Thursday, April 17, 2008
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Note: This article was written and submitted roughly a decade ago to a very prominent journal put out by a leading Educational Technology professional organization. I was told, however, that although they liked it very much it didn’t fit their tight guidelines. In perspective though, it is more relevant now than ever before! Technology has not represented the revolution in teaching and learning that it should have. And one of the reasons for that I feel is that the kind of understanding shared in this piece has not been shared deeply and broadly enough. Also: see the accompanying slide show above.
Who was the last person to hold the clay smoking pipe that nestled in my palm? Was it a 17th century seaman? A Caribbean buccaneer?
I dipped the delicate artifact back in the tub of seawater sitting on the fieldlab table. I had been warned not to let it dry out, lest contact with dry air, after being submerged for over three hundred years, do it irreparable harm.
There were other questions dancing through my head as I sketched and cataloged the artifacts that the morning’s dive had yielded. Why had the vessel we were excavating blundered onto the shallow reef situated just a hundred yards off the deserted beach I was standing on? Would we discover where it had come from and what it had been doing in these waters?
Of all the many questions that filled my sunburned head those two weeks on Isla Cabrita, one plagued me the most. How could I share the extraordinary experience I was having with my students when I got back to the classroom in September?
I had been graciously awarded a fellowship to join Dr. Jerome Hall, Maritime Archaeologist, and his band of volunteers by Earthwatch, the wonderful organization that puts lay people in the field to work alongside real scientists as they do their research. My fellowship took me to the north coast of the Dominican Republic to participate in an expedition known as “The Mystery of the Pipe Wreck.”
The day’s activities included diving on the wreck to collect artifacts, working in the field lab, and doing the many chores needed to keep our primitive camp of canvas tents and picnic tables livable. My two weeks apprenticeship as a member of Indiana Jones’ fraternity was the most intense educational experience of my life. I was immersed in archaeology, diving, analysis and conservation of artifacts, Spanish language and Caribbean culture to name just a few of the disciplines our field study involved.
As a condition of the fellowship, I had promised to share my experience with my students. This, however, turned out to be much more challenging than anticipated when I applied. Certainly, I gave it my best shot. I showed my students photos I took on the expedition and engaged them in discussions about my experiences. I had them write their responses to the facts and ideas that emerged. I encouraged my students to formulate their own hypotheses about the Pipe Wreck and proposed methods to test them. In the end however, I had to admit to myself that while I may have offered my students an interesting unit loaded with value, I had not even come close to recreating my experience for them in class. There simply was no way to do it.
Fast-forward nine years. Flying home from the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) I passed the time by absent-mindedly browsing through a thick stack of software catalogs I had picked up at vendors’ booths. I had seen most of the titles before but one item in the back of the Sunburst brochure leaped off the page at me. As I read the description my jaw dropped. It was a piece of software entitled “Mystery of the Pipe Wreck.” I contacted the publisher as soon as I got home and tried to keep my mind on other things while I waited for it to come.
When the package arrived, I excitedly ripped open the wrapping and popped the CD into the drive of my computer. Soon, I was transported back to the summer of ’91. Staring out at me from the screen was my former tentmate Dr. Hall. I clicked on an icon and once again heard his voice explaining his field study to a neophyte underwater archaeologist. I clicked another and another, each one taking me through a stimulating and informative aspect of the project. Following my own inclinations, I wove my own path through a rich mosaic of possibilities. I worked with the software to create an experience that was unique to my needs and preferences as a learner. It was exhilarating. Before I knew it, the rest of the morning had passed. Unexpectedly, the question that had nagged me so long ago had finally been answered.
Over the past few years I have sampled a great many software offerings and seen a great many that provide instructional value. Some titles offer alternative approaches to presenting material and some, ways to enrich teaching and learning. In my serendipitous experience with the Pipe Wreck however, I have been given an important insight into a unique and powerful aspect of presenting content digitally. The re-creation of complex, open-ended experiences, the kind of thing that well constructed, multi-media supported software does so well, simply can’t be accomplished easily any other way. Such software represents a unique resource, and one that provides a very profound level of understanding, at that.
This piece is obviously perfect for teachers interested in fleshing out social studies units that deal with the Age of Exploration and the Colonial Period in the new world. The software represents a technology application that is exciting, appropriate, and that speaks to the multiple intelligence needs of young learners. What is especially compelling about this instructional tool is the opportunity it offers to make social studies interdisciplinary, not only through the usual alignment with Language Arts, but by linking it to Science as well.
Students I have worked with responded very enthusiastically to the task of formulating their own hypothesis as to why the ship sank. Broken up into collaborative groups, they presented their ideas to the whole class holding themselves accountable for supporting the hypothesis with facts they gleaned from the information provided them and their own research. These presentations are perfect opportunities for students to practice making formal presentations that are supported by “slide shows” powered by LCD projectors. In addition to the text they generate for these, supportive visual materials can be personally drawn and scanned, generated with a drawing/painting program, or mined from the software or related web sites they discover. Working with presentation software this way can be a very rich experience that has students employ almost as many skills and areas of knowledge as did the scientists who worked on the Pipe Wreck excavation.
Whenever I launch this software I am instantly transported to a magical place under the undulating Caribbean. There, amidst the coral reef, Dr. Hall and I and countless young partners are making an important discovery. We are finding a new way to fire youthful imaginations and educate young minds. I know I’ll be back, again and again. Care to join us?
Mark Gura, DirectorOffice of Instructional TechnologyBoard of Education of the City of New York
Author’s Bio:Mark Gura is the Director of the Office of Instructional Technology for the public schools of New York City. He has taught and done staff development for practically every subject from Fine arts to Science during his 26-year career as an educator. Mr. Gura has traveled throughout New York City assisting the staffs of numerous schools in their efforts to integrate computers into the instructional program. This broad-based background qualifies him to head up the city’s initiatives to make the computer an important part of every student’s education.
(above accurate at time this was written)