Tag Archives: Classroom Strategies

Revealing Generation Text: A Video Documentary on Cell Phones in High School

“Mobile phones are a way of life for Generation Text.”
–Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I am a big supporter of digital and multimedia literacies in higher education. Since my postdoctoral work at the Institute of Multimedia Literacy back in the early ’00s, I have been researching and writing about uses of new media and new technologies in the classroom. In each of my academic appointments at Saint Mary’s College and IUPUI, I also have experimented with multimedia literacies in my own pedagogy, frequently putting into practice and evaluating best practices around new technologies and their potential to improve student learning outcomes. And my own courses typically revolve around project-based learning. I prefer (whenever possible) to have my students create multimedia projects as a major learning component. Probably no surprise again, but I’m a big fan of higher order processes in learning (following Bloom’s famous taxonomy) and find project-based learning to yield marvelous moments of synthesis and evaluation.

However, my focus to date has been exclusively on new technologies and their applications in higher education. But that changed earlier this year when I got the opportunity to collaborate with my younger brother on an Oppenheimer Family Foundation grant. My brother, Bob Edwards, is a teacher at Phoenix Military Academy, a high school in the Chicago Public School district. Bob has been similarly interested in the role of new technologies in the classroom. I was thrilled to hear that he had won a Teacher Incentive Grant from the Oppenheimer Family Foundation. This grant is designed to support project-based learning in the Chicago Public Schools. My brother’s winning proposal was:

 Revealing Generation Text:
Students will research cell phone usage, investigating how texting is affecting teenagers. They will create a documentary film disclosing their findings.

My brother asked me to be a part of his project, since he knew of my areas of interest and because he was planning on making a documentary film involving teams of his students from his senior-year Creative Writing class. Together we carved out a plan to have his students work in small teams with dedicated assignments. Each team would interview students, teachers, and administrators to hear their thoughts and observations about Generation Text and student texting. Moreover, we decided each team would additionally focus on a different issue related to Generation Text and the cell phone polices of Chicago Public Schools:

  1. What is and what should be the cell phone policy in Chicago Public Schools?
  2. What are the pros and cons of cell phone confiscation by teachers and administrators?
  3. How can cell phones be used as learning tools?
  4. What would a world without cell phones look like?

Using the money from the grant, we were able to purchase four Cisco Flip cams HD. A quick aside about Flipcams: I am aware that Cisco has ceased support for this project in April 2011, but it was a great tool for us, especially for its ease of use, the quality of its picture, and in my opinion, the quality of its small internal microphone. The Flip cams worked easily and flawlessly for our documentary and it’s a shame that this product is no longer going to be on the market.

The students spent several weeks arranging for their interviews and shooting their videos. We got lots of great footage from each team, and then set about assembling the final cut.

You can see the final results for yourself here by watching the video, which we just completed, and was just screened for the Oppenheimer Family Foundation and a group of first year students at Phoenix Military Academy.

I want to say a few more words about the documentary and what I learned. Overall, we wanted to have the student voices take center stage and present a balance portrait of the everyday realities of cell phone uses and abuses in Chicago Public Schools. As someone who has worked exclusively in higher education, I can say the video was very illuminating to me. I consider myself up to date on the literature around cell phones in higher education, so I was surprised to learn about some of the very real problems created by cell phone uses in K-12 education.

While I expected to hear about the cell phone as a tool of “distraction” (and this was a major theme echoed by all participants in the video), the cell phone is also a tool for bullying in K-12. I wasn’t aware of this as I began working on the documentary. As the Pew Internet and American Life Project noted last year,

Over a quarter (26%) of teen cell phone users reported having been harassed by someone else through their cell phone. Girls are significantly more likely to experience this (30%) than boys (22%). This trend is more common for those teens whose parents are under 40 and low in educational attainment.

Responses in the focus groups were split with regard to how serious of a problem this is. Some teens clearly believe this is major problem with serious social and psychological consequences, while others feel that it is “not really a big deal.”

Bullying and student fights came up as a big issue in our documentary. One reason for the “zero tolerance” ban in Chicago Public Schools is to stop the problem of bullying by cell phone. Therefore, educators who are trying to experiment with educational uses for cell phones have to be aware of the negative uses of this technology among K-12 students.

On the positive flipside, it was great to see the eagerness with which students embrace the new capabilities of cell phones, especially smart phones. However, there is something of a “cell phone arms race” among high school students with students wanting not just a cell phone, but the “right” cell phone. Clearly there is a digital divide between high school students who have cell phones and those who have smart phones. This divide, especially in terms of social capital among one’s peers, appears to be a much greater gap than the one between students who have laptops and students who have no laptops. The role of texting and mobile communication in student’s everyday lives is primary in this regard. Students see their cell phone as an extension of their identity and life style (many students commented on how confiscation of their phone was literally “the end of their world;” hyperbolic, perhaps, but the sentiment is genuine).

In one segment, a group of students that ran “speed tests” between a laptop and a mobile phone (running Android 2.0). These students were able to demonstrate that they could get faster results from Google through their mobile phone connection than the laptop running on the school’s wireless network. What intrigues me about this is that the students are aware of these speed differences. You get a sense that the mobile generation is deeply savvy about connection speeds – a useful thing to be aware of—especially if your “life” is being conducted through a mobile device.

Most of the other major insights we found are in the final video itself, but I was glad to hear that the students themselves are aware of how the cell phone can be a distraction. There is no doubt that many students are surreptitiously texting each other all day long, and as long as the policy is “zero tolerance,” students will continue to do their best to keep their texting out of sight. But even against the backdrop of “texting as distraction,” many students are keenly interested in exploring how cell phones can be used as educational tools. A good sampling of those possible uses can be found in the Speak Up 2010 Survey, which surveyed high school students on what they would like to use cell phones for during the school day:

  • Check grades
  • Conduct research
  • Take notes in class
  • Collaborate with friends
  • Use the calendar
  • Send an email
  • Access online textbooks
  • Check out school activities
  • Create and share videos

That list is a good starting point for conversation and reminds me of how I use my iPhone professionally. I anticipate that the most common counter-argument among K-12 teachers would be computer labs and laptops can fulfill these functions, but not without some caveats. Certain smart phones are great video tools and are much easier than checking out a video camera from the AV closet. Moreover, in many school districts, students are much more likely to have cell phones rather than laptops (due to the difference in expense, even with having to pay a monthly wireless plan), and we have to be cognizant of this “digital divide” as well. Finally, if we don’t bring cell phones in our classrooms, we run the risk of having students miss opportunities to use a mobile device as a component of a formal learning exercise rather than as a personal texting or game playing tool. As we state in the documentary (quoting Liz Kolb), educators can take a lead role in teaching students how to use cell phones more ethically, a key lesson for preparing them for 21st century learning and professional occupations.

Of course, as the video taught me, we have to tread carefully around the topic of cell phones in high schools. They have many positive uses, but also great potential downsides. My sense  is that what may happen going forward are some small modifications to the current “zero tolerance” policies in many high schools and exploring ways of using cell phones in a limited capacity as educational tools.

Personally I think it is worth the effort to experiment with cell phones due to their popularity and their ability to bring students into the classroom. Revealing Generation Text ends with a student who recalls that the cell phone is a communication tool and wouldn’t it be great if cell phones led towards more communication between students and teachers? That’s a vision I would love to see come to fruition some day.

All in all, I am very thankful my brother invited me to be a part of his grant and documentary video project. Thanks also to the Oppenheimer Family Foundation, the musician Moby who gave us permission to use his song “Flying Foxes,” and all the teachers, administrators, and students who participated in our project. I learned a lot about cell phones in K-12 education.

I would love to hear feedback on this video and the thoughts of other educators who have been or might be considering using cell phones in their classrooms or schools.


Pecha Kucha in the Classroom: Tips and Strategies for Better Presentations

I have been using Pecha Kucha (click here to hear it pronounced in Japanese: http://www.forvo.com/word/pecha_kucha/) in my courses for a couple of years now, and I have found the basic constraints of this presentational format to be very useful for my student presentations. If you are not familiar with Pecha Kucha, basic information about the history of this presentational style can be found here:


The essence of Pecha Kucha is to intentionally set limits on speakers using slideware (i.e. PowerPoint or Keynote). Pecha Kucha is the Japanese term for “the sound of conversation” or “chit chat.” I like this metaphor because it does suggest that the purpose of certain kinds of presentations is to encourage dialogue and response, and not merely the delivery of new bullet-point information in pre-designed slideware templates. I feel Edward Tufte’s critique of the cognitive style of Powerpoint is still valuable reading for educators who frequently use slideware in their teaching and/or student work. (http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_pp)

But another layer of meaning around Pecha Kucha’s relationship to “the sound of conversation” should also appeal to teachers. It begs the question: what does your classroom “sound” like during a PowerPoint presentation? If you are in most classrooms, the dominant sound is the ceiling mounted digital video project, blaring its white noise over the students’ heads. Next, a student is typically reading (not speaking) bullet points from text-heavy slides projected on a video screen. Finally, I have noticed the sound of restless students, typically sitting around in a semi-darkened room: the sound of bodies shifting in seats and the clacking of computer keys on laptops. What should enliven the classroom—a thoughtful slide presentation—ends up being a rather perfunctory and increasingly disengaging classroom experience. There is a bit of PowerPoint fatigue as it becomes a ubiquitous classroom assignment. A Pecha Kucha is an attempt to break through this “fatigue” and make the entire speaking experience more engaging. So, how does it do that?

I have found that the basic constraint of 20 slides each lasting 20 seconds adds “zip” to any student presentation. 20 seconds is a marvelous amount of time, 1/3 of a minute. Enough time to make a solid point, but not enough time to drone on and on about any point. It forces concision in speaking, and that need to be concise has a corollary effect on the audience: it forces the listener to be more active. I also think that 20 slides is just about the right amount (not too few and not too many) to get a solid grasp (or at least a meaningful gleaning) of a topic.

I think of traditional PowerPoint presentations as “lean back” performances in academic settings–they encourage a kind of “vegging out” by the other students in the room. Traditional PowerPoint slides are text-heavy, frequently with quotes and citations, and in a semi-darkened room, encourages a kind of “mental scanning” that allows the listener to drift in and out of what the speaker is actually saying. I think of Pecha Kucha presentations as “lean forward,” more interactive performances. 20 seconds is not enough time to have text-heavy slides. You can’t speak more than a few choice sentences in 20 seconds. Therefore, the value of this mode of presentation becomes getting the audience interested in what you have to say; in other words, when the speaker is “chit-chatting,” the ideas can be both more informally presented and more engaging. Think about how you engage with chit-chat or informal communication in every day life. You know when some is spouting their ideas at you, and you also know when someone is riffing on good ideas and seeking a real dialogue and sharing of ideas–informal conversation can yield strong benefits as  one MIT study has suggested. For me, Pecha Kucha is about “riffing” on ideas, sharing one’s thoughts on a topic, and trying to get certain ideas to “spark” for the listener. We will come back to the importance of that “spark” at the end of this blog.

So how to get students to buy into the Pecha Kucha format? First, it is important to recognize that a student is not coming into this process as tabula rasa. I have found my students are conditioned to a certain style of PowerPoint (see Tufte note above) since this is the experience they have had in the majority of their classes. This is not to say that most PowerPoint presentations are bad, merely that they have become disconcertingly familiar in discernable ways. Student slides evince a rote learner’s mentality: a consistent template (usually selected from the template menu in PowerPoint or Keynote); they are text-heavy; they tend to be bullet-point structures (though not necessarily following logical outlines or building in a consistent rhetorical direction). In terms of their use of images, things get worse in my experience. Students tend to use images or graphs as supporting elements only, frequently selecting images and clip arts from the first page of Google image search on any given topic. The images are mostly visual dressing for drab text, and seemingly interchangeable with any number of other good images. Students rarely (ever?) are asked to defend why they chose one image over another. If you ask most students, you will get the response, “I chose this image because I liked it.” And regardless of discipline, there tends to be limited critique or evaluation of the formal properties of slide presentations (use of color, font choices, image selections, template choice, etc.)

From my perspective, I approach Pecha Kucha as a meditation (in fact, as an example of meta-teaching) on the technique and art of presentation. There’s a good post by Jason Jones on his use of Pecha Kucha in his classes that we wrote about as part of the Chronicle’s Prof. Hacker Series. You can read that here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/challenging-the-presentation-paradigm-in-6-minutes-40-seconds-pecha-kucha/22807 I agree with what Jason says in his article, but I do want to add a few things about Pecha Kucha that I picked up in my courses.

First, students need to be aware that this isn’t a “typical” PowerPoint presentation. I stress to my students that the 20 slides X 2o seconds format is particular to this style of presentation and that it will impose unique constraints on what they construct. But I really use this as a teachable moment: constraints are good. In fact, constraints frequently help liberate content and stimulate creativity. It forces the student to make thoughtful choices, not random choices.

Then I start by stressing what students should not do in a Pecha Kucha:

  1. Don’t use too much text
  2. Avoid bullet points
  3. Avoid reading directly from the slides
  4. Avoid images that don’t advance your topic or contribute meaningful visual information
  5. Avoid text-images relations that would take more than 20 seconds to digest (i.e. overly crowded slides will be a blur in a Pecha Kucha, unless you want to intentionally create a sense of “blur”)
  6. While a consistent slide design is good, avoid most PowerPoint templates. Neutral backgrounds and easy to read sans serif fonts are best.

Then I follow up with what students should consider in a good Pecha Kucha:

  1. Consider your 20 slides as 20 panels in a graphic storyline. How do your 20 “panels” flow together to create a cohesive statement or a consistent through-line.
  2. Consider the impact of text on your audience – Is there a single word or a short phrase that captures the essence of what you are saying in that 20 second time span? Frequently, a single word can be used metonymically — t0 “stand in” for your entire 20 seconds of information.
  3. Consider your images very carefully. In a Pecha Kucha, images are frequently the only information on the entire slide. Yes, visual data is just as valuable as textual data. A well-chosen picture is likely worth a thousand words. Why did you select that image? Did you manipulate an image you found to make it even more compelling and precise? Would it be better if you cropped the image? Is this image easy to substitute for another image? If so, have you truly considered why you selected this image and not the other one? How does this image connect to other images in your slide set?
  4. Don’t use slide transitions. Use direct cuts from slide to slide. Avoid all dissolves, and clever transitions like “curtains” or “barn doors.”
  5. Avoid sounds or video clips. There just isn’t time, and these features are just distracting in a Pecha Kucha. Your voice is your sound instrument in this presentation.
  6. What is your design style? What is connecting these 20 panels? Is there a similar textual strategy? A consistent visual design? Are you playing with or against audience expectations? Have you completely considered the arrangement of these 20 slides? Would your presentation change dramatically if the slide order was reversed, or changed in any way? If so, why did you select the order that you did?
  7. Rehearse your spoken remarks. 20 seconds is an amazing short period of time. Most students who do not practice end up speed-talking as the slides change over. A good Pecha Kucha is not about talking faster or talking over the wrong slide. Timing is of the essence of a good Pecha Kucha. Practice really helps. You will set the slideshow on automatic advance, so the slide will change in 20 seconds even if you don’t finish your remarks. Think about how your slides and your spoken remarks match up. They are two parts of a whole, and a successful Pecha Kucha is both well designed and well spoken. In many ways, you should consider yourself a performer, and you are attempting to deliver a compelling performance.

Once I address the “do’s” and “don’ts,” I move onto the objective of a Pecha Kucha. A Pecha Kucha is not an in-depth analysis of an issue. It is a practice started by designers to help creative people get to the point when they were presenting new architectural designs, for instance. It forces speakers to get to the point, making these presentations much faster paced, and much more evocative than a standard PowerPoint. What do I mean by “evocative?” I mean that you get the gist of something from a Pecha Kucha. It introduces ideas better than it analyzes them in depth. And in fact, this is one of the pleasant surprises of this mode of “chit chat.” It is actually quite hard to “chit chat” about something that you don’t really understand. To be concise and evocative means you have really done your homework, that you understand what you are presenting. A novice has trouble distilling information. I find that students who give strong Pecha Kuchas have done their research, have really distilled or “groked” ideas into an essence or a worldview. These are all higher level of intellectual behaviors according to Bloom’s taxonomy. To make a good Pecha Kucha, a student has to be able to analyze, evaluate, and create. In this regard, it is fun to consider how a Pecha Kucha reflects your point of view about a subject—this style of presentation is good at formulating points of view.

A few more aspects to consider:

  1. Like any set of student presentations, less is more. Even though each PK is only 6 minutes, 40 seconds long, I try to stagger PKs over several course meetings rather than have 5 or 6 in a row. I tend to find students can “lean forward” through about 4 PKs, or even 5, but by the 6th fast paced presentation, they start to tune out. So figure that into your syllabi and course planning to get the maximum attention out of PKs.
  2. PKs work well in teams of 2 or more. In my courses, I frequently have PKs that involve 2 students using the same constraint of 20×20. This means functionally that the PK is split into two 10×20 segments. Student teams can alternate slide by slide (the hardest version in my opinion) or split the presentation into two ten panel segments (much more workable for most students). This keeps the PK spirit alive, but let’s larger classes of students perform PKs without taking up too many class sessions. In order to make this option work, I usually let students meet at the end of a few classes for planning, but they usually still have to meet outside of class time to make team-based PKs really work.
  3. I believe one of the real benefits of PKs is to take advantage of the “leaning forward” student is paying attention and engaged by the event. Therefore, I like to build into my courses time for discussion and questions after a PK. In fact, I like the final slide of a PK to be a bit of a provocation to get students talking. And since PKs are very structured, I find it useful to have a time limit for discussion. Depending on class size and course schedule, I try for 6 minutes and 40 seconds of discussion (i.e. the same time for discussion as there was for presentation). Longer discussions works as well if the PKs are spread out over several class meetings, and/or replace other kinds of discussion-based learning (such as using PKs as a replacement for reading reports or project proposals)
  4. PKs tend to get better as students see what other students are doing. Since it will be new to many students, I tend to see more creativity and more willingness to “think outside the box” after the first few PKs of a semester.
  5. In my experience, students really like PK as a presentation style. The faster pace is quite appealing, but I think it tends to bring out the best in speakers. Even students who are a bit less polished as public speakers can use the 20×20 method to come across as a more organized speaker. And when you are talking in shorter bursts, I think many students can even use the PK style to build in a better sense of pausing and reflecting since they can take a breath or a moment as each slide changes on screen.

Finally, like any class assignment, there is plenty of room for experimentation and modification. The only true constraint is 20×20, but much of what I have been speaking about fits my pedagogy and my learning objectives. I know that other teachers may emphasize other types of argumentation and have different expectations regarding stylistic or formal concerns.

In closing, Pecha Kucha should be a fun activity in the classroom, but one that shouldn’t be treated lightly. PK doesn’t mean that anything goes. I find it is best suited to courses that are trying to get students to speak and act like experts on their disciplinary knowledge. This becomes a moment when they share something they know about a topic with their peers. And here is where I return to the idea of “spark.” The moment when PK becomes more than a presentation, students feel that they have “sparked” a good discussion, or brought in knowledge to the class that wasn’t there previously. It makes them co-mentors in the educational process, and that feeling goes a long way towards building deep and complex appreciation not only for course content, but why that course content is relevant to them and their peers. That moment can happen in any presentation, of course, but it seems especially well suited to the sound of conversation that emerges from a Pecha Kucha.