Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Taking the 'Paperless Challenge'

A reader writes:
I'll take you up on that challenge. I have 5 computers in my room and 32 students at one time. I will find a way to make this paperless thing work. Thanks for the push.

Excellent. That's a tough ratio of students to computers, but you can make this work. When I started my digital audio class, I didn't yet have enough computers (despite the fact that we're a 1:1 PC school, all the audio software ran on Macs exclusively and in the beginning we really only had four machines that could manage the programs); but with some tinkering on the new frontiers in student social arrangements, I managed to work it.

Try turning your room into a lab with computers assigned specific functions. Have two computers dedicated for research, two for blogging, and one for uploading pics/multimedia/etc.

I don't know what kind of class you are teaching, but for your first foray into paperless teaching, I'd choose a project comprised of formative independent or paired student blogs and a summative whole-class wiki comprised of the work done on the blogs. Say you grouped them into eight groups of four. That gives you five groups on machines while you've got small group discussion going on with the other students.

So say you were an English teacher doing a unit on Romeo and Juliet. Your essential question might be: What is the nature of Tragedy?

Of your five computer groups, two would be doing research finding examples/definitions of Tragedy as well as associated multimedia on Romeo and Juliet (might be instructive to compare the ballet with the Zef film with the Baz film). They'd upload their findings onto a communal Google Doc. The next group is organizing that work into nice multi-media formats in addition to collecting pics from student cells (see below in just a second). The other two computer groups are synthesizing the information as they understand it by answering a series of associated questions directly into their individual or pair blogs. The rest of the class (three groups) are engaged in small group discussion with the teacher.

I'd rotate positions on the computers every half-hour and switch back and forth between computer groups and small discussion groups every other session.

You will find that students quickly become independent users, particularly of Web 2.0 tools. So, try to give them as much space as you can to work on their own. Cellphones are to your advantage, as well. Students can shoot photos and post to online albums for later drops into their blogs; and they can easily Tweet together a hyperlinked digital bibliography or a reading summary via a cellphone linked to Twitter.

The result: individualized formative assessments answering the essential question and associated questions that come up through small group discussion are posted on the blogs. The blogs are then combined and edited into a summative assessment in the form of a multimedia class wiki. You'll be able to cross-check each student's individual contribution to the class wiki by reviewing the doc's revision history which is automatically saved.

Things you absolutely must plan before attempting this sort of thing: all students need to be set up with a personal blog, all students must be accepted as authors on the same class wiki, and all students need to know, of course, exactly what's expected of them.

And remember, 'paperless' does not mean 'all computer all the time'. Socrates was paperless.

And be flexible. Spontaneous. You might find that less students on computers and more in discussion works better. You are the only one who really knows the dynamic in your classroom.

See what happens to the level of discussion in class and let me know what works and what doesn't. Be fearless. Good luck.

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