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On Ebola from Africa: Students Putting 21st Century Skills to Action

Atanas Bakalov Education, Higher Education, Schools (K-12) 5 Comments

Consider this for a moment. As Ebola decimates populations in West Africa and carves room on the cover page of every major press release, a group of teenagers in Accra, Ghana took it upon themselves to dispel misinformation surrounding the deadly virus. Seemingly unperturbed by the proximity of the outbreaks, they used one of their class video assignments at Lincoln Community School to offer simple hygienic solutions.

Predictably, the end product is serious and dreary. Yet, the opening sequence is almost childlike in its sincere attempt to entertain. The video stirs — in a brooding way. Precisely for that reason it also meets its purpose, because the kind of learning that “sticks” often occurs at the outer limit of our comfort zone.


As a company with a global reach, one advantage we have is the benefit of observation. When we take notice of students who use visual stories as a means to seek social impact or reach for deeper truths, questions naturally come to mind.

What motivated the storytellers’ choices? Was it something inherent in the educational process they went through or something extrinsic or personal? What “lessons” can we draw from such projects and then share with the larger educational community?

Many teachers ask themselves similar questions every day, albeit in the confines of their physical classrooms. We believe that engaging in an ongoing dialog surrounding these issues will prove valuable to educators seeking a firmer grounding for their practice.

As a result, this is the first in a series of blog posts that look at projects from around the world in their original context. We seek to shed light on the underlying pedagogical processes that have gone into creating such projects and to expound on the power of digital storytelling as a viable way to support improved educational outcomes and meaningful social action.

Media Literacy and the Four C’s

There is stable truth behind the push for 21st Century Skills. Polemics aside, the importance of honing in on competencies such as communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking — the so-called “Four C’s” — corresponds to a growing awareness that the world around us is, paradoxically, anything but stable.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 65% of the jobs of tomorrow haven’t yet been invented. Seen from this sharp angle, economic implications like workforce readiness loom large on the horizon for leaders of educational reform and educators alike.

Polemics aside, the importance of honing in on competencies such as communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking — the so-called “Four C’s” — corresponds to a growing awareness that the world around us is anything but stable.

Of course, reducing educational outcomes to a common economic denominator isn’t necessarily the most useful approach. How many 5th-grade teachers see it as their chief task to make sure that fifteen years from now their students will be gainfully employed?

There’s a sense of renewed optimism when we realize that the seismic shifts at our economic foundations are precipitated exactly by the type of technological innovations — cloud-based video editing being one of them — that simultaneously serve as catalysts for more seamless global collaboration and more equitable access to meaning-making. Technology empowers. True, the stakes for teachers and students have gotten higher but the possibilities for broader impact and creative solutions to intractable global issues have also multiplied manifold.

Technology empowers. True, the stakes for teachers and students have gotten higher but the possibilities for broader impact and creative solutions to intractable global issues have also multiplied manifold.

Take video, for instance. A student equipped with nothing but a smartphone can put together a story with a global reach. As the Ebola video illustrates, teenagers tend to find such pursuits worthwhile despite the ostensibly modest scope of their class assignments. Watching the fruit of their labor is captivating. And once we manage to look beneath the veneer of frightful imagery, we begin to appreciate the students’ intelligent application of essential 21st-century skills that we hope will take root in more schools and classrooms.

Communication

Video projects are visible. They are easily shared, viewed, appreciated, and evaluated — not only by teachers but also peers, parents, and often the broader school community. Unlike many traditional school assignments, a digital storytelling project almost always feels “bigger” to a student than a classroom exercise.

Digital content creators know intuitively that for a story to be appreciated it must make sense to a community of other individuals. It is noteworthy that the West African high-schoolers created their video podcast with a mass audience in mind. Being aware of potential viewership gives students a tangible sense that their projects are vehicles carrying a message. The technique, in this sense, becomes a means to an end. Effective communication takes precedence.

Digital content creators know intuitively that for a story to be appreciated it must make sense to a community of other individuals. The technique, in this sense, becomes a means to an end.

For young video makers, the basic elements of storytelling — the various clips, edits, sounds and transitions — lie in plain sight from the get-go. Nevertheless, when they begin to “mix” these elements for the first time, students are rarely conscious of the tremendous energy they have at their fingertips. It is only after they finish and screen their first video and experience the reaction of a live audience that they come to realize the whole is more than the sum of its parts. As one teacher aptly noted, from that point on the process of putting the elements together starts to feel like creating “magic.”

Creativity

The power of digital storytelling to unleash the learners’ creative expression is hard to dispute. Regardless of a teacher’s individual approach, video assignments are somewhat open-ended. Students can venture outside the box and eventually deliver a final product that has emotional punch and, we would hope, broader social relevance.

Besides, making movies is plain fun. In the Ebola project, despite the heavy subject matter, the students’ sheer enjoyment of applying their fluency in the language of visual storytelling spills over into playful ebullience. The opening sequence is gutsy and almost mischievous, and it hearkens back to the exaggerated gestures of slapstick and horror one-reelers from silent cinema a century ago. Fundamentally, this shows that the students were deeply engrossed in the project and relishing the artistic process at least as much as the outcome.

Critical Thinking

This highlights another important characteristic of digital storytelling. Digital narratives are not only visible; they are also effective at visualizing, or externalizing, the cognitive processes that go into their production.

At the most basic level, critical thinking starts with the ability to think about one’s own thinking.  This is relevant in video creation. The building blocks in an editing sequence are readily apparent. They can be pointed to and analyzed; and more importantly, they are already accessible for the student at a conscious level. Teachers can therefore use digital story prompts to engage students in discussions around specific technical and narrative choices, and that, in turn, is likely to nurture a curious and analytical spirit in their classroom.

Collaboration

Filmmaking is quintessentially a collaborative art form. By extension, digital storytelling projects make for the ideal team-based assignments. Educators who leverage the power of teams tap into a potent mechanism for cultivating the students’ fluency in dynamic interpersonal processes such as debating, arguing perspectives, and consensus-building.

Engaging in non-local collaboration can be both rewarding and profoundly educational. Such projects tend to bring down cross-cultural and language barriers, expose false stereotypes, and foster a finer appreciation not only for cultural differences but also for cultural commonalities.

To extend this further, when collaborative video editing happens in the cloud, the notion of teamwork gains a whole new layer of meaning. Co-creation no longer requires co-location. Shared files, media, and timelines are available anytime and accessible from anyplace. Although this is still a fairly new mode of interaction, we are seeing a growing number of student-collaborators working under the same “banner” but living in different cities or countries.

Engaging in non-local collaboration can be both rewarding and profoundly educational. Such projects tend to bring down cross-cultural and language barriers, expose false stereotypes, and foster a finer appreciation not only for cultural differences but also for cultural commonalities.

Visual storytelling is an activity that brings communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity into focus in a single project. In this regard, the Ebola video from West Africa is only one of many examples showing the results of mobilizing the Four C’s in the classroom. Fluency in these and other essential 21st-century skills is a basic prerequisite for addressing many of the resilient global challenges we are facing today. We believe that the key to leveraging innovative technologies in education is to move beyond a fascination with their sheer mechanics to grasping the amplified possibilities for human interaction, teamwork, and grassroots thought leadership that such technologies enable.

Start Using Video in Your Classroom 

  • Barbara Bilgre

    As the teacher of the students who produced the Ebola video, I first want to say thank you for featuring their work! Your use of their video as a model of 21st Century Learning was a great coup for these kids. They were proud of their work when it was well-received by students at our school. They have been blown away by the positive responses they’ve gotten from people at WeVideo and from educators from around the world who viewed the film.

    This class is an Applied Life Science Class and is an alternative program for students who do not want to do the full IB Diploma program at our school. This is the first year we are running this course. Our intent was to design a curriculum that would focus on real-world, current science, particularly on topics that are related to our life here in Ghana. The unit of study we were working on was Tropical Diseases. Before Ebola became ‘big news’, we were originally going to focus on malaria, but the flexibility of the course allowed us to change focus and I asked the students to research about Ebola. For every unit we do, the students must do a Challenge-based Project in which they are completing an action component that does some sort of service for the community (local or global). We decided on an educational video for the students at our school to help alleviate fears about Ebola.

    What started as just a local project to affect our community grew into a more global educational outreach due to a collaboration we have with Robert Puffer in Singapore. He has included us (my classes and clubs at Lincoln Community School) as part of his WeVideo network, and so I told my students that their final project would be reaching a much larger community.

    The changes that have evolved in my students’ behavior and sense of global leader, from both researching and learning more about Ebola and the feedback and responses they’ve received from their final product, has been incredible and rewarding to watch.

    Please keep an eye out for our follow-up documentary and a behind-the-scenes video of the students working on the documentary.

    Sincerely,
    Barbara Bilgre

  • Ivan Tchamou

    It’s an honour to be recognised in such a positive manner. Starting this project, we were all very enthusiastic about getting the opportunity of exploring ebola thoroughly and more critically using the research we gathered from multiple sources. One of the main challenges not only with me but with the rest of the group were to keep everyone in check and focused on the task. Not only that but the filming of the funny video took longer than we anticipated because some scenes were funny thus only increasing the level of difficulty to maintain seriousness throughout the process. Not to include the redoing of voice recording, constant changes in the video, and searching for pictures but that’s a job that our class editor Sean Oteng had to face. During the project, my view of ebola altered because I realised like most people who saw the video that I could protect myself from this deadly virus with the simplest steps really any individual could take. I also learned that not all the ebola information they provide are true such as the spread of it through dirty money as mentioned in the video. As a team, we all had fun creating this project because as much as we got to be all create and actors in this movie, we were also pleased to have the opportunity to be educators.

  • Tshaka Dennis (Mad Scientist)

    I want to start off by saying thank you very much for recognising us on our Ebola video! I honestly didn’t think the video would make this much of an impact as it has. I thought we were just going to be applauded with in our school for the work we did. Obviously it turned out that what we received was way much more. It makes Team and I feel great to see our work being shown around the world! It shows that not only people in our community understand and support us but globally people do as well, which is great! I would like to thank you so much again for liking and sharing our video. We are working on another one so stay tuned!

  • Sean Oteng

    I have to say, these kinds of responses make all the blood, sweat and tears feel all the more worthwhile. As a co-creator in this project, I feel very proud. Take note that every single one of us are co-creators, and you can be sure each and every one of us is proud of the reception we have received so far from the (I have to say, slightly unprecedented) massive audience graciously granted to us.

    At the beginning of this project, none of us really had much of an idea of how big this was going to be. We were told, but we had yet to believe. For the most part, it felt like nothing more than a school project, and subconsciously, we decided to change that. We aptly welcomed visits from multiple guest speakers regarding factual information on the Ebola virus as well as tips and tricks on the movie making process by the creators of Midnight Run Productions (who happen to be LCS alumni). Tapping into our creative mindset, we created a funny video to capture the attention of the not so avid viewers (who probably would not have paid much attention if we didn’t). Our first draft to be honest wasn’t the best. In short, it lacked the fundamental abstract keys that would make the video truly likeable. The funny video just wasn’t going to be enough if we didn’t keep a tight grip on people’s attention. We redid the video and on our third try, we felt we hit the jackpot; perfect to get those “not so avid” viewers (in our mind) captivated, and entranced. I did most of the editing and the backing tracks, so I even decided to add one of my own compositions to the end credits.

    The end product was truly satisfying and once again, we are all proud. Working collaboratively and incorporating our critical thing and creativity to this was the key to our great success.

  • Abigail Dei

    My name is Abigail. I am one of the students in the LCS Applied Life Science Class who put up the video. When putting together the video, we faced so many challenges. First of all when we shot and felt like it wasn’t good enough we had to shot again just to get the results we were looking for, as a result this was very stressful. Secondly it was very hard to work with only boys because sometimes they won’t listen to what you have to say or your ideas , but at the end everything came out just fine and successful. The purpose of the video was to educate the students in our school more about Ebola and clear up their doubt and thoughts concerning Ebola. Also, in order for the students to like our video we had to put a lot of effort to make it become perfect and catch their attention. My classmates and I didn’t even know that our video will be going on a blog for others to be able to watch .I am really excited about the marvelous work we did. Honestly I didn’t think our project would go viral as it has now so I am very proud of my self and my friends