Problem Based Learning


A vibrant exchange with Al Upton in the comments section here on this blog had me challenged with his point about educators being involved in "rich ongoing online learning that is reflected in their students’ learning." What does that look like in the classroom? My classroom? Any classroom? Al was open about his class's efforts:

[My class blog and the kids’ individual blogs (although often a struggle with the basic aim to provide an initial exposure to online networks … 8 and 9 year olds) is my attempt as a teacher in an open sense. Our explorations of Quest Atlantis - a MUVE … a bit like SL but with built in learning quests and missions for 9-12yo is my attempt in a virtual 3D game like learning environment … in a walled garden sense :]

So while I'm swanning around cyberspace, twittering this and networking that, building up connections near and far, what benefit has it brought the students that I teach? It's time to document my efforts at global digital collaboration for my class - warts and all.

My class is part of a primary school ( the North American equivalent is elementary) covering from 5 year olds to 13 year olds. We call ourselves middle school students because the school is divided into learning teams - junior primary, middle primary and the Middle Years Learning Unit (MYLU). Basically we form part of a 4 classroom block - usually made up of Year (Grade) 6/7's but as all classes are composite (multiple year levels) and Australian classrooms are funded to be class sizes of 30 from Year 3 onwards, that's how why I'm co-teaching a 5/6 combination with slightly younger kids mixed into my class.

Anyway, MYLU classes collaborate on several levels and co-plan for cross-curricular units of work. This past term's over-riding theme was Communication and I floated the idea of covering this by setting up class global partnerships where they could actively work through the process of communicating about their respective parts of the world. Of course, I had to lead the way - both because my online networking and Web 2 tools skills would be required plus it was my turn to "lead out" on the unit of work. I knew it was important to convince my MYLU teaching colleagues that I knew what I was doing (even if it wasn't true) and to be able to model some options as they got going with their classes. I turned to one of the educators I trust and respect the most, Doug Noon, to see if he'd be keen to work with me and to see if this concept could work.

We both figured a wiki would be a good rallying point for our collaboration and so SpinTheGlobe was created. There's been several well publicised global wiki projects around that have been very successful - the Horizon Project wiki , initiated by Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay, was one where I tagged in for a minor role as a peer review classroom - but I was keen to take a different approach and deliberately wanting to work in a low key and grassroots orientated way. This suited Doug as he also wanted to forge our own collective ideas rather than follow an established blueprint. He pointed out in one of our early e-mail exchanges about the possible gains for his students being that "These projects will involve my students and (hopefully) lead them toward a more global consciousness. That's my larger goal. For Alaskan kids, especially if they've never lived anywhere else, the larger world is a big unknown."

So, with the main idea being communicating how each other's parts of the world works, it was time for me to "lead out". I started the wiki, embedded some eye candy widgets to show location, time and temperatures of both locations and then got the class to brainstorm out what they already knew about our global partners a "spin of the globe" in Fairbanks, Alaska. It turned that they didn't know a lot - but we documented that on the wiki as a starting point and Doug got his kids to do the same. Then the tricky part of making collaborative decisions about which way to go came into play.

There are quite a few hurdles to be overcome in order to get a global project (even a grassroots one!) off the ground. The first hurdle is timing - my class were well settled with half a year of school under their belt and used to my "let's do this" approach to technology based learning while Doug was starting his school year with new kids, a new grade level and kids who weren't necessarily tech-savvy in the way required to be using the web and Web 2.0 tools in an efficient manner. The next hurdle was time - finding the time to commit to the project, then filling the time between waiting for Doug's students' next contribution with related work that maintained the interest and purpose. Another hurdle was our own communication patterns - ironic that the people who may learn the most about effective communication may be the teachers involved! I totally forgot to make Doug a wiki organiser at the start which created problems when he wanted to get his kids signed up. One of us would fire off an e-mail asking crucial questions or suggesting important changes in direction and the time differences or workload requirements would get in the way of a speedy and useful response.

But we got started. My class started posing questions on the wiki and Doug's started tagging Alaskan websites of interest in a account. Then my class started the same and using the Network feature both classes could look easily at each other's sites as a way of "frontloading" the students on a part of the world they know very little about. In this way, both groups were introduced to the power of social bookmarking and an image on one of the sites has become my reference point for demonstrating possibilities to my class. More on that shortly.

I also started my kids playing with FlickrStorm as a way of creating photogalleries of the topics up for discussion. That also produced important discussion as some kids were able to use the tool to stay focussed on the task at hand and others got distracted by the power of the tool. I even used this example in a comment on Doug's blog:

Working on the wiki for our “global partners”, I talked with the class about the idea of using photography as a way of communicating ideas about the Australian way of life. I let them loose using FlickrStorm to create a photo montage on a specific idea like Australian food, or money or sport. They had so much fun working out how FlickrStorm worked, using key words, adding images they liked to the download tray and then generating the final hosting page of images, that very few thought critically about the images they were choosing and what message they would send about our way of life. Reviewing these back in class as a group was very useful as we (the class as a whole, not just me) realised that the photo collections needed checking for validity and accuracy. Check the difference between the collection of Australian money images from one child who was able to keep the end goal in mind in contrast to the other student who got caught up in the moment. The class discussion when viewed on data projector was invaluable. What conclusions would someone draw when the US dollar features in the pics? But when I send the students back tomorrow in the computing room to review, fix and link in their image pages, I reckon the results will be much, much closer to achieving their goal.

We still haven't decided whether these galleries are a key ingredient in this project. Another major frustration is when a tool with potential turns out to have issues related to the school environment. I started playing with VoiceThread the other week and immediately got excited - in fact, I was convinced I had found the key to the next part of our collaboration. To set the scene, I focussed my trial example on an element of an image from one of the Alaskan websites showing an inukshuk, which I had never seen or heard of before. I grabbed images from FlickrCC for my VoiceThread, then recorded questions with each image. I saved it and then the next day, caught Chris Harbeck on Gmail Chat during my recess break. He, too, loves VoiceThread and offered to check out my example and add a voice comment. He did, even ignoring my mispronunciation of the word inukshuk, and I was sold. I started imagining South Australian and Alaskan student voices posing and answering questions via VoiceThread then writing up what they had learnt from their primary sources back at the wiki. I was so excited I showed my class my VoiceThread up on the interactive whiteboard. "I can't hear your voice very well, Mr.Wegner."

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="480" height="360" wmode="transparent" /]
Then it came to a grinding halt. My original example had been recorded at home and I soon found that VoiceThread doesn't work well from within our school environment - the images wouldn't upload and the record button took too long to activate and it basically bombed. I did find out from Chrissy Hellyer (during a chatcast for Kim Cofino's parent Web 2.0 presentation in my lunch hour) that she had similar issues at her school but they were solvable by unblocking a specific IP address and a certain port on the server. She also emphasised the worth of pursuing a solution as VT has a lot of great collaborative potential. So that is something still to work on.

But it does bring up another thing to consider when "going global" in your classroom - don't assume that your access to web technology is the same as your partner's. Doug's class hit the issue of student emails in order to create unique identities for student work on the wiki. At my school all students from Year 3 have an email address that is packaged up with their internet logon. Not so at Doug's school. There may be other bandwidth issues to consider. Certain sites may be blocked or filtered at one end but not the other.

Still, I'm pretty pleased with our progress so far with our grassroots global collaboration. Why do I refer to it as grassroots? Well, both Doug and I are committed public educators (he's a bit more vocal about it than me) and we weren't shooting for any high concepts that seem to be the topic of flavour 'round the edublogosphere. Just because an issue is high priority in the networks doesn't mean that our age students will be all that engaged. What they are interested in is themselves and how they might be perceived by others. So, if all Doug and I do is raise some awareness that yes, your way (the students) of acting and thinking isn't the only way and to debunk some misconceptions about our respective parts of the world.

We now know there are no penguins in Alaska !


One of the things that intrigued (bugged) me after the Kath Murdoch inquiry seminar was her seemingly dismissive attitude towards students using the web as a resource in any kind of inquiry research. My principal reminded that I tend to view everything through a technology lense so I shouldn't be too concerned. But I've worked out why the notion stuck in my mind - even an experienced educator like Kath was viewing the web as a view only resource. When she talked about the importance of students seeking out primary sources as part of their inquiry process, it clicked in my brain that was where Web 2.0 made a difference to the use of the internet. Web 1.0 was definitely a secondary resource but using wikis and social networking tools now allow students to connect directly to key sources and in that way, the web can facilitate access to primary sources of information. That's what excites me about potential global collaboration projects - not exploring highbrow concepts as much as connecting students to others of like age, exploring the differences and breaking down the misconceptions about how the rest of the world works.


Arti says:

Richness and authenticity are much-sought attributes of “the road of excess” for the 21st Century Learner.  They trump “educationally relevant” as a measure of what we should look for in a learning experience for a 21st Century learner that might lead to “the palace of wisdom”.

Tony says:

Richness? I have my doubts. What is rich?

Relevant and authentic I do like but unless you discuss what the two words mean, they just become buzzwords with which to beat your enemies and to become complacent with your friends.

Relevant is relevant to the lives of your students, Myspace, skateboards, WoW. The students are the final judge of relevance.

Authentic is work with a real purpose, it's a bit disappointing when your pottery is bound for the clay bin at the end of the lesson.

I just love it when someone can say something in a well crafted phrase that would take me a paragraph to evoke. Tony could be talking about any of the educational double talk that occurs in official circles or, dare I say it, on this blog or in the edublogosphere.

Image: 'drowning teapot' by labspics

Just read a great post from Tony Forster who has a look at some interesting data comparing literacy/numeracy scores and problem solving scores from different countries. After looking at the stats, Tony offers this analysis:

Australia, New Zealand and Canada score significantly higher than USA despite sharing similar cultural backgrounds. I have noticed a significant difference, USA educators are more focussed on the transfer of knowledge than the development of problem solving skills through self-directed, problem based learning.

In an interesting exercise, Tony did some Googling of key words to back up his observations. Read the whole post for the total picture but for me, it highlights the danger of Australian education authorities taking their lead from US strategies and drawing conclusions and looking for solutions to our own issues from a wealth of US education data available online.  We shouldn't always assume that US-centric educational practices are the best, especially in the K-12 sector.

During this term, I have the pleasure of working with the Year 1/2 classes in our school as part of our Problem Based Learning program to develop an ICT product that showcases their learning. The problems are centred around Aboriginal Studies or animal environments (specifically desert and coastal) and the tools of choice for their final product are Powerpoint and PhotoStory. I just want to touch on the first lesson this week with the class tackling animals in desert environments and their foray with PhotoStory. Being young students (mainly seven and eight year olds) it is important to give them an opportunity to get to "know the software" in a safe, non-threatening way. I had to come up with a task that rehearsed the important components of PhotoStory so that when it comes to creating the knowledge product mid-term with the information gathered during research with the teacher-librarian, learning the software is not interfering with that process.

So, here's what I did. I used the great Flickr CC tool created by Peter Shanks from Bathurst to quickly track down 10 Creative Commons licensed images of both cats and dogs. I downloaded them to a subfolder within the class folder on the network and showed the kids how to find them and insert them into the timeline in PhotoStory. They then had to add a title into the next text box and that's about as far as we got in one lesson. The whole idea is that the students produce a quick story based on risk free material so that they learn the skills without the content interfering. That way when they do their story based on what they have researched, learning the quirks of PhotoStory is already covered and not a distraction to that creative process!

Image adapted from Flickr - Attribution: Image: 'Bella ragazza'

The four MYLU classes have been coming to grips with the PBL wiki where we have been storing all of the learning "artifacts" of our unit on "What Does It Mean To Be Australian?" As they have gone about their task, I have been discovering quite a bit about what wikis can do and just as importantly, what they can't do. Bear in mind that this is about 120 users working and making page edits over a 3 day period each week. So it's not your usual wiki project - it's a bit of an experiment - but please note the following.

  • All images uploaded must have unbroken file names - no extra period or spaces, kids normally name files like Aussie Inventions.jpg and forget to use an underscore to link the words.
  • Each image uploaded must have a unique name - a child from Learning Area 21 who uploads an image named Aussie.jpg on Wednesday comes back a week later to find their image looks different because the kid from Learning Area 22 uploaded another image and chose that same exact file name on Friday.
  • Two people can't work on the same page at the same time on two different computers. It doesn't work! I originally thought it would.
  • Images linked to at home display as desired but can be blocked by the filter at school resulting in those ugly "This image cannot be displayed " boxes.
  • Kids are shocking with passwords and requesting an e-mail remainder doesn't always work.

Apart from those few things, we (students, teachers, me!) have learnt a lot about how wikis work and whether they are a good vehicle to unpack Australian Identity on. We certainly boost wikispaces traffic on certain days peaking at No.2 for page edits (currently  number four today - see graphic) last Thursday. A few weeks to go and it will be interesting to see if it all becomes on unreadable, unnavigable mess or a relevant document on our learning open to the world.

During the latter half of last week, we started our Problem Based Learning program with the Middle Years Learning Unit (MYLU) students. As our teacher-librarian was away in Melbourne at a PBL conference, it was decided to get the students started familiarising and using the cutting edge technology of the wiki before the introduction of the problem. Each class had approximately two hours in the computing room with me and Peter, our extra support teacher for the term. I had already set up the PBL wiki ready to go (or so I thought) with all of the relevant pages set up - the problem, Learning Area pages, sandbox pages, examples, information about wikis and even a link to a Copyright page for kids (poached from Doug Noon's links). I had my plan, use the IWB in the classroom to explicitly walk the kids through the wiki, discuss what a wiki was, touch on the aspects of adding "stuff" to a wiki - text, images, wiki links, outgoing links, navigation, creating pages. I also tried to explicitly show the kids how to join Wikispaces, go to the PBL wiki and request membership to that space. I first worked with my own class although Natalie (my co-teacher) was officially in charge and they had already played with a wiki in a previous lesson. So that went OK - Nat is a very web-savvy teacher and got the kids easily into acquiring space membership and then we tackled the section of the session designed to give them real opportunity to acquire some skills. I had concocted an Internet Treasure Hunt with a page dedicated to it on the wiki where the kids had to track some various web items and put them on their page - links, images, slabs of information. Away they went with varying success. I had also cunningly made all of the items to be tracked of Australian origin so that the kids would already be tuned when we started the problem. I also figured that as I started each new session, my delivery of the lesson and concepts would be smoother and the kids later in the week would be able to get going quicker and achieve more in the two hours. How wrong I was. The spread of wiki-awareness across all of the classes was extremely wide with some of the youngest students being the quickest to create accounts, read the instructions, create their own team page for the Hunt and add content while a lot of the Year Sevens were a bit lost. I also learnt a fair bit about wikis as we went along. For instance, two people can't have a page open for editing and work at the same time because the changes don't update on the fly and whatever is on the page when the SAVE button is hit, it is what is saved on that version. I think it will smooth out as the students gain confidence and they spread the tasks and work on more than just one page at once in their group.
In the three classes that hadn't worked with me before, very few kids had even heard of a wiki and it was interesting that not one of my fellow teachers knew how Wikipedia was constructed. I certainly raised their awareness and I am sure that they will use Wikipedia with a different frame of mind in future. It all depends on your view on "trusted sources" but the kids were really great in identifying the advantages of the Wikipedia system - always up-to-date, links to other resources, many more articles and interactive multi-media extras.
So, in the end, all of the students registered as wikispace users (using net safety aliases, of course) became members of the PBL wiki, created a team page for the Hunt, linked that page back to their Learning Area navigation page and made a start on the Treasure Hunt. It certainly was obvious that the kids and the teachers need more "play time" using this new tool before it is used for the solving of the Problem but I am glad that everyone feels that using a wiki has great potential.
I have to finish with this great little anecdote. In one class, the numbers were odd so one boy had to pair up with his teacher to create a team. That was great - the teacher felt it gave her a chance to get into the task, learn the application and get to know her student a little better. The student? He was fine BUT he was concerned that he was at a disadvantage because he had a teacher as a partner and she might not pull her weight!!

Over the past couple of weeks I have been really delving into wikis and setting a couple up for classes at my school to use. It was timely that James announced the partnership with wikispaces because that is the host for several of the wikis currently on the go. I'm also co-authoring a wiki with fellow South Oz edublogger Al for a joint presentation and we have this one at seedwiki. Currently, seedwiki is free from our South Australian schools internet filter system while wikispaces is blocked hence the reason for our choice. Al believes strongly that for teachers in our system to have a go at using Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom, there needs to be as few barriers as possible including not having to deal with filters. I concur (sort of) but I think educators should also have access to the best free tools available and there won't be any shift in filter policy on edublogs or wikispaces if the powers that be can point and say, "No-one in our system wants to use them anyway." We'll agree to disagree.
I haven't really gotten into wikis much before this year even though I have been aware of their potential. I just haven't had a really good purpose and we all know purpose drives learning. So, at the moment I have a personal wiki with nothing on it, the MYLU wiki for our presentation at the Middle Schooling Conference which is starting to take shape and one for our Problem Based Learning program. I was originally trying to combine the MYLU wiki with the PBL so that at the conference we could showcase the program. But as I started adding pages and content, I realised that the two couldn't work together, especially as I wanted the PBL section to be driven by student input. So, I have come to the conclusion that for me, a wiki has to have a singular purpose.

Throughout this term, I have been working with four classes in the middle primary years. Our problem was based around the recent Commonwealth Games held in Melbourne and with the help of our teacher-librarian, we designed the unit of work over an eight week period. With students aged from seven to nine years in this group, we tried to keep the problem simple.

You've been selected to represent Australia at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. You have been asked to produce a digital story telling about your preparation and participation in Melbourne.

We used the process outlined in TSOF's Problem Based Learning steps and the kids grappled with extracting key words (with varying degrees of success), using print and online resources (set up a account to make tracking useful websites a lot easier) and downloading images as they strove to solve their problem. We used the free (but not open source) Photo Story program from Microsoft for their final presentations and overall, the students did a pretty good job. They loved using the software and found that easy to manipulate. A harder task was ensuring that their research sentences made it onto their digital stories and that relevant images were able to be found and included. I tried hard to find Creative Commons licensed images but that proved to be really difficult with some of the less popular sports so I had to use the "fair use" component of using copyrighted material for educational purposes so that the kids had access to enough photos to make the idea work. However, if I want to post a link to an example here on this blog, I will have to find one that used exclusively Creative Commons images - the one sport that did have Flickr based images with the appropriate permissions was the triathlon which was the only sport open to the Melbourne public for free. That would explain the plentiful images. Other events like the road races in cycling and the marathon in athletics had free access for spectators. On a final note, it was frustrating that our education system's internet filter blocked out any reference to boxing including the little icon used to illustrate the different events. I had to unblock sites so that kids could access needed and appropriate material. I suppose it is dangerous for our students to know about this sport.

Photo by PDR - MCG panorama (Commonwealth Games 2006)

With our first PBL unit succesfully completed, we met with the next group of teachers to plan the next installment for next term. This time we are working with the MYLU students and the expectations change when you are planning for middle school students. Our general theme this time is "What does it mean to be Australian?" We had a half day release to plan for this on Tuesday and have based the problem around a famous Australian song released just before the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations called "We Are Australian." (Link via Wikipedia entry.) The students will have the job of creating and justifying new verses to this famous (for Aussies) song but I'm still undecided on how the learning could be documented and presented. I am tempted to use wikis where the students work in pairs to first dissect an existing verse by hyperlinking key phrase and words to sources and images on the web that explain them and adding their own reflections in as well. One of the teachers is keen for them to use Photo Story as well and maybe that might be OK as the way to show off the completed verse but PBL is about more than the completed product. I might have to play around a bit with a wiki over the holiday break we have coming up to see if my ideas will fly - however, I am working with teachers (and this is not a criticism) who are not at all familiar with how a wiki works. I think they would rather have the kids record their digital notes in Word but maybe it's my responsibility to expand the horizons a bit here. Dean certainly did in a counter reply to a comment I placed on his blog recently. In fact, I would be pushing the old story and continuing to do "old things in new ways."