Assignments: From passive presentations to engaging digital activities with @refthinking

More and more teachers are giving students projects to do, whether at school or at home. They often have complete freedom of how to present the final outcome. Common examples include a PowerPoint presentation, report, poster or physical model. A few, may go for a more creative option such as a video, or maybe a delicious one such as a cooked meal. However, digital technology, when used, is often limited to presenting passive information without any interactivity. The type that doesn’t encourage any engagement.

So far this year, my 9 year old daughter has done a poster, two models and a card game. Now, she wants to try something new for her Victorians project. She doesn’t want to do a PowerPoint; she thinks that’s what people do when they don’t want to put in a lot of effort.

It must be said that some teachers do encourage students to take advantage of digital technologies. Examples include blogging or other forms of presenting content, e.g. social media, or wikis. Even then though, for those who engage with the content, it‘s still mostly passive (reading/watching). Sometimes it increases a bit to up/down-voting or commenting as the ultimate engagement.

Presenting ‘content’ in a way that allows for some degree of engagement is a challenge for teachers and students without programming skills or advanced ICT knowledge. It’s quite surprising in this day and age, especially with the digital native generation. Tools such as ‘Book Creator’ and ‘Explain Everything™ Interactive Whiteboard’ are a breath of fresh air in this respect. Hopefully more and more such tools get developed that focus on empowering teachers and students to become creative at content creation.

When it comes to pre-prepared educational material, tablets/apps are increasing in popularity; if not for their educational value, then for their increased level of engagement. Lots of new opportunities can be opened up by providing:

  • teachers with the ability to present learning material in an app-like manner.
  • students with the means to present their project based learning outcome in an app-like manner.

Motivation for teachers is probably around getting students more engaged with their material. For the students presenting their own work, they’ll be a lot more motivated than usual; the final outcome is way ‘cooler’ than what they’re used to. Other students can actively engage with creations by others. Work is not just quickly glanced at, put in a folder or hung on the wall, but actually used, engaged with and learned from.

For developers, the challenge is to strike a balance between providing tools that allow for easy content creation, but also providing opportunity for active engagement with that content too. The problem so far has been that enabling the latter often sacrifices the simplicity of the creation part. This then excludes many from giving it a go.

As an academic researcher on education technology, I have been exploring ways to offer such opportunities for a long time. This led to Thinking Kit, with its two parts: the web-based creator and the iPad app. Through a simple, easy-to-use tool, students (or teachers) add content (e.g. open question/objective then images/text to help people answer/achieve it) then the Thinking Kit transforms it into an engaging iPad activity available to download free around the world. This way, students’ creations are not just passively received (viewed/commented on/read), they are actually used by someone else as a learning tool.

As the app is designed to be used by pairs and to encourage discussion during the process, students will have the invaluable opportunity to watch peers engage with their work and ‘verbally’ discuss it. Observing how their content is being interpreted and understood by their peers means a better future appreciation for how to create with the audience in mind. A dedicated Reflection Stage also helps students develop their critical thinking skills.

So when you next set students an assignment or project, think about what the end result could be. Rather than a passive poster or presentation, they can actually create something that is useful and usable. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

More about Thinking Kit

Thinking Kit is a two part tool: the creator and the app. Through the web-based creator, users fill in a template. The template outlines what a collaborative, engaging activity needs and they add their content: a question/objective, images (e.g. drawings/photos) and snippets of text that will help people answer the question/achieve the objective. Upon saving, Thinking Kit transforms this information into an app-like activity, saves it to the cloud and generates a number.

Students and teachers around the world can then go to the FREE Thinking Kit App (iPad) and enter the number to get the activity (if it’s marked as public). That’s it.

Now what you have, is an iPad activity that can be worked on alone or in pairs. There are tools to help users make sense of the information, e.g. groups, sticky tapes and notes. The interactive playback Reflection stage and the PDF reports allow for reflecting upon and evidencing the process. This encourages metacognition, formative assessment and keeping a record of learning.

You can also use Thinking Kit to create your own tasks for students – see ‘16 ways to use Thinking Kit’ for some ideas.

Dr. Ahmed Kharrufa is the Director of Reflective Thinking and a Senior Research Associate of Newcastle University. His research interest is in how technology can support learning, with a particular focus on collaboration. Following years of research, Ahmed has developed ‘Thinking Kit’ and ‘Digital Mysteries’ – both are tools that involve students problem-solving together on iPads, whilst developing skills such as communication and higher level thinking. Thinking Kit is for teachers and students to create their own activities for iPads, whereas Digital Mysteries are content-based iPad apps based on the national curriculum.




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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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