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

Atanas Bakalov for Schools, 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.

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