Are you a Cyborg? – Kicking off PBL ideas

More than one person at ISTE commented how hard it was to start off a PBL project – and found that crafting the essential question and providing the ‘entry event’ challenging.

Wikipedia comments “When students use technology as a tool to communicate with others, they take on an active role vs. a passive role of transmitting the information by a teacher, a book, or broadcast. The student is constantly making choices on how to obtain, display, or manipulate information. Technology makes it possible for students to think actively about the choices they make and execute. Every student has the opportunity to get involved either individually or as a group.”

This post, illustrates how to develop these two elements using an example.

We could simply ask are you a cyborg?and ask students to ‘discuss’. Chances are you’ll get a binary response low order response, and so makes a poor PBL question.

If we want to stop kids Googling the answer, then pose questions they can’t Google.

The question becomes something like “How can we create cyborgs to …” or “Can cyborgs help us …” – add you own ending here to make the question open ended, not be easily answered. It should be short, but lead to more granular questions students ask to direct their own learning.

In the age of ‘the internet’, assume students will Google the keywords.

It is a waste of time asking them to do low order response activities that they can Google. Push them into asking their own questions as researchers.

This is where the entry event to a PBL project is critical.

The entry event is the first encounter the students have with the unit of work – and immediately after, they receive sufficient project mapping, information and assessment rubrics to let them know what they ultimately have to do.

So in the entry event, you want to give them core information and ideas that they can explore, without giving explicit direction. If they need it – then they need to learn to ask for it.

If we asked ‘are you a cyborg?‘ – the immediate literal response is no, as a cyborg is a fictional hybrid of human and machine depicted in movies, television and literature.

We might instead give them information that allows them to think about movies, television, literature and more. The first thing I encourage teachers to do is try to write a short response to the essential question themselves – and use that to create the entry event.

So if we begin with the lowest order response “a cyborg is a fictional hybrid of human and machine depicted in movies, television and literature”, we can then provide some minimal information appropriate to the subject, and expand possible avenues for experiential learning. For example, provide a back-story that they can easily relate to.

James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984) features a cyborg. In it, the central anti-hero is a manufactured, industrial futuristic robot called the T-800. It was created by machines to perform a human-like assassination with ruthless efficiency, devoid of humanistic emotion or empathy. The film is set against a post apocalyptic background where artificial intelligent agents wage war against their human inventors. This theme, exploring nature’s conflict with technology had been widely explored by writers for decades in several genres including horror (Shelly’s Frankenstien), steam-punk (Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Technology in the printing and publishing industry itself enabled the ‘paperback’ to be widely distributed, triggered from the 1950’s ‘B-Movie’ and ‘Pulp-Fiction’ paperbacks.

This might be all you give students. It is packed with thought-triggers – and even as a text, there are multiple ways to ask students to un-pack it.

In visual arts, you might set the end product to be a movie-poster. In drama you might want a performance, in english you might want to explore distopia … so whatever you include … it is there to trigger a goal-orientated reaction, but not provide ‘the answer’.

In literature, author Martin Caidin wrote the sci-fi fiction novel ‘Cyborg’ in 1978, later adapted in the television series “The six million dollar man”. A decade earlier, Caiden explored the concept of ‘bionics’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ in “The God Machine”, describing his characters as having human body parts, replaced by machinery.

This is a smaller example, perhaps something to explore in Studies of Religion or biology … perhaps both.

The cyborg theme is also present in animation (Astro Boy, Battle of Planets) at this same time together with emerging consumer technology game consoles and 1980s arcade (RoboCop,1987) and micro-computer games (Cyborg, 1986 on the Commodore 64) together with seeing a cross-over in traditional ‘dice’ fantasy role-playing games (‘Space Marine’ in the role playing Warhammer 40,000, 1987) where cyborgs fought against mythical fantasy creatures such as Orcs and Trolls from earlier fictions such as Lord of the Rings.

For games based learning twists … let students find old games and explore playing them.

The cyborg was widely represented in popular culture though film, art, literature, animation, games and music where the human is often transformed as the hero or pitched against artificial humanoid representations, exploring what the technological future might become as man attempts to create machine in his own augmented image.

In history, we might look at the role technology as played in war and how it impacted society as a result. The above is a very simple paragraph which might start a class discussion.

Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and bio-mechanics are however very real area of academic research and development, along with the wider field of ‘cybernetics’ – in which machines and systems combine to produce systems. Arguably, the use of many technological advancements from heart pace-makers to sunglasses – or computers as assistive devices, would in fact make us ‘cyborgs’, participating as part of a wider cybernetic organism – such as the internet.

This might be a topic for design and technology … asking students to create some adaptive technology.

The term ‘cyborg’ figuratively describes a human with machine adaptations, or an entirely technological humanoid created in such a way that it represents a human with artificial intelligence – in either case, the representation to the audience is fictional. The differentiation lies in the context, real or imagined. We are clearly not a literary ‘cyborg’, though figurative perspective though humans do use a range of devices that allow un-natural performance, tools and systems – not least the internet.

The essential question has to be open enough that more than one ‘what if’ scenario can be explored in multiple ways. The entry event must provide sufficient ‘clues’ and stimulus about where students might go, but it does not have to be epic or exhaustive, but it has links with the ‘real world’.

For teachers only just beginning to use technology. Take any of these plain texts and turn them into hyperlinked text, or take them to your librarian and ask for help linking resources to elements of the text. The over all aim is NOT to spend time producing more information for students, but to think more critically about how you present triggers and resources for them to take a more exhilarating role as researchers.

*Note: this post is NOT a road map to PBL, but I hope answers and gives some ideas to those teachers who asked me about these two components at ISTE. Project Based Learning is not GROUP WORK either … so don’t take this a literal road map, but a sign-post.

2 thoughts on “Are you a Cyborg? – Kicking off PBL ideas

  1. You’ve hit the nail on the head with the essential question and how it is posed. Essential questions should never be Yes / No questions, or closed. And the opportunities teachers give students in how they approach the essential question for the first time is key. While a great PBL unit begins with an excellent, well-worded essential question (and my favorites tend to be based around concepts, not content), the next important steps are giving students bits to nibble on by way of opportunity to struggle with all potential responses to the essential question.

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