Building engagement? It might be time to #DoNow

Building engagement? It might be time to #DoNow

  1. Introduction

With the increasing prevalence of technology and social media in schools, it is important for school leaders and teachers to keep in mind the purpose of including such technology; namely, to improve student learning outcomes. Although it is natural to shy away from cost-benefit arguments in education, nevertheless it is important to consider how schools can effectively use their technology provision. There are numerous examples of the way that poorly-thought out technology plans have failed. Often, this failure is not related to the technology in and of itself, but is rather a failure of vision and planning. A notable example is the LA Schools iPad program (Chambers, 2014).

Social media, and especially microblogging sites like Twitter and Facebook are often in the news in educational circles, too. On the one hand, there are teachers who have leapt into this brave new world with great enthusiasm, developing professional learning networks on Twitter, for example. On the other, there are plenty of stories about cyberbullying and abuse on social media – enough to make even the most enthusiastic educator think twice about his or her social media policy and use.

With this in mind, school leaders and teachers need to carefully approach technology implementations, with clear goals in mind. One area of great potential is through increasing student engagement. Basically, the idea here is that if we, as teachers, can provide learning activities that are challenging and engaging, then there is a better chance of ensuring that students will gain the necessary skills and knowledge, as opposed to less engaging and more traditional activities. Although the debate about technology for engagement versus entertainment is far from settled, there are a number of interesting case studies that highlight what appears to be developing best practice for such activities. This brief report outlines one such example, the #DoNow initiative from KQED Education.

  1. What is #DoNow?

I’ve always been a strong believer that the best way to learn something is to do it – and an equally strong critic of the fact that far too much of a student’s school life is restricted to artificial book learning and answering questions. Although there will always be a place for what we might call traditional models of learning, I think these models owe more to the requirement of classroom management than they do to any actual evidence based research about best practice in learning. In comparison with this, I advocate a more student-centred approach, based on issues that are directly applicable to young peoples’ lives, through which a broader understanding of the relevant topic areas can be developed.

I think this is especially true in subjects like HSIE and SOSE. As a teacher of these subjects, I feel that they most often ‘come alive’ – and the best learning takes place, as well – when students have the opportunity to control and direct their learning. One of the key knowledges about student motivation is that it often goes hand in hand with choice. Therefore, surely we, as teachers, should be providing opportunities for students to take part in activities that allow choice.

In subjects like History, Geography and Civics and Citizenship, one of the most important skills that we want students to develop is the ability to process information, and then present a cogent and intelligent argument. Rather than the subject matter or content taking pre-eminence, I believe that it should be on par with the real development of these critical thinking skills. One of the difficulties here is providing both an arena to publish these arguments and supplying a mechanism for other people to respond to the arguments, in the hopes of stimulating further discussion and understanding.

That is why I was so excited when I saw #DoNow being discussed on Twitter. According to the website,

Do Now is a weekly activity for students to engage and respond to current issues using social media tools like Twitter. KQED aims to introduce 21st Century skills and add value to learning through the integration of relevant local content and new media tools and technologies. Do Now gives students a chance to practice civic engagement and digital citizenship skills while they explore ways to connect topics in their classes to the present day (KQED)

It is run by KQED (see callout), a community media group. Although it is mostly for Californians, the beauty of living in a digital age is that its reach is much wider than simply the US, and even schools in Australia can take part in its promoted activities.

Matt Williams (a former teacher) began #DoNow in an effort to encourage students to engage in discussions about local and global issues. Since that time, it has spread across the US, and is beginning to gain a foothold globally.

The concept itself is simple. Each week (usually on a Friday, Californian time), KQED post a topic in the form of a question. Here are some recent examples:

  • How does your community view depression?
  • Do high school students need recess?
  • Should we fund space exploration?
  • Are women misrepresented in games and other forms of pop culture?
  • Should fracking be banned?

 

Linked to each question is a brief introduction to the topic, a video or audio resource for students to use, and then a list of resources that students can follow for more information.
This would be a great resource already, but it’s the next stage that makes #DoNow really exciting. After reading the introduction and viewing the resources, students are then encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas via social media – either on the comments section of the #DoNow site or via twitter. If students use twitter, students use hashtags to corral the conversation and ensure that they can follow it – for example, #DoNowFracking for a discussion about coal seam gas mining. And suddenly, students are no longer limited to classroom discussions – they have a potentially global audience.

  1. Implementing it at McCarthy

My school, McCarthy College, has had iPads for a number of years. Although the implementation has been successful, and the iPads are being used for a variety of different things across all KLAs, we are constantly searching for ways to continue to increase student learning and engagement. We trialled #DoNow in 2014 in a stage 4 HSIE class. Originally, the plan was to use #DoNow as a lesson starter, once each week. However, I rapidly discovered that the activity took on a life of its own, and sometimes stretched out over a whole 1 hour lesson. At first, I was concerned that I would not be able to cover all the material I wanted, but I quickly found out that the benefits of #DoNow far outweighed the negatives.

Students used their iPads to access the material. I shared a link to the resource page via our school learning management system a couple of days before the actual lesson. At first, I planned for students to access the #DoNow page on their own, and post their responses as and when they were ready, but I discovered that it was more successful if students had the opportunity to discuss their ideas as a class, first. We settled on this approach: firstly, we’d read the question, then brainstorm what we already knew. Then, as a class, we’d read the article and watch the video resource, before discussing our thoughts about it as a class. This gave us an opportunity to really explore some of the more interesting aspects of the topic, as well as for students to ‘piggyback’ ideas and questions from each other. Following this, students could then post their ideas to twitter. Meanwhile, I would monitor the discussion via my own device by following the #DoNow hashtag. I also displayed the twitter stream for #DoNow via a projector so that the whole class could see people posting about

Originally, I was worried about the asynchronicity of the process. While we might be posting on a Tuesday afternoon, for #DoNow participants in the US or elsewhere it might be the middle of the night, and so there would be only limited interaction between my students and other students. In the end, this concern proved to be unfounded: even with the time difference, students had people from all over twitter engaging with their ideas. This became especially true after students learned to retweet each other’s tweets. This process promoted their tweets to a wider audience, which, in turn, increased their chances of engagement.

  1. Challenges and Successes

Overall, the program was a great success. I remember how excited the students were about #DoNow – firstly, that we were going to use social media in the classroom, and secondly, that they were going to have a chance to engage with other students from around the world. Once this actually started happening, when students were getting retweets and replies from other participants in #DoNow, the atmosphere was electric. In terms of learning outcomes, it is far too early to say whether this had an effect on students’ progress, but I am confident that students both learned about various issues, and also learned to express themselves in an argument – and respond to other peoples’ views in an intelligent way – both of which were the goals of the program from the outset.

For example, Lachlan, a student in Year 8 said,

‘I really liked talking to other people about some of the issues. Even though we lived in Australia, and they lived in America, we had similar things to talk about, like the environment.’

Another student, Dylan, said,

I’ve never used Twitter before. My parents let me do this because it seemed like a good idea. I think it is – I really liked talking to people from California about stuff like Fracking.’

Of course, there were challenges, too, and these needed to be overcome through some creative thinking. For example, some of the topics for #DoNow are very US-centric; there are some that talk about Obama’s domestic policy or the US’s relationship with Mexico. However, what we did in this case was identify a similar issue in Australia, and then tweet about that; we made the topic more general. This worked effectively and I was pleased to see the debate on #DoNow broadening to include our perspectives.

In addition, some parents were understandably hesitant about their children using twitter. We advised parents of our intentions before the program started, and then encouraged parents to start their own twitter accounts to see what their children were sharing. We also ensured that #DoNow took place after our cybersafety courses in Stage 4, so students were aware of the best way to stay safe online.

  1. Conclusion

Starting a program like #DoNow requires careful thought, but there are significant benefits to be gained from it. Firstly, student motivation was increased – partly because we were using technology, but also because of the fact that we were engaging with other teenagers from around the world, and we were engaging in discussions about topics that seemed more real and relevant than other curriculum materials. In the future, I think there is real potential for programs of this nature to sit alongside more formal aspects of the curriculum – to become a co-curricular activity or something similar, that all students and potentially even community members can take part in.

  1. To find out more: http://blogs.kqed.org/education/category/do-now/
  1. Who is KQED?

KQED serves the people of Northern California with a community-supported alternative to commercial media. We provide citizens with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions; convene community dialogue; bring the arts to everyone; and engage audiences to share their stories. We help students and teachers thrive in 21st century classrooms, and take people of all ages on journeys of exploration—exposing them to new people, places and ideas.

(KQED)

References:

“About Do Now.” KQED Education. Accessed January 30, 2015. http://blogs.kqed.org/education/about-do-now/.

“About KQED.” KQED Public Media. Accessed January 30, 2015. http://www.kqed.org/about/.

Bradley, Chambers. “L.A. Cancels IPads-in-the-schools Program: A Failure of Vision, Not Technology.” Macworld. August 28, 2014. Accessed January 30, 2015. http://www.macworld.com/article/2599988/lausd-ipad-cancellation-is-a-failure-of-vision-not-technology.html.