Is it content we're after?

Brent Schlenker and I have been having an interesting e-mail conversation about content vs product. All too often the product gets in the way of the content being graded. Why is it that a good looking product can get you a better grade then a content rich product? And why is it that we choose to tell students what product they will make instead of allowing them to choose the product that they feel will best tell their story? And lastly why do we continue to have students report their findings in 20th century media?

Product vs. Content

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been helping the 5th graders build and design posters and brochures for their invention convention projects. Why posters? Because that was the task put to them by their teachers. The posters were hung on the whiteboard while the students gave their presentation. Don’t get me wrong, I love the 5th grade teachers; they are very tech savvy and use the laptops they are piloting this year to their full advantage. The posters turned out great as they should have; the students were not stretched technologically and did not expand their tech skills with this assignment. The products turned out great, but what about the content? Were the content requirements meet with this assignment? For the most part I would say yes, because the requirements where designed around the product. What if we reversed this situation and started with what content we wanted our students to cover and then allow them to choose the product they felt best conveyed the content and told their story?

Teacher choice vs Student choice

In a typical classroom the teacher chooses what product students will create: A poster, a report, a PowerPoint, etc. Teachers are use to telling students what they expect them to produce for a certain assignment. What if we changed this and allowed students to choose their own product based on the content they had to cover. Some might still choose to create a poster, but others might choose to create a digital video, or a podcast, or a slide show. What happens when you give students the power to choose their products? I have found the following happens:

1. Students become more engaged in the learning process
2. Students tend to stretch their skills more then if I would choose a product for them
3. Each student becomes an individual therefore individualizing their learning

I’m sure there are more, and feel free to add to the list.

20th vs 21st century  media

After talking with Brent in the e-mails I went back and looked at some of the posters my students created, and it got me thinking of Prensky’s article Adopt and Adapt.

When students make posters they are doing old things in new ways. How do I know? Because I made posters when I was in grade school. They weren’t done on computers, instead we took copies of pictures out of books and the encyclopedia and glued them to a poster. We then wrote on lined paper, cut it out and glued that on as well. Created some cool header with crayons and got a good grade.

I look at the picture above and ask myself what has changed? The answer: nothing, we’ve just updated the poster with technology, but at the end of the day it is still a 20th century or even a 19th century product.

I then started thinking about digital story telling seeing that I just finished my first attempt on my U Tech Tips blog for teachers. It got me thinking “What is the difference between a poster and a digital story:

Poster:                                             Digital Story:
Pictures                                           Pictures
                                                          Interviews (mock or real)
A written speech                            A written speech
research                                          research
layout design                                  layout design
good presentation skills               good presentation skills
class as your audience                 world as your audience
feedback from peers                     feedback from potentially millions of Internet users

Could digital stories be the21st century poster and PowerPoint? Could the same content that is graded on posters be graded in a digital story?

If it is content that we are grading why do we spend so much time worrying about how it is presented? What if we allowed students the option to present the content in a way that was meaningful to them? I don’t know about you, but I would find it much more fun to sit through an hour of presentations that went from lecture to digital story, to poster, to podcast, to web site, etc. Rather then an hour of presentations that were poster after poster after poster. What would the students take away as well? Seeing other student designs or how other students used media. There is power to be had in allowing students freedom to choose their product, even the chance that we might start doing new things in new ways.

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