I recently spent a few days working with 25 4-H youth in a program focused (loosely) on digital storytelling. This is the fourth year I’ve conducted this program and I always intend to gather my thoughts afterwards in some sort of coherent fashion – but it always seems to slip away from me. This is my attempt to frame some coherent thoughts, reflections and questions around my experience conducting this workshop.
I deeply believe that technology can be empowering and, in the best of circumstances, transformative in its usage. It is the foundation from which I work, it is the hope that empowers me when I undertake this workshop. In the 12+ years I have been engaged with youth through this program (previous years focused on web development and/or mobile devices with the transition 4 years ago to digital storytelling) I have seen glimpses of transformation in some of the kids I’ve been fortunate to work with. But I am coming to think this has less to do with the tools we use, and much more to do with creating a space that supports the process. It may seem obvious, but it has taken me a while to come to this understanding, to actually work from this understanding.
So it may be better to say I deeply believe in the potential of technology to be a useful tool for empowerment and transformation. The same can be said of poetry, theater, etc…the tool is the tool. The space and method of working with the tool can be supportive of exploration, discovery and transformation (with the converse always being true, as well). So it all comes down to intent – my intent when approaching this workshop.
That being said…
Having good tools to work with makes it far easier to keep intention in mind. Less time spent troubleshooting, working with multiple quirks, searching for specific cables and so on, means more time spent interacting with (and supporting) actual productive “work”. In years past I’ve worked with whatever I could lay hands on – which usually meant a mish-mash of video and still cameras of varying pedigree – leading to incompatibilities and wondrous challenges focused on just getting content off the menagerie of devices. This is obviously less than optimal.
And the physical environment can present its own challenges. At various times I’ve held sessions in labs, computer labs and the lobby of a library. Last year we used a collaborative center within one of the libraries here on campus. The collab center was built to facilitate shared work (unsurprisingly) and has flexible partitions, whiteboards and reasonable setting. Being in a library is interesting. Kids have been trained to silence in libraries and even though the collab center is positioned to allow for more activity and noise there is still the ambience of library. My experience is that this helps settle things down much more rapidly when chaos begins to creep in. A simple reminder that we are in a library is often enough to moderate voices, to diminish ‘horseplay’. (And I realize this makes me sound somewhat…aged, if not downright ancient. But after 4 or 5 hours of working together it’s very easy for the chaotic trickster spirit to be evoked with little effort. I want to maintain just enough of the trickster energy to foster creativity and engagement, but don’t want to have it slide over into unfocused chaos.)
This year my group was able to work with ten tablets for content capture and some creation. These tablets are part of a larger project in which NYS 4-H is participating. I pre-configured the tablets so that they all had the same apps and a connection to a shared dropbox account. The tablets were set to automatically upload images and videos to the shared account.
My hope was that a shared account would make it possible for some groups of kids to be out capturing content while others remained in our collaborative center able to download and work with the content. This should lead to a much more rapid production cycle. It would also allow groups to sub-divide and have one or two members out in the field while one or two we able to work on a desktop pc editing.
I was somewhat skeptical of the tablets as capture devices. I have an iPad and have used it to capture some video and was not overly impressed with the quality – it was adequate but does not work for me as a video camera replacement. So I was interested to see what these new tablets could do.
I will also admit to some reservations about the potential of the tablets as distraction. There was nothing to stop any of the kids from downloading games or other apps from the Google store. And the display is quite nice and we all know YouTube can provide hours of distraction, should you so desire.
So I distributed the tablets and was hopeful, but not overly optimistic, that they would provide more utility than distraction.
Look! A squirrel…
We broke into 5 groups with topical foci. 25 is a large number of teens to work with and my prior experiences have always lead me to believe that at least one of my groups will ‘check out’ pretty early into the program. So I anticipated, and within the first hour had already identified my ‘disinterested participants’. And again, with a group that large I expected some chaos accompanied by whispered reprimands or icy glares from annoyed library patrons.
There is always an interesting degree of diversity in the kids who choose to participate in my workshops. In many ways it is a fair representation of the diversity of New York State, drawing from rural, suburban and urban 4-H clubs. At least 3 or 4 are fairly fully digitally literate, bring a solid technical skillset to the group. All of the kids are socially networked. Without overstating the obvious – this is a radical change from just 5 years ago.
Whether you love or hate Facebook, it does facilitate a baseline level of digital literacy. It may not be a comprehensive literacy (think about issues around data security here) but it does support skills for creating and posting content online. Couple this with the increasingly pervasive presence of smartphones being used to capture images and video and our teens now have a fairly robust creation and production skillset in use, which is woven through many of their daily activities.
The novelty factor was in play for the first 15 minutes of use. Mastering the interface was no great struggle. The tablets we were working with use the Android OS which was familiar to some of the kids from their phones. Functionality across an Android and iPad tablet are similar enough to not be an impediment to effective use.
I also need to note the ability of technology to act as a buffer and mediator. I’ve seen this happen in many different contexts. Placing a piece of technology in the middle of an unacquainted and mixed group and asking them to use the technology can bridge boundaries very rapidly. This initial focal point is neutral (in some ways) and allows participants to get to know each other as they explore the tool.
There is also a process of peer learning and teaching that can unfold in the right conditions. Some of the more technically adept kids can help other learn how to use the new tool. This draws out sometimes reticent participants, and values their contributions which can be obscured by the more socially outgoing participants. This process of relationship building can be encouraged as part of the facilitation process, but it cannot be enforced. Trust, confidence in the workshop and a receptiveness by all to work together are necessary elements that can cultivate an atmosphere of peer learning and teaching.
Tablets as capture devices
I use my iPad primarily as a consumption device. My few attempts to use it for video have been disappointing, at best. Personal experience has lead me to conclude my smartphone is a better device for media capture. I find it easier to hold steady and movement is fairly fluid with the smaller form factor.
So, my expectations for high quality, usable, video being captures on the tablet was low. I came prepared with several handheld video cameras, considering them more appropriate to the task at hand. I expected the bulk of video that would be used would come from the video cameras, with the tablets contributing small clips or images.
My expectations were consistently confounded during the course of our workshop – and this was no exception. The kids were adept at handling the tablets, video cameo out crisp and clear, and the audio quality was very good. A lot of usable content. As a matter of fact, the bulk of the content used in the videos we produced were captured using the tablets.
There was also a spontaneity in using the tablets that is missing or more difficult to achieve with a traditional video camera. Sometimes people react unnaturally once a camera lens is turned on them – they ‘act’ for the camera. The tablets seem to moderate this effect, to a degree. And the capture ability is always there with a tablet. It is a matter of switching apps, not pulling out a separate device and intruding into whatever space the kids are working in.
And there is the familiarity factor. A tablet is (in some ways) a large smartphone. With the introduction of Vine (which was surprisingly popular with some of the kids) spontaneously grabbing video is just a normal everyday activity. This ‘habit’ of capture and go is a beginning, but only that. It is like a moving still picture – a snapshot, discrete and unconnected. To intentionally capture and weave together video, images, and sounds into a story is missing from this process.
Bracketing out a challenging issue
Having a topic is a kind of starting point. Having something meaningful to say, or ask, is a larger challenge. This is the gap with video snapshots. They are spontaneous but often without intent. Intent demands some reflection and grasp of where one stands in the world. This issue of intent is another chapter, a whole universe which has been explored deeply by others and which demands its own exploration beyond the scope of this document (which started out intending to be a somewhat concise blog post).
Finally. Trying to wrap this up
I wanted to capture a few thoughts and reflections, but obviously opened a can of worms. I hope to revisit this topic soon. Weed through and sort out a bit more of the issues and opportunities. Some – perhaps most- of what I’ve said is not news, but it is my attempt to order and understand what happened over the course of three days. Some things have been left dangling and I haven’t even begun to encounter some of the pedagogical underpinnings, aspirations and challenges that work of this type surfaces. Nor have I undertaken any rants about the rhetoric around tablets (or any technology) ‘revolutionizing’ education. But that is coming, sometime soon.