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Public Schools Access Digital Media Resources by Forging Partnerships with Colleges

To master the digital classroom, K-12 teachers can tap into resources at local colleges and universities.

August 31, 2009

This article accompanies the feature "At-Risk Students Make Multimedia."

Most K-12 teachers know that students spend three hours to six hours every day using digital media. The challenge, as a recent report by the Consortium of School Networking makes clear, is that both teachers and administrators "struggle with what these new applications mean in terms of school policies and practices." Administrators CoSN polled said that when it comes to digital tools in the classroom, "they just did not know how to proceed."

This state of affairs will soon change, predicts Holly Willis, director of academic programs at the University of Southern California's Institute for Multimedia Literacy, as the emerging field of "digital humanities" motivates academics to reach out to K-12 schools with teacher training, curriculum support, and other resources deemed crucial to research and practice of what has been dubbed digital literacy.

Willis points to the New Media Consortium's 2009 K-12 Horizon Report, which shows that an increasing number of collaborations between universities and individual teachers and classrooms is "one of five key trends that is likely to take hold within the next year," she says.

Ben Stokes, former program director at the MacArthur Foundation, describes this trend as "really looking at how classroom learning is being done today," and one that was jump started within the higher academic community in 2006 when then Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Henry Jenkins, now at USC, published The Convergence Culture, which documented how today's youth is using digital media.

Indeed, the term "digital humanities" is a very large umbrella, taking in the work of disciplines as wide ranging as university English departments, cognitive scientists, researchers in schools of education, schools of library and informational sciences, and even film studies programs. K-12 teachers can obtain classroom support, teacher training, digital equipment such as Flip cameras and computers by reaching out to college projects related to such topics as classroom 2.0, multimedia literacy, participatory culture, social media, or even digital learning science.

"The digital-media learning field is still new," says Erin Reilly, research director of MIT's online Learning Library, a resource geared to help K-12 teachers navigate the world of new media. "It's multidisciplinary, and a fair number of us are still finding our way."

A quick glance at a number of recent partnerships between colleges and K-12 public schools reveals a number of wide-ranging projects:

  • At American University, in Washington, DC, the Center for Social Media within the School of Communications worked with the National Geographic Society to teach underwater documentary filmmaking to high school students.
  • At California State University at Monterey Bay, first-year students enrolled in the college's Service Learning Institute taught digital-storytelling skills to at-risk students in a Monterey-based youth detention facility.
  • At Indiana University, professors associated with the Center for Research on Learning & Technology created a three-dimensional multiuser environment for students ages 9-15 that presents science curriculum and digital-storytelling skills within a graphic interface comparable to Second Life. Called Quest Atlantis, the site is accessible only to registered teachers who undergo training in the online suite of teacher tools focusing on assessment and lesson plans. More than 25,000 students have logged in to the game.
  • At MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, an initiative called Project New Media Literacies reached out to teachers at 10 high schools throughout New England to test MIT's Teacher Strategy Guide, a four-part curriculum module that helps K-12 teachers who wish to incorporate digital tools and online communities into traditional lesson plans. The strategy guide complements the center's virtual Learning Library, which offers media-based lesson plans and teacher guides in K-12 subject areas. (More than a thousand teachers have registered for library access.)
  • At Syracuse University, researchers in library science created an interdisciplinary Center for Digital Literacy "iSchool" to help central New York public school teachers gain library media and research skills.
  • At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Digital Learning Sciences center brings together scientists from the school's Institute of Cognitive Science and the American Geological Institute to create interactive teacher guides and online professional development for science teachers in the Denver Public School District.
  • At USC's Institute of Multimedia Literacy, a team of professors from the School of Cinematic Arts taught digital storytelling and Google Mapping skills to students in grades 1-2 at a nearby charter school.

For public school educators who want to jump start this process, like Scott Spector, the Los Angeles Unified School District's director of educational technology, the challenge will be to find the right champion in the right department within the many overlapping schools and institutes of a university setting.

"We found help for our at-risk student population within USC's School of Engineering," says Spector. "But I have to say, luck was involved. My colleague happened to read a pamphlet about a professor who was researching video game creation in an educational setting. Apparently, I called them up maybe a day after they realized they had to do more outreach to local school districts."

At Indiana University, researchers work on repositioning academic content in a number of multimedia contexts, including three-dimensional multiuser games, online communities, and a range of commonly used digital tools such as cell phones.

"To do this successfully, we are reaching out to younger student populations far more than we used to," says Sasha Barab, professor of learning sciences, IST, and cognitive science at Indiana University. "You can see it by viewing the increase of in-funding by the National Science Foundation for nonlaboratory-based experiments.

"We are leaving the ivory tower to see how digital learning takes place in the real world," he adds. "We have to partner with teachers to work with real kids in a natural context."

Because scientists explore the further reaches of what is possible in the classroom rather than document what actually is common practice, Barab cautions that these types of collaborations will hold challenges for both sides. "Teachers want to know what works," he says. "We want to know what's possible. Together, we can find out both. But clearly, this question of assessment remains our next challenge in learning how digital literacy really works in the classroom."

Barbara Tannenbaum is managing editor of Edutopia.

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