Adventures in Blended Learning

John A. Skype

As I mentioned in a brief thank you to Alec at our last class meeting, in many ways it feels as though I’ve been taking his course on The Blended Classroom for a few years now.

When I joined Twitter back in… can it really have been 2009? Alec was one of the first people I followed. Along with Will Richardson, Dean Shareski, Sylvia Martinez and a host of others who have spoken with us or been name-dropped throughout our time together this semester, Alec has helped form and inspire many of the ideas that have driven my blended practice in the years since, a journey that has been charted across the near-300 posts on this blog, as well as in other online spaces, physical artifacts, and dialogue with peers, colleagues and students.

Along with Dave Cormier I am interested in the blurring of the boundaries between formal and informal learning, and seek to integrate a more rhizomatic approach to institutional learning that makes use of the sprawling inquiries I have engaged in during my time as an open online educator. While it may be more chaotic, and difficult (if not impossible) to direct, this more organic approach has challenged me to make meaning of diverse experiences and connections in a manner which is far more in line with socio-cultural trends at the heart of the digital age and 21st century.

As a reflective practitioner, this has allowed me to plot a uniquely personal course of study that is relevant to my own interests and passions, classroom communities, and emerging perspective on my place in the world as an educator and member of the human project. But it has also offered the opportunity to engage in the type of emergent meaning-making that has become central to the philosophy of education underpinning my work as a graduate student. Taken together these experiences have influenced the type of learning opportunities I strive to create for my students, as well as the type of learning I hope they are able to engage in for themselves once they venture beyond the school.

This semester my own learning has met the gentle structure provided by Alec’s class and branched in what may be considered three overlapping directions: theory, practice and reflection.

Theory

I began my theoretical work in January with a look at the potential for Collaborative Inquiry to address teacher professional development interests, as well as put educators into the experiential role of learners as members of a community:

With increasing classroom needs, revolutionary changes in technology and information literacies, in an evolving culture dealing with widespread anxiety and mental health concerns, classroom teachers and extended school communities confront diverse language language needs and an increased awareness around gender and sexual identity, among other unique challenges. In British Columbia, public schools face the additional challenge of an ongoing and tempestuous negotiation between different stakeholders over curricular reform, teacher-contracts, and the role of education in society.

The convergence of these myriad adaptive challenges – “for which the necessary knowledge [does] not yet exist.” – seem an appropriate place to engage a process of collaborative inquiry which allows participants to “adopt new values and beliefs.”

In addition to the value that it might add to teacher-development and learning, this type of collaborative inquiry is in line with a conception of citizenship that is coming to ground my academic work around civic education. As the emergent view of knowledge described above may be seen to, the challenges presented by multiculturalism in pluralist democracies highlights the tension between creating and maintaining institutions that can bring about outcomes truly constructed out of their (ever-changing) constituent parts.

An ongoing theme in my work on this blog, the problematic view of emergence is described by Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta:

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

Sigal Ben-Porath presents a potential resolution to this paradox in the form of Citizenship as Shared Fate, wherein “citizenship education ‘seeks forms of attachments, belonging and commitment that would enable children to become positive members of diverse communities of fate.'”

Such a citizenship, and thus citizenship education:

“aims to recognize differences in values, outlooks, language and preferences while developing institutional and conceptual concepts – particularly civic and political ones – in which different communities can develop ties and shared practices.”

Practice

In building on these theoretical underpinnings (among others), I sought during this semester to engage in my own professional learning, as well as facilitate my various classroom-activities, with an eye toward exploring the digital applications of these ideas in the service of both individual and community development.

Guitar

(One of) My own learning project(s) during the term took on the challenge of musical performance, both in my guitar classroom and the school community beyond, a process I documented and reflected upon in a series of posts both here and on the #IntroGuitar site:Murder at the Witch's Tavern

In addition to this somewhat formal performance (as well as those which will follow throughout the semester), I also took a stake in a fundraising evening of murder-mystery dinner-theatre for our drama department, writing and sharing a series of expository songs during the hastily produced play performed for local parents, colleagues and community guests.

In each of these examples, my aim was not only to develop and reflect on my own growth as a musician, but to engage in a process I regularly ask of my students so as to both cultivate empathy for the discomfort that often accompanies learning as well as share an example – successful or not – of stepping into Vigotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development for students and colleagues alike.

For my guitar students especially, whom I ask to document and reflect on their musical learning regularly, sharing my own journey as a guitar player is an integral part of cultivating an open course community within the structure of a for-credit classroom. Part of the ‘open’ ethos of the blended #introguitar environment creates the course site as a space for our students to cultivate and share their own narratives of learning among members of the class, but also those beyond.

But these individual and collective artifacts of learning also stretch beyond the classroom, leaving a lasting community of practice that is accessible – as the three iterations of the course that have used the course are – to future students of guitar, at Gleneagle and beyond.

TALONS Socials

The same might be said of the praxis of reflection and creation I have attempted to instigate in the TALONS Socials learning this semester, where members of the class have been asked to document various aspects of their learning: in blog posts, Tweets, pages of notes, and recorded class discussions and role plays.

With assignments separated into summative presentations and assignments, reflections and self-assessments, as well as documents of learning in progress (questions, notes on discussions, journal entries, marginalia in various readings, assigned and otherwise), the TALONS Social Studies semester orients itself toward students taking ownership over their own encounters with the course’s Ministry-mandated prescribed learning outcomes. Through a range of class activities and assignments, each is charged with the collection of various artifacts of learning that will be used in the creation of midterm, as well as final syntheses of learning, where these articles will serve as evidence that the curriculum has been encountered, critically interrogated, and integrated into their own emerging understanding.

Daily homework, if not otherwise specified, reflects the values of ongoing personal inquiry and is geared toward the TALONS being successful in what has become known as the Philosophy Pop Quiz:

  1. Did you read material for today’s class meeting carefully? (No – 0, Once – 1, Yes, more than once – 2)
  2. Did you come to class today with questions or with items you’re eager to discuss? (No – 0, Yes, one – 1, Yes, more than one – 2)
  3. Since we last met, did you talk at length to a classmate, or classmates about either the last class meeting or today’s meeting? (No – 0, Yes, one person – 1, Yes, more than one person – 2)
  4. Since our last meeting, did you read any unassigned material related to this course of study? (No – 0, Yes, one item – 1, Yes, more than one item – 2)
  5. Since our last meeting, how much time have you spent reflecting on this course of study and recent class meetings? (None to 29 minutes – 0, 30 minutes to one hour – 1, Over an hour – 2)

Working toward the highest possible class average score on the above quiz, the traits and habits required for daily success can become part of the cycle of personal learning without falling prey to being too prescriptive. The synthesis of a collective voice out of these various inquiries and encounters with the common course of study are able to become the task of the social curricula.

This has been particularly evident in the class’ recent study of Canadian Confederation, where an experiment in social media role-playing has built upon the debates and discussion various historical characters have been waging in the face to face classroom, realizing that multicultural difficulty:

“…to ‘teach’ toward these myriad truths is at once a curricular requirement and Quixotic pursuit, revealing the tensions of education for citizenship in a pluralist democracy, asking How do we create unity and cultivate diverse perspectives?

“In interpreting history, as well as our present moment, students ought be engaged in rehearsing this act, and with the dramatic role play the answer offered to the pedagogic problem lies at the heart of narrative.

“Of sensing an individual’s arc at the centre of a multitude of shared and individual lives.

“Of constructing ‘we’ out of many ‘I’s.

“Whether face to face or in the online sphere, this is the task of schooling in the multicultural society.”

Reflection

Perhaps apart from both the theory and practice summarized above, the learning engaged in on this blog regularly ventures into more personal reflections and syntheses of learning that go beyond the collection of classroom experiences or theoretical readings and attempt to articulate something of a larger polemic on the state of educational or cultural affairs.

In the past few months, these posts have charted a variety of themes encountered in my weekly wanderings, including some thoughts on the nature of Learning on (and of) the Web, My life as the Music Department Digital Archivist, and Teaching in the Patriarchy. On a more personal note, I looked back on more than a decade spent with the work of Ernest Hemingway.

Each of these musings serves to help synthesize and express an emerging interpretation of various themes in my teaching, learning and life, harkening back to an image I used in a post last December on Course Design and Narrative Discovery, where data is transformed to information, to knowledge, to wisdom.

By engaging in this open manner, and publishing this work and these thoughts alongside the TieGrad cohort which has inspired many of them in the past two years, each of these experiences – and their corresponding posts – represents at once the wisdom of today as well as the points of data that will be made into new meanings going forward.

In a way it’s been the lesson I’ve been learning from Alec for years, while at the same time a culmination and synthesis of everything I’ve been learning the whole time.

Just as learning should be.

Digital Environments, Emergent Knowledge & Citizenship Learning

Untitled

Mock trial of King Charles I

EDCI 335 Challenge 10: What are the strengths/affordances of the technology or learning environment you have chosen for your learning design that will promote or facilitate learning?

In preparing the TALONS socials units this semester, I have sought to align aspects of technology, assessment and unit planning within larger values of emergent epistemology and citizenship learning. By bringing these different elements of my teaching into congruence, it is my hope that the class’ individual and collective learning is enriched by uniting these various aspects of their experience into a coherent and transformative narrative that will build throughout the semester and beyond.

To reflect these principles, technology has contributed a means of collecting and sharing class knowledge: aggregating and vetting various resources for study in our prescribed unit, presenting and synthesizing different aspects of the learning at hand, and providing a venue for assessment and reflecting on the course of study thus far. As we proceed (after spring break) the process will then recur to provide the goals, direction and implementation of future units of study as prior knowledge is re-organized, reconstituted and re-contextualized within new course content and experience.

As I’ve written about the class’ collaborative unit planning, I want to use this challenge post to collect and point toward a few specific examples of technology at work in TALONS Socials this semester.

At the outset, the class began by taking the prescribed learning outcomes specific to the English Civil War Unit in Social Studies 9, and employed an embedded Google Form in the class’ Wikispaces site for participant/learners to submit potential study materials. The selected materials were then rated according to our interpretation of the CRAAP Test, and the form was edited to highlight different resources that were either “Good to Go” (green), “Acceptable” (yellow), or “Extra” (red).

This exercise was an important place to begin for me as it placed the onus of research and curation on the class – rather than a teacher or the textbook. The debate about which sources were best suited to our purposes put the relevance and context of the unit in the class’ hands to be then planned and executed within our timeframe (before spring break). It was also my hope that such a discussion would lead organically into an inquiry of what meaning we are (each) to make of the English Civil War and its historical importance, and provide a context within which our individual understanding would emerge as the process unfolded.

Building on the questions and themes arising from the assembled resources and materials, the class then set about employing media and technology in synthesizing and sharing their learning on a variety of topics associated with the unit. There were adaptations of popular songs written to narrate the lives of Oliver Cromwell and his son, Prezi’s made to illustrate the historical timelines of James and Charles I’s reigns, and documentary films made about the trial of the King, to name a few. And in addition to being shared in class – in mini lessons, presentations, mock-trials and other demonstrations meant to share discovered knowledge with the immediate community – digital artifacts of the projects were/are being collected on the class site (alongside past years’ collected work and resources on the same unit).

The class Wikispaces site has long-been a valuable addition to the class’ study of socials, collecting a variety of different resources and media both created by past TALONS as well as useful materials existing on the wider web. It is an online accompaniment and ongoing assemblage of knowledge pathways which navigate the Socials 9/10 curriculum in British Columbia; but beyond serving to complement the TALONS’ own studies, the wiki’s existence as a repository of class work goes on to have a life as an open educational resource that serves a global community of learners. For example, the site’s statistics show that only 1/5 (22%) of the wiki’s traffic is even Canadian, and that the United States is responsible for more than half of more of the site’s 100 unique visitors per day

Whatever value it has beyond our own purposes, however, the course wiki represents an ever-unfinished and imperfect project, constantly in need of a structure which organizes knowledge in an accessible manner reflecting such an exponentially complex process of discovery.  And while the class has yet to meaningfully undertake a significant renovation or reorganization of the site, I am inspired at the prospect such a project might represent as an opportunity for the class’ unique perspectives to shape and engage in the creation of course knowledge itself.

Where each of these first two opportunities have presented means by which technology has influenced and (hopefully) supported the TALONS collective learning, the unit’s individual assessment has incorporated technology as a means of creating and sharing personal reflections and synthesis of learning across the class cohorts. The morning group opted to submit more anonymous reflections (corresponding to their student number for my reference) by way of a Google Form that, upon completion, shares the assembled responses with respondents, while the afternoon class decided to answer similar questions in the form of a post on their individual blogs.

The individual assessment asks TALONS to reflect on their process, habits and contributions to their individual study of the unit, their group’s project, as well as the larger classroom learning. Each is asked to highlight examples of their own or others lessons, or discussions which informed their thinking on the topics covered, as well as to expand on themes and questions raised during the course of the unit. Additionally, there are questions about the organization and implementation of the unit itself, and opportunities to influence future studies that will begin to shape our very next topic, completing the cycle of critical praxis for a first time.

Next week we will be taking up Socials 9’s next revolution in Europe and making use of each of these threads of learning, as we continue to:

  • shape the lessons of the class’ emerging understanding of the course content in individual voices and meanings, and
  • reevaluate and reconstitute the means by which that understanding is created to best serve our unique community of learners.

Continually seeking ways by which the class might be more consistently and actively engaged with these processes is central to both my epistemological and social-political beliefs about teaching social studies. And in these and other experiments yet to be undertaken this semester, technology plays a vital role in creating the opportunity to realize these lessons’ practical application.

Remixes, CRAAP Tests and Collaborative Unit Planning

Twitter as Citizenship Learning

For my EDCI: 335 class, Learning Design, I’ve thus far been addressing our discussion tasks and various thought exercises to my work with #IntroGuitar – especially as the class has been revised and relaunched for this new semester. But it feels as though there is also a lot going on in the TALONS Socials classes that has presented an avenue to manifest a lot of the theory underlying my term project in last semester’s EDCI 338, as well as aspects of our learning in EDCI 335.

As we have embarked on Socials 9 this year (our two-year class alternates between years of Socials 9 and 10), I have approached the spring semester in TALONS attempting to practice collaborative assignment and unit planning, offering opportunities in individual inquiry, media literacy created as an implicit expression of citizenship learning. With #IntroGuitar effectively “launched” for the time being, my planning focus has shifted to the beginning of socials 9, and the dawn of the modern era.

Remixing the Great Book of Knowledge

Over the past few weeks, we started with the source material of Kirby Ferguson‘s “Everything is a Remix” and CBC Ideas‘ The Great Book of Knowledge and set about discussing “the greatest knowledge revolution in human history ([which] began in our lifetime).” Pertinent as a connection to Gutenburg’s role in fostering the social conditions that brought about the Enlightenment period as well as to our present informational context, The Great Book of Knowledge presents the advent of Wikipedia as a manifestation of an emergent, socially created Truth. It seemed an apt place to begin talking about the advent of the bourgeois public sphere, and the creation of modern democracy.

From the hour long episode, each of the TALONS classes was left to organize and delineate the various themes and key ideas presented in the show. During each of these class discussions, I pledged not to talk unless necessary to clarify a technical aspect of information or procedure. In the vacuum created by eliminating the teacher’s voice, various individuals rose to the occasion to help bring about and represent the group’s thinking.

Momentum built slowly in either class’ discussion, with notes emerging on the board, and votes being taken to determine the show’s key themes and concepts.

Once the episode had been divided into as many segments as there were groups in the class, each ‘quad’ (group of four TALONS) was tasked with the creation of an audio remix that expressed the theme or thesis of their selected section. Each class brainstormed and supplied their own criteria for the assignment, and set about experimenting with the classroom technology – iPads, personal computers, Snowball Microphones.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 8.04.35 PM

As a finale, the finished remixes were presented on K12 web radio station 105 the Hive live as a debut broadcast from the TALONS classroom. Class members took on the duties of slotting the remixes into an order reflecting their content, preparing copy and questions to read as MC/hosts, learning to navigate the broadcasting software and attending to the group’s various social media. With a few hiccups (network connectivity, a tripped extension cord), both morning and afternoon classes made auspicious debuts in presenting the live broadcasts, and archived their work on the class blog.

We even received a note from the producer of The Great Book of Knowledge, the CBC’s Philip Coulter:

Hey talented TALONS people!

I heard some of the remixes you posted on Soundcloud of The Great Book of Knowledge. They were terrific! Really imaginative work- you had a great feel for the ideas behind the programme and for how to take those ideas to another level, which is what remix is all about, and you obviously get it.

You’re lucky to be in such a great programme, and from a little cruising around your site its obvious that you’re doing really interesting work. Keep it up with creating things that no-one ever thought of before- thats called Art, and that brings us a better world!

Philip Coulter

Producer, The Great Book of Knowledge “Ideas” CBC Radio

CRAAP Testing the English Civil War

This week we have moved into a different sort of crowd-sourced media literacy, emulating Jim Groom and Paul Bond‘s Internet Course at the University of Mary Washington, and CRAAP Testing resources on the English Civil War.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 5.01.52 PM

After applying the CRAAP Test to a reading that I supplied, we collected various resources and materials using a Google Form that was published in a wiki page dedicated to the activity. Next, each of the sources was evaluated and highlighted to indicate Good to Go (green), If you have time (yellow) or No Go (red).

In examining the resources Purpose(s), I provided the classes with the government’s prescribed learning outcomes for Socials 9, and asked which resources best fit the following tasks:

Students will: 

  • analyze factors that contribute to revolution and conflict
  • analyze the contributions of the English, French and American Revolutions in the development of democratic concepts
  • evaluate the changing nature of law and its relation to social conditions of the times

Collaborative Unit Planning 

Building on the questions raised by elements of the CRAAP Testing exercise, as well as the minimally guided dissection of The Great Book of Knowledge episode, collaborative unit planning has become a forum for developing the Ministry of Education’s “Applications of Social Studies,” wherein 

It is expected that students will: 

  • identify and clarify a problem, an issue or an inquiry
  • select and summarize information from primary and secondary print and non-print sources, including electronic courses
  • defend a position on a controversial issue after considering a variety of perspectives
  • co-operatively plan, implement, and assess a course of action that addresses the problem, issue or inquiry initially identified

Each of the morning and afternoon TALONS have pursued slightly different courses of action this week, as they have made their way through discussions about projects and readings, generating criteria and a two-week schedule (that will take us to Spring Break). In addition to addressing many aspects of the TALONS leadership curriculum in the spring semester – In-Depth Studies, Adventure Trips, and the culmination of an yearlong (and for the grade tens, a two-yearlong) exercise in community building – this approach is an extension of the reading and thinking I did last semester on developing an emergent curriculum.

Gert Biesta and Deborah Osberg describe a curriculum of emergence as one where:

“…knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next. Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in participatory actions.”

Having had the opportunity to experiment with the concept last semester in Philosophy 12, I am getting more and more comfortable with the idea that

“…to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

Confederation on the CBC

Found: Money

Courtesy of Flickr user Haunted Snowfort

Let it not be said that public broadcasting’s role in meaningfully interrogating the roots of Canadian heritage and identity is anything less than Herculean. From bringing Hockey Night in Canada into homes from St. Johns to Sandspit, to uncovering the history of our national origins, I wanted to share a few gems that could be of aid in coming to understand the meaning and historical context of Confederation, as originally shared on CBC Radio.

Enjoy!

The Enright Files – Fathers of Confederation

Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition, in conversation about two of the more intriguing fathers of confederation. Biographer Richard Gwyn talks about Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister while University of Toronto Scholar David Wilson talks about the poet of Confederation Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

The Massey Lectures

1963: THE IMAGE OF CONFEDERATION 

PART 1 – PART 2 – PART 3 – PART 4 – PART 5 – PART 6 

In the 1963 Massey Lectures Frank Underhill writes:”Our experiment of the new Canadian nationality has now been going on for almost a hundred years. It must be confessed that we approach the centenary year of 1967 in a state of mind that falls far short of the spirit of optimism and high adventure that marked the Fathers of Confederation. We seem to have lost their clear assurance of national purpose. We are not sure even that we are one nation. Our Canadian politics of the 1960s is leading many citizens to doubt whether it is worth trying to be nation if this is the only kind of politics which we are capable. One senses a feeling of defeatism in the air.”

Nation of Hockey 

Part I  PART II

The back of our five dollar bill shows kids playing shinny on a timeless pond somewhere in Canada. But Calgary writer Bruce Dowbiggin argues that hockey is far more than simple nostalgia or big business. It’s a clear window into the complexity of modern Canada: from shifting political power and economics, to multiculturalism and what we think it means to be a Canadian in the 21st century.

 

TALONS Launch class blog, continue Defying Normality

Defying Normality

Defying Normality

The TALONS have spent the last year with students – and teachers – adopting the use of individual student blogs, publishing writing and other media for projects and self-initiated posts to the public web in growing leaps and bounds. What at first was not without its tough-sell moments – encouraging young learners over the barrier of putting their school work “out there” for all to see – quickly built momentum with few looking back.

This blog though….It’s going to be a journal in a very different way. It’s public, and not necessarily about me, but perhaps more about how I view things. I am curious to see how my blog turns out. I believe it will be a place to discover, but also create. So here goes…. Katie’s Walking on Sunshine

First week Icebreakers

The class used their blogs to:

At the conclusion of their grade ten year in the program, a group of English enthusiasts even set up their own extra-curricular blog within WordPress and have published some twenty posts since school let out in June. Initially established for eight friends to stay in touch and preserve their summer memories, Frozen Tic Tacs has lived on into the new academic year.

This blog ended up even being discussed when the 8 friends were talking about their upcoming summer adventures sometime in March. That lead to a dream to do something like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Unfortunately, there were no jeans that could fit us all, and T-shirts were out of the question of the no washing rule. Plus, the mailing would be a difficult part too, so we came up with the idea of a blog. From that, it just stretched on until it became what it is today. Why the Frozen Tic Tacs

Howe Sound by Voyager Canoe

Howe Sound by Voyager Canoe

Last year, my blog functioned as the hub for information about class activities, assignments, outings and highlighting exemplary student posts, a process that placed my writing and input much closer to the centre of the class’ learning than I often try to be in my general teaching. Though I relished the opportunity to highlight the class’ work, and present class assignments as model blog posts in terms of using hyperlinks, images and embedded media, I knew that a collective class blog would do a much better job at creating a learner-centred publishing process.

Not only would students be able to vet, edit and publish their opinions of the best of the class’ work on a variety of subjects, but my own blog would be left to take more the role of a mentor or model’s than that of a traditional teacher dispensing gold stars and patted heads.

The trial first year in the Great Blogging Experiment left me with an appreciation for two key elements in the blogging process:

  • the cultivation of an authentic, global audience
  • the drive to create ultimately student-owned learning.

And so a few weeks ago I approached this year’s grade ten TALONS to see if they would be interested in starting, from the ground up, a central class blog. The response was brisk and enthusiastic, and in the past two weeks, the grade tens have taken polls to name and design the blog, chosen WordPress as platform and even learned a few bits and pieces of CSS coding, sought out other blogging classes to establish a blogroll and community of like-minds, invited local blogging mavens into our midst, and published an introductory post and About Page.

This blog is a way for us to let you all know what we are up to, and it is a great way to connect with other student bloggers. We each individually have our own blogs, but this is more a way for us to collectively share our ideas with the world. You will see posts about anything under the sun, be it a bus ride or a novel reflection. Just like no two T.A.L.O.N.S. students are the same, no two styles of writing, or posts will be the same, so check back frequently to see what is new in the T.A.L.O.N.S. world.

Visit and Subscribe to Defying Normality Blogging out of Bounds

WikiBooks Publishing Project

Ksan, British Columbia
Ksan, British Columbia

One of the surprises of last year’s socials units was the TALONS class‘ foray into publishing with Wikibooks. After more than a year spent within the confines of our district’s SharePoint Wikis and discussion boards, Wikibooks offered our first opportunity to publish and participate in a global dialogue of meaning, history, and identity.

This collective Wisdom of the Crowd is the appeal and power of crowd-sourcing; but the rabid tenor of many Wikipedia debates and discussions – not to mention the oftentimes thoroughly vetted and polished nature of Wiki articles concerning subjects covered in high school – makes venturing into that community a difficult proving ground for young students. Unless students are to be contributing coverage or information on an as-yet-undocumented subject or event – unlikely given the topics covered during the Socials 9 or 10 curriculum – participation in Wikipedia can be a difficult place to start.

Fortunately, the range and reach of Wikimedia Foundation‘s projects extend to include Wikibooks, a subject-by-subject collection of textbooks open to user-editing. Where similar articles – concerning Louis Riel, and the Red River Rebellion, as well as information about Canada’s various First Peoples – on Wikipedia were (more or less) “complete,” I was able to find – to my great surprise – this time last year, that many entries corresponding to our mandated curriculum under the Canadian History text were blank. The class broke up into research groups and “adopted” pages on different groups of First Nations, geographic regions, or notable events and issues in Canadian history.

When we set out on the project many students were surprised that they were “allowed” to use Wikipedia at school, as in so many classrooms even touching down on the “world’s most-cited web page” is forbidden as a blanket policy to combat fears that students can too easily directly plagiarize Wikipedia’s answer to many questions asked as homework. And it is not that this never happens; students make use of Wikipedia and Sparknotes by default to answer traditional questions based around extinct modes of obtaining information.

But what if classroom projects and student research could ask “bigger” questions than when did it happen? or who was there? What if our assignments could facilitate students justifying their interpretations of history’s influence on the present moment and culture? And help them engage in this discussion with the world outside the classroom? To even begin such an endeavour, when faced with the prospect of setting out to research and discuss topics quickly glossed over in the narrow perspective of the classroom text, where would one find a better compendium of source material than Wikipedia?

Sgang Gwaay
SGaang Gwaay, British Columbia

What emerged in the course of publishing, far from an exercise in redundancy (merely copying text from the original Wikipedia articles to the empty Wikibooks pages), was a learning experience encapsulating literacy skills emerging as essentials in the evolving information landscape. Students tracked source material ranging from interviews  to academic papers, and collectively authored a first perspective in knowledge on their subjects. Students were forced to consider multiple sources in developing their own perspective on the complex questions of the Canadian Identity: the purpose of our history curriculum beyond what is written in the course’s prescribed learning outcomes.

During the project, students were not able to cite Wikipedia as a direct source, but encouraged to use it as a starting point toward authors of work on subjects referenced in the articles as a means of providing their published work with the strongest support possible. Students asked questions of experts from all over North America, read widely and were introduced to a variety of issues on the recommendation of public servants, non-profit organizers, academics, and politicians. In the end each group published theirs as a first perspective (in terms of the Wikibooks project) on the information of the day concerning a range of topics on the Canadian Identity. The work had to be cited and written in accordance with Wikibooks’ authorship guidelines, and opened the class’ work to the response and criticism, but also the benefit, of global study on the unit’s subject. From a pedagogical standpoint, the rigour and validity of the class’ use of Wikipedia (and reaching beyond the textbook in general) provided an experience richer in critical analysis and personal investment than many read-and-test units covering the same material.SGaang Gwaay

One student-solicited interview resulted in University of British Columbia Aboriginal Education professor Mark Aquash offering to spend an afternoon discussing the many tough questions surrounding Canada’s First Peoples that our texts (and oftentimes our teachers) are not well-enough prepared to confront. At the conclusion of the nearly two-hour dialogue – which covered the misunderstood labels of native, Métis, Indian, First Nations, Inuit, as well as contemporary conceptions of aboriginal land claims, reservations, education and welfare in the first person – a grade nine offered the following realization that I believe our texts are seldom equipped to facilitate:

All of [most] people’s anger and discomfort about Canada’s First Nations issues boils down to difficulties understanding the different ways our cultures view being human.

Of course, the statement is much bigger than a Canadian issue, and speaks to the extrinsic purpose of our education to teach empathy and understanding across the diverse cultures of our increasingly connected human experience. Thus the underlying purpose I hope the publishing project enables is to broaden the scope of the class’ discussion of our upcoming unit. I have been seeking classes or groups of aboriginal youth (wherever in the world they might reside, Canada or otherwise) to collaborate throughout the past year with the hope of working together to establish a dialogue or publication of student research and study of our local, yet universal history. I am excited to see the TALONS’ blogging network extend and to begin to see other examples of classes sharing their learning through social networks and blogging.

With respect to our First Nations unit specifically, I have only established a few “leads” in connecting our classroom to another in order to discuss this aspect of colonial history, something I think speaks to the pervasive lack of interaction and understanding between First Peoples the world over and European (or other) colonialist nations in the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, and Australia. Delving into the history as we are taught it with the intention of authoring a contemporary narrative of Canada’s struggle to implement a truly multicultural society seems a good place to start though, whether we have company in this endeavour or not.

Many of the TALONS students are participating in the international Student Blogging Challenge this spring, and there is a momentum building around the shared experience that modern communication can offer. With this call to action, the class’ study of its upcoming history chapters is an opportunity to produce a collaborative effort to start a global dialogue of our relationship with this place in Canada, and the world, in this moment in time.