14 February 2010

Bringing the World to the Classroom

Earlier this month, I wrote about an upcoming event in my geography classroom. My students were going to have a guest speaker talk with them about the mountains of Central Asia. Having a guest speaker isn't all that unusual but, in my school, having one over the internet is something different.

I asked Dr. Stephen Cunha, a professor of geography at Humboldt State University and the director of the California Geographic Alliance (full disclosure: I have been a teacher consultant with the Alliance since 1994) if he could help us out. Though Dr. Cunha has experience with video-conferencing, he had not used Elluminate before, but he was game to try!

For our event we used the vRoom provided by LearnCentral. We also had a backchannel going in the classroom so students could make observations and ask questions. For our backchannel we used Edmodo.

Before we even got to working with Dr. Cunha, we practiced using a backchannel during lecture and during a video. Some students reported that they felt more engaged with the topic because they could focus their energy on typing. I noticed that the more we practiced, the more they interacted with each other in the backchannel. One of the biggest challenges, of course, is to make sure that comments are relevant to the topic at hand.

On the day of the guest lecture we went over the Elluminate interface and had Edmodo set up and running. Student moderators had been selected and were watching comments and questions. The lecture was about 20 minutes, then we had time for questions and answers. Our moderator asked questions on behalf of the class.We also had two visitors to class: one of our assistant principals and our district assistive technology guru.

Here are some general observations and thoughts on the process:
  • I was really nervous because I wanted everything to go well. Overall, it did but we still have some sound issues to work out (made sure it's loud enough, no echo, etc). 
  • The students aren't totally comfortable putting out their own thoughts and questions. There were a few instances such as the Edmodo screenshot here, but not many. Students are NOT used to getting information from each other or contributing to their own learning. I know that's a broad statement, but they are constantly asking if they have the "right" answer when they post something.
  • Giving students the opportunity to hear other voices in their education is extremely important. Dr. Cunha talked about Central Asia in a way that I never could. He's the expert, not me. Why shouldn't we have more experts in our high school classes? 
  • I really need to get more administrators and teachers to see the possibilities for learning. The assistant principal asked one student if she was on Facebook. The student explained that she was on Edmodo and it's educational. 
  • Even with the glitches, I am looking forward to doing this again. It was not difficult to set up or execute. Next time, I hope my students can suggest someone who could provide insight into their unit of study.
top screenshot courtesy of Dr. Stephen Cunha