If you’d like to learn more about my Visual Thinking activity, join me on July 19th, 2012, at 12pm PDT/ 3pm EDT for a free webinar. To register, click here.
This past year, I embarked upon a teaching experiment in my online History of Photography class, a course I teach at a large, diverse community college in California. This is a learning activity that I designed to purposely put all students into a collaborative environment that has them each take on the multifaceted role of teacher. Why? For many reasons.
Rethinking Traditional Instructional Models
First, in a traditional undergraduate history course, it is the professor who makes the decisions about which key historical figures will be covered in the instructional material (i.e., the lecture, readings, videos, etc.). These decisions are usually informed by instructional materials used in conjunction with the class (like a textbook), but, beyond that, the specific topics and figures covered usually overlap with the professor’s interests and areas of expertise. This traditional model directly creates a gap between student interests (the photographers, for example, they want to learn about) which change with each new group of students, and the course content.
The traditional professor-curated model of instruction also instinctively places the students in the role of passive consumer of information, eliminating opportunities for discovery, problem solving, and critical thinking that emerges through the processes of inquiry and content creation. Today, traditional undergraduate-age college age students are largely engaged in mobile communications that turn the act of communicating from a one-way transfer of information into an interconnected, engaged, and participatory process of inquiry centered around sharing ideas and exchanging information. This is the model I aim to replicate in as many ways as possible in my own teaching.
The Tool Matters
The first essential element required to integrate participatory learning into a college class is a tool that is, well, participatory. Today, college professors are typically provided with access to a course shell in a course management system that includes organizational and management tools, the most participatory of which is the discussion forum. Discussion forums are antiquated and lack the rich media experience that the YouTube generation not only expects but relishes. Rich media is important in instruction — it supports the way our brains are wired by cultivating mulltisensory learning environments that I like to consider “brain friendly.” So, what tool is in your toolkit to support participatory learning? My tool of choice is VoiceThread and has been since 2007.
Augmenting Outcomes with 21st Century Skills
The Visual Thinking activity I designed using VoiceThread has all of the same outcomes of a traditional learning unit: Students are expected to identify key accomplishments of mid-20th-century photographers and analyze/discuss images by significant mid-20th-century photographers. But the unit goes much further than these two broad outcomes by requiring students to demonstrate proficiency of digital literacy, verbal communication, and content creation skills.
Visual Thinking: How the Activity Works
To fulfill these outcomes, students collaboratively decide which photographers will be covered in the unit, independently research the photographer they’ve selected through a Google Book search, locate examples of the photographer’s work through an online image search, and contribute the images and research content (with proper citation) to a VoiceThread in voice or video comments.
Additionally, the students develop an open-ended discussion prompt that is aligned with one of their self-selected images. The prompts, sprinkled throughout the VoiceThread, become points of entry for the rest of the class to engage with the content in week two of the activity and add additional comments to foster discussion, analysis, and reflection. The use of the voice or video comments in VoiceThread provides students with the ability to practice their verbal communication skills (comments may be deleted and re-recorded at the students’ discretion) and gives each online student the rare opportunity to listen to their peers’ vocal intonations as they learn in community.
Here is a breakdown of the required steps students complete in the Visual Thinking activity:
The activity is broken into two weeks. Week one is focused on research and content arrangement. Week two is focused on interaction with the student-generated content and the development of a written analysis that compares and contrasts the work of two photographers.
1) Claim a photographer. Each student takes ownership of researching the work of one key photographer, who they select from a long list I have provided. The list is typed onto an editable Google spreadsheet document. Students review the list of photographers on the list, use their textbooks to glean additional information about the photographers and their work, and select one artist they want to learn more about. They are encouraged to make this decision based upon their interests — “choose someone whose work intrigues you in some way.” To claim the photographer, they simply type their name in the appropriate column on the spreadsheet.
2) Research the photographer using Google Books. Student inquiry is guided by the question, “Why is this photographer remembered today?” To answer this question, they are required to locate digital versions of printed books using Google Books and properly cite their resources. To learn how, they view an instructional video I created and shared for them on YouTube. I point students to Google Books, as it opens students eyes to the open educational content available to them outside of random Google searches that yield lots of information — yet none of it sure to be credible. It also exposes them to resources that will (presumably) continue to be available to them after their college careers are over.
3) Locate two images using Google Image Search. This step requires students to learn how to perform a basic image search using Google Image Search, discern the author of the images using a variety of tactics, and isolate the image url for the file so it can be shared appropriately in the following steps. To learn how to do this, students view an instructional video I have created and shared for them on YouTube.
4) Edit the Visual Thinking VoiceThread and leave comments. In this step, each student is required to add two slides to the VoiceThread that I have created and shared with them. Using the VoiceThread Groups feature, I give each student “edit” permissions to the VoiceThread, which allows them to add additional slides — turning a VoiceThread into a completely dynamic environment! Students read the “Part One” instructions, view the two samples slides I have created as a model for them to follow, and then are given the option to view a video that illustrates how to edit the VoiceThread. You will note that the second slide uploaded by the students is required to contain an open-ended discussion prompt about the image they have selected.
Below is a sample of the Visual Thinking VoiceThread “shell” — this is how it would appear to students prior to any student-generated content being added.
After the research has been done and each student has added his/her two slides to the shell above, the entire class engages with the student-generated content. In week two, each student is required to select two additional photographers covered in the VoiceThread. They are instructed to view the two images, listen to the comments contributed by their peers about these two photographers, and read the excerpts in their book about the artists as well. Each student must leave three comments in the VoiceThread this week: one comment in response to the discussion prompt pertaining to each of the two photographers s/he is learning about (total of two comments), and one comment on the “Reflections” slide at the end of the VoiceThread. The reflections slide requires students to trace their journey through the activity and understand how it affected their learning.
Below is the finished Visual Thinking VoiceThread activity!! The final step in this activity is for students to go to their class blog and write a 500-word essay that critically compares and contrasts the work of two photographers they learned about in this activity.
I have facilitated this activity twice in my class (in two separate semesters) and both times I have been amazed that there has not been a single student who has been stumped or unable to complete it. I believe this is largely attributed to the very detailed instructions I provide that include text and video resources to support diverse learning needs.
The second time I facilitated the activity, I added the “reflection” slide, which is my effort to engage my students in the process of meta cognition, which simply refers to the process of learning about learning. You are welcome to click to the Reflections slide in the embedded VoiceThread above (the “completed” activity) and listen to the student comments for yourself. You’ll find many similarities — a number of students expressed greater interest and enjoyment in this non-traditional activity when asked to compare it to learning in a traditional module created by a professor. More than one student noted that they felt they learned more in the non-traditional learning activity and also identified unexpected challenges that led to opportunities to discover and learn new things. Many students noted that they felt interested or curious to see who their peers wanted to learn about, and that played a role in their engagement. This experience contrasted sharply with being told what figures from history they would learn about.
When professors grant students with the power to select and curate content for their class, they take on particular risks. First, the professor must maintain that the content covered falls within the curriculum and meets the course outcomes. I was able to guide this simply by creating my list of photographers (from which the students made their choice in week one) by using our textbook as a guide. Art history textbooks notoriously cover oodles more artists than can (or should) be integrated into a class.
Another notable risk is having students add “unreliable” content — after all, being the subject-matter expert has always been the professor’s role. What’s key to mitigating this risk is defining how students will perform their research. In an activity like this one, where there is not time for the professor to assess the validity of content prior to it being posted, it’s essential that the professors point students to a specific research database or tool that will retrieve reliable content. This could be a library database or, in my case, Google Books. Ideally, we want to be teaching our students how to discern valid digital content from “crap” on their own!
Taking risks is critical to innovation. If we do not risk making mistakes, then we will never change our teaching approaches. This experiment has reaped many benefits for me, as a teacher. I will reflect on one here.
This past semester, I was particularly energized to see one student share the work of a very famous photographer, Minor White. White is a photographer who is typically included in most major surveys of Western history of photography. So it wasn’t unusual that the student chose White, but what was unusual was the topic the student chose to share in the discussion prompt about White. In the discussion prompt, the student focused on encouraging his peers to reflect on the inner angst and turmoil that White explored in his 1940s photographs as a result of living as a homosexual, after serving in World War II. The image shared on this slide (and referenced in the prompt) is a part of White’s oeuvre that is rarely covered in survey textbooks (another way our traditional approaches selectively edit content without our students realizing it), and I know it certainly was not included in my own undergraduate curriculum when I learned about the work of Minor White. By granting students the power to choose and frame content according to their own interests and identities, a much more diverse curricular resource is generated. And that’s a tremendous success in my book!