The Science of Class Collaboration

1/18/2009 By:

gorrillIt’s safe to say that Bruce Gorrill, Science Department Chair at the 360-student Brewster Academy of Wolfeboro, NH, is a techie. He uses all the latest Web-based tools for his classes, such as wikis, podcast, and Ning (see sidebar for descriptions), which some critics declare as isolating. But his intent for students is in fact the opposite effect—that is, creating thedeeper connections between students as they work together to solve a common goal.

Gorrill started his first foray into the future with a 12th grade Freshwater Ecology class by incorporating a wiki from PBwiki.com, an RSS aggregator at pageflakes.com, and podcast publishing site from Gcast.com to support the activities around the wiki. Along with these outside websites he used Garageband for podcasting and iTunes and iMovie to offer a multimedia way to share their knowledge of subjects that hit close to home, like nearby bottled water manufacturing plants, water use rights and pollution in a local lake closing their summer swimming beach.

With students connecting to the general public through locally accessible podcasted interviews and online video clips, Gorrill then morphed his original program to include social network system, Ning. This encouraged group members within the class to share their private study discoveries for the good of the group’s end product, mirroring their future endeavors within the scientific community.
While it was tough breaking down the barrier created by years of teachers admonishing not to touch someone else’s work, soon students collaborated by popping onto other’s wiki pages to fix a typo, offer constructive criticism or a valuable tidbit picked up in their own research— knowing their movements were monitored and recorded. Their natural adaptability to the programs impressed Gorrill.
“They quickly picked up on developing their own pages, doing modification, entering pictures --largely from using Facebook or Myspace. They're very comfortable stepping online and communicating,” says Gorrill. Gorrill also discovered an unexpected phenomenon in his physics classes -- peer pressure by podcasting. “There's something that happens when talking about a lab report -- the kids suddenly want to have it perfect while they don't seem to have the same concern about the written document (probably knowing I'm the only one who's going to read it),” Gorrill says. “As soon as the audience gets a little bit bigger and the whole class is going to hear your podcast -- it's, ‘Whoa, I better make sure I really know what I'm talking about here.’”

Gorrill recently completed participation in a three-year-study for the National Science Foundation involving the use of technology in science education.

“Technology is easy to tag onto what we've always done before, but that's not when technology is at its strongest -- it really needs to change the way we do something. I'm trying to get away from the kids looking at me as the person up front with all the information to feed them. The question is how do we make that jump and how does technology help us to do that?”

  -- Sascha Zuger is a freelancer, public radio commentator and author of forthcoming memoir DANCING UNDER WATER, Harper Collins 2010 and Girl Overboard, a young adult novel, under the pseudonym Aimee Ferris.

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