Friday, 29 June 2007

Overwhelmed by NECC postings!

Oh dear, it’s been a few days that I have tried to follow some of the conversations around the NECC conference in Atlanta. In the end, I just had to take a break, since it was getting far too overwhelming for a newbie like me. I simply have to start in small doses, and not try to swallow the lot in one big gulp - as much as I’d like to. At one point I got so tangled in all the fantastic ideas I was reading that I couldn’t even go to bed at night. Needless to say, my family started throwing sarcastic comments about my net addiction… I’ve now got a hunch what Doug Johnson meant by the ‘Sociopathic Obsessive Compulsive’ in his blog! Whenever I did fall asleep for a short while, next to my dear laptop, even my dreams were full of Web2.0!

I want to thank all of the super-dynamic NECC commentators for their various contributions that have taught me so much and opened the door into this fascinating new world to me! I have been studying constructivist learning theories for some time now, but they always left this nagging doubt in my mind as to how to put them into practice in my classroom. It’s now dawning on me that the methods of ‘the old school’ were the problem. No wonder I found it difficult to fathom the constructivist approach, when I was all along using a set textbook in a rather teacher-centred context. And using ICT for me was mostly just treating the Internet as yet another reference book.

The new school should be about individual learning spaces and self-directedness. About LEARNING, not teaching. Just a few eye-opening quotes from my NECC-related reading:

Our students are living in cyberspace but too many of our teachers are not. They
are strangers in cyberspace at the same time their students are calling it home.
Teachers need to go where students are.
Alfred Thompson

This is so true, and one reason that put me on this path this summer. Also Chris Craft in his Crucial Thought blog live-blogs about the same issue:

What students do outside of the classroom for personal expression and
entertainment looks more like 21st century work than the classroom does.

I was especially happy to notice that the importance of getting our students connected globally came up in the NECC blogs and conversations several times. For example the next quote from Jeff Whipple reassured me that what I have been promoting during the last 10 years is not considered ‘old hat’ just yet. What’s more, I am sure that the Web2.0 tools will be a great booster for this.

The need for our students to connect globally. The new 21st century global community will require our youth to develop the skills to play, learn and work in a digital, global environment.

And finally a quote from John Pederson:

Sessions are for presenters. Learning happens in the conversation.
I feel this also applies to lecture-type teaching. Teaching is for teachers, but it doesn’t guarantee learning, which often occurs elsewhere and through a myriad of media. There should be more communication and collaboration amongst learners, both online and f2f.

Pheww, I will carry on digesting the information feast I have enjoyed for the past few days…

Monday, 25 June 2007

Wish I was in Atlanta!

Through my blog surfing I learned about the talk of the week (or perhaps the last few months?) among bloggers in America - NECC 2007 (National Educational Computing Conference). Seems like all the blogosphere is there sharing ideas and learning from each other face2face for a change. The next quote from Julie Lindsay’s blog brought back some fond memories from 4 years ago:
However, right now it is grass roots and it is exciting to be part
of it and
to meet up with so many colleagues who I have only seen virtually for many
months. I was thrilled to meet
Vicki Davis and it was a natural
transition from being online together to actually talking and sharing face to
It was back in 2003 when I first met my dear Japanese net colleague f2f, at an AEC conference in Bogor, Indonesia. After finding each other through EPALS in 2000, we had been working on small virtual exchanges between our EFL groups before finally having the chance to meet. My feelings were the same as described above - it was
uncanny how natural that first meeting was after a few years of online sharing and collaboration. Akira, if you ever read this, thank you for all these years of special friendship.

Back from memory lane to NECC… Looking at the photos, in most everybody’s got their laptop in front of them, as if it was another limb. Funny, but a must at a computing conference, I know. (Maybe it’s just as well I’m not there fumbling away with mine…) I must say, looks like real
multitasking - taking part in intelligent discussions while all the time keeping blog readers updated about what’s being said - almost in real time. WOW!

The most interesting weekend session for me would have been Global Connections and Flat Classroom Ideals in a Web 2.0 World, definitely. International school projects is what I’ve been doing for almost 10 years now, so right up my street. I’ve been reading both Vicki’s and Julie’s blogs for some time now, and I am really interested to learn more about their Flat Classroom
. I am still going through the extensive project Wiki, and keep finding marvellous evidence of student interaction and true collaboration there. The fact that I am totally new to Wikis is giving my some trouble with navigating, but as I’m very much a hands-on, trial-and-error-type learner, I’ll work my way through it - and hopefully become a lot wiser about the use of Wikis in the process.

It was good to read the following in Vicki’s blog:
There is a lot of interest in multicultural collaboration. It was exciting to
see the vision that others have for what needs to happen. The desire is there,
the willingness is there and there are some organizations that are doing it. We
need to be looking at multicultural components as standard parts of all courses
appropriate. What opportunities we have with this one but it is going to
need to
be much wider scale than it is now. Julie and I are talking about
standards for
international projects and the group gave us
some great
feedback on this
I’ll be following the creation of the standards, as I feel something like that is imperative for the success of any inter- or multicultural project. In the course of my EU and Asian projects, I have learned that the results will be disappointing if project leaders in the participating countries follow their own preconceived agendas, without realizing the importance of negotiating and collaborating towards a joint goal all along. Naturally, these negotiations become a lot more challenging when many (if not most!) of the teacher and student partners don’t share the same language. All in all, the little I could follow this weekend convinced me more and more that Web 2.0 tools will enhance the work in my future intercultural projects. I’m getting quite excited about trying something new next year.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Moodle or weblog?

A couple of days ago I wrote about the difficulty of choosing the most appropriate tool for international school projects. Having only experience of Moodle, I’ve been wondering whether weblogs or wikis would actually be more suitable. I found some good ideas from Aaron Campbell:
In my opinion, if teachers are going to replicate the traditional classroom
model of command and control online, they should do it in a private space
with a
discussion forum or LMS, like
Blackboard. If however, teachers
want to
explore a more open, constructivist approach to online communication
learning, one that encourages self direction in the learner, then
weblogs are
more suitable.

Maybe I should keep persevering with Moodle for the international projects, spiced with an occasional wiki here and there to enchance student collaboration. The weblogs would probably be a good way to open up my English classes to the world, as they would give students an audience (hopefully?) and purpose for their writing. Normally, you see, our students’ writing is just geared towards the teacher, something they have to do for course credit, or for the other Finnish students in their group with whom conversing in English doesn’t often come naturally.
Great, this gives me a lot to think about and plan for the next school year.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Blogging fun?

I wonder if anyone else has ever got so jumbled in the themes and custom headers and the general appearance of the blog that there seems to be no end?? I keep changing mine - almost daily. I have even started 4 different blogs with different servers just to see what’s on offer. Crazy - I spend night after night trying to find the look I could finally settle with. No doubt this one will be changed again tomorrow! I found hundreds of wonderful new themes on a website, but unfortunately I don’t know how to download them. I really feel stupid and incompetent.
Then luckily, just googling ‘blogging advice’ I found a couple of sites with comforting ideas. Among others this from ‘How to blog by Tony Pierce’:
don't worry very much about the design of your blog. image is a fakeout.

So I had better get more into the content of my blog, hadn’t I? Why am I blogging anyway? I can think of 3 clear reasons that made me try this out:
1) I want to learn to use blogs myself before I even dream of introducing them to my students in class.
2) I want to at least appear to be a life-long learner and a qualified teacher even in the 21st century.
3) I would love to share and learn from others, and benefit from the collective intelligence of educators around the world.

But what exactly will my net presence consist of? What should I write about. This is what I read in Sherry’s blog:

Be honest. Write about your life. What you see, what you think, how you feel.

That sounds good to me. And wow, I have actually used some hyperlinks now! According to Vicki Davis (who writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog with a million and one tips and pieces of advice to us uninitiated beginners, and is an amazingly prolific blogger for a teacher mother of 3, BTW!) in her post ‘Ten habits of bloggers that win’, one of the sure signs of an inexperienced blogger is long paragraphs of text without even one hyperlink. Not that I am aiming at winning anything with my blog, but I suppose I should learn the basic netiquette for blogs (would this be called ‘blogiquette’, perhaps??).

Yet another article I came by today, aptly called ‘The Loneliness of the New Blogger’ tells me this:

Read at least twenty times as much as you write. E-socialize.

I think I will carry on reading and surfing now. The Finnish summer nights are so long at this time of the year - Midsummer’s Eve with all the traditional celebrations in the countryside tomorrow.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Which tool for an international school project?

We have applied for EU funding for a two-year project with a Spanish partner school. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they will show us the green light in August!

If we are lucky, the next question will be: which on-line tools to use? I have used Moodle for the last two years. It’s OK, it has many useful features, and it is a secure space. Yet, Moodle looks a bit dull and unattractive - especially as we get to use it through another school district, and we can’t customize the basic settings of the page. What’s more, when a project is finished, we need to disseminate the results, and we want to share what we’ve done on the net, which spells more work in the form of designing a webpage. This is why I am now looking into other more flexible options that would be, at least partly public, on the net all through the process.
Last year we did a mammoth project with almost 300 students in 14 different schools around Europe and Asia. Although Moodle worked fairly well for the management, it was simply too big. The discussion forums were the best learning spaces for students, I thought, but I find uploading any files or pictures on Moodle rather cumbersome. Also with so many participants and not enough communication with all the teachers, I ended up keeping the strings tightly in my hands and managed the site on my own. I was afraid of somebody else accidentally deleting something crucial or basically messing it all up somehow. I must admit I am often too controlling with teacher partners I don’t know that well and have never met f2f… We didn’t really get into any true student collaboration during that project. Work was done in each school separately and then students got together in the discussion forum to share their ideas.

Next year, as there will only be two schools, and I know the Spanish teacher well after several projects together, I would like to venture into new areas and aim at enhancing collaboration between the students. As far as I have understood, a wiki would be a good tool for this. I have looked at some school wikis, but I must say I am not yet quite sure how it is supposed to work. Eg. can all the participating students have a username for identification, how about all the security issues, how to ensure that students understand all the copyright regulations, what to do to prevent just anyone out there changing what’s been created on the wiki etc. etc. etc? I have also thought about blogs, although to me they don’t seem to be quite as flexible for collaboration as the wikis.

It is a totally new concept for me to even think about an open, public forum to manage such a project. I used to think that school projects should be as carefully protected as possible, with registration done by teachers, entering the platform with approved usernames and passwords only and so on. After some research on the net this summer I am beginning to see the value of the new interactive tools that web2.0 offers.

But, but, but… I still have my doubts and reservations. I hope that somebody out there might read this and give me some advice. Any examples of clear modules to teach students about being responsible users of the net, for example? Anyone who’s done international school projects and used Moodle/blog/wiki and could give constructive comparisons of the three? I am also wondering how many problems would publishing pictures or videos including students create?

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

The meaning of life...

We don’t listen to music to hear the final note – it is indeed the journey that matters…
Watch this great animation by the South Park guys to an Alan Watts lecture. Good stuff for a teacher’s creative summer idleness…

Monday, 11 June 2007

What I want to learn during this summer holiday

Oh, how transient the beauty of the Finnish summer…Just three days ago I took these pictures of our midsummer rosebushes in our garden…

… and look at them today!

Only a faint memory of their sweet scent lingers around now. ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, enjoy every fleeting moment – this is what the scattered petals are telling me.
Other than gardening, today I have plunged into the fascinating world of e-learning. Even though I have always considered myself to be more or less up-to-date with what’s going on in education at large, surfing the net has made me blush with shame. I am so totally ignorant of the new pedagogy that’s developing thanks to all the new technologies. Class blogs, e-portfolios, wikis, podcasting… Wow, I never realized what so many teachers around the world are doing! “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”, rings in my head. How about making teachers into doers? I want to join these enthusiastic pioneers who are shifting the paradigm from traditional frontal lecture classrooms into buzzing hives of collaboration. Or so I imagine…

I have long sensed that what is still being done in many (probably most?) classrooms doesn’t reach a lot of the young students any more. They live in a fast-paced, second by second adjustable digital communication culture, and we still make them sit in neat rows of desks in class and expect them to get excited by a textbook, pen and paper and our old, already smudged, OHP transparencies. Duh! I’ve known for some time that I will have to change my classroom practices drastically to turn the attention to student learning from what I, as a teacher, should be telling them. It was ten years ago, while working as a Fulbright grantee in the States, that I first learned about Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences’. Then it went on to Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’ and just today I read about ‘collective intelligence’. Definitely something to look into this summer.

Still, I’m not for technology for technology’s sake. Often teachers start with ‘emperor’s news clothes’, transforming their old transparencies into PowerPoint slides, while retaining the old lecture model. Good luck to them, I guess. You’ve got to start somewhere. It’s probably true that institutional cultures such as those of education take a long time to change.

How about the facilities and software at schools? What if I get all into these new ways of learning during this summer holiday only to find out in August that our school district policy won’t allow me to install or use the required tools? Wouldn’t be the first time… After all, I can’t even use the net on my own laptop at school. And it will be years before my school will provide teachers with their own work laptops. Oh well, I’d better let go of this pessimism and just enjoy learning all this new exciting stuff.

Most of all, I am hoping to come across blogs of like-minded and more experienced teachers from around the world to guide me in this jungle of new-fangled learning.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Student collaboration in international school projects

Whenever possible, I am all for face2face student exchanges in our international projects. From a teacher’s point of view, one of the most critical challenges during these meetings is facilitating true collaborative interaction between the students from different countries. Experience has taught me that, contrary to what might be expected of the ‘global world citizens’ of today, young people still need prompts and guidance to break the ice in a foreign language.Here is a typical example from a recent EU project meeting:

Students from Italy, France and Finland travelled to visit a school in Spain and, as you can see in this picture, mostly stuck to their own little groups speaking their own language. What a waste if the whole visit proceeds like this, isn’t it? Why do we take students to visit partner schools – only to be outside observers of buildings and monuments? If that’s the only goal, we might as well save the money and look at pictures on the net at home. In my mind, the main goal is to learn to work together with diverse people who don’t necessarily share our language or values. So, what to do to draw students away from the safety of these automatically congregating national groups?To begin with, well-organised planning and preparation in advance is paramount. This calls for open dialogue and collaboration between the teachers in all the participating schools. If we teachers can’t do it, how can we expect our students to be natural collaborators? It often takes time and effort and lots negotiation to create good working relations with teachers from different cultures. Clashes are inevitable, and good intentions easily misunderstood. But I have learned that if most of the activities during such visits are guided tours to see historical and other important sights of the place, scenes like the one above will be the norm.

One example of a different activity is to prepare a town tour where students go around in small, MIXED groups with a worksheet to find out about history, the sights or whatever is relevant. Initially it is time-consuming to prepare fun and motivating tasks for students for such a tour, but once you have invested the time, you will be able to repeat the tour with new guests.
Just look at the difference between the first picture and this one.

This was taken during one such collaborative town tour when we had EU project visitors from France and Spain. Some of the assignments involved taking pictures of different styles by certain landmarks of the town. A tour like this allows natural communication, but still gives students the reassurance of given problems to solve together. Although some students, of course, are sociable by nature and confident users of foreign languages, the many quieter ones certainly appreciate their teachers gently pushing them into situations where they can start learning how to break down language barriers.Hmmm, I can see it now. We teachers should concretely model to students in our own actions what collaboration means. Just leaving them to their own devices or telling them to go and mingle will rarely have the desired effect.

“Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with travelled bodies, but untravelled minds.” (Caleb Colton)

Wednesday, 6 June 2007


The long-awaited and well-deserved (I feel) summer holiday is finally here. Ten glorious weeks of family life, gardening and seeing friends to make up for the long hours spent in the classroom or the lonely evenings marking essays and exams at home during the school year. Not to mention the welcome creative idleness to reactivate those hibernating cells in my tired brain! We Finnish teachers are spoiled with this long break every summer, which we can spend travelling, catching up on reading, or just relaxing by the gently lapping water of one of our thousands of lakes. Heavenly! My thoughts go to my dear colleagues in Japan and Korea, for example, sweating away in extreme heat and humidity for another two months. And still, Finnish teachers often complain about their lot. Today, I have absolutely no care in the world!
For me, this summer break will also give the opportunity to reflect on the past year’s intercultural school project experiences and draw from them ideas for improvements for the future. In particular, one aspect of these projects has recently preoccupied my thoughts, and that is reciprocity.

I was contacted by somebody from an internship programme in Tokyo asking whether our school would be interested in hosting a Japanese intern for a year. Yes, of course, we would, I burst out after reading the mail! Until I realized that it also involved organizing home stay for the Japanese guest. Hmmm…. Trouble ahead! Many Finns are notoriously private when it comes to opening their homes to foreign guests. I should know this after struggling for years to find hosts for foreign students during our project meetings, even for a week. I and my family would, of course, host this person for some of the time, but even I must admit that having a foreign lodger in your house for a whole year sounds challenging. So who am I to judge others who wouldn’t entertain the idea of hosting?

But what message does this send about us outside the borders of our country? After all, we profess to be so hospitable and friendly. Come to think of it, it’s not only the hosting, but it’s also the presence of a foreign guest at school in general. Either it troubles some colleagues so much that they start spending their free time out of the staff room, or they just downright rudely ignore the poor guest. Yes, we would love to have a Japanese person at our school to tell us all about Japan, thank you very much, as long as it a) doesn’t cost our school anything and b) doesn’t mean that we should actually engage in any kind of dialogue with the guest outside the ‘hello’ every morning. I have experienced this mortifying embarrassment so many times in my school that I probably should spare any enthusiastic foreign guest from such unwelcoming treatment.

And yet, it’s our students who will lose a marvellous opportunity for true intercultural learning! If we get somebody to commit their time and effort to come here and share their culture with us, isn’t it glaringly obvious that we, in turn, should go out of our way to reciprocate?? Give and take, learn together, instead of thoughtlessly just thinking of our own gain and benefit.
Sounds like my family will have to start seriously thinking of hosting a young Japanese gentleman next year. But before that, let’s enjoy the company of an American summer exchange student… Pheww, seems that I don’t need to feel guilty about reciprocating after all.
I think I will spend the rest of the day sipping summer wine on our balcony humming “strawberries cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring”… Aaah!