A MiddleWeb Blog
There’s nothing like the sudden and unexpected demise of a reliable piece of technology to jolt you out of complacency. For years now, I have been using the Bitstrips for Schools website as my go-to webcomic creator with students, right from the first day of school.
It’s been fantastic – from using its Avatar Creator Tool to talk about digital identity in online spaces, to creating single-panel Six Word Memoirs as a way to teach focus and brevity in writing, to creating comic-style book reviews to share favorite novels.
Each year, I have launched my sixth graders on their digital composition journey in the first weeks of school by having them create “Dream Scenes” – a webcomic story of sorts that reliably provided me with insights into their aspirations for the future.
Those Dream Scenes often became discussion points throughout the entire year, from shared points of interest (“So, you want to be a musician/teacher/writer, too?”) to curiosity (“I’m not sure how one becomes a Mechanical Engineer. What do you say we look that one up?”).
With its closed borders to and from the outside world (unless otherwise designated); its ability to create distinct classroom communities of students; and its variety of handy settings for teachers to use in managing the comic space, Bitstrips for Schools really met a lot of my needs as a teacher seeking to integrate words and art – and just as important, comics – to very receptive sixth grade writers.
(Bitstrips for Schools is not to be confused with the public Bitstrips site, which seems to have been killed off too, replaced by the Bitstrips Emoji app that I don’t have much interest in.)
So, imagine my surprise and disappointment when I went to the Bitstrips for Schools site in August, only to discover this sign posted on the homepage:
The dilemma of “free” technology
This summer, as one of the many facilitators of the Connected Learning Massive Open Online Collaboration (CLMOOC), I took part in one of the weekly Twitter Chats. Interestingly, the conversation turned to our reliance on “free” technology. Bud Hunt (former classroom teacher and technology coordinator now working at a public library, and a colleague of mine in the National Writing Project) offered up the observation that educators and school systems need to wean themselves away from “free.”
To somewhat paraphrase the discussion thread, Nothing in tech is ever truly free, meaning that “free” often comes with advertising and/or privacy concerns over user data. And to add my own ancillary to that: Anything free can disappear in an instant, so best be ready for it.
Bud’s larger point in the CLMOOC Twitter Chat was that school districts need to pony up the dollars to pay for technology that should be woven into curriculum, because the technology should not be deemed separate from the learning. The technology should be the fabric the learning, or why use the technology at all?
Bud pointed out that if school districts already pay for textbooks and other curriculum, why not pay for technology that provides for safe and dependable services that benefit student learning? I agree but I also know that financial constraints for many teachers and administrators play a role in this reliance on free technology, too.
Searching for something new
I was lucky, I guess, in that I was able to use Bitstrips for Schools for many years at no cost because of some initial beta testing of the site. Other teachers were paying for the site. I am grateful for what I was able to do, but now I am scrambling.
When my friend Mary Lee Hahn asked me what alternatives there might be for Bitstrips for Schools, I suggested looking at Pixton for Schools while she wondered about Storyboard That. Both cost money, and I am reminded again of Bud Hunt’s point. But for now, at least for me, neither of these services is in the budget that I have to work with.
And yet even amidst that panicky feeling of “What now?” I am coming to understand two important insights.
First of all, the Dream Scenes project was something I did on paper before technology ever came into the picture for me. We once used color pencils and handwritten text. In fact, before we used Bitstrips for Schools, my students were using Microsoft Paint and Microsoft PhotoStory 3 to make digital Dream Scene stories.
Then … you guessed it … PhotoStory 3 went the way of the Dodo Bird, too. What I am saying is, the Dream Scene project is not about the technology. It’s about the way it allows me to connect with my students. The Dream Scene project was never Bitstrips or PhotoStory, although each provided important lessons about composition in the digital age. It was always about the kids and their dreams.
Secondly, the loss of the webcomic site also provides me with an opportunity. Where will the Dream Scene project go now? Here’s my latest thinking: We will bring it into Google Slides, and have students create a multi-framed slideshow, choosing images that represent their aspirations and overlaying their writing pieces on top of the images.
This approach will allow me to teach mini-lessons on Design of Digital Media (what kind of font? what color? Busy versus Quiet?) and how to search for Creative Commons images and use citations, right at the start of the year.
As always, though, I figured I better work on my own mentor text example of my Dream Scene. Someday, I want to be a writer.