Entering the year four classroom at Merrylands East Public School, the first thing most people notice is the life-size Creeper presiding over the room. For the uninitiated, the Creeper is the iconic villain from the hugely popular blocky world-building game Minecraft. Its presence is an early indication that things are a little different in Lee Hewes' class.
Lee is a digital native and tinkerer. While he was building the creeper sculpture with his year one class last year he decided he wanted it to detect movement and make noises as children moved around the classroom. He researched the technology that would be required, and taught himself enough electronics to build it. It is Lee's ambition that in time stepping into his classroom will be a bit like a trip to the Powerhouse Museum. Word on the street is that there's a Minecraft-themed carpet in the works...
Given the Creeper, it’s unsurprising that Minecraft itself plays a significant role in the day to day activity in the class. The virtual world provides a setting for everything from sharing artworks with other schools to exploring mathematical concepts. But it's not just the way he uses Minecraft that distinguishes Lee's classroom. It's his approach to technology as a whole, in all its different forms.
Digital technology has become prevalent in schools in the past few decades, and is increasingly embedded in the curriculum. It’s commonplace for students to research a topic online, or to create an onscreen presentation as an assessment. Many teachers now use class blogs to chronicle the activities of students and share with parents. Where 4H at Merrylands East differs is the way that technology is woven seamlessly and comprehensively through almost every aspect of the classroom experience. It is as pervasive, as Anne Knock suggests, as electricity.
Earlier this year, the class did a unit on Extreme Environments. While it wasn’t Lee’s intention it make the unit specifically technological, it provides an excellent example of how technology is embedded so comprehensively throughout the student experience in his class. The unit was called Project NEEMO, taking it's name from NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (an underwater base where NASA astronauts prepare for space missions). Naturally, you can read an overview of Project NEEMO from the students' perspective on their Weebly class blog.
The project was structured using the project based learning approach that Lee and his wife Bianca have recently documented in their book 'Are Humans Wild at Heart? and Other Epic English Projects for Years 9-10' (read our review here).
Before introducing the unit, Lee ran a hook lesson to get students thinking about extreme environments. He broke the class up into groups of three - each group carefully selected to balance social skills and technical skills, as well as encourage students to get to know classmates they may not regularly spend time with. During the hook lesson each group was given a Minecraft minifigure and challenged to find an 'extreme environment' for it to live in, somewhere around the school. Each team's effort was posted onto the class Twitter feed.
— Merrylands East (@merrylandseast) March 2, 2016
In the next lesson, Lee explained Project NEEMO - sharing the one-page 'project outline' with them. This sets up the topic area for study, the 'driving question', and what the class will discover, create and share through the project.
Having received this challenge, the class then spent time discussing what they 'needed to know', building a list of questions for exploration. Lee used Padlet to facilitate this, opening the application on the IWB while each group sat around a laptop, discussing and contributing their questions which were added to the collection on the board.
To kick off the research phase, the class used Skype to interview a Canadian teacher living in Churchill, Manitoba about the experience of living in an extreme environment. Each group then chose a particular environment to focus on and began to do further research.
As the groups explored their topic, they captured their learnings in the collaborative learning platform Edmodo. Lee used a shared Google Sheets spreadsheet to establish the criteria for completing their research - groups had to describe what made their environment extreme; what resources would be difficult to obtain there; how humans might modify the environment to make it more habitable; and particularly interesting plants and animals found there. Students also used Google Slides to create presentations on their research to share with the class.
When a group had adequately researched their topic they began constructing a model of their extreme environment in Minecraft. For some groups this necessitated further research into how they might achieve certain features of the landscape using the software's environmental building options. Once the environment had been built they then added their human modification, native animals, plants and so on.
To create an 'awesome advert' for their environment the students used Camtasia and Quicktime to make screen captures of their activity in Minecraft as they 'toured' their environment. Before doing this, they worked with pen and paper storyboards to plan the sequence of shots they would use, their dialogue and effects.
Having scripted their dialogue, the groups recorded audio and used iMovie to composite the video and audio elements together and edit as required. For soundtracks, they used the creative commons resource Jamendo Music. The resulting videos were then hosted on the class YouTube channel.
Throughout the whole process, students used Seesaw to share their ongoing efforts with their families, providing an opportunity for critical self-reflection.
The unit may have finished earlier in the year but if you visit Lee's classroom the evidence is still there. The groups have taken images from their videos and laminated them, these are now placed around the room next to augmented reality 'trigger images'. Using Aurasma software, these triggers let you jump into the projects as you move around the room
When listed exhaustively like this, Lee's approach to technology may seem incredibly complicated. Why is it necessary to use so many different systems and tools? But this is exactly the way that many of us use technology today – dipping in and out of many different applications, often across devices; bringing them together in interesting ways; maintaining an ecosystem of different special purpose tools. This approach to technology brings with it the need for a range of different skills. The effective curation of tools. The ability to get up to speed on an application quickly and independently. Flexibility from one interface to another.
While the students in Lee’s class certainly learnt a lot about extreme environments, they perhaps learnt even more about embracing the technological tools at their disposal. They were becoming capable, independent learners – and creators – through contemporary technology.
Of course they've moved on now. This term they're looking at endangered animals, developing a conservation park in Minecraft to share with experts at Taronga. By end of year Lee hopes to have them making virtual reality experiences in Minecraft VR with Google cardboard. That's going to require Adobe Premiere, so Lee has set himself a holiday project to getting up to speed on that software. It seems it's not only the students who must embrace continual learning in 4H.