J12.3 Green screens, blue skies, and new horizons: Using Entertainment Education and a convergent media ecosystem to creatively teach middle school students about weather

Tuesday, 25 January 2011: 2:00 PM
618-620 (Washington State Convention Center)
Steve Halliday, Regent University, Portland, OR; and T. Frimoth

While the educational possibilities afforded by new convergent media technologies, such as the iPad, seem limitless, the shape and direction of such technologically enhanced instruction are as yet largely untested. This study will use principles of Entertainment Education—including formative and summative research—to create a 45-minute educational program, designed for a convergent media ecosystem, to teach a class of Oregon middle school students about the weather. The study will test not only the effectiveness of the program, but also will explore ways such a convergent media ecosystem might be used to communicate weather-related issues within other demographic contexts.

Various media will be employed at specific points in the final presentation in an effort to take advantage of the particular strengths of each media type. Insights from a Media Ecology communication approach, as well as findings from cognitive neuroscience and educational and cognitive psychology, will be tapped to help identify ways to effectively use each media form for a specific instructional setting. Possible media types to be utilized include video, audio, still photos, animation, text, and simple gaming. The goal is not merely to entertain the students about weather topics, or simply to convey to them age-appropriate educational content, but rather to (1) engage the students' interest through an entertaining presentation; (2) clearly present information about the weather that will enrich their lives and equip them to make healthier, safer choices regarding local weather phenomena, and; (3) encourage them and supply creative ways to interact with one another about the material after the presentation concludes, in this way helping them both to better remember the content presented and to apply the information in life-affirming ways.

This project is intended to begin filling some notable holes in the literature regarding the instructional use of convergent media ecosystems. While several recent or imminent studies investigate how portable convergent media devices, such as the iPad, might be used for instructional purposes at the college and university level, almost no research in this area has been conducted at the elementary to high school level. For example, Oklahoma State University professor Bill Handy plans to test the effectiveness of the iPad as an instructional tool in the fall of 2010 with students in several classes at his school. Similar trials will begin at about the same time in two Oregon schools, George Fox University and Reed College. And the University of Illinois system recently received federal money to develop an "open-access textbook" for use within the system's three campuses, and later accessible to other schools. This study intends to investigate how such convergent media devices might be used to enhance, rather than dilute, the educational experience for middle schoolers.

Of course, significant questions exist about how, or even whether, such devices actually promote learning. In 2005 researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, reviewed 38 studies and reported that they found little evidence to show that adding web links to main texts contributed much, if anything, to the reader's learning experience. Nicholas Carr, the author of the 2010 title The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, claims that online resources promote "cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning." Yet none of these studies investigate the educational utility of focused, age-appropriate content that is designed and created specifically to take advantage of the multimedia capabilities of these new devices. That question has largely yet to be studied, because such content has essentially not yet been made widely available.

Middle schoolers seem to provide an ideal test audience for such an investigation, because they tend to thrive in discovery activities, particularly if those activities have a connection to their own world and if the students can demonstrate their learning with chosen peers. The educational content, therefore, has to grip their imaginations and appear immediately relevant to their own situations. Interactivity is also key, along with possibilities for quick feedback that allow for adjustment and re-strategizing—elements that simulate the gaming world in which many middle school students tend to live. Formative research and pretesting will be used to identify important data related both to audience and content, so that the product/intervention can be designed not only to resonate with the target market but also to yield significant results in the post-test phase, used to measure the success of the experiment. The product also will be designed with a view toward extrapolating some possibile adaptations and extensions of the product, which can be geared for other sources of content and additional demographic sectors.

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