Wednesday, 12 December 2007

The road to Ithaca

The intercultural dialogue ensuing the project award vote has been a real eye-opener to me, once again, about the many nuances that we often unconsciously bring into our communication in intercultural settings. The communication channels were first opened by one of our bicultural members diplomatically voicing some problems that many of us were surely grappling with, and by ending her mail with “Perhaps, it would be nice to hear from other participants as well.” I then joined in as the rather matter-of-fact Finn, with my convictions about fair play and democracy. A colleague from Poland was brave enough to admit the following: “We can't be happy seeing our project in final of competition since we placed it there ourselves by voting... any congratulations can be sent to us I am afraid…” and came up with a practical suggestion of rescuing the unfortunate situation by using the already cast votes to give out a fun internaut prize to the winner, while the actual project awards would be based on a more qualitative evaluation done by a panel of judges. Finally, a colleague from Greece suggested postponing the award decisions till next year’s conference, and aptly ended in a philosophical classical quote from a Greek poet about the road to Ithaca. And all through this exchange of ideas, our inscrutable Asian colleagues remained totally silent.

(Picture from HSCB bank publicity campaign at Charles de Gaulle airport,
May 2007).

What a lot we all have to learn about global collaborations Apart from our personal, individual traits, we are all, to a large extent, also products of our respective cultures, and circumstances. It is only when we properly venture into working together towards joint goals and settling shared action plans that our ‘more hidden cultures’ emerge. Yet, at the same time, it’s all these different approaches that make project work so fascinating. So next time my students exclaim: Are they (ie. students in another country) stupid – why can’t they be more like us?! I can reassure them that, although it is irritating many times that others don’t share our values, beliefs and behavioural patterns, it’s precisely these differences that turn this learning experience into such an invaluable process.

To quote some ideas from the Greek poem:

"When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean."

Constantine P. Kavafy, ITHACA

PS. Interestingly, we are not the only ones having trouble with online voting processes. Today I happened to come across this post from Chris about the Edublogs award vote. In both cases, the problem seems to be to prove whether popularity comes through merit or the quantity of mustered up votes alone.

Monday, 10 December 2007

What did YOU learn this weekend??

It's early Monday morning and I have spent a good part of my weekend marking never-ending piles of exams, but also catching up on blog reading and, through that, reflecting on a variety of topics about school and education and learning. How refreshing it was once again to read the posts of so many enthusiastic educators from around the world! One post, in particular, from Chris's Betchablog really struck a chord with me. He explains how further training, studying and blogging, for example, have all opened up new vistas in his working life. Ditto! Unfortunately, I am not much luckier when it comes to sharing all this with my colleagues. So, the following scenario from Chris's post would most probably await me if I really told anyone at work about my weekend activities.
It was this exposure to ideas that flipped switches in my head and caused me to rethink a few things about school and learning. And it made me realise that many teachers never do this sort of thing at all. Try going to work on Monday and when your colleagues ask what you did on the weekend, tell then you went to an education conference (in your own time!) or read a book about learning theory, or chatted with other teachers about how to make learning more relevant, and see the sorts of odd looks you get, or the sarcastic “gee that must have been fun!” comments.

But how lucky we are in this new millennium to have this collectively learning and sharing blogosphere to support, enlighten and inspire us!

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The notorious project awards again

Finally we have managed to mobilize some other people about the issues concerning the rather unfortunate project awards I ranted about a few days ago. Quite a few protesting voices have now joined the mailing list discussion, as members around Europe and Asia feel confused, disappointed, and frustrated. I wonder whether our administrators could see this coming, or whether they were simply too busy to consider all the possible repercussions in advance. The more I think about, the more it smacks of an ad hoc plan, made up in haste to solve the dilemma of this year’s awards. But, of course, this is just me second-guessing… Yet, it's all rather fishy, and they seem to be making the rules up as they go along, depending on what issues are brought up by the members. For example, only now are we told that the online voting will count for only 60% of the final assessment, and there will still be a panel of judges to account for the remaining 40%. Really? How interesting! Surely this should have been made clear right at the very beginning? Sounds like this is a new improvised twist introduced as a last resort in a desperate attempt to silence us.

But leaving all that palaver aside, one member's comment really caught my attention. She complained: "It seems to me a somewhat strange procedure to count votes like that as it favours those projects whose leaders take the extra time and effort to rally for votes". It was direct criticism against me personally, too, as I am one of the coordinators, and yes, I have done a little bit of rallying. Now, why do I suddenly get these negative vibes from this? True, when I first read the ridiculous change of rules in an email, my gut reaction was literally to throw in the towel and announce that I would withdraw my projects out of the 'race'. However, on second thoughts, after sleeping on it, I came to the conclusion that I shouldn't, because it would be tantamount to letting my whole project team down! Like the captain abandoning the sinking ship kind of ideology - so I decided to follow my sense of coordinator’s duty and do what I could to collect at least some votes, to show willing - or to show what actually?? I don't really know any more…

I can't help feeling that the person blaming me and other coordinators for taking the extra time and effort is getting it wrong. What else can we do? I have voiced my doubts and concerns to the administrators, but to no avail. All I got was a cordial ‘thank you’ for my commitment and suggestions. I somehow feel being pushed between a rock and a hard place. I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Or, here I am like good old Don Quijote fighting against the giant windmills!

In this age of all the magnificent communication technologies, the sensible approach would have been to open this dialogue to all the stakeholders well before any new measures were adopted. By so doing, a lot of this unhappiness and regret might have been avoided, and everybody could have felt that they were heard and were given the chance to contribute to the final decision. Undoubtedly, that decision would have required many compromises, but c’est la vie. There is power in such networking today – our collective intelligence should be tapped into more often, particularly as we now have the tools to do so, even globally. I am thinking now whether this type of negotiation procedure is a western ideal – maybe some of our Asian colleagues would not feel comfortable with it? Hmm, I am stereotyping again perhaps, although I do often feel that deep-rooted unspoken cultural values cause many critical incidents in intercultural communication. A good book to read in this connection would be Guba and Lincoln's 'Fourth Generation Evaluation' (1989), which presents a constructivist model that, in my opinion, could have been applied here. To me, a westerner as I am, the upshot of all this is that it rather makes a travesty of democracy and open dialogue. As it is, whoever will receive these cursed awards now won't be able to enjoy the well-deserved good feeling of accomplishment, while others will forever suspect them of dubious means.

Scrap the cash awards! Give all participants who manage to complete the year’s project and meet the rubric criteria – some better, some more modestly – a diploma and a badge to upload on their website. That would do me nicely. And then full-steam ahead with this year’s new project challenges!

Saturday, 8 December 2007

It's all about 'nukumori'

It is amazing to go down memory lane to track the rapid development of global school projects. I have been teaching for 20 odd years, and still remember my early years in the mid-80s when I used to arrange traditional pen-pals for my students. Some of them would be fortunate enough to meet like-minded souls in other countries and keep the correspondence going, while poor others never received one single letter. But common to all these exchanges were the dawdling gaps in writing, sometimes waiting for months for the next long-awaited letter to arrive. Nevertheless, there was something endearing in the hand-written sheets, sometimes beautifully decorated with drawings, the exotic stamps on the envelopes or, best of all, enclosed photographs!

Incidentally, I have just learned a Japanese idea called ‘nukumori’ from my dear Japanese friend and colleague. He described how he feels ‘nukumori’ when reading his mother’s handwriting, for example. He translated it as something like ‘warmth in humanity expressed through your personality’. Once again I feel quite lost in translation with this concept, but it sounds fascinating to me. I have been wondering if we tend to lose some of it when we switch into fast-paced online communication. It would appear so, at least in the case of my daughter, who is spending this whole school year as an exchange student in Belgium. We keep in touch mainly through modern technology – Skype, a joint blog diary, photos in Flickr etc. Interestingly, though, she seems to long for old-fashioned hand-written letters. Similarly, I too revel in every carefully drawn line and curve of her writing and sniff the subtle scents of the letters she has written to us. Must be the importance of ‘nukumori’, mustn’t it? Hand-written letters magically bring her much closer to me than the more impersonal typed writing on the net.

Anyway, back to international projects. The next phase for me was the introduction of email into project work. Suddenly letters and messages could be sent and received around the world almost instantaneously. For me, this started in 1996, when I worked as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the States, and acquired my first ever email account there. What a revolution! In the beginning, though, I can remember how people were so overwhelmed by this new medium that they created trivial ‘anybody out there?’ sort of projects with instructions that read something like: “My teacher wants me to get as many emails from as many countries as possible. So just reply to this email, but no need to say anything more than what country you are from!” I used to get irritated by those messages, but in hindsight, they were probably quite understandable first steps in the excitement of such novel connectivity.

Soon enough, though, even the email exchanges between students started to falter. Particularly, as many of our foreign partners insisted on the old format of pen-pals, only replacing letters by emails. Every student was to have their own individual e-pal to write to, which caused many problems to do with not identical group sizes, or some students simply not bothering. As a teacher, I felt I lost my face every time a disappointed student complained about not receiving any replies. I soon realized that this wasn’t really leading to any true collaboration between students. I even remember one time when I had found a partner class and all was set for an exciting email project after several negotiations between us teachers. But for some reason, the others never replied to my students’ emails. We waited and waited and I contacted the teacher several times, but he never replied to give any explanation. Needless to say, that was one of the all time lows in my project career. At the time I was embarrassed to let my keen students down, even though, of course, it wasn’t my fault as such. Yet, it’s still a mystery to me what actually happened, and whether my students’ messages are still hauntingly roaming the virtual space somewhere. This experience especially has made me even more careful in choosing partners, and expecting teacher collaboration before launching any project to students.

Next in line, the limitations of email projects created the need for online working platforms to better accommodate student collaboration and to enable forums where students could discuss in groups rather than individually, and so be more likely to receive replies. I got introduced to some platforms by colleagues from Singapore, who produced quality projects and won awards with the help of these tools. The only problem for me was that there was no way our state school system could afford the platforms the affluent private schools in Singapore had. But luckily, back in 2005, our school managed to get access to the open-source Moodle platform, and suddenly a whole new era began for our projects. Thanks to Moodle, at last, project management became much easier, and we were able to provide our international partners with a fairly user-friendly and competitive platform. But still, something was missing. At the end of each project, how to present the results online, since the Moodle platform was a closed, password-only site? I have written about this problem in an earlier post, so no need to repeat it here.

Finally, only last summer, I decided to start blogging and learning about web2.0 tools – which was the next huge step and revelation for me. There seems to be no limit to what can be done globally now! Blogs, wikis, and social networks facilitate smooth and motivating online collaboration and instant publishing, but also provide safety measures and privacy for those who are concerned about open online student presences. And how about podcasts and videos then? Wouldn’t they add some more ‘nukumori’ into typed messages, although actually my Japanese friend says that even some of my email messages have brought him ‘lovely melodies between the lines’.

In the end, it’s all about personal relationships, isn’t it, how you take a personal interest in other people? Whatever the medium these days, I feel we need to remember, and remind our students that we are, first and foremost, dealing with living, breathing, feeling people in our projects. The machines, tools or technology, not even the most advanced and academic topics and themes of our projects are as important as Stefano, Priyanka, Noriko or Julio, at the other end of our shared virtual reality.

Friday, 7 December 2007

GO Students 2.0!

Came across this fascinating new project in several blogs today. I look forward to seeing it unfold after the launch and will definitely read what the students have to say, and contribute with my comments. I will also do my best to make it known in my school and all my networks.

Check out this post by Clay Burell to spread the word!

Good luck to everyone involved!


In the last few weeks I have felt hopelessly frustrated with our Asia-Europe classroom awards for last year’s projects. Previously, each year 5 projects were shortlisted for the award using a fairly good rubric to decide which projects were the most outstanding. The coordinators of the 5 shortlisted projects were then invited to present their project in the annual AEC conference, after which a panel of judges selected the 3 award-winners.

However, this year no conference could be organized, so the AEC headquarters came up with a new procedure. An online vote was launched between all the network members to determine the 5 shortlisted projects. All well and good, until one week before the end of the voting, they suddenly saw fit to open the vote to anyone, on the pretence of enhancing the visibility of the network. Out of the window with the rubric – or knowing anything at all about the projects (eg. some eligible projects didn’t even have a website to show what their work had involved!). We coordinators were just expected to rally for as many votes for our projects as possible in one week – from anyone in the world!

Now, why do I feel hard done by, even though I am a strong advocate of online social networks? Wouldn’t my networks serve me in good stead in collecting votes from around the world? I wouldn’t mind if we had been told this well in advance. But suddenly changing the rules, as it were, was highly suspect and against all my beliefs in fair play. What's more, I have some difficulty in applying the TV reality show format in education – ie. use any means to get anyone to vote for your project, or else you will be eliminated from the race! It shouldn’t be a popularity contest, but a fair assessment of the quality and merits of each project. To cut the long story short, in the end, the final number of votes weren’t even published, but we were told ambiguously ‘After consolidating the results, the six AEC projects that have excelled and eligible for Phase II of the online votes are…’ How about some transparency in the procedure, or maybe some impartial supervisors to monitor the voting??

And as if this wasn’t enough, we are now told to go through the same voting rumba yet again, to then finally determine the 3 award-winners, each of which will receive €2.000 in cash. As it turns out, to win that money, not only do we have to work ever so hard all through the previous year to produce a quality project, but we are also made to mobilize all possible people we know to vote for us – twice round! What abuse of teachers’ valuable time! Especially now that most of us are about to start our well-earned holiday breaks, during which we should be able to rest and recharge our batteries rather than worry about rallying for votes! Don’t I just love international project work?!

Naturally, I will have to abide by these ridiculous rules, since I still believe our projects are worthy of the award, but I may have jeopardized our chances of ever being among the 3 winners by voicing these concerns out loud to all the network members and administrators. Yet, my integrity wouldn’t allow me to remain silent. After all, the real reason for me to do project work is to provide my students with meaningful learning experiences. Honestly, I am not being hypocritical here! (Although, there is no denying, if money is to be had, too, it would be a nice little bonus!)

Another area where I have recently come across this idea of ‘quantity over quality’ is finding out about Facebook. Yes, I did get an account – with the good aim of knowing one of the vastly expanding social networks my students are increasingly involved in. I must admit, I didn’t get hooked, and am still in two minds about the purpose of me having my face there. At least I don’t see much point in sending anyone virtual dougnuts, not to mention all the time required to keep writing sticky notes or wall posts etc. Just goes to show that I must really be the boring, spoil-sport Finn my British husband says I am! (On second thoughts, planting a glorious flower in a friend’s virtual garden does sound half tempting, so perhaps I’m not a lost case yet, after all…)

Or maybe I am just naïve. You see, many ardent bloggers seem to be convinced we teachers now have to enhance our qualifications and polish our CVs by showing how many friends we have acquired on Facebook, for example. According to them, this would send potential employers the message that, if they hired us, they would not only gain a highly qualified expert, but also get the benefit of our wide social network to serve their school. In addition, they claim that there is quite a lot of money to be made by effective networking.

I hope I am not oversimplifying matters by suggesting that there must be some cultural differences in our attitudes toward the role of social networking. In Finland, business and education have mostly been kept strictly separate. Hence, it sounds rather alien to me that I should now start acting as a private entrepreneur advertising my impressive list of online contacts to earn a few extra euros. I have one year’s experience teaching in the American public school system (NB. this was 10 years ago when America was probably very different from today!), and I can well understand how this ideology would spread like wildfire over there. I can still recall how strange I found it when my American colleagues used to drop evidence of their excellent work in their principal’s locker at regular intervals. I would squirm at such competitive spirit among colleagues. But good luck to all of you, my overseas colleagues, who are much more business-oriented than us, products of the Scandinavian welfare states. When it comes down to global competitiveness, you are way ahead of us.

And yet, how sad that people’s worth seems to be measured by the number of names they are able to collect in their contact lists! I refuse to be reduced to just a name that someone needs for their own benefit! Aren’t we somehow losing track of the human element in all this frenzy to appear popular and important by numbers only? Indeed, I approached some of my online ‘friends’ through another network I joined, to share some ideas about project work – only to realize that they were probably too busy finding more new ‘friends’ to add to their list, and consequently unable (or uninterested?) in sharing thoughts with me...

I can’t help feeling a gnawing unease about encouraging this kind of competition in our schools. I keep wondering what I should be teaching my students about social networking. That it doesn’t matter who they are, for as long as they have as many ‘friends’ as possible! Quantity over quality at all cost, eh? This scares me! In fact, just last week I received an alarming email from a colleague in Japan, who described incidents in his school where students are suffering enormous anxiety and stress, and even staying away from school for weeks, because they don’t have enough online friends to constantly chat with on their mobile phones. He says it’s quite common among his students to count the number of their emails or other online messages to prove how popular they are. To quote his words: “More than anything else, losing friends is the most scary event and has to be avoided as their first priority. Their human network is totally trapped in the cell phone world. They are keen on their friendship and try to drop a line for fear of being isolated from their friends.”

Which brings me back to the beginning of this post, and me as a project coordinator desperately fishing for votes… Anyone out there in the blogosphere reading my blog – why don’t you cast your vote as well at

Hopefully you will have the time to check the websites of each project to make your choice! But if you are busy, I can fully recommend my project ‘Mastering Media – the Sequel’ or my Malaysian friend's ‘Cultural Kaleidoscope 07’ :)