As technology becomes more integrated into today’s economy, digital-arts programs in schools around the country are inviting students to express themselves and explore global issues while learning basic 21st-century skills. And with the support of some nonprofit foundations, students are taking video to a whole new level.

In 2006, the Pearson Foundation–the philanthropic branch of educational publisher Pearson Inc.–and cellular provider Nokia Inc. created “Digital Arts Summer Camps” for approximately 500 middle school students from New Orleans to enable them to share their stories about Hurricane Katrina. Using the latest in cell-phone and computer technologies to script, shoot, and edit digital films, these students showcased their personal experiences during a Mobile Learning Gulf Coast Film Festival.

The goal of the camps was not only to allow students to document their experience for future generations, but also to give them a chance to develop critical 21st-century skills, as well as to provide a model of learning for other students across the country. (Read more here.)

Now, two years later, the Pearson Foundation has expanded its digital-arts summer camps into national and global projects.

“Digital arts and curriculum used to be separated; video and the classroom were mostly two separate arenas. But now, the curriculum is integrated with digital arts. [Digital arts] enriches the curriculum, and students become their own teachers. Students can watch videos from other students as part of their curriculum. They teach one another,” said Mark Nieker, president and executive director of the Pearson Foundation.

Adam Ray, a spokesman for the Pearson Foundation, added that “digital arts are breaking down the walls of the classroom, providing communication from class to class, state to state, country to country.”

Four years ago, Pearson founded the Digital Arts Alliance, which has grown to include more than 15,000 students and educators who participate in the Alliance’s various digital projects.

Pearson partnered with leading businesses and civic organizations, such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Nokia, the National Academy Foundation, Adobe Systems, and the American Red Cross, to help support students and teachers and to sponsor community-based education programs.

These fully funded and equipped digital-arts programs cater to middle schools, high schools, and communities and offer professional development courses across the United States, encouraging students and teachers to work together to design, develop, and complete digital-arts projects tied to their classroom objectives.

The Alliance believes its programs help teach a new kind of 21st-century literacy–one that integrates core subject-area knowledge with learning and innovation skills; information, media, and technology skills; and life and career skills.

The Alliance has taken the concept of the Digital Arts Summer Camps and reshaped it to form community residencies through which local staff have the opportunity to add project-based digital-arts programming to their academic, life skills, or employment programs.

The residencies usually begin with initial introductory sessions for participating program staff, followed by planning sessions for program participants. Over a five-day period, the residency is customized to meet the needs and schedules of participants.

Community organizations typically offer one of three digital-arts projects:

  • Personal Digital Storytelling, in which young adults create a personal film that presents their personal histories, interests, or concerns to others.
  • Community Digital Storytelling, where participants work together in small groups to create a shared personal film that represents their collective views of relevant personal and/or social issues.
  • Digital Resume Creation, where high school or college-aged students create a brief, three-to five-minute film that narrates their personal achievements and documents their experience in a way that best positions them for potential employment, scholarship, or academic advancement.

One student from a Community Summer Digital Arts Workshop in Irving, Texas, said: “We really got to express ourselves. It’s not that often you get asked about what you do, what you like, and what makes you special. Anything I could do to let people see my originality, my creativity, I would do and jump on that opportunity.”

This student’s five-day residency included a first-day introduction and picture taking; a second-day museum trip to understand how a person can use art to express himself; a third day filled with organizing the photos and writing text to be recorded for the film; a fourth day of adding graphics, transitions, and titles; and a fifth day for polishing and presenting.

The Alliance also has expanded its summer camps to include a middle school program that delivers portable computer technology and a team of specially trained staff to the school. Like the community residencies, these middle school residencies include introductory sessions for teachers and preparatory sessions for students.

Teachers usually apply one of three projects to their existing classroom curriculum: digital storytelling, which makes it easy for students to create their own brief films on subjects they choose; web publishing, where students plan and develop online presentations they can share inside and outside the classroom; and print publishing, where students can design, assemble, and print their own documents and posters.

The programs are designed to let students explore new modes of expression, new ways of working independently and with peers, and new ways of seeing their own relationship to their academic goals and objectives.

Apollo Middle School in South Tucson, N.M., consists mostly of Hispanic students. Before the 2007-2008 school year, Apollo was underperforming and struggling with a broken school culture, but new principal Ray Chavez is trying to raise student and teacher expectations, and one way he is doing this is through the Alliance’s middle school residency.

“Kids need to be exposed to content that will fill the potential each one of them has,” said Chavez. “This place is a place of untapped potential. The history of Mexican-Americans and education is a sad one. There’s a lot of exclusion and low expectations. We’re essentially preparing our kids for the labor force. …We’re struggling to move away from this mentality and to a mentality that is moving toward secondary education and beyond.”

When asked why the school chose to participate in the digital arts residency, Manuel Isquierdo, superintendent of Sunnyside School District, said, “We have to give our kids the opportunity to learn differently. That’s the only way we’re going to improve graduation and dropout rates.”

“I think digital arts is the answer, because kids aren’t idly reading something–they’re interacting, they’re doing: writing about, reading about, learning about. I think they’ll retain, understand, and process the information better and long after they’ve left the program,” said one Apollo teacher.

During the residency, Apollo students wrote narratives, chose images, and produced videos about challenges in their community and their role in overcoming these challenges.

Said Chavez, “This residency is helping to place our students in higher education, as well as better equipping them to handle the new economy.” (See Apollo Middle School’s video presentation here.)

The Alliance also offers high school residencies, which are typically 15 hours, and students create a film that, in their own words, frames their academic and personal achievements in the context of their future academic and career goals.

The high school residency takes place in three stages. First, students review interview questions, compose their personal narratives, and assemble the supporting images and video that will appear in their finished film. Then, they spend about 30 minutes recording a personal interview that highlights their achievements. The resulting narration forms the foundation for their finished presentation. Finally, students take part in a two-day digital arts workshop that teaches them to develop and refine their presentations, preview these among their peers, and revise their final projects based on the feedback they have received.

Each student’s film is burned to a mini-CD, a digital business card, and archived for web presentation.

Last fall, Pearson and the National Education Association Foundation sponsored a digital-arts residency for three Hamilton County, Tenn., high schools. Before the residency, teachers also participated in a three-day professional development course, in which they prepared for the program by learning how to making their own videos.

“Even though 51 percent of our student body is economically disadvantaged, what makes us special is our community support. We know, and the community knows, that technology is a great stimulator for our kids. They’re interested in it. It makes the classroom come alive,” said Jim Scales, director of schools for Hamilton County.

One teacher, Dale Spear of East Ridge School, said, “It’s interesting for students to use video, photography, and illustrations to help them become more literate and better at their writing, speaking, and communication skills.”

“Voice editing was fun,” said one student. “We did voice-overs, and we had to get a lot of pictures onto a data stick. I learned how to transfer them to a laptop and download them.”

“They see a finished product, and we hope that gets them hooked on education,” added Scales. (See Hamilton County’s video presentation here.)

At the end of all residencies, the final student projects are presented digitally–sometimes on the web, sometimes stored on a disc or broadcast via cell-phone technologies–for review by real audiences, not just a single teacher, class, or group.

The Digital Arts Alliance hopes these programs will build essential language-arts skills, develop technology skills, cultivate knowledge across the curriculum, help students learn to collaborate and create bonds with others, build presentation skills, and develop leadership skills–all necessary for a well-rounded education and employability.

Jeanne Patrick, academy coordinator for the Seattle Public School District, told the story of one student who got a head start in his career because of this digital-arts training:

“I had a student do an internship with one of Seattle’s largest law firms, Miller-Nash. He was baptized by fire, because the firm was restructuring its [information technology department]. Our student worked side-by-side with the head IT manager, and when he went on vacation, our 17-year-old student took over his duties seamlessly. It was because he had that type of training at our school. It made school relevant to our students.” (See Patrick’s testimonial here.)

For more information and to learn how to apply for a residency, send an eMail message to info@pearsonfoundation.org.

Part of a growing trend

The Alliance’s activities are part of a larger trend toward the integration of digital arts into the curriculum.

According to the New York Times, the Westchester International Film Festival this year added a Future Filmmakers Division, which promoted student submissions in grades nine through 12. The student films were screened at a cinema in White Plains, N.Y., on March 9.

Iris Stevens, director of both the Westchester County, N.Y., office of film and television and the film festival itself, said the number of entries was “staggering.” According to Stevens, “out of the 63 public and private high schools in Westchester, only 12 do not have some form of film education.”

Michael Mahony, English department chairman at Hastings High School in New York, explained that film “is one medium that students seem to intrinsically value, maybe more than any other, and students from both ends of the academic spectrum thrive in the classes.”

And it’s an international trend, too.

The Pearson Foundation’s Alliances for Africa program is helping young Africans find their voices by learning to make digital movies. Student participants in Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa, and Tanzania–many of whom had never held a camera before–are learning to express themselves, gaining both technology and life skills in the process.

In Francistown, Botswana, students made public service announcements that supported Think Tank Thuto’s effort to establish secondary schools. These schools will integrate arts, sports, music, and technology with traditional academics. Within three days, students with no previous computer knowledge were editing together their own soundtracks and video.

Students in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have had similar opportunities, thanks to support from Pact Ethiopia–a nonprofit organization devoted to conflict resolution and building peace. The Pearson Foundation and Pact Ethiopia have developed a school, a lending library, and a media center designed to help young people in the region pursue their education following the resolution of tribal conflict.

In Accra, Ghana, the Pearson Foundation teamed up with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to host digital-arts workshops and provide technology for young people in the community of Volta Lake.

Since 2005, IOM has rescued for than 600 children forced by captors to fish under hazardous conditions. Now, as part of their rehabilitation process, young people will have the opportunity to learn from others and share their own experiences by means of personal digital films and presentations.

Last year, Pearson colleagues at Maskew Miller Longman and the Pearson Foundation hosted hands-on curriculum development and digital-arts training workshops in Johannesburg, South Africa. The training brought together community leaders from across southern Africa–each of whom supports local implementation of the Sara Communications Initiative, a community-based program designed to help young girls in African communities develop self-esteem, decision-making skills, and personal risk perception that will enable them to stay in school, abstain from sex, and avoid contracting HIV/AIDS.

In Tanzania, Pearson supports two Jane Goodall Institute Roots and Shoots (http://www.rootsandshoots.org) sites, making it possible for young people served by the Roots and Shoots program to create and share their own digital films that encourage others to respect nature and the environment.

Last week, Pearson announced a partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute to support digital arts, environmental, and humanitarian education for students around the world with the introduction of the Mobile Learning Institute Earth Day Challenge, to be held on Earth Day–April 22, 2008–at Jane Goodall’s Global Youth Summit.

The Mobile Learning Institute (MLI), a Digital Arts Alliance member that has shared hands-on digital arts sessions with more than 25,000 young people and educators across the United States–is partnering with Nokia and Pearson to host this international competition, which is open to middle and high school students everywhere.

In this competition, students are encouraged to share their views about the earth’s future and everyone’s role in combating global climate change.

In certain cities, students also will have the chance to take part in intensive, MLI-sponsored digital-arts camps offered in conjunction with schools, community centers, and the Jane Goodall Institute.

The Earth Day Challenge and Jane Goodall’s Global Youth Summit will be held in Orlando, where students will gather to focus on conservation, sustainability, advocacy, and digital arts. Entrants submitting the strongest short films will be eligible to work with professional filmmakers to make broadcast-quality public service announcements, and winners chosen from those finalists will be invited to participate in the 2009 Global Youth Summit.

Schools interested in becoming a certified MLI camp provider can apply online.

In another student filmmaking competition, eSchool News–in partnership with the Pearson Foundation–is propelling students’ digital-arts education by hosting the first Empowered Education Awards program, which encourages students to submit short films explaining “How Technology Helps Me Learn.”

Students must submit a three- to five-minute video, and winners of the competition will be flown to Washington, D.C., for a gala awards ceremony, where they will receive recognition and prizes for themselves and their schools, an international showcase for their work, and a chance to meet senators, representatives, and other key federal officials to discuss the importance of technology in the classroom. (Read more about this opportunity here.)

“I don’t think this increased interest in film is a blip or an aberration,” Stevens told the New York Times. “It’s something that’s very real within the teen and young adult community. Education is changing in response to the kinds of careers young people want to go into.”

Links:

Pearson Foundation

Digital Arts Alliance

Mobile Learning Institute