with different tools/media, simulation-based virtual settings, communal learning in which knowledge is distributed across a context and a community as well as within an individual, and the co-design of learning experiences personalized to individual needs and preferences. For more on Dede’s research and views, read Five Questions…for Christopher Dede by Lisa Neal in eLearn Magazine.

Before lunch on Wednesday, I attended Cyndy Everest-Bouch & Lester Ray’s “Multi-Dimensional StoryTelling” workshop that covered ways to engage students in different forms of digital story-telling using iLife 06 tools.

Why teach multi-dimensional storytelling? According to Lester, two factors strongly influence whether or not our brain pays attention to incoming stimuli: (1) it has to have meaning; and (2) it has to have an emotional component or “hook.” Multidimensional storytelling offers multiple pathways to achieving these outcomes.

Digital Stories can come in many different flavors, from the creation of simple audio offerings, to visual poetry, to complex multi-media messaging. Digital stories can include text (oral-spoken; oral-acted; word art; text in motion); images (clip art, comics, photos, video); audio (spoken, music, sound effects); and/or video.

Using a story spine as a springboard, Cyndy and Lester walked us through different ways to structure digital story actvities using Garageband, iPhoto, iMovie from the iLife 06 suite and Comic Life, a simple, yet powerful application program that enables you to make comic strips. If you’re a Mac user and haven’t seen Comic Life, it’s certainly worth a look.

The conference wrapped up on Thursday afternoon with Marc Prensky providing an unscheduled presentation titled “Engage Me or Enrage Me!” Prensky needed no introduction to this crowd having distinguished himself as a leader and researcher in the area of digital game-based learning.

Prensky echoed many of the themes and ideas we heard throughout the conference, most notably that there is a schism between schooling today and students’ digital lives outside of school. His fast-paced presentation focused on the value of using gaming as a model for enhancing student motivation and learning.

One of the key differences between the 21st century and the past, according to Prensky, is exponential change—”things are changing much quicker today.” Adults keep one foot in the past (e.g., many still printout their emails in order to read them), which makes them “digital immigrants.” Today’s students, which Prensky calls “digital natives” have grown up using an assortment of high-tech tools digital tools and are accustomed to receiving information very fast.

What happens when digital natives go to school? They encounter situations in which they’re taught to live in the 21st century with the tools and knowledge of the last century. Accordingly, kids “power down,” “tune out” and become “enraged” at the slow pace and lack of relevance in formal education to their lives. Prensky drove this point home by showing a picture of a t-shirt he saw a kid wearing in New York City that said “I’m Not ADD, I’m Just Not Listening!”

The answer, of course, lies in “engaging” students in school. For digital natives, engagement is more important to learning than is content or technology (both of which will change). Looking at video games as a primary source of engagement for kids today, Prensky urges educators to apply complex game design principles to create more engaging instruction and lessons. These seven principles include (1) engagement (motivation and passion), (2) setting clear goals, (3) encouraging decision making, (4) game play (allowing students to create strategies to reach goals and then execute them successfully), (5) leveling up (encouraging practice in order to raise yourself to the next level), (6) adaptivity (leaving no child behind), and (7) iteration (asking students what they think of your lesson and making improvements). A more detailed explanation of the ideas presented by Prensky can be found on his web site.

In sum, the BLC conference provided me with new insights and strategies for infusing digital technology into the art classroom. But, I must emphasize that while technology was central to the conference’s proceedings, the reform of current pedagogy and curriculum never seemed more imperative than it did while I was in Newton. In this respect, the BLC conference has caused me to “erase the board” and begin rethinking some of what I do now at an art teacher educator. Fortunately, I still have a month or so to develop a plan for the coming school year.

Has digital technology changed the way you teach students? If so, how?

I welcome your comments.