Business-like, isn't he?




    Get to Know CD virtually gets Canadian elementary students out of the classroom

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 first published in CUE BC Newsletter March 2008

    With some regularity, schools get notice of websites and software that, the developers assume, will be of interest to students and teachers- often these are sent to the attention of the principal or the librarian. In my eternal quest to find activities to do with elementary students in my school’s computer lab, I’ve checked out more than my share. Sadly, most of the time, I’m disappointed. In some cases, there’s a lot of content, but it’s poorly presented, or not at a reading level that’s accessible to elementary-age students. In other cases, there are a couple of games—but they’re not very educationally useful and not even very much fun.

    Get To Know CDWhen I get something new, I ask a few students to try it out and give me feedback—keep it or lose it, or if it’s too simple for them, what grades might best appreciate it. Students appreciate that their feedback is valued, but all too often, their conclusion is ‘lose it’.

    Recently, a CD showed up in my box in the office (passed on by my principal), titled “Robert Bateman Get to Know Interactive CD”. There was an accompanying “Dear Principal” letter, with a sidebar naming a long list of corporations and organizations ranging from the Vancouver School Board to Nature Trust of BC to Wal-Mart Canada. In the body of the letter, well-known nature artist Robert Bateman expressed pleasure to work with the Return of the Peregrine Falcon Society and Morningstar Enterprises to create the CD in the hope of connecting “the youth of Canada with their neighbours of other species”. The letter continues to note that the CD “is a gift to your school” and encourages schools “to make copies of the CD to distribute for use at school”. (No, “the CD may not be reproduced for re-sale purposes). And the letter notes their website: .

    MapAccording to webmaster Rob King, in BC, they “have currently provided 6 school districts in the Vancouver area with the CD: Vancouver (VSB), Northshore, Surrey, Delta, Coquitlam, and West Vancouver.  There are plans to provide all schools in the lower mainland with copies of the CD by this spring.” A limited number of CDs are available for sale ($25) from the website.

    When a pair of grade 5s checked it out, they concluded that it wasn’t much of a game, but ‘it might teach kids some stuff’. Worth further exploration, then.

    The CD is Windows-only (in fact, it wouldn’t run on my Win9x systems), though this isn’t mentioned anywhere- but lacks a Windows auto-run feature. In order to let entire classes make use of the CD at once, rather than make 30 copies of the CD, I copied the contents onto each workstation’s hard drive, manually adding a shortcut to the Start Menu. (Thanks to the tech support person at who suggested that, when I emailed that performance dropped to non-usability when more that a couple of people tried to access it at a time across my network).
    QE ParkWhen the CD starts up, a user gets options to be a teacher or a student; teachers get access to a set of PDF lesson plans- none of these, however, directly relate to using the CD. The lesson plans cover a variety of topics involved in taking a class out on a nature walk- there’s even a lesson plan on ‘owl pellets’. Useful stuff, but it suggests a bit of a schizoid nature to this CD—it’s a series of activities done at a computer that hope to get students and whole classes to get up from their computers and go out and explore the natural world around them. Webmaster Rob King noted: “The true aim in the production of the CD is to get more students outdoors experiencing nature.”

    Log in as a student and you’re asked to provide a name, then choose a location: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, or Toronto. Hiking boot icons lead to a total of 24 hikes are available, 6 for each location. (Hikes include several in the city and others in the surrounding municipalities); magnifying glass icons link to websites for nature-related organizations.

    GooseEach ‘virtual hike’ asks users to use their mouse to move around a 360 degree landscape, looking for 10-11 plants and animals typically found in that ecosystem. When your mouse points to one of these species, a silhouetted thumbnail jumps up, letting you know that you’ve found it. Clicking on it reveals a page with scientific name, information, photos, video and sound clips for that species. Find all the species on a hike and you can take a quiz—score 8 or more (out of 10 questions) and get points towards virtual bonus prizes.

    Left to their own devices, students might find it moderately fun to find all the species, and might listen to the bird sounds or watch the video clips, but probably wouldn’t pay much attention to information about food, habits, or reproduction. So being a mean teacher, I developed a set of assignments—for, say, the Stanley Park hike, students are asked to find each of the 10 species—for each, the need to list its scientific name, and facts of their choice in the included categories (‘where it lives’, ‘reproduction’, ‘food’, etc). In addition, they should draw a picture of that plant or animal. Afterwards, take the quiz and report their score.

    Low level according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, yes. But the grade 4, 5, and 6 classes that have done several of these hikes and assignments have been very engaged. “Yucch! Slugs eat poop! Did you know that?” 

    QuizIt’s not perfect—the mouse disappears with some regularity (move around to the bottom of the screen then up to bring it back—most of the time! When that doesn’t work, students have had to close the program, start up, and log in again- luckily it keeps track of the species already identified.

    My wish list: I would love to see the CD content available online—this would make it easy for schools to let multiple students access it at the same time without needing the waste of copying CDs or the time of installing it onto multiple computers. The content seems to consist of interactive Flash-like files, so it ought to be do-able. And hopefully this could be accessed multi-platform; right now, Mac or Linux users are out of luck.

    Three morals:

    1. There is a lot of educational content being produced either online or as CDs. Your principal may be receiving emails and mailouts about it, but treating it as junk mail. Talk to your administrator to make sure you get in the loop.
    2. Lots of it is not well thought out, however—were educators involved in the design? Was it tested on real kids? Try it out (and get kids to test it!) before inflicting it on a class.
    3. Telling kids to ‘check this out’ isn’t particularly effective. Treat a CD or website like any old-media educational resource- create an assignment. Having clear tasks for students with clear expectations makes it far more likely that students will approach the website or CD seriously and maybe (who knows?) even learn something.

    Kudos to the people for developing this CD, for distributing it for free to many schools, and for allowing schools to copy and install it as needed. (I wish they had come up with a better name, though!)

    Three of my school’s classes have taken several virtual hikes. I know that a couple of them are planning to follow up with real hikes to the same locations. They probably would have gone anyway, but having virtually explored first should help the students know what they’re going to find—and when they see that slug on a shady trail, know what it eats. Yucch!

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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