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Language Arts Comes Alive as Middle School Learners Become Information Producers

Alice A. Christi, Ph.D., Valerie A. Naish, M.Ed., Jayme A. Kelter, Cory E. Pearman,
William J. Wycoff, III, & Jason T. Gender

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I hear, and I forget
I see, and I remember
I do, and I understand.


This article demonstrates how technology and multimedia can shape classroom knowledge and instruction by integrating all aspects of the language arts in a student-centered environment. In our classroom, learners become information producers and take responsibility for their learning. Learning is active, and groups work cooperatively to evaluate and make relevant meaning through communication. Using iMovie™, students created a multimedia newsmagazine that was regularly broadcast to their school. Student multimedia presentations are showcased throughout the article.


Knowledge, meaning, and understanding do not exist outside of meaningful, intentional activity.
David Jonassen (2003) Learning to Solve Problems with Technology

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In this article, we provide an overview of an ongoing partnership between a university professor and a middle school teacher, and give evidence of the impact of teacher research on how we teach and how our students learn. We demonstrate how technology and multimedia can shape classroom knowledge and instruction. We describe how we use technology to teach language arts and how our students, in turn, use technology to communicate their learning to their teachers and their peers.

Technology is the tool that helps us integrate, in a seamless way, all aspects of the language arts: reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and presenting. In our classroom, we use a student-centered approach that views learning as a social process, and learners as active participants in their learning and therefore responsible for their own learning paths. They construct individual knowledge in an environment that features collaboration as well as feedback from peers and teachers.

Review of the Relevant Literature

We examine several bodies of literature to theoretically situate this project: constructivist learning theory, visual literacy, and the new role of teachers and students as information producers, not just information consumers.

Constructivism is a process that occurs among a community of learners that uses authentic tasks, experiences and assessments, and emphasizes problem solving and hands-on or real-life experiences (Jonassen, 2003). In such an environment, learners actively create their own knowledge, piecing together their prior knowledge with their new understandings to make sense of the world around them. Such engagement can lead to "deeper cognitive processing" (Tobias, 1994, p.37) that in turn leads to new, often creative ways of thinking and problem solving.

Spiro and Jehng (1987) urge educators to think of learning in the context of the exploration of a child's backyard. When a child is allowed to explore a new environment full of objects and concepts new to the child, s/he will at first be lost and fearful of mishaps. If s/he is allowed the time and encouragement to explore the domain of her/his backyard at will, s/he gains confidence and eventually masters her/his complex environment. If the child's parents restrict their child to well-structured paths, however, s/he will gain only a limited understanding of the complexity of the backyard. Another similar notion is that of a microworld (Papert, 1980) that allows learners to interact with a stimulating environment and then reflect about what and how they learned.

When constructivist learning is applied in a digital environment, learners, teachers' texts, media, and content are interconnected in a community of inquiry where learning is relevant, concrete, and challenging (Goldman-Segall, 1998). In environments where students and teachers are co-learners, the learning is more personal, connected, and immediate (Papert, 1996). Such learners actually become part of the world they study (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983).

Driscoll (2002) describes learning as having four key characteristics. First, learning occurs in context, including new ways that technology tools can facilitate (such as digital media). Second, learning is active and often includes brainstorming, concept mapping, and decision-making that help learners deal with complex ideas. Third, learning is social, so collaboration - often facilitated by technology - brings learners to a deeper understanding than individual students are likely to achieve alone. The old adage "a whole is greater than the sum of its parts" encapsulates the social nature of learning. Finally, learning is reflective. Students reflect on their successes and mistakes, their learning processes and products, as well as on the collaborative nature of learning. These principles (and several others listed below) served as the cornerstones of our project.

When reviewing the literature on visual literacy and multimedia, Topper (n.d.) discusses models of symbolic representation. In a world where "traditional educational materials are prominently textual" (Topper, n.d.) Topper believes that language is often ambiguous, but visual expressions of ideas help people reach a common understanding. Through using technology tools available to represent ideas visually, students begin "to construct their own representations of the phenomena they are studying" (Topper, n.d.). Further, visual representations are useful to students with nontraditional learning styles. Individual students learn best when information is provided in their preferred learning style (Riding & Grimley, 1999).

Find additional online resources about digital media and how teachers and students are using digital media for teaching and learning on Alice Christie's Digital Media Page and Alice Christie's HomePage.

Students build visual literacy by using numerous visualization tools such as iMovie™, PowerPoint™, Kidspiration™ or Inspiration™. These tools help students clarify and organize their thinking, reinforce understanding, integrate new knowledge, and identify misconceptions. Such concept map or multimedia presentations help students build their critical thinking skills (IARE, 2003).

Gold (2002) notes that when teachers and students focus on communication skills, multimedia can be instrumental in achieving language arts goals. In this study we used digital video, rather than the written word, as our medium for communication. Such media are characterized by Lemke (2001) as "real world tools to accomplish 21st century work. These tools are supported by the conceptual and contextual framework that facilitates communication and collaboration" (Lemke, 2001).

Another advantage of the use of multimedia is the flexibility of learning it provides. Students have more choices regarding mode of presentation than in a more traditional learning environment. Coupled with choice of content, students feel greater control over their learning efforts. (Riding & Grimley, 1999). In addition, these researchers believe that "this choice is likely to increase with each new generation of material" (Riding & Grimley, 1999, p. 55).

Since the use of digital media as a technology tool to enhance learning is fairly new to K-12 schools, there are a limited number of studies or thought pieces on this topic. Hoffenberg and Handler (2001) do shed light on this emerging new tool, however. They indicate that "students find video motivational, and more important, they demonstrate higher-level thinking skills when producing digital video clips" (p. 11). They cite the experience of a California teacher who believes that digital video gives his students a voice; further, his students are no longer working for grades, but because they enjoy digital video production. They conclude that "meaningful tools in the hands of students create lifelong learners, preparing our students for the challenges they will face in a digital world" (Hoffenberg and Handler (2001), p. 15).

In this digital world, today's students are not just information consumers; they are information producers (Gold, 2002; Christie, 2003). Using iMovie™, PowerPoint™, or Web editing tools, teachers and students become authors who share their creative efforts with local and global communities. Once students assume ownership of their work, their learning knows no bounds (Christie, 2003). With broader audiences, students put more care and energy into their work. They no longer are "doing an assignment" for their teacher, they are producing works that will be viewed by audiences near and far. One student summarized this change in attitude and learning when she said "I no longer work for a grade, I work because lots of other students and teachers will see my work. I want it to be the best I can do" (Christie, 2002).

This visual literacy project is based on constructivist principles and uses technology tools available to K-16 educational settings to help teachers and students become information producers in the digital world in which we live.

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2005
ISSN 1097 9778
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