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Liven up PD with a Digital Skills Workshop

By Ed Madison 1/23/2015

ISTE members are evangelists for integrating technology into education. Most are early adopters who intuitively understand that students need to develop digital literacy skills to emerge as critical thinkers prepared to enter evolving careers. Yet many are unintentional lone rangers, fighting the “good fight” in isolation with little support. You may work in school districts that are reticent about embracing change or under-resourced and unable to venture forward.

These contrasts and contradictions led me to gather a team of researchers and students at the University of Oregon to explore alternative methods for training teachers. Our discipline is journalism, which we believe is undervalued as a resource in K-12 education. Although student media projects have long been woven into the fabric of U.S. education, they are often part of underfunded after-school programs or electives that don’t count toward graduation.

Digital Skills Workshop

In spring 2014, we piloted a new approach to professional development. Drawing from my experience in broadcast journalism, we facilitated and captured video highlights of our weeklong digital storytelling workshop at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon.

Roosevelt is listed among Oregon’s most challenged high schools in terms of test scores and socioeconomic status. Yet its faculty and staff are committed to making a difference and overcoming the odds. We worked with Melody Hughes, one of the school’s language arts teachers, to select a cohort of 12 students. Using iPod touch devices donated by our journalism school, the Roosevelt students developed, shot and edited video stories about unsung heroes in their community. The students, who had no prior video production experience, worked alongside journalism undergrad and grad students who led the workshop sessions and shadowed high school students in the field.

workshop-intThe result was the Digital Skills Workshop, a program of online video modules that show teachers how to replicate what we accomplished at Roosevelt. The site is designed with “newbies” in mind:

  • Clearly labeled panels click thru to each video.
  • Each video module is short and concise.
  • Adjacent modules offer strategies for finding mentors and donated video gear. 
  • At the bottom of the page, the modules “Plan,” “Explore,” “Document,” “Edit,” and “Refine and Share” represent the five distinct days of instruction.
  • A downloadable lesson plan makes it easy for educators to replicate the lesson.

Five days of learning

Each day of the workshop covered a different element of the video production process:

  1. The Plan module. This module explores the similarities between written stories and digital stories. Students form story groups with three or four members and brainstorm people to interview who have intriguing stories to tell. Stories must have the potential to be visually interesting, with minimal “talking heads” and lots of opportunities to capture footage of subjects engaged in activities.
  2. The Explore module. This module encourages students to venture outside of their comfort zones by interviewing class members to practice their skills. Next, they research their subjects on the internet before scheduling actual interviews.
  3. The Document module. This module introduces appropriate use of video gear and basic visual aesthetic principles. Teams venture into the field and document their subjects in action.
  4. The Edit module. This module explores condensing video footage. Much like trimming excess verbiage from a written article, they cut superfluous portions of their interviews and organize sound bites to construct a narrative arc.
  5. The Refine and Share module. This is the final module, where they’ll focus on last-minute enhancements, such as adding titles and music. The five-part series culminates with a screening and a celebration.

Documentary approach engages viewers

While the Digital Skills Workshop focuses on accomplishments, it also shows some of the challenges students encountered. Maggie, one of the cohort members, received permission to interview a Roosevelt alumnus about her career as a veterinarian technician. However, filming at the vet clinic was restricted to preserve clients’ privacy, so she did not get the type of footage she was hoping for. Rather than forfeit the story, Maggie solved the problem by getting footage of the vet technician in a nearby park interacting with her own dog.

The most difficult part for students was not using technology, as learning to use iPods and iMovie software is fairly intuitive. The challenge was coming up with a good story. Students compared the process of crafting a strong video narrative to that of constructing a good essay. Educators viewing the modules will discover that the skills share many similarities.

Connecting to standards

Driving our curriculum are the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which implicitly stress the importance of media literacy. The introduction to the English language arts section states, “The need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded into every aspect of today’s curriculum. In like fashion, research and media skills and understandings are embedded throughout the Standards rather than treated in a separate section.”

The project also addresses several of the ISTE Standards for Students, including Creativity and Innovation, Communication and Collaboration, Research and Information Fluency, Digital Citizenship, and Technology Operations and Concepts.

While most online instructional tools tend to be dry and predictable, our documentary approach to teacher training seeks to engage viewers at deeper levels. During the course of our five-day workshop, three of the participants’ stories stand out, creating a compelling narrative arc. The next stage of our research will be to assess the efficacy of our approach through focus groups and response from educators using the site with their own students. We invite your participation and feedback.

Ed Madison holds a Ph.D. in communication from the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, where he is now an assistant professor. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and an Adobe Education Leader. He was also an ISTE Scholar in 2011-12. The Digital Skills Workshop project will be chronicled in more detail in his forthcoming book (Teachers College Press) on journalism, student engagement and the Common Core. Follow him @edmadison.

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