There was an interesting workshop at last week’s NWEA Fusion Conference titled “21st Century Learning”. The presenter began by wondering aloud how much longer we will use the phrase “21st Century Learning” since we are already twelve years into it (at my own presentation I had asked my audience to reflect on the fact that the children entering kindergarten this year will be 93 or 94 years old by the time January 1st, 2101 rolls around, and that we are therefore, in Fraser Speirs’ words, already teaching the first generation of great-grandparents of the 22nd century!)
The workshop continued on its way citing various stimulating tidbits from the research of the likes of Don Tapscott, Scott McLeod, Peter Senge and Marc Prensky. At one point the presenter used the word “screenagers” and I noticed someone behind me tweeting that as “a new term” for the iGeneration of Digital Natives. Another tweeter quoted Tapscott’s 2006 use of the term “digital weapons of mass collaboration”, attributing it to the presenter and again claiming it as a new term.
I did wonder whether there was still a conference circuit career to be had in rehashing all the Shift Happens stuff. Weren’t we already starting to see that this particular emperor had no clothes as long ago as the mid-noughties? But nevertheless, the presentation was nicely done and all was going exactly the way I’ve noticed all such presentations go that seek to awe us with the digital literacy and levels of digital expectations of the iGeneration. There were lots of impressive statistics about the speed of change and a few witticisms about how the children need to teach the teachers these days. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of presentations like this.
What made this one different was the closing ten minutes. The presenter played us a video that was made by a student in response to a piece of writing by Edgar Allan Poe or some such writer. The student had apparently not enjoyed much success with traditional writing tasks, and so the teacher had hit upon the idea of giving him the opportunity to respond to the text by making a movie trailer about the story. The student had set about the task with enthusiasm and had completed a two- or three-minute long trailer that used a soundtrack evocative of suspense and menace over a simple drawing of a house that was overlaid with lines of text as the movie trailer played.
The movie elicited considerable applause at the end. Then my neighbour (who along with me had looked sceptical all through the movie) spoke up. She had read the book the movie trailer referred to and said that the lines of text had made some clear mistakes. It was entirely possible that the student had neither read the book nor understood the assessment task. All he had done was use his technology skills to create a slick presentation that was sufficiently accomplished to fool the teacher. The teacher (and presumably the presenter at the workshop) assumed it was a good piece of work. In fact the movie trailer told her nothing about the student’s understanding of the text or his ability to engage with it on any level whatever. These were presumably key requirements of the task.
I wondered if the student himself thought it was a good response to the text. Actually, most middle schoolers I know could have done the same job by casually glancing the front and back cover of the book and then getting to work with any one of a number of multimedia authoring apps. No reading would have been required. The same student could have responded to Moby Dick in twenty minutes start to finish. A reading of the novel and a critical response to its themes would require much more time and thought.
Ultimately, I have faith that teachers who care about inculcating in their students an awareness and an appreciation of literature will keep the assessment bar well above the level demonstrated that day. To be sure there are appropriate digital tasks that could be used to assess understanding, but in applauding responses from students so lacking in substance, ambition and effort we run the risk of licensing our more technically advanced students to pull the digital wool over the digital immigrant teacher’s eyes.