Supercharging Student Voices

A veteran designer creates a remarkable video platform for millions of learners.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Charles Miller Flipgrid.pngCharles Miller is changing the world. And it isn’t by accident. He is co-founder and Chief Design Officer of Flipgrid, a Minneapolis company focused on enabling video-driven social learning in classrooms and enterprises far and wide. He is also an Associate Professor in the College of Education and Human Development and the founder and former Executive Director of the Institute for Design Innovation at the University of Minnesota (UMN). Learners lives are better for his ideas coming to fruition; he’s been working on them for some time. In 2015, Charlie—with Jim Leslie—co-founded Flipgrid, an asynchronous video communication platform. In 2015, the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal inducted Charlie and Jim as Tech Titans for Investment Catalyst.

Student voice is a trend now and it stretches well into the horizon. It’s not going away. What we may see change is that we see an even greater focus on equity of voice, giving every student in every class the opportunity to speak up for what they believe in and to share their insights and experience.

Charlie has published more than one hundred journal articles, book chapters, and conference proceedings on the role of design in education; has received more than 30 million dollars in federal grant, foundation, and corporate funding; and has given hundreds of talks on design around the globe. Flipgrid was recently awarded the EdTech Digest Cool Tool Award for Best Product of 2017. The EdTech Awards (including Cool Tool, Leadership, and Trendsetter awards) honor innovators, leaders, and trendsetters shining bright in one of the greatest fields of human endeavor. “It’s an incredible honor to work on a product that amplifies students’ voices around the globe,” says Charlie. “To see our work and the work of our teachers and students recognized by the premier education technology publication EdTech Digest is simply humbling. We are longtime fans of the Cool Tool Awards, so this is beyond exciting for our team. Thanks to our inspiring teachers, students, and the entire EdTech Digest team.” From an amazing list of innovative products and companies shaping the future landscape of educational technology, Flipgrid is a social learning platform that now amplifies student voice in more than 50,000 Pre-K to PhD classrooms across 137 countries. Here, Charlie discusses digital citizenship, the importance of student voice, the power of video in learning, the state of education and technology’s role in it—as well as his thoughts on the future of learning. 

How does student voice impact the classroom?

Charlie: Currently, teachers are faced with many challenges in the classroom, including encouraging students to engage and take a stake in their education. One solution to student engagement is through social learning. By creating a curriculum that lends itself to social learning, educators allow students the opportunity to apply real-life experiences to educational concepts.

However, social learning is only successful if every student has a voice. A rich, collaborative dialogue is only beneficial if perspectives from every student are heard and taken into consideration. By inspiring all students to share their voice, they are empowered to share their insights, leading to deeper, more meaningful classroom conversations and a much richer learning experience.

What can educators do to ensure their students start their digital citizenship off on the right foot?

Charlie: Digital citizenship is becoming increasingly important as our society continues to be immersed in technology, and it’s crucial that students (especially younger students) learn the standards for appropriate, responsible technology use. For the near term it keeps them out of trouble and helps strengthen relationships with friends and peers, but more important, it sets them up for success later in life.

We are thrilled to see educators at all levels use Flipgrid to promote digital citizenship. Because digital citizenship is a lifelong process, educators recognize its importance and integrate into their curriculum. The majority of the digital citizenship assignments we see on Flipgrid are anchored on the ideas of treating others with kindness, using technology appropriately and understanding when to report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

A strong digital citizenship is a foundation for students as they develop into socially responsible adults.

How do you look at student voice and social learning – do they go hand in hand or are they different?

Charlie: Each student has his or her unique beliefs, insights and perspectives. Student voice is the act of expressing those ideas to their teacher, classmates and world. When students use their voices to apply their ideas to educational concepts, and their peers in turn watch and respond, they are engaging in social learning, so the two concepts very much go hand-in-hand.

At Flipgrid, our technology allows educators to expand the walls of their classroom by empowering students to apply their outside world experiences to the curriculum. When students share their voice with one another it opens their eyes to different perspectives and insights, resulting in a more rewarding, meaningful education.

What opportunity does video represent in transforming the learning experience?

Charlie: When we first created Flipgrid it was used to handle a very specific situation — student engagement. As a design professor at the University of Minnesota, I noticed that year after year it was always just four or five students who contributed to the class discussion. I had difficulty engaging shyer students in conversations, even when they knew they had something of value to add.

I created Flipgrid to “move the back row to the front of the classroom,” which means engaging every student and offering them equity of voice, including those modest students who sit in the back of the classroom and keep to themselves.

While student voice and social learning are broad objectives for Flipgrid, we made a conscious decision not to prescribe or build for specific use cases. There is no one way to use video in the classroom and we are constantly surprised and inspired by how educators develop their own ways of applying the technology to their specific situations.

Every day, we see one example after another of educators turning to technology that adapts to meet their needs and resist the technology that they have to adapt to.

Do you have any advice for school leaders seeking to introduce video into their classrooms?

Charlie: When it comes to introducing video, or any technology for that matter, into classrooms, our advice is to be creative and trust in what you believe will provide the most value for students.

We see educators at the K-12 level use video to encourage social learning. For example, a teacher in South Carolina uses Flipgrid to educate her middle school English class about Shakespeare. She created what we call a “grid,” or a digital community, for students to record and share their own Shakespearean insult videos. Her students engaged with the topic because they were more comfortable speaking into a camera, a method they are familiar with through apps like Snapchat and Instagram. They were also introduced to the topic through humor, which motivated even the most reluctant students to open up. We would never have thought of that use case on our own—brilliant!

In colleges and universities professors are using video to enrich student discussion and conversation. One of our more popular examples of video in higher education is Dr. Sam Richards’ sociology class at Penn State.

There are typically up to 1,000 students in Dr. Richards’ class speaking face-to-face about a variety of topics, including race, religion, and politics. With Flipgrid, every student has a voice and can engage with one another resulting in more meaningful conversation.

Beyond thinking creatively, it’s important to keep common logistical issues in mind. A couple of things, in particular, to watch for:

  • Ensure all students have access to the required technology.
  • Be mindful of school policies and regulations.
  • Start simple with topics students can confidently expand on.
  • Provide feedback and encourage students to learn from their peers.

What do you see as the state of education these days?

Charlie: As technology continues to be introduced to the classroom environment we are seeing educators unleash a new level of creativity and innovation with their students. Teachers are increasingly open to thinking drastically different about the way they run their classroom, whether it be embracing and “app smashing” various technologies for maximum value or physically rearranging the room promote a more engaged class.

We continue to be inspired by teachers’ commitment to enriching students’ lives and education.

What are your thoughts on technology’s role in education today?

Charlie: In short, it’s no longer tech for tech’s sake. There was a time when technology was introduced without a tangible use case and without a focus on adoption. Educators are becoming more sophisticated in how they look at and evaluate technology and are finding new ways to integrate technology into their curriculum that demonstrate meaningful impact. Technology is no longer integrated “for tech’s sake”. It must be easy to use and demonstrate an obvious complement to their curriculum.

What are a couple, or three, trends to watch on the horizon in education especially with regards to technology?

Charlie: Student voice is a trend now and it stretches well into the horizon. It’s not going away. What we may see change is that we see an even greater focus on equity of voice, giving every student in every class the opportunity to speak up for what they believe in and to share their insights and experience. Without equity of voice, student voice is just giving those same students who are already the lead contributors an even bigger platform.

As I mentioned earlier, we also see more time devoted to teaching students how to be productive digital citizens. It’s important for students to learn how to use technology and start their digital citizenship off on the right foot so they are set up for success later in life beyond the walls and safe space of the classroom.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning video, ed tech, or anything else for that matter?

Charlie: At Flipgrid, every day we see one example after another of educators turning to technology that adapts to meet their needs and resist the technology that they have to adapt to. This is a key observation into why Flipgrid’s adoption has been so strong and continuing to grow. We embrace simplicity over complexity.

Flipgrid believes we should never tell educators how to apply technology or video in the classroom. Instead, we suggest Flipgrid as an easy to use app that can power their classroom to do what they want when they want. If you think about it, Flipgrid empowers teachers to be the Mark Zuckerberg of their own social learning network.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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