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Online teaching & learning
A literacy lifeline for students at risk
Multimedia learning objects can help teachers to re-engage middle school students who are struggling with literacy learning, writes LEN UNSWORTH. Primed by their interest in electronic games, students become involved in the resources and move towards understanding of a range of literacy competencies and different text types.
THE FICTITIOUS RIVERSIDE COUNCIL has decided to sell Lawson Park and open it up for development. A public meeting has been called to discuss the proposed development. The learner, Roger, joins the staff of a community newspaper. He attends the public meeting and interviews local community members about their views on the proposal. Back at the office of the Riverside Star newspaper, Roger reads and reviews the letters received for publication from local community members. Next, he interviews community members, analyses graphs of poll results and listens to talkback radio. Then, through the scaffolded modelling of the structural features of a newspaper editorial, Roger constructs an editorial that supports public opinion about the proposal. Finally, Roger produces a front-page article to announce the council’s decision.
Letters to the editor
This is ‘Letters to the editor’, one of The Le@rning Federation’s literacy learning objects for students at risk of not achieving the National Literacy Benchmarks. ‘Letter to the Editor’ positions the learner as an investigative newspaper staffer charged with the responsibility of researching a community issue and constructing newspaper articles. Through this suite of rich media learning objects, providing an authentic social context, students negotiate a range of texts, stating different positions on the same topic. Drawing from a combination of visual, oral and written texts, learners construct literal and inferential meaning, and consider the textual construction of the position taken by writers on the same topic. Learners use logical reasoning to match a writer with a text and identify how textual choices contribute to the point of view conveyed in an exposition text.
The online interactive learning objects are designed to support students in developing the multiliteracies needed for effective comprehension and composition of traditional and electronic multimedia texts. The literacy for students ‘at risk’ suite covers a range of literacy competencies that includes critical reading, the production of text and the construction of particular points of view, as seen in ‘Letters to the editor’. Other competencies, such as building students’ receptive understanding of the range of different types of text, through the promotion of reading, viewing and listening development, are also learning outcomes of the literacy learning objects.
Students need to master a repertoire of literacy practices to negotiate texts of traditional and new communications technologies. The multimediality and multimodality of these texts entails an expanded notion of literacy now commonly referred to as multiliteracies. In addition, the introduction of the more specialised subject areas in the middle years of schooling expands the range of text types students encounter and the expectations of what they will be able to do with such texts.
Middle school teachers frequently feel ill-equipped to support the literacy learning needs of students who are struggling at this stage. Hence, the online resources need to support teachers in re-engaging ‘at risk’ students. The learning objects encourage achievement, engagement with the learning and collaboration with their peers.
These outcomes were reinforced in the feedback received from schools, where the learning objects ‘Finders keepers’ and ‘Letters to the editor’ were trialled. Three schools were involved in the trial—Spinifex State Junior College in Mt Isa, and Northcote High School and Altona North Primary School in Victoria. The students involved in the trials were at risk of not achieving the National Literacy Benchmarks; some of the students were receiving weekly structured literacy support.
Student engagement with the authenticity and interest of the materials
There was clear evidence of the relevance of the learning object scenarios to the lives of the students. For example, students in year 6 at North Altona Primary responded enthusiastically to ‘Letters to the editor’. One student from an Islamic background, who was learning English as her second language, had strong connections with the learning object context, having attended a public meeting with her family regarding the progress of the construction of a mosque in her local community.
The widespread and strong interest among students in playing electronic games secured their involvement in developing metatextual knowledge in ‘Finders keepers’. The students at
Northcote High agreed: ‘It was a lot more interesting than normal English work’. And the class teacher at Spinifex College commented: ‘The learning object game-play scenario was a significant motivator. Most of the students are disengaged from the daily grind of putting pencil to paper and consider many mainstream schooling activities a chore. Students remained on task throughout the activity.’
Student peer collaboration in learning
New users of multimedia digital technologies actively seek, and are provided with, assistance from more experienced users who are frequently younger than them. The school trials for this project also reflected the willingness of the student groups to work independently with the scaffolded learning objects, helping each other achieve progress. At Spinifex College, the teacher commented: ‘Where students occasionally encountered difficulty reading within the learning object, they would ask peers before asking the teacher for help. There was little intervention required by the teacher while students were completing the learning object.’
The teacher at Northcote High reported that her special needs students ‘had little difficulty following instructions’, and that they appreciated managing their own learning. ‘They liked the fact that you could move around the house and didn’t have to go to places in order. They had choices.’
A number of studies demonstrate the benefits of digital technologies being part of the meaning-making repertoire of students often considered ‘at risk’. The special needs students at Northcote High agreed that playing ‘Finders keepers’ was an effective way to learn about different text types, and the teacher commented: ‘In terms of students’ ability to recall and describe the text types encountered, this was a very effective activity’.
Gender difference in using the online materials
While much research has dealt with gender differences in interest and attitudes to technology, viewing and playing computer games and participating in electronic networks, few studies have documented the technology-mediated literacy practices of boys or girls inside a schooling context. Some case studies indicate that some young adolescent girls actively engage in sophisticated online multiliteracies practices outside of school, but observations at Northcote High suggest the need for more detailed studies of how boys and girls engage in techno-literacy practices. When students at Northcote High were using ‘Finders keepers’, which immerses students in a 3D house environment wherein the learner has to find and interpret text-based clues to find a hidden treasure, the teacher observed that: ‘Overall the boys were quicker than the girls, but they also had to go back over things a bit more. The girls were more cautious and double-checked their rooms. The boys seemed to see it as a race; that if they finished first they would win.’
But the differences extended beyond the boys’ more competitive orientation to game playing and also involved differences in skill and experience. ‘One of the girls found the cursor difficult to control and experienced some difficulty moving around the house. The boys, on the other hand, all reported spending a lot of their leisure time playing these types of games.’
There was also a suggestion of variation in interactive learning strategy. ‘Two of the boys, Nam and John, also gave a running commentary as they progressed through the activity. The other students worked reasonably quietly.’ Further research in this area will provide greater insight into this important aspect of student learning.
Success, enthusiasm and engagement
The students involved in the trials brought variable experience of information and communication technologies to their engagement with these learning objects. The trials highlighted that the students approached the learning activities in different ways; however, what was common was the students’ enthusiasm in engaging with the multiliteracies practices entailed in the learning objects, and the perception by both teachers and students that their successes in these online contexts had a positive impact on their literacy learning.
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