Sunday, September 26, 2010

Powerful Presentations - RSAnimates

RSA - 21st Century Enlightenment - could be described as a UK version of TED.  From their website:
For over 250 years the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has been a cradle of enlightenment thinking and a force for social progress. Our approach is multi-disciplinary, politically independent and combines cutting edge research and policy development with practical action.

As opposed to one big showdown event every year like TED, RSA hosts monthly themed events, each with a slightly narrower scope. Instead of talks, they have lectures. Recently in a creative twist, a group of technical illustrators created a few animations to accompany the lectures. For people who suffer from attention deficit disorder or simply are not auditory learners, this is an amazingly effective way to engage an audience for a 20 minute talk and keep people tuned into the basis of the argument or direction of the dialogue. If only someone had only done this for me during my 50 minute lectures of my undergrad degree! (and then given me the video to review and reflect on later).

These quirky and fun RSAnimates, published on the RSA website and on YouTube, quickly caught the attention of the people at TED, who highlighted a selection in their Best of the Web collection.  About  3 weeks ago, directed from the TED website, I watched the RSA Animate - The Empathic Civilisation based on a lecture by Jeremy Rifkin, and, feeling inspired by the powerfulness of the presentation technique, forwarded it off to people I know in the field of education.

The conversations that were subsequently inspired concerning how this would be a superior way to for children to actively absorb long speeches and lectures inspired to me to think a bit more about why, generally, people felt excited about this scribed presentation style. As humans, we try to differentiate our presentation of information to appeal to a wide range of learning styles and audiences. This is especially true for teachers in diverse classrooms who are tuned into the different learning styles of their students. For decades, presenters have tried to engage their audiences with visual devices and strategies such as PowerPoint or Keynote, video representations and visual enhancers framed to sequester the attention of individuals who struggle to focus, one way or another, for sustained periods of time. The evolution of TED, for example, demonstrates the progress we've made on creating powerful presentations. This particular animation style, seen in the RSAnimates, like visual cues on steroids, is an amazing example of artistry that effectively enhances a presentation.

As for the content of this particular presentation, I found it easy to follow and conventionally interesting. I can see how this could be engaging for a wide and varied audience. My test came, however, when I realized that there were other RSAnimations on topics I knew much less about and would have otherwise been disinclined to ever watch. For example, David Harvey's Crisis of Capitalism or Slavoj Zizek's First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. When I watched these animations, I was able to digest and sort-out the material embedded within the lectures in an excitingly new way, an intake much more dynamic than what I experience through simply listening. Maybe this explains why I've never been motivated to listen to podcasts! My brain struggles to stay connected to just the auditory input, especially when there are visual distractions around me (fairly consistently).

 A few other RSAnimates that I found wonderfully interesting to watch include Philip Zimbardo's The Secret Powers of Time and Mathew Taylor's 21st Century Enlightenment. Hopefully you enjoy them too!

I wanted to learn about the artists involved in these productions as well as give credit and draw your attention towards them here. I discovered, disappointingly, that there isn't often reference to these artists. By simply browsing the RSA pages and/or watching a few of these videos, you won't find mention of the scribes (unless of course you are more thorough than I am and you actually watch things through to their ultimate conclusion!). At the end of the YouTube videos there you'll find a logo for Cognitive Media, who are the illustrators behind the scenes.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be.

Educational scientist, Sugata Mitra, changes children's lives by allowing them to teach themselves on computers embedded in walls in impoverished areas in the world. See the website, Hole in the Wall, for more information on this amazing project.

The main idea here is that children learn best when interested. Of course. Self-directed learning and authentic inquiry describe the most fundamental way that humans learn from their experiences with the world around them. It is important to have ownership over our own learning, an investment in something that matters to us, and critical understandings are most often born out of 'figuring things out' for ourselves. This type of experiential learning empowers the learner to feel satisfaction and understanding from the experience, and therefore motivates and drives the learning cycle onwards.

It is important to note that this type of learning doesn't only happen with technology. A child can have deep learning experiences outside in nature, through social interactions and with non-technological objects in the physical environment. It is obvious, however, as we see in numerous examples around the world, across cultures and between stages of development, that technological devices are a focal point of interest and enthusiasm for children. They provide instant feedback and create an interactivity that inspires the user to dig deeper and keep learning. 

Sugata Mitra suggests, "Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emerging phenomenon." This doesn't mean that teachers are irrelevant, or even gaining insignificance, within the system. Their effectiveness is being challenged. Learning is not something that teachers can teach children. Learning needs to happen collectively, collaboratively and with a positive outlook. A playful, supportive and humble attitude is often a teacher's best quality. This can be the driving force behind inspiring and motivating self-directed learning as well as the essential, underlying safety net used when encouraging learners to become risk-takers and step outside their comfort zones. This is when and where all the good stuff happens.