Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Transparency in project presentations

Listening to project presentation at the recent AEC-NET conference made me think about how best to demonstrate what a project really was about.

I can still vividly remember the first international school projects that I participated in in the late 90s. In those days online tools available for us teachers here in Finland were still scarce. All communication between schools in different countries was carried out through email - or even by fax (what on earth is fax??!!!). A lot of the student email exchanges were thus out of bounds to the teachers, who didn't really know how much and what their students were discussing. The main goal of a project in those days was to produce some kind of 'end product'. In most cases there was a common theme, each group in each participating school worked on their own to produce something and these products were then compiled together - often in the form of a booklet or a webpage. I would claim that the compilation of the final product was more often than not done solely by teachers - partly due to our ambition and perfectionism to secure a respectable and good-looking outcome.

I have been there, too. Back in 2001, I and two colleagues spent the first week of our summer holiday calculating the results of a student survey in our first-ever EU Comenius project. We then drew conclusions, spent several days writing the text and creating the lay-out of pages of the booklet, before finally taking it to the printers to produce this:

The book did have drawings made by students, and one student had created the graphs, but in the end it was a teachers' creation. I can't deny that we did learn a lot while doing it - for example, that 'Word' is NOT the software to use for page lay-out creation. But we could have learned all this WITH our students.

Later on, with the emergence of various online platforms, student participation has gradually increased. Yet, I would still like to learn and hear what really goes on behind the scenes of protected online platforms. Many teachers make marvellous presentations showcasing their final products, but don't really highlight what each student's role, contribution and learning process was. To tell you the truth, I sometimes wonder whether any student interaction took place at all, and whether it was still just a repetition of the old 'each group working on their own in their own country' approach.

My aim and focus has always been to develop and enhance students' interaction. I was more than pleased after being awarded the AEC award in Malaysia, when many colleagues came to tell me how good it was that they could actually understand what had concretely been done in the project. Our final product wasn't really worth boasting about a lot, but then I believe in the importance of the PROCESS. 'Being on the road', as I tried to illustrate with my presentation analogy with travelling. What I want to focus on in each project presentation is some snippets from students' interactions that somehow show what they have learned together. Sometimes these may seem like rather trivial, insignificant discussions, but may actually contain meaningful flashes of insight into intercultural communication.

I am beginning to believe more and more that open online tools bring the long-awaited transparency into international projects.

The wikis and the Nings all have their history and discussion tabs that document all the contributions of each participant and the interactions between them, and this is there for anyone to see for themselves if they are interested.

For me, the only purpose of starting an international project is to bring students together - virtually or in real life - to learn to work and communicate together irrespective of their different backgrounds, languages, traditions and cultures. But, oh, the journey towards genuine student online COLLABORATION has only just begun...

Photo: KDE: Pseudo-transparency using Crystal by JW_00000 on flickr

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