How Situated Documentaries Transform Online Learning

situated documentariesWant to bring historical events into your online classroom? A situated documentary can take students beyond the typical textbook reading assignment or recorded lecture.

I monitored the #IMLWS hashtag during the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative’s recent mobile learning event, and discovered situated documentaries as an instructional strategy. This idea was completely new to me, and thanks to elearning professional Craig Wiggins and Twitter, I not only found out about this strategy, but also shared it with my instructional design students via our class hashtag.

@oxala75 situated documentaries

While the ADL event focused on government and defense learning environments, it sent me on a quest to find out how we could use this approach in online higher education. I wanted to know more about what types of activities are involved, how they might enhance a course, and what would be involved in creating the experience.

What is a situated documentary?

At its most basic, situated documentaries involve students walking through historical events in the locations where they happened and in real-time, but in the present day. If we break down the term we get a combination of the following:

Situated learning: Theorists Lave and Wenger (1991) are known for their work in this area, which includes learning that takes place in an authentic environment, and often with others through social or collaborative activities.

Documentary: This term is usually defined as a presentation that includes “a factual record or report.”

The example Wiggins shared was “Dow Day,” created by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M) to tell the story of a student protest against the Dow chemical company that took place on campus in 1967. Using a mobile app, students studying this event “witness history as it unfolds” in a scenario that requires them to gather information and work as investigative reporters “to help the local newspaper.” Prompts and assignments are given by characters who provide details and guide students along the timeline and key campus locations.

This approach has the potential to incorporate other strategies you may already be familiar with, such as:

  • Game-based learning: Jewish Time Jump: New York is an “historical, situated mobile game/simulation” bringing awareness of life in Greenwich Village, New York in the 1900s. The game can be played by individuals, or by teachers and students with guidance from the creators.
  • Mobile learning: Devices such as smartphones and tablets, together with mobile apps, allow students to collect data, access documentary materials, and post progress updates as they navigate a scenario on-site.
  • Interactive media: Learners may access situated docimentary information through a variety of formats, including QR codes, maps, documents, videos, audio recordings, and images.
  • Augmented reality: More sophisticated presentations include a layering approach, often incorporating mobile apps (or even 3D headsets) that reveal “virtual flags,” menus, and captions when viewed through a mobile device on-site at specific locations. Columbia University’s Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab provides several examples.

EDUCAUSE and the New Media Consortium have included several items from this list in their annual Horizon Report of emerging technologies for teaching and learning. The situated documentary format pulls together some of the best features of multiple resources.

Ideas for Online Delivery

Some existing situated documentaries offer options for off-site use. With Jewish Time Jump: New York, for example, you can “simulate the location by creating QR codes” in your area. However, the primary challenge I see to adopting a situated documentary for use in an online course is the environmental context in which these stories take place. Learners engaged in the examples listed above are literally walking through the scenarios provided on campuses, in museums, and other physical locations. Can it be done completely online?

In courses offered by institutions without campuses, or courses that enroll students who log in from all over the world, we’ve got to be a little creative.

Build on existing materials.

The situated aspect could be simulated, through a combination of case study and digital storytelling. Traditional case studies allow learners to view situations from multiple perspectives through the identification of key issues and development of possible solutions. Digital storytelling methods use multimedia elements to share a personal story in an engaging way. UW-M provides guidance on “storifying case scenarios” [PDF] through enhanced plot lines, character development, and dialogue, all of which could be delivered online.

Consider assignment options.

Are there situated learning experiences available in students’ local areas? Encourage integration of museum, library, and government resources that require students to move around their local communities in ways that may be new to them. Virtual field trips, while not a new concept, allow for similar exploration to take place online. OpenCulture.com recently featured the Museum of Online Museum‘s list of collections and exhibitions. Creating a situated documentary experience around these resources would take time to organize, but could be effective.

Students can gain technology skills while engaging in course topics and developing multimedia products. Assignment formats might allow for the creation of a mobile app, interactive timeline, or curated collection of found digital artifacts, for example.

Collaborative learning is also an option with situated documentaries and storified case studies. Students can work individually or in virtual teams to interact with the materials provided and develop responses.

Create Your Own

Many of the situated documentaries I found in my search were developed by school-based resources, such as faculty development offices, centralized instructional design units, and multimedia labs. If your institution offers this kind of assistance, take advantage of the services available, which can include in-house technology experts, hardware and software access, and one-on-one guidance as you move a project idea forward. Your school and public libraries can also provide assistance through access to digital archives that include video, documents, audio recordings, and historical images.

If you find yourself without support, there are a few tools available to help you build components of a situated documentary.

  • Historypin: “A giant map that photos are being pinned to” online, this tool includes search capabilities by location and year. Compare images of the past and present, as well as learn from the narrative stories users have added to their uploaded photos. You and your students can access the existing collection and add your own contributions.
  • LayarCreator: This tool offers a free basic account for those interested in creating “interactive print content” on the Web. The eLearning Industry blog shares suggestions for using this and similar applications in the context of online learning.
  • DPLA: The Digital Public Library of America is a network of library and museum collections that you can search online. Specific exhibitions are available, as well as an interactive search timeline. Browse the learning app library and consider creating your own with DPLA’s open source app tools.

One thing seems sure, situated documentaries aren’t a quick solution to an online learning problem. There’s not one “best” way to create the experience or a template for development, and there are a lot of pieces to assemble and logistical options to think through. Do you want a linear audio tour or a fully featured game with characters and branching story lines? Take the perspective of your students and determine the details and interactions necessary to make this strategy engaging and informative in the context of your course and desired outcomes.

The goals of implementing a situated documentary could range from engaging students in course topics to encouraging development of tech-related skills, and beyond. But the overall objective should be to enhance the learning environment, not just to add something new. Continue to explore what others are doing and think about how the strategy as a whole, as well as one or more of its many possible components, might enhance your online classroom.

Do you have experience with the situated documentary approach? Consider sharing your feedback and favorite resources with us here.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog