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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

MockiPEDIA Part 2: 500 emails and counting...

It is now the beginning of the third week of the MockiPEDIA project. To call the last few weeks exciting would be an understatement. The project has taken off and Rob and I have learned a whole lot along the way. Read on and feel free to offer suggestions!

Learning to let go

The most exciting thing about this project is also the most challenging for the instructors. Inherent in constructivist theory is the idea that the creativity, desire and initiative of students be the conductor of learning. In traditional classrooms it is the teacher that controls, leads, sets the pace and doles out knowledge and information. Constructivist theory sees the teacher as facilitator, assisting students as they pose questions, run into road blocks and, in some cases, go bushwhacking through uncharted territory. That said, Rob and I have been teaching for a while and we tried to anticipate areas where students would need some guidelines. Even with this structure the student experience is much farther along the continuum toward constructivism than a typical project.

While monitoring the contributions that students make, sometimes I've been tempted to step in and make suggestions. It is difficult to hold back when I notice an incorrect interpretation of an historical event or research going in what I perceive as the wrong direction. So far, I've usually refrained from offering feedback. One of the goals of this project is to create instances where students must decide when and how to correct each other, provide feedback and work collectively to improve the site. Learning to do this tactfully is an important part of becoming a positive digital citizen. If I step in at every instance I notice an error or problem, I'm denying students the ability to manage themselves and work through the conflicts that can arise when critiquing the work of peers. Rob and I are available for advice, support and suggestions as students bring concerns to us. So far, they have stepped up to the plate and gone beyond initial expectations. Students have handled conflict well and haven't been shy at all about editing the work of their peers, two areas I was fearful would hinder work on the project.

By taking the initiative to move beyond, and deeper, than the initial set of topics we laid out on the site, students have begun to mold the MockiPEDIA into their own creation. I'm learning right along with them as they explore new events, discover little-known historical figures and dive into topics that inspire their inner historical detective. By this time in a typical research unit, I'm trying to help kids fight the effects of topic-fatigue. Instead, I'm happy to report that their interest is still growing. They are also learning about a much broader range of topics than they would have focusing their research in just one area, another goal of the project. Hooray!

Keeping students accountable

To monitor the work completed on the MockiPEDIA site, I've subscribed to changes using Google Apps. Each time a change is made and saved on the site, an email is sent noting the change including any additions and deletions. The email also lists which user made the changes. It's the primary tool we are using to track the work each student contributes to the site. Both the students and I are keeping a list of contributions on a chart, to be compared at the end of the project. So far, the amount of time needed to keep up with all the MockiPEDIA update emails in my box (500 and counting!) has been substantial. In the end, I suspect I'll spend more time managing site updates than I would have spend on a traditional project evaluating research notes and bibliographies at the conclusion of the unit. However, the extra time spent now is allowing me to see each student's progress and when the project is complete, the evaluation (and hours of grading) will be as well.

While I monitor site updates, Rob checks the "live" site to get a picture of the overall state of the MockiPEDIA. This is important because I am typically a few hours to a few days behind the current site status in checking the changes via email. In many cases a problem has already been addressed by the time I've noticed it in an email. I've been able to curtail my need to step in and offer suggestions because students have been handling the situations rather well on their own. Lagging behind them in checking email has actually been beneficial in allowing students time to notice and fix errors.

Which is more important: content creation or editing?

One of the dilemmas Rob and I are facing relates to student accountability. As we expected, some students are drawn to research and writing and others to editing tasks. When we set up the evaluation method for the unit, we took this into account and are requiring students to contribute in a variety of ways to earn points. However, each individual student has a lot of flexibility in how he or she contributes to the site. In a couple of cases, students have taken on the role of editor to a much higher degree and have spent the majority of their time and effort editing the work of their peers. Some of the edits are designed to make the formatting consistent and others focus on word use, sentence structure, grammar and spelling. The question we continue to ask is how important is one type of contribution compared to another. My teacher-gut really wants to emphasize content creation but other types of contributions may be just as valuable. Some students certainly believe so and have put significant effort into "policing" the site.

Will we still be as excited in another week? Stay tuned for next installment - MockiPEDIA Part 3: The Plagiarism Police

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