EDT 6020 Field Test: Prezi, visual search, and google doc forms

The Assignment: Choose one technology tool (proprietary or non-proprietary) that you are not yet familiar with. Using this technology, create a lesson in which the tool will be integrated into the classroom environment. Implement this technology, using at least 10 individuals. Write a short paper (you may use an APA format, a chart or table, or any method to present this information in print), indicating the following: the tool, the background or history of the tool, the rationale for using the tool, the theory or best practice behind using the tool, the audience that the tool will address, issues and concerns that one would have in using this tool, an appraisal of the tool, staff development concerns, the learners’ reaction to the tool, and your recommendation for implementation. Prepare a presentation of your choosing (this does not have to be a PowerPoint presentation) that will take no more than 15 minutes of class time. This assignment will be due by the last class of the semester (we will discuss this in more detail in class). Please be creative.

Fieldwork report 


When we change the way we communicate, we change society” 
-Clay Shirkey (2008)

Abstract:  I used three web-based tools with my students that were new to me during the duration of the EDT 6020 course. My students used Google Apps (specifically the forms function) with an Internet literacy activity (http://spreadsheets.google.com/viewform?formkey=dFdtSmk5MlFlZGhaQ2xKTWNlOHRZUEE6MA), viewed and responded to the online presentation tool Prezi to introduce Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (http://prezi.com/0k3oa1jlz8yf/edit/) and “crowdsourced” a set of visual search engines (https://wiki-land.wikispaces.com/Visual+Search+Engines), a set based on the search engines Professor Ardelle Pate (2010) brought into class session one. Sone students did this as a component of their research into American society based on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and another did so class looking at Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Background for this report: aborted attempt at social networking
In January I decided that I wanted to incorporate the online social bookmarking tool Diigo with my seniors’ Internet research projects. I expected their quality and efficiency of their research might improve. Underlying this hypothesis is the belief that learning, an inherently social activity, would improve as the social interactions among members of a learning team increased. But on 3 February, I learned that my school would not allow any computer in our Literacy Center (the English department’s writing lab) to be altered so as to allow a user the freedom to add an applet to the Internet Explorer browser bar. (Such an applet is required for Delicious and Diigo–they are not designed to work without the applet. Although a partial fix was offered (Diigo’s educator’s account, using diigolet), it did not allow any added efficiency over what we had been using through our wikipages. My decision to the field test google apps, prezi, and the visual searching, then, was a backup plan. Fortunately, google apps has strong collaborative potential, so the goal of improving learning by facilitating and increasing social interactions with fellow learners can still be achieved. We do through the “discussion” tabs of our classmate’s wikipages.

Tool: Google Apps
Google apps have been around since 2006. Their advantage over Microsoft Office applications is their accessibility through the “cloud” and their capacity for web-based collaboration. They allow users to “go green,” and forego the use of paper while working on the same draft. It avoids a common problem of collaborating teams: the accumulation of many different drafts that proliferate in the attachments to email threads. In this field test, students in English 11 who normally engage in a session of Internet-based research awareness (a regular part of the curriculum that had been conducted previously on paper worksheets) used google apps to explore, evaluate, and write responses on the qualities of various Internet sites. The activity is designed to help students to discriminate among the vast array of information streams available on the Internet. Prior to this lesson they have all have received “search tips” to get them Internet searching “smarter, not harder,” but an important related skill is the ability to sort out all of the information one receives from one’s queries. This points up a “problem of scale” that Clay Shirkey (2008) describes in his book, Here Comes Everybody. “More is different,” he frequently reminds his reader. And different means we cannot work with it in the same old ways. With greater volume of information, there is greater need for discrimination. And that is where this lesson takes place–at evaluating various information sources generated from a single search query.

Basically, students some students filled out worksheets, and some did the same assignment via a google doc (form) (http://spreadsheets.google.com/viewform?formkey=dFdtSmk5MlFlZGhaQ2xKTWNlOHRZUEE6MA). I found it an easy way to

  1. get students comfortable working online in sustained sessions of critical reading, evaluation, and writing
  2. compile all of the information instantaneously and paperlessly on a single spreadsheet

From this first-time experience, I learned that

  • In general, they wrote more carefully on the Google app form. The amount of information generated on the paper handouts was significantly less–perhaps a mere function of space on the paper. The paper worksheet using students also worked faster– most were able to come up with “answers” to the 18 sections, but only a very small percentage of the online google docs-based form were able to finish. The depth and quality of the online students’ writing suggest that students “took more seriously” the writing task demanded by the non-paper digital responses, or felt more at liberty to expand their responses. 
  • In general, they were engaged by the Google app form. Once they were started, students need little assistance, and indeed some resent being interrupted by the friendly “how’s it going? Need any help?” when they are engaged in filling out the online form. The literacy required of this form of communication is familiar to many of the students, one on whom joked to me when she finished, “So do I win a new iPod now, Mr. B.?” The implication to me was that in their nonschool Internet lives, students are used to filling out forms similar to the Google apps-based one in this assignment. 

I would recommend to other teachers, and have decided for my own classes to use google app forms in the future as a paperless and relatively easy way of gathering student writing and opinion. It will be especially suited to assignments such as the “gateway activities” to learning units of our curriculum in which students are asked to express their opinions on a scale or through True/False responses. Their tallies at the middle or end of the unit can be measured, and through the google spreadsheet attached behind the doc (form), the results can be graphically displayed–something that cognitive psychology tells us increased the retention and meaningfulness of information. The collaborative part of google docs, unfortunately, is not yet possible with my students. We would need for each to have the suite of apps, and fortunately, they will be here next school year. But the possibilities, adumbrated for me by the collaborative work I see them doing with partners on their wiki pages, look very good.

The tool: Prezi, the “anti-Powerpoint”
Prezi is the “anti-Powerpoint,” a digital “canvas” that allows spatial relationship demonstrations and fluid, back and forth movement between elements in visual presentations. With its capacity to show images, text, video, and other embedded media in non-linear, relational ways, Prezi may engage students-as-audience (especially visual learners) in ways that the Powerpoint does not. Prezi construction (students-as-creators) involves less linear logic, and more narrative logic. It does not segment thinking (which is how you make a Powerpoint), but relates thoughts in sometimes surprising, divergent ways. This is a place my field test did not go, but (see below) I am keen to get students creating their own Prezis. Students using Prezi is facilitated with the large free storage space given to any educator who requests a Prezi “license” (just go to http://www.prezi.com, click on “plans,” and follow the link to “student/educator licenses”). Prezi requires a presenter to create his/her own “story” to a collection of diverse data points (textual and graphical). There is nothing wrong with linear logic (Powerpoint’s inherent bias), but if we want to engage both left and right hemispheres of students’ developing cognitive skills in our curricula, I would champion Prezi as a means of letting students exercise their “right-brains.”

The field test of Prezi used it to present data points related to the opening pages of Bradbury’s 1953 novel. It is an introductory activity in which the students go from a close annotated reading (facilitated by the ELMO digital presenter), to the Prezi, displayed on a large screen before the class.ong [complex] systems.” As it begins, students perceive a diverse, complex set of messages in the Prezi. It will not make immediate sense. But because the Prezi is used to make “wholistic” inter-relationships visible, students are able to follow the “paths” that lead to understanding–in this case, how Bradbury’s words use imagery and symbolism to evoke thoughts and feelings in his readers. This sort of “knowledge path-building” is what the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2004) has identified as a key skill schools should be teaching students. The ability to “[understand] the interconnections among [complex] systems” is what the Prezi requires and encourages in students.

In a future lesson, students will create their own Prezi’s in response to a key curricular question regarding the “maturity” of the characters and the society of Bradbury’s book. They will be encouraged (required?) to include a certain number of textual passages that they can then illustrate using the powerful graphical engine of the Prezi. A certain number of (creativecommons-sourced) images, and other media (video, slideshows, etc.) can be required. This is the information-gathering part of the assignment, what the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2004) calls the ability to “analyze, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in a variety of forms and media.” They will thus fulfill the Partnership’s standards by creating the “knowledge pathways” that constitute their finished presentations. Making a good Prezi has students demonstrating their capacities to “understand, manage, and create effective oral, written, and multi-media communications in a variety of forms and contexts.”

Based only on the use of Prezi with “student-as-audience,” I am giving it a qualified recommendation: while there was universal attention to the Prezi–some “cool!”s at the zooming in and out (and across and back again) features–I clearly do not have enough data to claim its superiority to a Powerpoint. I would recommend that teachers attempt a good Prezi of their own as a way of introducing them to the tool (there was 100% ignorance of it among my students), and then, once their interest is perhaps aroused, give an assignment in which they use Prezi to answer a relatively complex and engaging question–something like the “To what extent is the character of Clarisse acting in a ‘mature’ way?” my students will be working from. One can imagine a science question like “How does photosynthesis happen?” or a math question asking students to explain the steps used to find a solution to a word-problem.

The tools: crowd-sourcing and visual search engines
The visual search engine is designed, like Prezi, to make the process of Internet search more engaging to the “right-brain” of users. Its promise is in making the gathering and sorting of information more efficient, since the “visual learner” can “see” relationships between classes and genres of documents and images returned by a user’s query. In the last few years, more of these engines have come online, including several that had not yet been listed by Professor Pate’s impressive list of search engines (2010).

For my field test, students engaged in researching a question related to their study of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men used a set of visual search engines to gather web-based resources. They used the answers their results led them to in order to write an essay whose “final” version would be posted online at their class wikispace. In using the visual search engines, the students were demonstrating their ability to do what the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2004) refers to as “locate appropriate resources, transfer learning from one domain to another.” But they were also, in the second part of this field test (the “crowdsourced” evaluation), engaging in the 21st Century skill of “Self-direction.” Students made up their own minds (whether right- or left-brained) about how useful the visual search engines are/were for them. They are thus “monitoring one’s own understanding and learning needs,” something the life-long learner of the new century, the knowledge builder for life, needs to be able to do on an on-going basis.

The results of this field test are still being evaluated. The google form-based feedback data have not all been collected, there is no “control group” to compare the results to, and the essays the students have written are–most of them–not yet in a “finished” state. However, some initial observations are possible:

  1. Almost universally, students were able to use the visual search engines without teacher instruction. The link to the sites was enough to get them using them, which might suggest how fluent students are at “navigating” Internet information streams.
  2. The flash-based search engines, like Visiwords (not, strictly a search engine but more of a visual thesaurus), Google’s Wonder Wheel, and Eyeplorer (which returns a colorful field of organized, related cognates) fascinated some students, perhaps over-much, as they were not as productive in finding usable results for their inquiries. It may have been a case of the tool being more cool than the inquiry itself.
  3. Some visual search engines must seem “dangerous” to school IT filters–a good number of them, from unrecognized or untrusted sources–were blocked to students working from the school computers. Some that worked as search engines, such as “Middlespot” had so many individual images blocked that it ceased to be classifiable as a “visual search” engine at all. Clearly, some additional vetting is needed at the level of school IT policies if we want our students to get familiar using the tools of their future today. 

So again, no unqualified endorsement of visual search engines is possible now, but merely extending the range of students’ inquiring minds beyond the typical “google it” or “use the school’s database” seems commendable to me.

On the other hand, I can, however, give a complete endorsement of the exercise in “crowdsourcing” that was undertaken with the assessment of the visual search engines. With very little additional instruction, students were able to register their opinions on the visual search engines, something that speaks to their strong “Internet fluency” skills. If one measure of a Web 2.0 user is the ability to interact and create content, and one construes student feedback as authentic content generation, then all of my students could be said to have engaged as Web 2.0 users in this field test. No immediate and definite knowledge is generated in crowdsourcing, and so the process requires a tolerance for ambiguity. But because the knowledge-building process is not finite and predictable–Shirky (2008) says it is “more like creating a coral reef, the sum of millions of individual actions, than creating a car,” it is appropriate that we habituate our students to taking part in this democratic approach to knowledge-construction. Compared to just a generation ago, today’s educators live in an altered communication landscape. The old media and forms of communication are no longer dominant. The tools that EDT 6020 allowed me to field test allowed me and my students the opportunity to engage in meaningful learning activity with some of the newer modes of communication. Doing so, therefore, was an act of progressive education, for which I (and I would imagine, my students) are very grateful. In these three little steps–through using Google docs, Prezi, and crowdsourcing evaluations of visual search engines–my students and I moved out of the traditional school and toward the changed society we all inhabit.

References

Bradbury, Ray. (1953). Fahrenheit 451. New York, NY: Random House.

Pate, A. (2010, January). E-sheet “Search Engines.” Accessible athttp://preview.tinyurl.com/ychsa9x

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2004). “Learning Skills–English.” pdf file. Accessible at http://preview.tinyurl.com/y8kuaau

Shirky, Clay. (2008). Here Comes Everyone: the power of organizing without organizations. New York, NY: Penguin.

Steinbeck, John. (1938) Of Mice and Men. – New York : Covici-Friede, 1937

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