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Technology

Canadian schools

Multimedia meets multi-literacy age

March 6, 2007

students Students in Snow Lake, Man., use online collaborative learning tools in class.

A young student in Ottawa fields an unusual question in class from a fellow student in Africa: where do you keep your cows and goats? In Snow Lake, Man., a young teen's essay on AIDS receives praise from a nurse in Botswana. And a Winnipeg student's animated rendering of a calculus problem generates comments from students around the world.

These are examples of a new approach to collaborative learning adopted by a handful of teachers in an attempt to bring education into the 21st century.

The efforts are few and far between right now, but as the world of blogs, wikis and podcasts grows, an increasing number of Canadian educators are finding new ways to enrich the learning experience for their students.

Take Darren Kuropatwa and Clarence Fisher, for example — two Manitoba-based teachers who started as active bloggers with the goal of connecting with educators worldwide. Now they've taken what they know to the classroom, leveraging a raft of tools such as GoogleDocs, Thinkfree, Writely, iRows.com, YouTube, iTunes and other web-based multimedia-type freebies to create new learning environments.

Coming to grips with technology in class

Students in Kuropatwa's calculus class at the Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg, for example, began the school year by creating a blog. For every class, a student is assigned to use their favourite online tools to create a summary of the day's lesson and post it for discussion and comments. "They don't read the textbook. They write it," explained Kuropatwa. This constantly evolving class assignment morphs into a compendium of lesson summaries featuring graphs, animations and even comic strip renderings � and it's available for global viewing and comments.

"Essentially, [the blog is] a place to build a community where people become engaged in the content they generate, which makes it more meaningful to them," Kuropatwa said. "Kids are no longer constrained by where they are, what time of day it is or how they want to present information. It's a quantum leap in the nature of the tools that can be used in education."

students Students in Snow Lake, Man., use online collaborative learning tools in class.

Kuropatwa also uses the class blog for posting assignments, comments, conversing with students and encouraging problem solving. "It helps to build the competency and ability for students to solve problems and make decisions, as well as lets me observe the thought processes to pinpoint where an individual student may be having problems."

In Fisher's classroom at the Joseph H. Kerr School in Snow Lake, collaborative learning is being used to foster a global perspective for kids living in a small town (population 730). His combined Grade 7 and 8 class uses a blog to build a personal learning network (PLN) with three other schools in Cartagena, Colombia, rural Virginia, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Online tools help the students to share ideas, send stories and images and even take part in videoconferencing. "The idea was to get kids in each country to look at the concerns of youth and teenagers in other countries," he explained.

The whole exercise may require a lot of "social software" for audio, text, photo and video file sharing, but Fisher stressed that this approach to the learning process is not about the technology. "It's about getting a kid's voice out there and giving them an audience. If you write an essay and I'm the only one reading it, nothing grows from that. Over time the ideas die."

'You don't have to be a rich old guy from New York anymore to get your voice out.'
- Grade 7 student, Joseph H. Kerr School

He illustrates the impact of the process with an example of a Grade 7 student. "She said something I'll never forget: 'You don't have to be a rich old guy from New York anymore to get your voice out.'"

When another student received praise for her essay from an AIDS worker in Botswana, "It just blew this kid out of the water because she realized the impact of having an international audience," he said.

Concept of learning seeing explosive change

George Siemens, associate director of the Manitoba Learning Technology Centre in Winnipeg, says these are indicative of a new knowledge explosion that is changing the whole concept of learning. "Students are no longer able to learn in a linear model. They're becoming 'multi-literate' and not thinking in text anymore. They experience their identities and society in a multimedia format." He noted, however, that teachers such as Fisher and Kuropatwa are a rare breed. "What they're doing is still quite cutting edge."

'Students are no longer able to learn in a linear model. They're becoming 'multi-literate' and not thinking in text anymore. They experience their identities and society in a multimedia format.'
— George Siemens, Manitoba Learning Technology Centre

"Darren and Clarence are those one-per-centers that are leaders," agreed Quentin D'Souza, an elementary resource teacher with the Toronto District Catholic School Board. "Once you move 10 or 15 per cent of the teaching population in that direction, the rest will follow. There's a big change going on in society, and we need to think about different ways to interact with that change."

For Fisher, the time for this type of change has definitely come. "There's no way we can deny students the power of having an international network to go to with your questions or concerns," he said. "When you hook kids onto a learning network you get wonderful things you never planned."

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