Case Study: Adapting a Rick Steves Travel Story for an eLearning Assignment

Editor’s Note: I wrote this post in the winter of 2019, when a polar vortex descended on the lower forty-eight, making it too cold to venture out of homes.  That was when eLearning was a short-term plan.  With the advent of the COVID-19 virus, I have changed my workflow for meeting students virtually every week (for six weeks now), but I still wanted to see this piece published.

The winter of 2019 was a cold one. The term “polar vortex” had not been en vogue since 2014, but now it was back, and the effects were the same: cabin fever, restlessness, and students actually missing (in a sentimental way) school. But this year, the one-to-one (one device for every student) allowed eLearning to offer an alternative to braving the elements.

One of the first Chromebooks issued to students at our school.

Each student in our school system is now equipped with an HP Chromebook which allows teachers to conduct eLearning days when the weather is so inclement that kids can’t come to school. We did not have that in 2014, so those days had to be made up with built-in snow days and at the end of the year in June.

With eLearning, teachers use the Canvas LMS to offer lessons and keep students on pace. Though kids like to talk about how they do not enjoy it, the program has offered successful instruction when there would otherwise be no instruction or learning.  Not only do students not have to make up days at the end of the year, but eLearning does give them something to do when after they have awakened from their long winter’s nap (and the video games have given out,).

The Canvas LMS (Learning Management System) offers students, teachers, administrators, and parents a framework for many elements of public education.

It feels odd to be writing about winter at the start of summer, but I remember the weather being so bleak that I wanted to get my kids traveling in my last eLearning assignment. Few people travel better than the host of the PBS series, Rick Steves’ Europe.  I enjoy his narrations (on our local PBS affiliate, WNIT) as well as his cinematography. Watching his program is like actually going to that destination, and I wanted that experience for my students.

The idea came to me the previous day when his RS CLASSROOM post showed up in my feed, so I thought I would try it out, in my own way of course.  Here is what I learned from it.

Begin with a module

Using a module for an eLearning day is an effective way to put all the activities in one place.

Modules allow teachers to organize the content of a unit to direct students through the instruction. You can add all kinds of content, such as info pages, videos, assignments, quizzes, discussions, and more. My first step was to create a module to contain all the resources students would experience on this eLearning day.  That gave me more control over the student experience.  In addition to specific assignments with specific instructions, I could program the module so that it dictated the order in which students completed the exercises.  By using this feature of the LMS module, I could help students build on early information as they proceeded.

Keeping their Learning Active

Using images, humor, and direct references to the original source increase the odds for student success.

The module organizes assignments so students progress through a series of instructional exercises.  In these exercises, you will want to stimulate thinking in students by challenging them to be active. Use of a “set and get” approach should be limited to when it is necessary for students to  acquire new information, and even then, its use should be sparing.  The more hands-on and student-centered, the better.

Using images, humor, and direct references to the original source increase the odds for student success.

For this assignment, I asked students to begin by watching the two and a half minute story,  Sicily’s Bony Capuchin Crypt,  which I followed up with a ten question quiz. This is a pretty straightforward approach, and for some students, the quiz is the fun part of the exercise. Whether it is or is not, it is a way of keeping the learning active for them, and that is what they need when they are sitting at home.

Make it hands-on

Using the cloud to create a “bin” of media assets allows instructors to share an organized folder with students. Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, and others allow sharing of images, video and audio clips.

If the module serves as an organizing principle, a map to the content, then “the cloud” serves as the bin, or the container of the content.  The content is made up of the assignments in this project-based learning (PBL).  Like any PBL, students experience the creative side of the content.  First they apprehend the whole, then they experience it in parts, deconstructed, and then they can experience building a new project out of the dissembled parts. Media assets become manipulatives.  Software titles become extensions of their hands and their minds. Vision emerges on a screen, yes, but it is through manipulation and creativity that students engage in constructive sense-making. I took screenshots (screen-grabs, individual frames) from the Steves story, and then I shared them with students.

Templates can be Avenues to Success

The two-column script template makes a nice study guide, notes sheet, or multimedia script to help students begin making their own multimedia.

Depending on the level of the class or whether it is an elective or core class, I offer students leveled challenges to make additional meaning of the story they have encountered.  No matter what, however, I almost always start with some sort of template. It is a starting point for students who do not know what to do next, and for the students who take it, adapt it, and make something totally their own, it is a springboard for learning.

Whatever I ask students to do with note-taking, script-writing, story-editing, or even story-annotation, having it laid out in front of them in a manner such as the two-columned script offers students a great deal of flexibility when it comes to making meaning out of content. In the case of this trip to Sicily, it allows them to make more of their trip to the Mediterranean.

Be Present

Creating a two-column template for students, offers them an easy way to get right to work on the assignment. All they have to do is make a copy, rename it, and then start editing.

You will do well to place many scaffolds in the assignment to help students succeed at this work. However, no matter how airtight you make it, there will be questions.  There will be times when students are confused, concerned, and unable to proceed.  At those times, they will reach out to you, and you have to be present and responsive.

Being responsive means being in touch in a timely fashion. When you offer students an opportunity to be creative, you are also inviting the potential for confusion. Not everybody will read your directions as you intended them. Not every student will be on the same page as that student who always seems to get at what you are asking for. And of course, not every student will be motivated to do much more than the bare minimum, which can mean not reading directions fully. As an instructor, it is your job to help each of those students find their success in your module, in your classroom, and in completing the work people ask of them.

Peer Discussion

With most modules, I include an opportunity for students to write to one another about what they are learning.  Not only does this written discourse help them answer questions about the content, but it gives them opportunity to put ideas and learning into writing, an effective learning strategy.  Though some might call ‘written discussion’ low stakes writing, I have learned over the years that that is not the case at all. Students are very aware of their audience, and though not in all cases, in many cases they write for that audience thoughtfully.  Posts, responses, and nested micro-discussions become opportunities for students to engage one another when they would otherwise be sitting home alone.

Embrace Divergence

By being present, you will be in touch with your students.  They will alert you to confusing aspects, to errors you have made (nonfunctional links, unshared documents, etc.), and they will offer you an direct and indirect feedback on your class and what they think of it.  If they are challenged, stimulated, and productive, you will know it.  (If they are not, you may never know.)

When they are, you can expect to see work that is both stimulating and successful.  That will vary from student to student, class to class, but if you are working hard to make the most of your mutual experience, they will meet you there. You will know who is achieving, who is not, and the myriad of home-learners in-between.

This is the script to the story students watched on Youtube. I included a link to this on the quiz so that students could go back and read/confirm what they thought they heard.
Steves provided great hosting and translating services in this 2:39 story.
English students can focus on content of story while media students can focus on production values and how they were produced.

Published by: Kevin McNulty

Kevin McNulty is a language and media teacher at the secondary level. He also makes films and presentations. Some of his topics include: writing instruction, teaching multilingual learners, project-based learning, showcase portfolios, and educational technology. He manages his school’s television studio and helps students and fellow teachers craft mass media messages. Kevin holds a BA in English from Indiana University and an MA in English from Middlebury College. Find out more at ktmcnulty.com or follow him @ktmcnulty.

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