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Presentation: Developing Academic Rigour with Social Media

As presented at the 2010 ATA Science Council Conference at the Fantasy Land Hotel (Edmonton, Alberta). Below is an overview of the presentation that will be updated in more detail after the presentation is complete. Additionally, you can view the prezi here.

Part A:Social Media?

What Is Social Media?

First we analyzed the meanings of these two words, and then teachers put those meanings together. Susana Gerndt (my co-presenter) and I offered this definition for social media.

Social Media is the information of the community. It is cordial. Gracious. Informative, popular, and neighborly. It is created by people for people. Individuals become active participants in a communal understanding that is not limited to their own thoughts, or the thoughts of a select few individual ‘experts’, but they are linked to the understandings of the world – would you rather leverage one person or dozens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of people?

Archimedes is credited for saying “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth” referring to his understanding of mechanical systems such as levers. I think this idea can be true for social media. Every individual is given a platform up which to stand. The earths population (or at least it’s english speaking ‘connected’ population) is the audience that we are trying to engage as bloggers, video-sharers, etc). An effective social media user can influence thousands, even millions of users.

What Is the typical Social Media experience?

People of all ages are using social media to connect with their friends and family. We find out when new babies are born, look at photos from someones graduation or wedding, and receive invitations to baptisms, birthdays and halloween parties. We find out about the latest election information and international news by reading blogs or through status updates on facebook and twitter. We are entertained and educated on youtube, flickr, vimeo and other video sharing sites. We also take part in conversations, edit wiki’s to share our understanding, and post tutorials and questions on youtube. Social media is an every day part of the life of many people in western society.

Part B: Learning

What is the Traditional Classroom experience?

Sitting in rows, students listen, teachers talk. Once the ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’ is over, students may get a chance to ‘practice’. Sometimes there are conversations in class, which really consists of teacher asking many questions and a few students participating.

How do we Learn in every day life?

We touch, manipulate, see, hear, smell and taste. We analyze. We inquire, formulating various questions to guide our learning. Today we will often do an online search rather than ask an individual. Connected people, instead of asking individuals, may ask thousands of people online by posting a question on youtube or to wiki answers. We also apprentice, practice, apply, communicate, explain, and collaborate.

Part C: Rigour

What does it mean for learning to be Rigorous?

  • The foundation of our Science Curriculum (at least in Alberta) has four components: Science Technology and Society, Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes
  • Learning is Rigorous when students ‘get it’. ‘It’ doesn’t refer to all of the facts that we expect students to know for our standards based tests (Think provincial exams/diploma exams). ‘It’ refers to the purpose of teaching and learning about science. We want our students to
    • 1) think critically, problem solve, analyze, communicate, collaborate, create and innovate. The purpose of science education is to foster these skills as well as to;
    • 2) develop an understanding for the interactions of science, technology, society, environment as well as for the nature of science (theory, experimentation, observation, theory revising/replacement)
    • 3) develop positive attitudes and appreciation for science as a discipline.

Can Students complete tasks, do ‘well’ and still not get it?

One observation that Susana and I have made is that sometimes students can complete social-media based assignments, meet the requirements, get a good mark, but still not really understand the underlying concepts. Many of us have seen beautiful posters that describes all of the ‘content’ (maybe the biotic and abiotic factors of an ecosystem), but the student still doesn’t understand. Has that student done well on the assignment?

How do we make Social Media Projects Rigorous such that they have to get it?

This graphic organizer has been developed based off of the experience of many teachers and consultants. We think that there are some key components within it that get teachers asking the right questions that will lead to rigorous projects, assignments, and tasks in the classroom.

We start on the left hand side of the graphic organizer, looking at student learning outcomes. This has to include not only the knowledge outcomes but the skill and attitude outcomes as well. We need to consider what vocabulary is important for students to use, where the students might make mistakes, and then a look at content literacy strategies (you can interpret this to mean learning strategies). These types of strategies include things like KWL charts, venn diagrams, discussions, questioning strategies, reading strategies etc.

On the right hand side of the sheet are four questions that we think get at the heart of making learning rigorous for students (with social media or without).

  1. How can we powerfully activate students ‘need to know’ content?
    • we want to make learning experiences relevant to our students. If all I do is talk about biotic and abiotic factors with my grade 7 students some will be interested but most will just be learning because they are supposed to. But if I can talk about an issue in an ecosystem that they are curious about and know about I will have them hooked into the learning. A few years ago talking about the coral reef and the movie Finding Nemo may have had this affect. This can happen simply by having a story at the beginning of the unit and a framing question to refer back to throughout the unit.
  2. What strategies and activities will be used to build 21st century skills (Collaboration, communication, critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, inquiry and questioning)
    • If you want students to communicate in various ways (using pictures, sound, video, text, spoken word, etc) and you want them to do so effectively you will probably have to talk to them about communication. If you are going to include a song on a digital poster (like the ones you can build on the Glogster website), how is that song going to be relevant? How are students going to choose the text, font, colors etc. This is something that should be addressed, and it doesn’t require much time.
    • If you want students to guide their own learning in an inquiry project and develop their own questions to guide their learning you should be teaching your students about levels of questions using some sort of questioning guide (three level questioning is shown in the prezi; another good tool set are Barrets questioning guides)
    • If you want students to collaborate, we need to teach them how to honor the ideas of others and how to structure their groups such that everyone is responsible for their own learning yet they are also able to learn from each other and develop common understandings. Common understandings can be developed through collaborative brainstorming sites such as popplet, edistorm and mindomo
  3. How will students justify their choices/explain their products
    • students need to be engaged in some sort of dialogue (be it written or verbal), and required to explain what they have done. If they have created a cartoon on a site like toondoo. To learn more about using cartoons in class, check out this older post on cartooning in class
    • When students are having an online discussion, and they express an opinion, they should be required to back up what they are saying. Find a quote in the novel they are reading from a character they are analyzing. They can find a source (online or print) that backs up their comments on global warming and carbon sequestering. Find an example of something happening in the world from a news article or video from cbc.ca (as an example) to support their comments and beliefs about technology and its influence on science.
  4. What are the expectations of students and how will they receive feedback from teacher and classmates?
    • If you want students to do a good job you need to communicate to them what ‘doing a good job’ looks like. Expectations need to be clear, and students should be given an opportunity to receive feedback from both teachers and students.
    • This is when we can start talking about the need to do things during class time. If you can’t honour the students work by giving them the time in class to do it and to take that time to give them feedback, you send a strong message about the importance of a task. Online discussion, wikis, digital posters; all of these things should be started during class time so that you as the teacher have the opportunity to see where students are and guide them to where they need to be.

Part D: Social Media: Developing The Foundations of Science

What Skills Can Online Discussions Develop?

If you are interested in using online discussions, you can learn a lot more about them here on a previous blog post

  • Online discussions give students an opportunity to participate in important disciplinary discourse. They learn to use the language of the discipline – to think like a scientist (in the case of a science class). Discourse is also a form of collaboration, not only should students be talking about their own ideas but they should also be responding to the ideas of each others in an effort to further develop the understanding of the community (in this case the community would be the participating students)
  • develop class communities for online discussions on Ning or Edmodo.

What Skills Can Wikis Develop?

Depending on how you implement their use wikis can develop skills including: writing, information fluency, collaboration, questioning and critical thinking

  • How does a wiki work? (wikispaces, pbworks)
    • A wiki is a collaborative website that is usually very text heavy but can include videos, pictures, and links to other sites. Users can edit the content of these sites easily without knowing anything about web programming; it is almost as simple as typing in Microsoft word.
    • Wikis generally host extensive history of the page, so that you can see who made changes, when they made changes, and what changes they have made
  • An example of when to use a wiki and why.
    • a wiki can be great to use throughout a unit of study. You can begin a unit of study with an empty wiki (assigned to a group of maybe 3-5 students) that would just have some titles or questions (students may be required to come up with the questions or add to the questions), but very little information.
      • Students could start off by editing the wiki on an individual basis, putting in what they already know about the topic (this is called front loading, activating student prior knowledge).
      • after each learning experience (some notes, a video, a reading, a lecture, etc) students can go back into the wiki and add more information. They can also fine tune info or delete info that they figure out to be incorrect.
      • at the end of the unit you would have a huge document with text, pictures, links and videos that represents the understandings that students developed throughout the unit. To keep all students accountable throughout the unit of study you can simply look at the wiki history to see who did edits and when they did them

How Can Synchronized Collaborative Work Change Everything?

There are some websites that allow multiple users to live edit and collaborate, watching each others every move and being able to respond to each other without every refreshing the page. A few of these sites that I like are:

Imagine having 36 students, all brainstorming/mindmapping and just use as the teacher trying to keep up with everybody writing on the board. It could take most of a class and each student will be limited to a few short interactions. Get every student on edistorm or mindomo and you can have the whole class brainstorming at once, contributing to ideas, making connections, organizing each others thoughts, voting on thoughts, and responding to thoughts. It becomes a very different experience when every student for just 10 minutes is fully engaged in such an activity.


If you want to use these tools effectively in your classroom and ensure that the activities are academically rigorous, you can use the Project Planning Page and it should help you consider the following:

  1. What expectations should I have for my students regarding behavior, and how will I communicate these to students
  2. What skills will be developed and how will I scaffold these for the students to ensure success?
  3. How will students justify their thinking/choices/ideas
  4. How will students receive feedback from me as the teacher and from their peers?

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