Sunday, November 01, 2009

Cool Tools Don't Make the Grade

I'm as guilty as the next person. Perhaps more so. I was caught up in the "Cool sites"wave a couple of years ago, and I even spread the message of those tools on many an occasion. Now, however, I find myself sorry that I ever mentioned them.

Someone (I don't recall who) said that some high school teachers never leave the mindset of middle school in terms of the assignments they give. I'm beginning to see that now, especially with all the talk about "cool web 2.0 tools."

It's important to distinguish between "cool" and "good", or between "fun" and "appropriate." I can think of several that come to mind. For one, Xtranormal. You type out your script, choose your avatar(s), and make the move. The program makes the avatar read the script to you. Fun, probably. Cool, maybe. But, appropriate for senior high students, doubtful. Yes, you might use it to introduce a lesson, but why bother? What does it add that doesn't disappear within a few seconds after it's finished playing? How does that get the student thinking about the topic? And, if we're thinking that having the students create one is an activity that reaches the Create level in the new Bloom's Taxonomy, we're sadly mistaken. It's no more a match than is "creating" a PowerPoint. Any 2nd grader with typing skills can make an Xtranormal skit, so asking a 17 yr old student to make one is an insult to that student's intelligence, I believe.

I've written before about SecondLife, and questioned its use in the classroom. Not only is it a bandwidth hog and totally unfilterable, but it doesn't add anything to the discussion of my content. Yes, there are museums in SecondLife (SL), and some colleges hold classes there. But, so what? Even if you did have our class meet in SL you will still be grading them not on how well they are able to move their avatars, but on what they have to say. You can do that face to face. The technology doesn't let you do anything that you can't do without it - except fly. Yes, there are some children who have a hard time with face-to-face discussions and for whom SL may help. But, the occasional exception doesn't prove the rule. Just because you can make an avatar move - even fly - doesn't mean learning is taking place.

Another is Blabberize. Maybe it's fine for elementary students, but surely our 13 yr old and older students are capable of so much more. (Remember Tim Tyson's students a couple years ago at NECC?) If his middle school students are capable of those kinds of projects, then our 18 yr olds are capable of much more. MUCH more than making a President's picture talk.

I remember when we used to teach Hypercard and we first learned to scan something into a stack. Now THAT was REALLY cool stuff, at the time. Windows didn't exist yet, so we were the only ones with mice and the ability to put images and sounds together on a computer. We could even control a cdrom drive to play music. But, even with music playing and with scanned images (grey scale only), what mattered was the content and whether or not it appeared that the student did any thinking. Remember this discussion? “All you needed to do to get an A was to make something move.” I'm having deja-vu all over again :) when I hear people talking about Blabberize or Second Life or some of the other virtual reality environments.

I suppose that this is a natural evolution of things. You first become enamored with a web app (cuz we're geeks, after all) and you have to get over that before you can focus on the learning. But, from now on, when I mention a "cool tool" I'm going to be certain to talk about which NETS-S it matches, and where its use falls on the new Bloom's scale. If the tools doesn't make students think in a different or deeper way, then I'll be certain to reevaluate before showing it to anyone. Where does a talking carrot fall on the new Bloom's scale?

Update: 10-3-09
Please see the comments section


JohnBr said...

Jim, Second Life is not designed as an educational tool and no one under 18 is supposed to access it, so I really think that its value as an educational tool is a moot point.

If your contention is that multi-user virtual environments have little or no educational value, I think that it is far too early to draw such a conclusion. There is a great deal of research being conducted into the use of MUVEs for education and much of it is promising.

We are currently involved in an NSF research project being conducted by Temple University and Arizona State. The study is examining the use of a MUVE as an alternative way to assess a student's scientific knowledge and skills. This grows out of research that shows that many students are unable to effectively demonstrate their scientific knowledge and skill through traditional paper and pencil exams, but can do so in a more emersive, experiential environment. The researchers involved in this were very involved with the River City project at Harvard.

I believe that the work that Peggy Sheehy has done in Teen Second Life with students from the Ramapo Central School District has also demonstrated ways that MUVEs can enhance education.

Teachers might be interested in the way that Peggy has integrated a MUVE in the teaching of literature. Also, her use of avatar's to help students examine issues of peer pressure and self-concept is very interesting.

Coming up soon, we will be hosting and international debate on eRacism in the New Worlds OpenSIM available on PAIUnet. We expect students from Canada, Australia, India, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the US to participate. Could this be done using other technology? Absolutely. Is there an advantage to using a MUVE? That is what we are exploring.

Virtual Worlds are a significant part of the digital landscape. While it is impossible to say the importance that they will ultimately have, exploring their use for education seems appropriate to me.

Jim Gates said...


I debated and debated about whether or not to even mention SecondLife, as I think the groundswell over its use in schools has ebbed. I, too, think it's a moot point. And, I agree that exploring those environments is valid - as long as someone is there to help folks get past the Wow factor and look at the impact on teaching and learning.

I wasn't even going to bring up the idea of virtual environments, but I had just heard someone talk about one such site and the glowing description of being able to make your avatar go up stairs to a second floor - or some such. That's what bothered me.

And we know that there will be students who will thrive in a 3d world online while others don't find it worth the effort. That's what your explorations will help to determine, I'm guessing.

So, I'd love to just rewrite that thought and leave out the part about Second Life, but that's not how it's done. Thank you for a thoughtful response.

commenter said...

To your question "Where does the talking carrot fall within Blooms taxonomy?" I think it falls somewhere near the burping into VoiceThread example shared at NECC 2009!

GDhuyvetter said...

My only justification of keeping Xtranormal in my toolbox is that it allows for a degree of planning and manipulation of the film through directions. I agree that it is a one-shot tool rather than something to be used over and over.

However, I've enjoyed recreating some classic scenes from literature, and it still is an attention grabber!

Thanks for a great discussion!

Sengia said...

Jim, I'm glad you addressed Second Life. Two of the educational journals I am subscribed to have mentioned Second Life on a monthly basis. A lot of it has stemmed from the research which I believe JohnBr made reference to. With the amount of time and resources needed to implement, I did not see enough of a "payoff" for educators.

Working with Middle School students,I see a need for students to realize the connection between the digital world and their own physical world. Some of the problems we face with cyber bullying I believe are a result of this disconnect. Students have to be shown that as they collaborate and communicate online that they are still working with a person much like themselves. Avatars can make it easier for students to forget that.

Jennifer Carrier Dorman said...

I agree that the "coolness" factor only takes us so far, but my experience with high school students has been that the novelty the tech tools provide often opens the gateway to learning. We know from brain research that novelty is powerful in starting the neural processes that eventually lead to learning. And, we also know that the more time students spend thinking about and acting upon new content and/or skills the better the chance of transfer into long term memory with richness in neural connections. Sometimes, the coolness factor student associate with the tech tools will increase the amount of time students spend thinking about content.

Anonymous said...

Several years ago before 2.0 a tech friend and fellow teacher and I used to use the the phrase "Ooo! Cool!" to describe technology that was neat but that we were not quite sure what to do with. There is still a lot of "Ooo! Cool!" stuff. Some of it is cool. Some of it is just ooo.