Although we received our award notification in May, and we got our first payment in September, t was not until this week that our project Conservation Connections: From the West Side to the West Pacific feels like it has gotten off the ground.
The major reason for this feeling is Akanisi Caginitoba. Akanisi, or more simply, Cagi is the communications officer for the Wildlife Conservation Societys Fiji program and is our main contact person with the Fijian high school we are partnering with, Marist Brothers Academy. Cagi will be acting as the lead facilitator for the Fijian component of the project, and will be sharing knowledge about digital technology, coral reefs and youth empowerment.
Before the project can get running however, we facilitators had to learn the technology. Additionally we needed Cagis input into the curriculum development to ensure that the lessons we were constructing were culturally appropriate and were structured in such a way as to convey the information in a cross-cultural context.
Cagi arrival coincided with the first big snow storm of the season, and it was a remarkable experience for a woman who had never seen snow before this trip. Our first day of work was also the coldest day of the year with a high of 12 F ( -11 C). Thankfully this was the worst of it, and the rest of the week was in the 20s F (apx. -7 to -2 C). By Friday she was walking outside to shoot video of Lake Michigan wearing only a fleece and gloves. Her Fijian friends were simply amazed
One of the goals that we needed Cagi to come out for was curriculum development. Working with educators at the Field Museum we structured the first month or so of classes. One of the main challenges to international distance education is making the children in both schools feel as if they are working on the same project. We want to use digital education to lower boundaries between students, to engage them in multi-cultural learning and to highlight the similarities they may have despite the geographic differences between them. However to do this we need to encourage the students to think of themselves as Conservation Connection participants first, and Chicago or Fiji team second.
We are encouraging this team thinking by having the students work in teams and focus on a particular species. For example, one team in each country will focus on the Checkerboard wrasse. This team will produce a short video highlighting what the species eats, where on the reef it lives and what other species it interacts with. Then they will post this video to our custom made site, fijireef.ning.com. The students from the other country working on the same species will then comment on the video, highlighting what information both teams found in common and suggesting additional resources. Next both teams will combine efforts and produce a longer video to present to the rest of the class, providing peer-to-peer learning.
Cagi was extremely helpful in providing us a Fijian perspective on this process. She highlighted the most pressing conservation issues facing Fijian reefs, and with that knowledge we are able to structure the class in such a way as to address them.
Now that the project is gearing up Ill be blogging more frequently. I write to share my experiences with other researchers who might be interested in using digital technology to enhance their research. I want to be honest and share what works well, what is frustrating and what is not successful. I encourage you to explore the class website, to follow along on twitter (@labroides for my personal feed and @fijireef for just project info) and to write suggestions or critiques. To be perfectly honest this is outside my comfort level, and Im doing this a little by the seat of my pants, but man what a ride its been so far!