Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mr. D Goes to MIT: Mapping, New Media and Education

In January, I participated in a one day "think tank" on mapping, new media and education as part of MIT's Project New Media Literacies (NML). I was invited by a fellow Teach for America alumnus because of my experience teaching social studies, this blog and my attempts to integrate new media into the classroom. The idea was to help lay the groundwork for an interdisciplinary teacher's guide on the topic.

Before the think tank, participants were asked to post anything that they think would be relevant to the conversation to Tumblr, an interactive multimedia blog platform that was the perfect vehicle for the kind of things we were to discuss. It was also very different from any professional development I've ever been involved with: it was done in an unconference format, which means there was no set agenda and no one was talking at us. Instead, breakout groups were formed based on what the participants thought was most important.

I was excited throughout the day to hear people talking about big ideas and diving into the topic at hand instead of using the unstructured format as an excuse to waste time. It was a full 9-5 day, but I've never had a less boring PD opportunity in my career.

Participants didn't limit themselves to asking about online resources to help students learn mapping and geography: They asked what exactly constitutes a map, what critical thinking skills we can teach through mapping, how it ties to every discipline, and most importantly its value in preparing students to be global citizens. There was a level of thought and discussion that you just don't see all that much as a classroom teacher, especially at PD workshops.

Emboldened by the openness of the proceedings, I did not shy away from contributing my thoughts and ideas throughout the day. Indeed, I was one of the most active posters in the week leading up to the conference. You can see the resources I posted (along with dozens more) on the NML Mapping Think Tank Tumblelog.

I came out of the conference buzzing with some big ideas. The number one thing I'd like to do, and basically plan on teaching myself how to do over the summer, is to use Google Maps to create something math teachers can use. For example, I don't see why you couldn't have a mashup where students see real life examples of the Pythagorean Theorem, but the possibilities are endless (see some of my related links on the tumblelog).

There was a downside to this otherwise amazing day. I was disappointed that by the end of the conference, despite my best efforts, I felt like the mission of creating practical materials to incorporate into a teacher's guide was buried under all of the big ideas and themes that we kept discussing. The graduate student who organized the conference said that she would base the guide around case studies of teachers already using this technology, which is a good start.

On the other hand--and I cannot understate this--if you don't give teachers ready-to-use ideas and show them how to easily implement them in a wide variety of classrooms, they will never use it. I felt that this central idea didn't get nearly the attention it deserved.

The guide in question will be developed over the next few months, and should be freely available online when it's ready. You'll be sure to find me following up on this at that point. In the meantime, explore the links on the think tank tumblelog and tell me what you think!