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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Interactive Technology Link to Learning: Bringing Classrooms Together

An example of the important role interactive technology plays in education.
By Jim Dieckmann

Clear View students ask questions of San Diego State University scientists during an interactive online video and audio session.

Credit: Learn & Live

The air is filled with excitement and apprehension. The equipment necessary to conduct the online session between Clear View Charter School in Chula Vista, California, and the Electron Microscope Facility at San Diego State University (SDSU) has been set up by the fourth- and fifth-grade students in my class.

Coaxial and audio cable snake underfoot connecting the video camera, two television monitors, the video printer, the VCR, the microphones and sound board. I recheck the wiring connections, glance at the status lights on the transmission panels. I am confident our signal is being sent.

But will we receive Steve Barlow's video and audio from SDSU? Will he be able to see and hear us? We all stare at the snow-filled monitor labeled "incoming video." I resist grabbing the telephone for the hasty and reassuring call to Barlow. Although there have been some challenges in pioneering the use of a fiber optic connection between SDSU, located twenty-six miles away, and our elementary school during the last two years, the technical support provided by Cox Communications, our cable business partner, has been outstanding.

I nervously finger Barlow's well-worn business card with the Cox technicians' numbers written in red ink, telephone in hand, one eye on the monitor. I wait. I turn to answer a student's question.

"Hello, Dr. Steve," booms fourth grader Patrick's naturally over-amplified voice. I spin to quiet Patrick and catch a glimpse of Barlow beaming a welcoming smile across the television monitor. I ignore Patrick's outburst, walk into camera range, and greet Barlow and his special guest, entomologist Kathy Williams. The scanning electron microscope (SEM) is operational; the video signal is excellent; and the first eager student-scientist team is ready to view its insect sample. I fade out of camera range; my students take over directing Barlow as he manipulates the controls of the SEM. Williams probes the students with questions and points out interesting structures about the focus of our inquiry: the mouth parts of insects.

For this assignment, three-person student-scientist teams were formed to research and complete a HyperStudio (multimedia software) project. Collaboration with team members is essential to student learning in the multimedia classroom. Through the sharing of skills and knowledge, students work with a sense of cooperation, without competition, in a coordinated effort to investigate the life of their chosen insect species.

Research materials were gathered from a variety of sources, including books, encyclopedias, magazines, CD-ROMs, and the Internet. As the student teams realize the quantity of information to sort through -- coupled with the need to determine what information is relevant and useful -- their work evolves. Roles become defined, individuals take on responsibility for their team's progress, and "we" takes the place of "I."

We began our investigation by generating scientific questions that could be answered by direct observation with the electron microscope. Do insects have different kinds of mouth part structures? How do these variations relate to food preferences? Can the types of mouth part structures be predicted based on where the insect was collected? Each team tried to collect a specimen of their chosen insect that would then be placed in the SEM and viewed by us on the fiber optic network. After the online sessions, they digitized their SEM images on the computer to illustrate their findings in their HyperStudio stack.

Steve Barlow and Kathy Williams use a scanning electron microscope at San Diego State University to study insect specimens collected by students, who watch the procedure back in their classroom.

Credit: Learn & Live

Teacher as Producer and Director

Although this scenario has been played out a number of times in the past two years, I am always excited and apprehensive about the online sessions. On one occasion in May 1996, the production crew from State of the Art, Inc., in Washington, D.C., was with us for three days filming for The George Lucas Educational Foundation's documentary film, Learn & Live. Producer and director Gerry Wurzburg and the whole crew were wonderful. They were genuinely interested in what we were doing and tried to let the rhythm of classroom instruction and student work continue without adverse interruption. It was fun and educational. The students gained an understanding of documentary filmmaking and how a team, like the State of the Art crew, works together for a common goal.

My role as a classroom teacher is similar to Gerry's as the producer and director. I translate my vision of the skills I want students to learn into the framework of their projects. We struggle to find the common thread that will tie them all together. We make decisions that all the teams must adhere to concerning the scientific questions, methods of collection, and mounting specimens on the stubs for viewing in the SEM. I instruct the whole class on resource gathering, Internet search strategies, and multimedia production, planning, and techniques.

The real learning takes place in the doing, when the students are at the computers. They struggle with search terms on the Internet, decide which information is useful, write text, select graphics, scan photos, digitize video, design cards, add sound and music, and construct hyperlinks. My role as a teacher changes. I am a coach, a "guide on the side." Discovery abounds. Skills and knowledge are shared from student to student, teacher to student, student to teacher. We are all learners. We take risks and engage in creative floundering. We are having fun. We are making decisions. We are learning and applying basic skills.

The process of upper elementary-aged students creating interactive multimedia projects is long and arduous for both the students and the teacher. Frustration with misplaced resources, an uncooperative team member, a software or hardware "glitch," and lack of time to make revisions and improvements must be addressed. There comes a time when the teacher must call "time" and the work viewed and evaluated, even if it's not totally completed.

The presentation of the projects is a very important component of the students' work. Student teams present their assignments on a large-screen monitor and explain to their peers the structure and content. Each team member is responsible for a specific portion of the oral presentation, which includes a discussion of the triumphs and problems they encountered along the way. Students must not only share what they learned about the subject, in this case insects, but also what they did, how they did it, and the process of team design and execution.

The presentation session for each team ends with peer comments and discussion directed toward recognizing what each individual learned while working on the project and how they might use that learning about the subject and the process in the future. A video tape of both the presentation session and a recording of the HyperStudio project are dubbed to the student's personal video tape. It's a record of their work throughout the year and becomes a valuable tool for sharing achievements with parents.

Each project may not be a complete, polished production. However in the multimedia classroom, the process and content are as important as the product. For three days in May 1996, it was that process that State of the Art captured for the film Learn & Live. I hope that the families, politicians, teachers, students, and others who see the film will realize how exciting and vibrant learning with technology can be.

Viewers should understand that teaching and learning with technology is not a gimmick, but a viable process for increasing student learning, in all aspects of child development, from the academic to the social and emotional. Thanks to the efforts of all those involved in the production and distribution of Learn & Live, in the future, all students may have the opportunity to experience a connection to learning through interactive technology.

Jim Dieckmann is an innovative teacher and library media specialist at Clear View Charter School in Chula Vista, California, who uses technology and project-based learning to challenge his students and provide rich learning experiences. An educator for twenty-five years, he was named Chula Vista School District Teacher of the Year in 1999.