Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Learning from Pirate Communities - Treasure in the Classroom

As per usual, I'll do my best to tie this whole thing to pirates. So, readers, are you skeptical as to my ability to bring together pirates, a Web 2.0 classroom, discovery-based learning, buried treasure, and constructive criticism from one of my students?

Well, I challenge you to read on, my friends.

The Situation...

A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in the Sauder School of Business's e-learning "play day." Okay, it's not like they just called me up because of my stylish, gumbooty notoriety; I work in the school's Business Career Centre and manage the career component of the Early Career Masters program. Some wonderful and, I gotta say, pretty darn brilliant colleagues, Denise, Rob and Vivian, needed a classroom facilitator to, I kid you not, "walk the plank" and test out some of Sauder's new classroom technology. So, I stepped up and presented a career development workshop called Managing your Online Presence. It was sent to Denise a week or so before, and she infused it with technology and ideas that, well, basically made the workshop better. We were ready to roll.

I showed up to the coolest and most amazing classroom in which I've ever taught. Video screens and giant monitors covered the walls. Flat screen tvs were like bookends on the tables/desks. And the lectern was equipped with enough widgets, microphones, cameras, screens, and flashing lights to make Captain Kirk and James Bond horribly jealous. Two groups of students were participating. One group was located right in front of me at the Robson Square Campus, the other was "beaming-in" from UBC Point Grey. I was mic'd up. Palms were sweaty. The video feed went live. And I was thrown - albeit with amazing tech-support - into e-learning at the University of British Columbia.

Now, I'm tech-savvy, sure, but I gotta say that I was a bit out of my comfort zone during this experience. Live, streaming video beamed me into the Point Grey classroom as I went through my lesson. Using their laptops, students could race online to solve problems I gave them and conduct five-minute-research on questions I asked. There were iClickers (cool tools for ongoing, interactive engagement that is basically a virtual multiple choice test). There were headsets and microphones. Denise and Rob prepped me for using the Wimba Classroom (approachable, intuitive and in possession of several wonderfully distracting bells and whistles), and, when I inevitably hit a wall, they were there to help. Basically, Wimba allowed for a digitally collaborative classroom, where students could share ideas with instant messages, draft lists and presentations with a wiki/whiteboard and tackle assignments in small groups with the breakout rooms. Sure, it all got messy (headsets worked, then failed, then worked, but the student was in another room by that time; then everyone realized that they could draw funny pictures of me on the whiteboard!), but it was the first time any of us had seen this experience go live and, hey, we all saw the potential.

Teachers of the world. Students of today learn differently than you did; even than I did. It's getting more competitive to fill up postsecondary classrooms (let alone do it in a meaningful way with an engaged and responsive audience). So, if you are interested in (and hopefully excited about) seeing students use laptops in class for things other than updating Facebook, shopping online and/or various other endeavours to twitblog the interscape, keep reading and get ready to embrace some creative, student-led solutions to a nineteenth-century problem! Needless to say, with players like Vivian, Rob and Denise - not to mention internationally renowned faculty - Sauder is on the way to solving this problem.

Learning from Pirate Communities

So the story goes, pirate communities rejected "the system" in (or under) which they were expected to live. They also buried treasure. Let's explore these ideas.

In 1573, Sir Francis Drake - an English privateer or "corsair" who made life pretty miserable for Spanish merchants from Europe to, allegedly, Vancouver Island - collaborated with several French pirates and about a dozen escaped slaves - or cimarrones - and hijacked a Spanish mule train loaded with gold, silver and precious gems. According to Samuel Bawlf, Drake, his crew, Le Testu (leader of the French sailors), and the cimarrones smartly ambushed the Spanish traders at the Campos River, about "two leagues" from the town of Nombre de Dios. Working together, they kept quiet and, under their massive loads of booty, staggered to their ships, which were hidden in the mouth of the Rio Francisco. How much, um, booty were they staggering under? Well, "in gold alone the raiders had seized some 100,000 pesos (the peso was worth eight shillings three pence of English money)...and including gems and what silver they managed to recover, the total value of the haul was likely in excess of £40,000." And here's the kicker: Drake and his boys stole over 15 tons of silver. Obviously all of this loot couldn't fit on board their ships. So, they buried and hid the treasure in the forest around the Campos River. The point is that although stories like Treasure Island have romanticized the uncommon occurance of pirates actually burying treasure, it did happen, with Drake and Captain Kidd being the most notorious of booty-buriers.

A recent article in The Independent by Johann Hari suggests that modern day pirates, like their historic brothers and sisters, have rejected today's unequal, corrupt and punishing global "system." Hari cites the last words of William Scott, a pirate hanged in Charleston, South Carolina during the Golden Age of Piracy: "What I did was to keep me from perishing. I was forced to go a-pirateing to live." Fast-forward to 1991 in Somalia, where the country collapsed and, according to Hari, the worst-of-the-worst in the Western world saw this power-vacuum as a perfect opportunity to steal Somalia's food supply (over fishing) and use the region as a dumping ground for nuclear waste ("yes: nuclear waste," says Hari - cadium and mercury were also, allegedly, thrown in the mix). Hari interviewed Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, who claims that "there has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention." Recent findings also show than in excess of $300 US in shellfish is being stolen from the Somali coast by illegal trawlers. Yes, many - or most - of the pirates are gangsters. No, this doesn't make hostage-taking okay. But also keep in mind that life, the universe and everything is a subjective experience. And also recognize that a new system has emerged in Somalia, as, according to the independent Somali news site WardheerNews, 70 percent of of Somalis "strongly supported piracy as a form of national defense." Heck, another term for "Somali Pirates," according to the "Somali Pirates," is "the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia." The old system failed Somalia, and people in the region need something different to sustain themselves.

Long story short. I argue that students - like pirates swashbuckling through societies in and around Somalia, Nigeria, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Singapore, and Haiti that no longer recognize their governments as part of a fair and equitable global "system" of organization - are rejecting the classroom system. They also like finding/discovering treasure.

"Make us Your Treasure Hunting Corsairs"

The above quote is from one of my students, Anton Rudenko, who also participated in the e-learning "play day." As educators, I think we've been forcing learners into a nineteenth-century paradigm for long enough. Now. I'm smart enough to know a good idea when I see one (they come from everywhere, you know). Anton has a good one:

"You can even consider presenting the whole career program to students next year as a game," he said. "It could involve a treasure hunt adventure for your students. They are corsairs and the treasure is their job. You can call it "career quest", and develop a point system with different activities worth a certain amount of points (gold coins?)." Hopefully he's kidding on the last part, but the young man keeps on describing this outside-the-box approach to career development. "Information interviews would be worth a lot of points. Each information interview would be a 'captured ship carrying a piece of the map that leads to the treasure.' So if you capture enough of them, you will eventually put the map together, and get the treasure." Multi-facetted, multi-levelled kinds of discovery, honestly, blew my mind. And then he brought it all home: "I think it's a pretty cool analogy. You can go crazy with this. But then of course you are running the risk of students getting addicted to the game and skipping lectures :-)" Well said and, hey, what would a note from Generation Y be without an emoticon?!

Great idea. It's got edutainment, experiential learning and is a student-driven collaboration with the instructor. Sure, there are kinks (ie. this pirate thing may or may not be desperately unprofessional and will need to be re-visited by a certain Editor-in-Chief one day soon), but it's something on which we can collaborate.

Here is why a student-centred, democratic classroom involving "treasure hunting" strategies is so important:

Equality: recent findings from an up-and-coming "newspaper," the Globe and Mail suggest that un-equal communities fail to flourish and meet their potential. The classroom is no different. Great ideas come from everywhere. Even from students. Belay that. Especially from students. There is so much information out there that we cannot expect a "balanced" and "fair" and, to be honest, "accurate" assessment to come for just one person and/or source. So, encourage them to plug-in, engage and explore the myriad of online resources that exist within the maze of pipes and tubes that is the internet. Pirates chose to be pirates, in large part, because a career in the merchant marine and/or Royal Navy was too authoritarian for them to flourish as people and professionals. Providing a student-centred, collaborative environment for our learners engages them on an, ahem, equal playing field.

Technology: this is a generation that has been bathed in bits. During the classroom technology "play day," there were moments when, in a split second, a picture or resource found online was copied by a student, pasted on the digital whiteboard, studied by the entire class (simultaneously at two campuses), and discussed by the group (simultaneously at two campuses). Amazing. These mediums allow learners to access and present information at lightspeed, which adds value - and dimensions - to everyone's experience in the classroom. Further, if educators don't embrace technology - as well as encourage students to embrace it - then it will be the medium they use to tune out from what we say. Sending them on "missions" or "quests" with their computers, phones and iPods is much more effective then telling learners to turn off their media and pay attention.

Discovery-based Learning:
I talk too much. Partly because I love being the centre of attention. Partly because, when it comes to career development, I'm emerging as an expert. Wow. Talk about a dangerous combination for a classroom, eh? No wonder students don't always pay attention for the full two hours of my workshops! Recent findings suggest that students today can't pay attention for very long (they've/we've taken breaks while reading this article to text a friend about the article, make a YouTube video, blog about the NBA playoffs, and purchase food/clothing/term-papers online). For true, pure engagement, we need to make them captains of their own ship and give them personalized autonomy that will allow them to customize their learning experience. Allowing them to discover their education for themselves is the key, my friends. Students should be pirates (Editor's note: wait, no, that's stupid. We here at The Gumboot do not in any way condone students or graduates to become pirates or embrace piracy). But think about Anton's multi-levelled, collaborative, discovery based concept of "the treasure hunt" as you take steps towards planning your next lesson. We provide the map. They discover the treasure.

Trust me. Pirates or not, when you push your comfort zone you'll have fun with it. And you'll learn a lot, too.


No comments: