Connecting Learning to Real World Problem Solving

For the past ten years Mimo Ito and the Connected Learning Research Network have looked at how young people learn. They realized that there were three overlapping spheres – interests, opportunities, and relationships. At the center of these three spheres is “Connected Learning.” I discovered this powerful look at student learning through my work with the Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh. I used some of the principles to develop a series of Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center of Pittsburgh. Recently Mimo Ito and Connected Learning Research team published an updated report on their findings – Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship.

According to Mimi Ito there are three outcomes that demonstrate when Connected Learning occurs:

  • The project sponsors or legitimizes the interests of diverse youth;
  • The learners are engaged in shared practices, e.g. solving real world problems;
  • Learning is connected across settings through brokering and coordination.

Let’s look at each one of these outcomes through the lens of a series of Design Challenges that students in the Parkway West Consortium of Schools participated during the 2019-20 school year.

Learning based on Interests

When I first approach the schools in the Parkway West Consortium, I give them choices. Each of the choices is based on a real-world problem that the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) has identified as a problem where they want high school students to provide fresh insights. The schools receive their first or second choice. Each school approaches this in a slightly different way. One school might look at a course that has a fit. Another school might consider an after-school club or activity group. Another school might open the Design Challenge to any students to who have an interest. In each case students participate based on their interests. For instance: South Fayette High School decided to participate in the “Gems of the Hill District” Design Challenge. They outlined the responsibilities and let students from three classes choose to participate. It was not a required activity. It was based on students’ interest in the Design Challenge.

Engaging in Shared Practices

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

One of the keys for successful connected learning is focusing on real world problems. The EIC each year looks at problems where students might provide valuable ideas. For example: several years ago the EIC developed a Design Challenge around new LEED certification directions to take the building. Even though, the EIC had a platinum status, the management team realized that there were more sustainable opportunities. One of the teams, from Montour High School, focused on the need for more living plants within the building. The student consulting team developed a prototype for a green wall for Innovation Hall, one of the spaces at the EIC.

During the summer of 2019 the EIC management team decided to build on the original idea that Montour had developed and implemented at their high school. This time the high school student consultants from Montour, Chartiers Valley, and Parkway West Career and Technology Center were asked to develop a prototype for a “Mobile Green Wall.”

Learning is Connected Across Settings

The “Mobile Green Wall” provides great examples how the students had to collaborate and work as three teams to solve a real-world problem. The Chartiers Valley team worked on the schematics for the prototype using CAD-based software. The team from Montour focused on the plants and the environmental needs that would be part of the design. The student consultants from Parkway West constructed a metal scale model that incorporated Chartiers Valley’s design incorporating Montour’s recommendations. The student consulting teams had to broker and coordinate their ideas. Quite honestly, there was a time when it didn’t look like the pieces were going to fit together. However, the students persevered and ended up with a prototype that will be used by the Energy Innovation Center in the future.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

XR in K-12

While we value real-world experiences and problems for students we sometimes realize that we need to create a world in order for students to have greater success, test out ideas in a more safe environment, or explore worlds that they cannot see, hear, or process without technology. Today the worlds of virtual reality, augmented reality, 360 degree experiences, and simulations are grouped together as “Extended Reality” (XR). How are K-12 schools offering experiences for students to explore and create using XR? 

Voyage Project with Cornell Middle School

In 2018 students from the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) began to work with the Cornell Middle School, located about ten miles from Pittsburgh, on a STEM project. The educators at Cornell wanted to create an immersive experience for their students. According to the project website, “Voyage is a multiuser mobile virtual reality (VR) experience for Google Daydream that allows students to go on virtual field trips in which they immersively explore a deciduous forest biome. The experience is designed to be undertaken in a middle-school classroom and facilitated by a teacher using a tablet computer. Through this project, we explored different interaction techniques used to promote collaboration among students as well as between the students and the teacher.”

Susan Donnell, the science teacher from Cornell, explained the importance for this type of experience for her students who don’t have an opportunity to experience a wide variety of places. “It’s invaluable to take them some place. Even it’s virtual reality.”

According to Chris Hupp, the Director of Technology for the Cornell School District, “The project did give us a glimpse into the future. Some challenges include the number of students able to participate at the same time as well as the teacher trying to monitor students in a virtual space and physical space at the same time. The team developed an app on an iPad so the teacher didn’t need to put a headset on to see what the students were doing. “

Virtual Tour of Sewickley Academy campus

Student creating animation – Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Erin Whitaker, middle school Technology Coordinator and Teacher, for Sewickley Academy, an independent school located about ten miles from Pittsburgh, wanted to provide a collaborative learning experience for middle school students. She searched for a tool that would allow for a collaborative experience where students would be able to combine 360 degree photos, programming, animation, and research to create an animation. She discovered CoSpacesEDU, a software tool that provides all the tools for teams of students to produce a virtual or augmented reality product.

Erin divided the project into phases. Each student selected a part of the campus to research. The students created 360 degree photos for their campus section. Finally, the students had to include an animated guide to talk about the campus area. All of the individual projects were saved as one large file into CoSpacesEDU and then combined to generate a school-wide tour. For the final phase the students will share their tours with a real audience at the Grandparents and Special Friends Day at the end of the trimester.

Copyright and Fair Use: A Personal Story

As the Coordinator of Educational Technology for the Fox Chapel Area School District I developed a series of interactive activities for all new staff members addressing copyright and fair use. It was important that every educator understood their personal issues as well as how the issues impacted her classroom instruction. I never expected I would have to deal with this issue from a personal perspective.

What happened? In 2018 I received an email and then a letter from a Canadian firm that licenses photographs. They claimed I had used a copyright image on my website without permission. They wanted me to pay for the use of the image. I was taken back and went to the webpage in question on my own website. I could not find the image. Instead, I observed that there were four images on the page for whom I owned the copyright. Then, I went to my library of graphics. Could I have downloaded the image and used it in an earlier version? No, that wasn’t the case.

I started to talk with friends and colleagues about what I should do. Most said, “Do nothing. They’ll forget about you.” Well, that didn’t happen. A week after the initial contact,  I received a letter from law firm representing the photo agency indicating that there were seeking payment for my “digression.” Then a representative from the law firm called me. This really upset me. I felt like I was being harassed for something that really was not illegal. Then a second call came. I decided it was time to get legal counsel to delve into this issue.

The attorney and I did some virtual research and the attorney found the original story I had posted. The story included the photo I had supposedly used in violation of copyright law. The photo in question was part of a story about a Japanese robot. The image appeared as “thumbnail” in the list of most recent Posts in the sidebar on my website. We believed that I had not violated copyright law and could possibly be covered by the Fair Use part of the Copyright Law.

How could I be covered? During those years when I conducted my Copyright and Fair Use workshops for the Fox Chapel Area School District I did research on the topic. I came across an article from the Stanford School of Law that outlined what I called the “PANE” factors for Fair Use. PANE stands for Purpose, Amount, Nature, and Effect. I would tell my audience, “Limit your “PANE” by following some simple guidelines. Let’s look at how this framework relates to my issue.

The Purpose for my posting was to “curate” an article in order to share with my audience of followers something that I thought would be of interest to them. I have over 900 people who follow me on Twitter. Most are educators who have similar interests about emerging technologies. In addition, I’m the co-chair of the Emerging Technologies Committee for the Consortium of Schools Network (CoSN), an organization for educational technology leaders. I write articles and do presentations on topics, such as Emerging Technologies.

The Amount deals with the percentage of the original work you use. Normally you can only use 10% of a resource to stay within the Fair Use realm. In this case, it’s moot, since there was only one image. When I worked with educators I had them think about using a part of a piece of music or a section of a paper or poem. In this case, there is a point that is relevant. The photography was part of an article. I did not just post the image. I posted an article that contained the image. Moreover, I did not post multiple copyright images. I only posted the story that contained the image in question.

The Nature is another important point. In this case it’s a bit muddy. After a second round of investigations, I discovered that I posted the story based on information from another company, TechTerra. I copied into my story information that TechTerra shared that included the copyright image.

The Effect is also very important.  My audience read the article with the incorporated photo and increased their knowledge of a unique use of robotics. The effect did not limit the market impact of the photographer or agency that owned the image.

I’d like to share this story so other educators can better understand the issues and think about how they are addressing Fair Use and Copyright. In addition, I want to stand up for my rights and use what James Comey calls “Ethical Leadership.” According to James Comey, it’s critical to use standards or outside frameworks that provide guidance to be an effective leader. I’m a strong supporter of a set of standards developed by an international technology organization called ISTE. It’s important that all educators have a framework for Digital Citizenship. I believe I’m modeling what a good Digital Citizen should do – stand up for your rights by demonstrating your knowledge of Fair Use and Copyright and don’t give in to companies seeking to make money in a questionable manner.