learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Cardboard Camcorders Take Playground by Storm!

There’s a short video floating around the Net right now telling the story about a school where all the students started to make toy cameras out of cardboard and pretended to film each other, YouTube-style. It paints a fascinating, and for some people disturbing, portrait of the cultural difference that exists between teachers and today’s students when it comes to understanding the role of media in everyday life.

Earlier this week I stumbled upon a post on the Boing Boing blog about a video segment that’s been produced for the TV version of the public radio program This American Life. (Note: the video has been getting a lot of traffic, so it may not play the first time you try it.) The video is an animated segment that illustrates a story of an elementary school where a large number of fifth- and sixth-graders began making toy video cameras. It started innocently enough; a couple of boys took a box, stuck on a paper towel roll as if it were a lens and decorated it to look like a camcorder. Then one of the boys pretended to be a newscaster reporting live from the elementary school, “interviewing” the other boy.

screenshot from video segment

That might have been the end of the story, but the cardboard camera went viral. Within a matter of days, the playground was full of kids with their own homespun cameras. If they weren’t handling a cardboard camera they were pretending to be a news anchor, or even a member of the production crew. “We became a series of competing news operations,” one teacher recalled.

It all seemed innocent enough, until one day there was an incident on the playground. A teacher went outside and saw a group of students standing in a circle. As he got closer he realized the kids were surrounding two other students, one of whom was pummeling the other. The students that had gathered around weren’t trying to intervene, nor were they standing by doing nothing. Instead, they were reporting live from the scene, training their fake cameras on the fight and offering color commentary as the kids scuffled. Soon enough, teachers ran out and intervened, ending the fight. “It was declared that the whole TV camera craze had gotten completely out of control,” the teacher tells host Ira Glass. “And then they were banned.”

“The camera really changed the way we behaved,” he continues. “It still really disturbs me; we lost our humanity. We let one of our classmates get trampled on.”

I’ve probably watched the video a dozen times in the last 48 hours, not only because it’s a great piece of animation and a well-told story, but because I keep thinking about how the students and the teachers reacted differently. Over the years, kids have acted out all sorts of playground role-playing games, from the cowboys and Indians of my parents’ generation to the Dungeons & Dragons adventures I used to play when I was that age. Kids always take their role-playing cues from iconic motifs of their surrounding culture, and today’s kids are thoroughly immersed in digital culture, including YouTube. So I can’t say I’m shocked that kids would want to play video journalist with cardboard camcorders.

I’m also not totally surprised that none of the kids witnessing the fight stepped up to the plate to stop the scuffle. Is this because they were too busy “shooting” video of it? For some of them, perhaps. Then again, I think back of all the fights I’ve witnessed among kids over the years, including growing up in the 70s and 80s, and the number of occasions where none of their peers intervened easily outnumbers the occasions when someone other than an adult stopped the fight. The fact that I witnessed these fights without getting caught up in most of them also makes me realize that I was one of those gawkers. So gawking at a fight, sadly, is not a new trait of today’s generation of kids by any means.

And I’m also not surprised that the teachers responded by banning the fake cameras. It’s a natural response; a group of kids start a cycle of imitation, something gets out of hand, and a policy needs to be set to deal with it. Back when I was a kid, the cardboard cameras were actually cardboard model rockets. In the fifth grade, some kid brought in a home-made model rocket and launched it during recess, so the rest of us started doing the same until one kid - ahem - brazenly filled the rocket with daisy-chained booster engines just to see it explode in mid-flight. The result? No more model rockets at school. (Good thing they never figured out which kid brought in Big Bertha that day.)

Of course, it’s easy to ban something that’s not supposed to be in the classroom, and paper cameras serve no educational purpose, right? Well, the fact remains that these bogus cameras became all the rage because the kids saw them as a cultural icon, something that’s natural for them to be attracted to. The teachers had a hard time understanding why all of this took place because they weren’t raised in a culture in which everything is online, everyone is a produce and anyone can create media. Clearly, these kids think this way, and when push literally came to shove, seeing everything as a potential moment to be captured, and none of them had been taught how to deal with it.

Calling this situation a teachable moment barely does it justice. But I’d surmise the teachers, aliens to immersive digital culture, didn’t know how to deal with it except by banning it. Yes, there’s no excuse for kids standing by when someone is getting hurt, and this problem hasn’t been exclusive to this generation or any other generation. Yet there’s also a dynamic playing out among these digital natives that’s very difficult for digital immigrants like teachers to comprehend. Did teachers try to discuss the cardboard camera phenomenon as it was playing out, getting the students to think about why they were doing it? Or did they just think kids were being kids, reacting only when someone got hurt?

Can this gap between digital immigrants and digital natives be breached so teachers can play an active role in educating students to use these tools - cardboard or otherwise - responsibly? We can only hope so. -andy

Filed under : Media Literacy, Policy, Video, Youth Media


The animation is by Chris Ware, the preeminent living American cartoonist who isn’t R. Crumb.

Thanks for pointing that out - forgot to mention it. -andy

Having broken up a school-yard fight yesterday, I found this posting, and the video in question, oddly haunting. Mostly because after separating the students, blood running down ones face, I turned to see half a dozen camera phones documenting the whole thing. This morning it was on YouTube.

In the UK, where I teach, they haven’t baned the phones, but my school had blocked YouTube in response to what is called here “happy slapping,” a game among bullies who video their exploits. A teachable moment indeed.

A vocal opponent of our blanket blocking of all things new (e.g., social networking and video sharing sites), I find it even more difficult to argue my point, but I agree, we need to be teaching kids how to use these tools. If we don’t… well, who know where it will lead.

Andy, this was fascinating. I need to think on this for a while but I think there’s some good stuff here for both my blog and my school law class for preservice administrators. Thanks for sharing both the story and your thoughts…

You made mention of YouTube in your blog, but the narrator sounded older. Do we know when this incident took place?

Banning the cameras seems like banning phones because fighters may call for reinforcements. The technology does not cause the behavior. As Andy was saying we have all stood around watching a fight without the aid of pretend cameras, and students would still escalate fights without phones. Granted phones make it easier. At least with phones you can have all of guilty parties in the same place at the same time instead of constantly extinguishing flare ups over the next month.

Now that I have written this I feel as if it is a little NRA. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” However, since the only purpose of a hand gun is to kill people I don’t think it applies. Phones and fake/real video cameras have a place in the classroom as useful learning tools.

I just had another thought along the lines of the phone issues. Many phones can be used as video cameras. Could the same story now be played out and posted on YouTube before the fight was even over?

Another day, another DVD. I just finished a DVD that I actually made in 1971—a teaching tape about etching. I was a young art professor, and I campaigned for years to get other teachers into the electronic age. I was like that kid with a paper camera.
What I felt then is reinforced by this essay, as a plethora of new communications devices is sweeping many countries—from cell phones to video games. It seems that teachers are the last ones to know, and before they take advantage of the new ways to make their point, some game design company has outdistanced them, set the rules and cornered the market.
I left the university in the ’80s, frustrated, thinking I could go it alone. But it has taken me 20 years to reach the point where I can (1) bring etching within reach of any aspiring artist and (2) provide the lessons online.
It seems institutions by definition are not places where innovation and development happen. It’s outside the scope of institutional purpose. Conversely, things like morality, fairness, justice and human values are not within the scope of technological exploitation.

Hmm…the words of Neil Postman come to mind…

“I don’t think any of us can do much about the rapid growth of new technology. However, it is possible for us to learn how to control our own uses of technology. The “forum” that I think is best suited for this is our educational system. If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it.”-from a 1996 online forum with Postman on the PBS website.

Oh, and I posted a link of this video for my students on myspace, to get their opinions. I teach high school juniors and seniors. I made a myspace page for the kids to add so they wouldn’t bother me on the page I use for friends and family. It turned out that having that page has been an immensely useful tool in engaging students in learning both in and out of the classroom. As I gather their reactions, I may share some of their responses here at a later time.

I agree we should be guiding our students in the responsible use of new things. My first thought of the camcorders though was as another indication of how our kids are slowly separating from each other socially. During school time, my students do most of their social interacting on cell phones, or text messaging. A resent survey showed that young people prefer to end relationships by phone or text. We all seem to enjoy the reality TV shows where we can actually watch the lives of others anonymously, not to mention YouTube and Facebook. I believe we should be doing more guiding in use of these new communication technologies.

Your video is poignant. Your text compelling. It causes me to reflect on some very real issues that have always affected educators - the need and ability to teach social issues without infringing upon parents.

Oprah recently presented “Challenge Day” on one of her shows. Challenge Day is a program for high school students, where they confront the isolation students feel by bringing home the fact that each of them is a victim of some sort of profiling, bullying and shunning. Students are exposed in a gentle but eye-opening way to the fact that their words and deeds affect others just like them. For some, this was the beginning of real change in their lives.

Similarly, Andy felt bad about the change in he and his classmates when they role-played media folk. Had he been allowed to express his remorse in the classroom, others would have acknowledged their own dismay at this behavior and a dialog for change could have taken place. The camera wasn’t the problem. Cell phones aren’t the problem. Learning can take place any time you can help a child fine tune his/her own sense of fair play and decency.

Gosh, I wish those teachers HAD used the cameras to help the student body learn to tell a story with dignity and respect. Just think how much better our newscasts and movies might be right now!

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