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Books in Translation

Basic Member Book (Sep 2002)

Increasing Student Learning Through Multimedia Projects

by Michael Simkins, Karen Cole, Fern Tavalin and Barbara Means

Table of Contents

Chapter 3. Making a Real-World Connection

Curriculum, multimedia, real-world connection, assessment, collaboration, extended time, and student decision making—seven dimensions of project-based multimedia projects may seem to be a lot to think about; but if you have a multimedia project with a strong real-world connection, you can hardly go wrong. Student engagement is just about guaranteed. This is a project your students will work hard on now and remember for a long time.

Multimedia is like any other practical art form—it makes sense only when it is part of a context. In wood shop, students don't make joints, they make birdhouses with joints. In sewing, they don't make seams, they make clothing with seams. We don't just combine random media elements, we make multimedia that communicates something. In creating a real-world connection, you are embedding multimedia in a rich context in which students will learn and practice skills, gather and present information, and solve problems. Indeed, the real-world connection is a strong distinguishing element of this learning approach that makes it so motivating for students.

A real-world connection means that students see a reason to do this project, other than the fact that you assigned it and they will get a grade on it. There are so many ways to connect to the real world that even beginners to the multimedia approach can design a project that students will find worthwhile.

Finding real-world connections to student projects is largely a matter of perception. To an adult, the “real world” is work and economics. To a kid, the “real world” is the playground when the supervisor is looking the other way.

—Elementary Teacher

To connect to the real world, you don't even have to leave your school—it is also part of the real world, and a big part of the students' real world. Of course, if you want to connect outside the school walls, technology makes it easier than ever before. Your students can e-mail subject matter experts and use the Internet to find primary source data.

A Real-World Connection: One Example

At Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California, Spanish is the language spoken by many of the immigrant students. For students who were learning Spanish, their Spanish language skills gave them a special ability to communicate with these immigrants. They wrote and produced a video for new Spanish-speaking students to orient them to the school. The students could see that the school really needed this video and that they were the ones to produce it. In making the video, they had a reason to strive for perfect grammar and pronunciation. They suddenly needed lots of vocabulary words, some not found in their textbooks.

This project connects to the real world in many ways. It connects to a real audience—the Spanish-speaking students. It fulfills a real need—the school's need to welcome these immigrant students. It connects to student interests—students could choose an area of the school to describe in the video. It applies students' special talents and skills—particularly the ability to speak and write Spanish—to a real-world purpose.

Ten Kinds of Real-World Connections

As the example illustrates, there are many ways to connect to the real world, and a given project can connect in more than one way. To get you started, here are 10 ways you can connect to the real world with your students. As you read these examples, you'll think of even more.

Our 10 real-world connection ideas are organized into three categories. First, students can connect to the real world through their project topics. That is, the topics themselves involve some expression of students' lives and identities. Second, students can connect through authentic interactions with people and institutions within and outside school. Third, students connect through creating a presentation that helps them imagine or achieve a future goal.

Connecting Through Project Topics

1. Connecting through student interests. This is one of the easiest ways to connect to the real world—ask students to create a presentation to share their knowledge about a topic they care about. Examples of this kind of project include a “math in the real world” presentation, in which students show how math is involved in their favorite hobbies and sports. Another example is a science fair presentation, in which students design and conduct experiments about a question of their own choosing and present the results in multimedia. You will get to know your students in a new way and find out about their out-of-school passions. We need to keep two things in mind when connecting to student interests. First, even a project about the physics of skiing is still just a flashy physics report. Connecting through student interests works best when your project is interactive (see section “Connecting Through Interaction”). For example, share that skiing presentation at a meeting of the school ski club, and include information about how knowing the physics can help you ski better or select better equipment.

The second thing to remember when connecting to student interests is making sure the project meets your curricular goals within the student presentations. Some subject areas are easier than others to relate to student interests. If you teach medieval French poetry, connecting to student interests might not be your best route to the real world. Read on—we've got nine other strategies.

2. Connecting through student experiences. With this strategy, you ask students to bring their unique experiences and perspectives into a project. For example, one high school teacher's English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) students were all born in other countries. They were especially well qualified to teach the rest of the student body a thing or two about culture in their native lands. Each student chose three aspects of culture such as music, dance, or religion. Students created a hypermedia presentation for the school library that showcased the many cultures represented in just one ESL class. Students were able to teach other students about a favorite French rock star, show how Afghan culture was affected by war, and provide countless other insider's perspectives.

If your students' experiences aren't quite right for bringing your curricular goals to life, you can create the experiences you need. For example, one elementary schoolteacher built a multimedia project out of a field trip to Point Reyes National Seashore and the California Academy of Sciences. Students brought their experiences on the field trip into the design of a presentation about Point Reyes habitats.

3. Connecting through significant issues. Many topics in the real world are particularly compelling to young people. These topics include public health, racism, poverty, and the power of the media. Students respond to these topics because they may be personally affected by them, because they are often passionate about fairness and equity, or because they can try to effect change.

These topics are particularly germane to math, science, and social studies curriculums. For example, students can create powerful media presentations that mix statistical analyses and science concepts related to drug abuse, with interview clips about the effects of drug abuse in local people's lives.

One middle school teacher used this approach to bring her social studies unit on immigration to life. Immigration is a topic that affects all her students in one way or another. She asked students to interview their relatives about how their families came to America. They collected artifacts such as photographs and medals and created a Web site that included the artifacts and stories. Many of the students had never heard the stories before because relatives found them painful to talk about.

Connecting Through Interaction

4. Improving the real world. Nothing is more empowering to kids than changing the big bad grown-up world, unless perhaps it's changing their own kid world. Your students have had plenty of opportunity to be influenced by media—turn the tables and give them their own turn to use media to influence others and effect change. Is there a local political issue your students can get involved in? Almost any issue has good curricular ties—environmental issues to science, for example. Students can research the issue and make a multimedia presentation for the city council or their congressional representative, or they can air their presentations on public access cable. Students don't even have to agree—they can create multiple presentations promoting differing points of view. Students will be amazed that they can use music, video, and compelling graphic images to convince others, just as professionals do. You will be amazed at how much technique students have picked up just by living in a media-rich world.

Opportunities to improve the world abound, even within school. Ask students what issues most affect their lives. From drugs and violence to excessive homework, students can use media to convince others that change is a good idea.

I'm not talking about inane “story problems” in which students figure out at what geographical point two airplanes will cross each other given starting points and flight speed. Nor am I talking about contrived simulations. What I now do with students is involve them in projects that make a difference in the lives of people and/or involve important research—real research, not just rediscovering someone else's research.

—Technology Learning Coordinator

5. Relating to clients. When you give students a chance to engage in a professional relationship with real clients, you are teaching them useful real-world skills. These include defining and working with clients' design requirements; matching their style and addressing their audience; listening and responding to client feedback; and working within clients' time constraints.

Your students' product can be as simple as a Web site for parents to keep them up to date on the goings-on in the classroom. In some schools, students design Web pages for businesses and individuals. Is there a charity near you that needs a video or Web page promoting its work? How about a professional society in your subject area? Maybe they would like some student-produced Web pages to add to their site that explore a particular subject matter. Clients can also be other students in real or simulated situations, as when students in one class designed dream houses for “clients” in another class.

6. Interacting with assessors. With all the talk about raising standards, what could be better than giving your students the opportunity to learn about standards for professional-quality work? A few minutes with a professional designer or content expert can pay great dividends in inspiring students to work to professional levels.

One middle school teacher asked professional graphic designers to critique her students' work. The designers used student work as a starting point to discuss graphic design concepts, such as how layout could show the connections among media elements. The students used the critique to develop their own rubric for evaluating their next product.

You can also bring in content experts to assess your students' work. For instance, if you are making a presentation about a local environmental issue, students would benefit from the opportunity to present their work in progress to one or more environmental scientists. An environmental scientist might be found through local universities, the city planning department, and local environmental consulting companies. Students will learn more than just subject matter—you can explore possible biases the expert might have.

Real-world assessors can be design or subject experts, and they can also be clients or potential users of your students' work. For example, if your class is making a presentation to teach some content to younger students, ask students from the target age range to come and use the product. Your students can find out if the younger students can understand the information and use the product successfully.

One more way for students to interact with assessors is to submit projects to multimedia fairs and competitions. Students can get valuable feedback from judges and see how their work stacks up against other projects in the competition.

7. Interacting with people who know. Do you want your project to do more than reproduce information on other Web sites? Students can get original content for their presentations by conducting their own interviews with people who have a perspective on students' topics.

One high school teacher's students created content for their World War II presentations by interviewing older relatives and friends who remembered World War II. Besides taping the interviews, they also photographed memorabilia their interviewees had saved, such as a handkerchief given to a husband as he went off to war. They even asked an interviewee to teach a student his favorite song from the era, and their recording of the student and the man singing the song together is one of the most moving parts of the presentation. The project as a whole created new knowledge—knowledge that had never before been compiled or organized anywhere.

Connecting to the Future

8. Learning adult work and life skills. All multimedia projects connect in this way because creating multimedia is an adult work skill; so is planning a big project, working in teams, and organizing information. In fact, students in video and multimedia production classes often take their skills into the professional arena even before graduation.

Many subject areas connect easily to adult work. Students in one high school class learned skills related to financial management by creating their own (pretend) “mini mutual funds.” They researched stocks, created portfolios, and followed their investments for eight weeks. They created multimedia presentations to promote their mutual funds.

Life outside of work is also fertile ground for project ideas of this type. One teacher's high school students researched a car they wanted to buy. They created a multimedia presentation showing price comparisons, financing options, and insurance costs.

Indeed, the finished project was stunning. It was entered into a video contest for young movie makers sponsored by a local museum and won honorable mention. All four students were honored at the museum and their movie was shown on the big screen. The team members unanimously decided to give the trophy that was presented to them to Garth, the director. After he received the trophy, Garth said to me, “This is the start of my career in filmmaking!”

—Middle school teacher

9. Creating a body of work. Students, particularly in upper grade levels, can create multimedia portfolios of their own work. The portfolio can showcase their multimedia production skills or mastery of other art or professional skills. It can also be a personal Web page that acts as a resume. Students can submit their portfolios to competitions or as part of applications to undergraduate and professional programs, internships, and jobs. It is easy for students to see how such a project connects directly to their futures.

10. Creating images of the future. Students research and create multimedia presentations that help them envision their futures. For example, one high school teacher's students created a “Careers” Web site. The site included information about careers that the students wanted to research, including information about the local labor market and job search tips. A colleague's students created presentations about careers in art. Each group selected one career in art to explore. Their research included interviews with practitioners in the community. The groups then created multimedia presentations about the career.

Finding a Real-World Connection

As you can see, you and your students can connect to the real world in many ways. Finding the connections that make sense for you depends on many factors, including your curriculum, the issues and potential audiences around you, and the time you have available.

For example, suppose your subject is 7th grade social studies and your curriculum is world history. Your year is packed full, so you want to spend no more than four weeks of class time on your project. What kinds of real-world connections make the most sense?

Connecting to existing student interests is possible but may be difficult. Can students research the origins of a favorite hobby or sport in the times and cultures you study? Depending on your students, this connection may be a stretch.

Perhaps the simplest connection would be a “Traces of History” presentation, where groups of students find, photograph, and record historical allusions or elements in your town or neighborhood. Students might photograph buildings and public artifacts that draw from previous historical periods, like an ancient Greek facade, or a Ming-style vase in the local Chinese restaurant, and then look for patterns around town to see which historical periods are represented where. They may decide to create a multimedia map of town, or a section of town, which shows these patterns and explains their historical origins. Finding a real audience would make the project more significant. Perhaps the local chamber of commerce or visitors' center would like to display the project.

Connections between your curriculum and significant issues are a possibility. Students could select an issue of interest, or you could choose one for which you have good resources. For example, how have different cultures handled poverty or homelessness in their societies? Students could create a presentation for either state government officials or groups that advocate for better living conditions. The message of the presentation could be that history can shed light on our current solutions. Are there ideas in history that we should revive now? Does history show us that our current solutions are actually throwbacks to medieval times? The main drawback of this kind of connection could be time: in four weeks, can students do enough research to do a reasonable treatment of the issue? You would have to make sure that topics were narrow and focused enough for the time available and that as many resources as possible were ready to go at the start of the project.

Possibilities for interactive connections abound, depending somewhat on where you live and what resources are easily available. If you choose a “significant issue” topic and live in a university town, perhaps graduate-level history students would critique your students' work. Taking a different direction, if there are people in your town from one of the countries you study, could they help you compare how the same historical period you teach is taught in their country? Students could learn a lot about how our culture influences our perspectives on history. Relating to clients is less likely, particularly given your time frame, but possible. Is there a teacher who would like a certain kind of multimedia resource for teaching world history? Could a local historical society or museum use a media exhibit on one of your curriculum topics?

Finally, you could connect to adult work—the most obvious connection is to the work of an adult historian. Perhaps a historian from a local museum, historical society, or university could help get students involved in a small piece of historical research that could culminate in a multimedia presentation about the results. This example shows only one of many ways you might think through the possible real-world connections for a curriculum area.


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