Internment Mashup

University of Mary Washington student Bradleigh Efford takes a course on Asian American Literature with professor Mara Scanlon. Over the course of the semester he, along with the rest of the class, searches for relevant resources to the week’s reading and blogs his findings. While reading a novel about Japanese relocation in North America, he shares a link to the propaganda film Japanese Relocation (1943) which was produced by the Office of War Information. The version Efford discovered was on YouTube, but it was re-published from the original source at the Internet Archive.

Soon after sharing the video, Efford and his classmate Mathe Horne cut and re-mixed the soundtrack from the US propaganda film and created a three minute rap song examining the questions surrounding Japanese Internment that they wrote, produced and performed. A project which they then shared back with the class through their blogs. A model of freely available, public domain resources being discovered by students through a variety of services and mashed up as a way to creatively comment upon and critique the literature they are examining.

Download Japanese Relocation Rap

The Massive Open Online Course

In the fall of 2008, George Siemens and Stephen Downes co-taught a course entitled ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’. Offered through the University of Manitoba as a credit course, it was also open to free participation to anyone interested.  2200 people signed up for the course, and Downes later estimated that 1870 persisted through the duration of the course. Due to its sheer size and scale, it came to be called the MOOC – Massive Open Online Course.

Participation was multilevel and multi-modal. 24 students paid tuition at the University of Manitoba and took the course for credit. The lifeline of distributed course communication was the daily newsletter, in addition to the official course weblog. There was a course wiki, and a Moodle installation for threaded discussions. Synchronous discussions were held on the proprietary Elluminate platform (with limited seating) and archived as publically available MP3 files. But given the sheer scale of participation, not to mention the orientation of the course itself, it should not be surprising that students themselves took significant control over the media of course delivery. More than 170 students maintained their own course blogs on multiple platforms, and an RSS aggregator and the daily newsletter collected and redistributed these efforts. Three separate Second Life communities were established, two of them in Spanish. (It should be noted that while the course was offered in English, Spanish speaking students took it upon themselves to translate core course materials.)  This considerable activity prompted significant activity even amongst online educators who were not formally aligned with the course.

The number of participants rendered traditional notions of “instructional support” meaningless. Instead, as Downes notes, “by combining participants from a wide range of skill sets, people were able to – and did – help each other out. This ranged from people answering questions and poviding examples in the discussion areas, to people commenting on and supporting each others’ blogs, to those with more skills setting up resources and facilities, such as the translations and Second Life discussion areas.” Similarly, the notion of “course material production” was upended, in place of a structure that owed much more to the commons-based peer production that marks Wikipedia and other initiatives that thrive in an era of unprecedented information abundance: “Materials for the course were not ‘produced’ in the traditional; sense – rather, the instructors created a framework, populated that framework with open materials already extant on the web, added some commentary and videos of their own, conducted open online sessions and recordings, and created the infrastructure for wide student participation.”

Learning in the wild: Murder Madness, and Mayhem

In the spring of 2008, Professor Jon Beasley-Murray, rather than bemoaning the inadequate and shallow coverage of Latin American literary studies on Wikipedia, assigned his students to improve the online encylopedia. Working in groups, some students were assigned to topics that did not yet have articles, while others were tasked with improving existing articles. The grading scheme was explicitly tied to the criteria and external peer review processes used by Wikipedia to assign good article and featured article status.

Though the demands of the assignment were significant, at the end of the semester three of the articles had achieved “featured” status, and eight more had achieved the slightly lesser but still daunting “good article” designation. Reading the articles created in the course of this assignment, it is difficult not to be impressed with the depth of the research (the citations and the references are strikingly comprehensive) and the clarity of the writing. Ironically, the pressures created by interactions with the wider Wikipedia culture tend to sharpen the application of “traditional” literacy skills. As Beasley-Murray observes: “Students seldom learn about the importance of revision to good writing. And yet on Wikipedia, revision is (almost) everything: contributors are called editors precisely because their writing is a near-constant state of revision.” As one of Beasley-Murray’s students Monica Freudenreich acknowledged, “what pushed us to achieve higher standards were the other wikipedian editors. They were constantly pushing us to find better references and to reference everything. In working towards GA and FA they set the bar incredibly high.”

In addition, the students are immersed in an exercise that sharpens what might be described as new literacy skills. Beasley-Murray notes that  the students are “writing for a public audience, also one that almost uniquely was in a position to write back, to re-write and comment upon what they were writing. Indeed, working on Wikipedia had the potential to become a collaborative process: students would have to collaborate not only with each other, but also with fellow editors or wikipedians who they met only on the wiki itself.” At the very least, students who engage in such a process develop a much enhanced sense of the strengths and weakness of Wikipedia’s open editing model, and certainly will be that much better equipped to make judgments on the resource’s validity when consulting it in the future.

A notable instance of the wider community enhancing the learning process was manifested by the appearance of the “FA Team“. The FA Team are a a small group of experienced Wikipedia editors who were looking to increase the number of featured articles on the site, and actually approached Beasley-Murray’s students with offers to help with a range of considerations including copyediting, formatting and critiques of the articles themselves.  As Beasley-Murray reflected later in the process, the FA Team “embarked on an ongoing task of encouraging, mentoring, and guiding all of us in the process of editing Wikipedia articles to a high standard.” It seems inconceivable that such interactions could ever begin to occur in a closed, managed environment.

Finally, it must be noted that the outcomes of this exercise was not a paper exchanged solely between professor and student, or even discussed within a peer group, but the creation of a set of persisting open educational resources in their own right. Projections based on a one month sample of Wikipedia page views suggest that the pages created or enhanced via this project will range from 14,000 to 740,000 views per year.  And in each case, the article created ranks at or near the top for Google page ranks, using likely search parameters.  The authenticity of the process, and the notion of contribution to the digital commons has a notable effect on student motivation and sense of achievement. Freudenreich concludes: “This page will be read by countless people over the course of its existence. Because I have worked so hard writing and re-writing it, I am extremely proud of the finished result, I almost can’t believe I helped write it when I look back over it. Term papers I have handed back end up in a binder than eventually sits under my bed and files sit on my computer unopened ever again.”

From the perspective of an education technologist, it is also worth noting that there are no license fees to pay to Wikipedia for the provision of this learning environment.

Extras: Guerilla Edtech

The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.
[[Mao Tse-Tung]]

Guerilla EdTech can be understood as the act of introducing new ways of conceptualizing teaching and learning with light-weight, open, and de-centralized technologies as a means to challenge the explicit restrictions and limitations presented by lumbering proprietary systems premised upon a fear-based institutional culture.  Permission to experiment with the best tools and explore alternatives for organizing and building a community approach need not come from on high. It can originate from any one within a community at any time, it simply requires faith in a seed cultivated through a diffuse network of support and encouragement. It entails a series of actions often undergirded by the belief that the results of an innovative act in educational teaching and learning far outweigh the risks—despite the potential ramifications the move in a new direction is intricately linked with challenging an existing order that is suffocating out possibilities.