Guest post by Dr Mark Childs
The project Geoff Walton and I wrote about for Digital Literacy Unpacked was the AMORES project, headed by CARNet in Croatia, and funded by the Comenius programme: http://www.amores-project.eu/. The aim of the project was “Discovering a love for literature through digital collaboration and creativity” a phrase that took us a long time to develop, but time well-spent as this focused our attention on the key goals of the project – yes we were hoping to promote digital literacy and reading, but the over-arching aim was generating a love for literature. The means by which we were hoping to do this is by creating learning activities in which schoolchildren in five different European countries (Denmark, Croatia, Poland, Sweden and the UK) create digital artefacts, mainly videos, and share these with each other.
The project started with a look at the work that had been done in this area – a key one for us was the Sheherazade project http://www.sheherazade.eu/sites/default/files/deliverable/d3/deliverable3_EN.pdf – and we also tried to identify where some of the problematic areas in what we were trying to achieve might lie. The full report can be read from here http://www.amores-project.eu/results.html (you’ll need to register first, though).
Although we found lots of examples of students creating artefacts and placing them online, we found very few of them actually co-creating content online. People tend to upload stuff, and go as far as liking or commenting on it, but the incidences of actually sharing and mixing artefacts in an educational context are rare. It’s another part of the myth of the digital native. There’s some interesting studies (Scardamalia, 2004 and Colasante, 2010) using annotation tools to generate “artefact-centred” discussions, but these don’t happen in mainstream education at all. Although we found some great papers on the role of creating artefacts in education (video is very popular). Furthermore, when we looked at the experience of the schools involved, they’ve all got experience of creating videos in the classrooms, but none had really used social media in their education. Indeed, one or two were very reticent about the whole idea, I think a reaction to how it’s been demonised by the educational establishment in their countries.
This meant that in identifying which areas of the project were at risk, this one stood out – not only is there not a background of online content creation, and the social learning that can triggered by content creation, in the literature as a whole, using social media to support learning is not something the schools really do.
We designed the implementation part of the project (the part around teachers trying out the techniques with the students) around three phases, to try and mitigate this risk; rather than trying everything at once, we would build up in stages. The first phase was with the schools creating content in the classroom, with support by the teacher. This content was mainly video and comic strips, although we also introduced the idea of Top Trumps style card games which they designed themselves. This phase was far more successful than we’d hoped. For the younger students, the increase in digital literacy skills, learning how to use the software and being confident with its use, increased substantially. For the older students, there was not so much difference as they had already learnt how to use most of the software for the tasks. The students engaged more reflectively with the texts; creating the artefacts required them to think about the texts more, because they had to re-present them to an audience. Also, creating videos (and comics, but videos particularly) takes time, which meant a longer time focusing on the one text, but without the students becoming bored, as they had something creative to do. This longer time on the texts meant that they could go into more depth. What was unexpected was the growth of many students in the self-efficacy, confidence, affective domain. For many students, this was an opportunity to shine in ways that previous more academically-orientated work had not permitted them to. Being able to create, to show their language skills (including their English as a foreign language skills) or a previously developed skill in video made a huge difference to their experience as learners. Above all though, nearly everyone reported that these sessions were more fun; not only more enjoyable, but creating better relationships between students and teachers because everyone wanted to be there, doing the activities. This phase has just been published in the British Journal of Educational Technology (Walton, Childs and Jugo, 2019).
The second phase was getting the students to communicate the stories they were studying to another school. We wanted the students to also be storytellers as learning is always more effective when it’s reflected upon. We’ve all seen this (you might know it, but do you know that you know it?) Reflection is also an opportunity for students to learn metacognitive skills (how do you learn what you need to learn). For these reasons scaffolding the creation of artefacts and the social aspects of creation into an experiential learning cycle provides a chance to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. That would be a given in a set of learning activities. However, reading through the Sheherazade report I came across Dahlsveen’s model of storytelling. I can’t reproduce it here (no rights to it), but you can check it out in the original report. It shows the stages that a story goes through from shared creation, to performance, to reaction to revision. This is (according to Dahlsveen and I’d have to agree from my own experience) what makes storytelling such an engaging and motivating experience. What struck me is if you take her model and bring it round into a cycle, it looks like Kolb’s learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) which is itself based on Lewin’s idea of an engineering feedback loop. Here’s a picture of Lewin’s experiential learning cycle and Dahlsveen’s storytelling model as a cycle:
So the idea was we could scaffold the students’ experience of storytelling so that it could become an experiential learning experience at the same time as being a motivating, engaging and most importantly fun experience for the children. This would also introduce the techniques of videconferencing. Encouraging this to take place within the project as a whole was taking time to get off the ground, so in one of our face-to-face project meetings, we had the idea to identify one-to-one partnerships between the schools, with a specific goal to share stories where they are similar. This worked much better, although there was some trial and error with setting up effective videoconferences between classes. This could have been circumvented if the practitioners had taken direction from the TEL designers in the project, but in my experience as a TEL designer, this rarely happens. Once the students got over their initial shyness (a learning point for the project: if you are collaborating between schools, make sure that the groups of students are very similar in ages, a two-year age gap can seem enormously intimidating to an 11- or 13-year old).
The third phase was to encourage students to use our social media platform (we used Edmodo) to co-create content; the idea being that students from school A could upload materials for comment on and re-use by School B, and between them they could create shared content. However, the use of the platform was far more limited than we expected, and although eventually some schools began commenting extensively on other students’ work from the same school, the cross-over between schools was limited, and the co-creation non-existent. Although this exactly conformed to others’ experiences, we were still frustrated that none of the procedures we’d put in place to improve matters had worked. The first of these was a training course for the teachers, run by the TEL specialists, during the summer before the implementation phase of the project began. The mistake of the TEL specialists in designing the course was to simply present and discuss the techniques for collaborating online; far more effective would have been to model these activities, so that teachers could see for themselves how these could work. The second procedure was to hold meetings with parents to talk through the project, and what the goals were, and what safeguards there were for interacting online. For many schools this worked, but for one school the policies at the school prevented students from interacting in a social media platform. We should have made it clear earlier on what the expectations were, and why it was important that the project tasks were adhered to. The third error was in underestimating the time taken for students to familiarise themselves with the environment. “Familiarise” not in terms of understanding how it worked, but in feeling comfortable with being present with students from other schools, and sharing and communicating with them. Although students are used to social media platforms, they tend to socialise in those environments with people they already know; befriending new people whom they only know through the platform is not so common, and needs supporting. We also underestimated the reticence to expose their skills in written English to others.
Overall then, the project was a two-thirds success in promoting the learning we wanted. Students learnt far more about the books they were studying, and about themselves, than we anticipated. The younger ones also developed their digital literacy. Their connection with students in other countries was also effective; they shared their experiences of their literature, and their lives, with others across Europe. The co-creation and developing cross-over artefacts did not happen; we had students in Denmark creating superhero Top Trumps and students in the UK creating Greek gods Top Trumps and I was really looking forward to one playing against the other. I would say from the point of view of learning how to implement this international working it was fully successful; we understand the barriers to learning for students, teachers and learning designers far better, and also the ways in which creating artefacts can benefit the practice of all.
Colasante, M. (2010) “Future-focused learning via online anchored discussion, connecting learners with digital artefacts, other learners, and teachers”, Proceedings ascilite Sydney 2010, 211 – 221
Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Scardamalia, M. (2004). CSILE/Knowledge Forum®. In Education and technology: An encyclopedia (183-192)
Sheherezade Consortium (2011) Sheherazade, 1001 stories for adult learning Theoretical background for methodology: summary, http://www.sheherazade.eu/sites/default/files/deliverable/d3/deliverable3_EN.pdf
Walton, G., Childs, M., and Jugo, G. (2019) The creation of digital artefacts as a mechanism to engage students in studying literature. British Journal of Educational Technology. 50 (3). pp 1060 – 1086. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/bjet.12785