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Post flat classroom workshop reflection in Mumbai – reasons for digital optimism

March 10, 2010

I read Heather and Marie’s post conference reflections with great interest and agree with their views that despite the practical challenges and in some cases even because of them, virtual participation in the flat classroom workshop in Mumbai was a rich and valuable experience.

In our post-conference discussion my students expressed views similar to Heather’s when she said that the experience changed once she worked out that ‘lurking around the edges’ was not the way to approach the event. As complete newcomers it took us a while to get to grips with the shape and nature of the workshop and to settle into our roles. We spent time navigating our way through the different channels and tools that had been carefully set up and the students also spoke about being slightly cautious as they are all middle schoolers and would be working as peers with high school students and teachers.

Like the students as a ‘virtual expert’ I also needed to adjust to my role especially as I started to contribute to the team wikis as their ideas started to flow. To be effective as educators we always need to carefully balance support and encouragement with our ability to provoke and challenge by asking the right questions. This balance is made harder when working at a distance with strangers of different ages and backgrounds. As I thought about this balance I thought back to a blog post by Konrad Glogowski on the evolving role of educators in the digital age,

“I believe that it demands that we get involved as co-investigators who assist students with their independent research and who also, through personal engagement as online learners and collaborators, model what it means to be successful as a learner. We have to become “co-conspirators” or, to use Vygotsky’s famous term, “more capable peers,” whose job is not to measure and evaluate but, primarily, to promote and support reflection and analysis in our students. As educators, we need to work on our role in the classroom as “passionate hobbyists and creators,” we need to engage in learning in our classrooms, and in doing so we need to move towards a different model of assessment and evaluation.”

The structure set up by Vicki and Julie made co-creation the default position for everyone involved in this conference. Experienced educators were learning and creating alongside the students, this was something that I think one of the YIS student participants was referring to when he said “teachers normally try to take control too much and organise it all for you, this was different and that was the best thing about the project, not so much the technology stuff but the fact that there was a lot of freedom in how we could do things.” Watching the YIS students seemingly floundering early in the conference as they jumped from site to site, skimming and clicking looked to some of the teachers that came by to observe like the learning and interaction while clearly enjoyable was perhaps superficial. However as the students moved on it was clear that this experimentation and the wrong turns were a crucial part of the learning that came from this event.

Indeed when the real time participation and interaction started to take hold the students were clearly being pushed in their learning. They each kept two or sometimes three communication tools open. Some were skyping, some using the chatzy, all were watching and listening to the ustream as they typed and started to get involved in the team projects. One girl noted, “I had to keep using google to look up some of the words and terms the older students were using, there was a lot I didn’t understand”. Despite this none of the students thought the teams should be divided up by age as they also found it interesting to see how the older students approached the tasks. They were getting a lot from their ‘more capable peers’.

The students also found the structure and organisation challenging, “There were times when the ‘real’ participants seemed to disappear” said one of the grade 7 girl adding “They were were so busy with their challenge that you felt outside the conversation”. Another student said he spent a long time “looking for his group members in the different places, there was a lot of discussion and confusion about which of the resources to use to communicate.” However as our discussion then went to the possibility that the event could be more structured or even simplified in terms of the tools that need to be used to avoid these problems they did not think that was the way to go. “I like the openness said one boy”, “I liked the challenge of trying to influence the group and to try to take the lead at times, to try to make things happen”. I agree with the students conclusions, the openness of the structure and the flexibility meant that there were multiple pathways in terms of both communication and organisation for the teams and this supported self-direction and pushed the teams to consider different courses of action.

I thought the inclusion and timing of the visit to the local NGO projects brought the “opening up education” theme in at the ideal moment in the workshop. Having established the framework and mode of learning this then added a whole new context to the notion of flattening that the web and technology can offer. Obviously the virtual participants had to find other ways to explore this theme and that was where I did convene a discussion with the YIS students. As a group we then discussed the implications and possibilities of projects like the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ initiative that is bringing the internet to rural areas parts of India and Cambodia. The groups were clearly enthused by this element of the weekend and the discussions around their own projects seemed to lead into new areas after the visits.

I was watching the BBC series the “The Virtual Revolution” last week and this interview made me think of the flat classroom workshop approach and why it works.

The focus on communication, problem solving and collective intelligence ran through the workshop and I think gives us reason to be optimistic about where this type of project might take learning. Thank you so much to Vicki, Julie and the other organisers for all your hard work, skill and creativity in setting up and designing the workshop. I am moving back to Hanoi later this year to set up a new educational project which I hope will lead to further collaboration. I know the Yokohama tech team students are also very keen to be involved again next year.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2010 12:34 am

    I wasn’t able to be part of the Flat Classroom Workshop this time around because I was participating and presenting in the rest of the ASB Unplugged Conference, but I totally understand everything you and your students went through. Having led the FCW in Hong Kong, I walked away amazed and empowered by the possibilities of this kind of learning. The fact that your team, as virtual participants, were able to get just as much out of the experience clearly demonstrates how powerful it is. I hope you have the chance to attend one of the conferences in person soon! February 2011 in Beijing is the next one.

  2. Colin Campbell permalink*
    March 15, 2010 6:46 am


    Thanks for putting me on to the flat classroom workshop in the first place. Although we originally wanted to attend the actual conference itself it was, in some ways, just as interesting to see how virtual participation worked. I’m hopeful I’ll get to the Beijing conference and the students here at YIS would really like to stay involved.

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