Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Transparency in project presentations

Listening to project presentation at the recent AEC-NET conference made me think about how best to demonstrate what a project really was about.

I can still vividly remember the first international school projects that I participated in in the late 90s. In those days online tools available for us teachers here in Finland were still scarce. All communication between schools in different countries was carried out through email - or even by fax (what on earth is fax??!!!). A lot of the student email exchanges were thus out of bounds to the teachers, who didn't really know how much and what their students were discussing. The main goal of a project in those days was to produce some kind of 'end product'. In most cases there was a common theme, each group in each participating school worked on their own to produce something and these products were then compiled together - often in the form of a booklet or a webpage. I would claim that the compilation of the final product was more often than not done solely by teachers - partly due to our ambition and perfectionism to secure a respectable and good-looking outcome.

I have been there, too. Back in 2001, I and two colleagues spent the first week of our summer holiday calculating the results of a student survey in our first-ever EU Comenius project. We then drew conclusions, spent several days writing the text and creating the lay-out of pages of the booklet, before finally taking it to the printers to produce this:

The book did have drawings made by students, and one student had created the graphs, but in the end it was a teachers' creation. I can't deny that we did learn a lot while doing it - for example, that 'Word' is NOT the software to use for page lay-out creation. But we could have learned all this WITH our students.

Later on, with the emergence of various online platforms, student participation has gradually increased. Yet, I would still like to learn and hear what really goes on behind the scenes of protected online platforms. Many teachers make marvellous presentations showcasing their final products, but don't really highlight what each student's role, contribution and learning process was. To tell you the truth, I sometimes wonder whether any student interaction took place at all, and whether it was still just a repetition of the old 'each group working on their own in their own country' approach.

My aim and focus has always been to develop and enhance students' interaction. I was more than pleased after being awarded the AEC award in Malaysia, when many colleagues came to tell me how good it was that they could actually understand what had concretely been done in the project. Our final product wasn't really worth boasting about a lot, but then I believe in the importance of the PROCESS. 'Being on the road', as I tried to illustrate with my presentation analogy with travelling. What I want to focus on in each project presentation is some snippets from students' interactions that somehow show what they have learned together. Sometimes these may seem like rather trivial, insignificant discussions, but may actually contain meaningful flashes of insight into intercultural communication.

I am beginning to believe more and more that open online tools bring the long-awaited transparency into international projects.

The wikis and the Nings all have their history and discussion tabs that document all the contributions of each participant and the interactions between them, and this is there for anyone to see for themselves if they are interested.

For me, the only purpose of starting an international project is to bring students together - virtually or in real life - to learn to work and communicate together irrespective of their different backgrounds, languages, traditions and cultures. But, oh, the journey towards genuine student online COLLABORATION has only just begun...

Photo: KDE: Pseudo-transparency using Crystal by JW_00000 on flickr

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Two topical articles about social networks

Came across an apt article "The Kids are alright" in the Economist (Nov 13th 2008) reviewing Don Tapscott's book "Grown Up Digital".

“The Net Generation is in many ways the antithesis of the TV generation,” he argues. One-way broadcasting via television created passive couch potatoes, whereas the net is interactive, and, he says, stimulates and improves the brain.
Yet, here I am, maybe not such a typical TV generation member... But true, I am probably not quite as wired as my daughter or students, but not far. According to Tapscott the following are typical attributes of the net generation:

Net Geners value freedom and choice in everything they do. They love to customise and personalise. They scrutinise everything. They demand integrity and openness, including when deciding what to buy and where to work. They want entertainment and play in their work and education, as well as their social life. They love to collaborate. They expect everything to happen fast. And they expect constant innovation.

I have experienced this in practice while testing different online tools with students. They truly seem to prefer ones where they can customise their profiles, for example. Actually, I have had some discussions about this with colleagues, many of whom would argue that such customising activities account for nothing but trivial waste of time when the curriculum is too crammed as it is with too little time to possibly cover it all. I would argue back that if customising your profile motivates some students and possibly makes them approach a task more positively, how could that be a waste of time? At the same time, though, I do realize that these attributes don't automatically apply to all youngsters - there are the slower, quieter loners among them, too - and there are naturally members of our older generation who share the same values, preferences and expectations (myself included!).

Overall, however, I found the book review reassuring about our young generation and their use of technology, although I totally agree that they should be guided about what not to reveal about themselves online.

Which brings me to the other article I read in the Economist The World in 2009 - "The perils of sharing" by Andread Kluth (Nov 19th 2008). I, too, have got bouts of doubt about internet safety since starting to experiment more and more with different online networks with students at school. Maybe I am ill-advisedly leading my students into some unknown harm? My only guideline at the moment is modelling responsible online behaviour to students myself. I have made a point of online openness, honesty and dignity, but at the same time common sense protection of privacy, and I am striving to practice what I preach. I try to remind students about empathy and consideration to other people's feelings in anything they upload online. Appropriate netiquette, copyright, or profile creation will all need to be carefully discussed and agreed on before letting students loose on online networks in school contexts. If you pay special attention to these important new online literacy skills, I still believe that the advantages of open online networks far outweigh the threats. Mr Kluth concludes his article along the same lines:

The wise will still share things about themselves in 2009. But they will become hyper-sensitive about sharing collateral information about others, in the hope that reciprocity and a new etiquette will eventually limit everybody's vulnerability, including their own.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

7th AEC-NET conference in Sabah, Malaysia

Two more days of the AEC-NET conference left. It's 2 am Malaysian time and I am still awake at my computer in my hotel room. Partly jet-lag, partly the general buzz of the conference stops me from sleeping.

Had such invigorating conversations tonight about the future of education with colleagues from Germany, Hungary, Korea and Singapore. While we seem to share many challenges in education at the moment, there are also many different visions among educators around the world. A lot was said about possible curriculum innovations in the future towards a more holistic, inter-disciplinary approach. Apparently, in Germany they are already taking their first steps towards something like this, with school books offering tips on how to integrate other school subjects into certain units, for example.

I am especially happy about the AEC award that I was given after my presentation of our project on Saturday.

I was positively surprised to see that the panel of judges shared many of my ideas about online work at school. Gives me reassurance that I might be on the right tracks in my experiments... Thank you everyone for your great support!

Other than the hectic working schedule, we have enjoyed many beautifully colourful performances of Sabah cultural dances and music. The students from local schools were especially wonderful to watch at our welcoming dinner.

And today, I had a brief glimpse into the jungles of Borneo on our tour to Mount Kinabalu.

Working groups tomorrow to start planning the details of our next year's projects. I do hope we will manage to recruit some more Asian partners!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Our interconnected world

Busy, busy, busy - getting ready to leave for the 7th AEC-NET teachers' conference in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. It's not my first time in Malaysia, but the first on the exotic island of Borneo. I must say I am feeling slightly apprehensive about the long, long journey - 3 flights, all together well over 30 hours of travel! Pheww!!!! And with preventive malaria tablets making me feel slightly dizzy I am not actually looking forward to this...

In the last few days I have been tweaking my project presentation, and finally I think I've got it together. I am particularly proud of my title slide with this picture of me on it:

I am pretending to be a tour operator for 'Mastering Media goes Digital', using the analogy of a journey to tie together my account of last year's project. It's always nerve-racking to present in front of an audience of 100 odd peers from around the world, but at the same time I am so happy to have been given this chance to tell others what I truly believe in. The aspect of competing for monetary prizes - as I have said many times before - is slightly off-putting for me. Every finished project is an achievement in itself, and often they are so very varied and different that it is almost impossible to decide which might be better than the other. At least in my opinion anyway.

What I really wanted to write about tonight, though, is the thoughts of travelling in today's world. My journey to Malaysia was under threat for quite some time while the airport in Bangkok was closed by local protesters there. Funny, how my personal, purely selfish reasons made me frantically look for information about Thai internal politics, to understand what was going on there, and to find somebody to blame in the event that I had to cancel my trip plus my whole family's Christmas holiday in Malaysia. We had to change flights in Bangkok, you see. If my travel hadn't been at stake, I doubt whether I would have bat an eyelid at the situation in Thailand...

Today then, I received some emails from colleagues in Greece, saying that their arrival at the conference has been delayed because of a general strike in Greece after all the student unrest and riots there in recent days.

What are these incidents telling me? To stay at home and forget about travelling round the world meeting people and collaborating for the benefit of our students? At one point I was ready to write off the whole of Asia from my list of travel forever, if my and my family's plans were ruined because of trouble in Thailand.

Yesterday I read that Stanstead airport in London was blocked by environmental activists. After all the worldwide publicity from Bangkok, did they decide to copy? This piece of news did make me feel quite quilty of my carbon footprint with my long flight tomorrow. Maybe I should buy carbon offsets from climatecare or some other similar group. Seems as though in our interconnected world these incidents will be with us to stay... We live in very uncertain and complicated times. Is it a sign of my age that I am so troubled by all this? Why can't I just take these things in my stride any more?

I am keeping my fingers crossed for myself, and for all the other conference participants that we will all get there safely. Despite all the turmoil, though, very much looking forward to the energetic atmosphere of the conference once again. We have been promised wireless Internet in our hotel rooms, so I am hoping to be able to blog on my experiences.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Student profiles on Ning

For the second time I am learning to use Ning in an international school project. We are gradually finding partners and more new members are signing up. The difference, compared to last year, is that this time the Ning is publicly viewable, whereas last year we opted for a private site. Then we had no problem with student profiles. They were asked to use their first names, and could choose whether to upload their picture or not (in some schools, it is strictly forbidden to publish students' photos). Safe, easy, no problem.

This time, however, I had an interesting incident just this week, which led me to some serious thinking about young people's online profiles in general. On this year's Ning I have set the signing up procedure to demand administrator approval from any new members. Lucky enough I did! A few days ago I received an email with a new request for membership, but being somewhat unsure about the identity of the person (mainly based on his age, which was older than the regular high school student) I sent him a confirmation email asking for some extra info. What's more, I was slightly annoyed with his profile picture, in which he was smoking a cigarette (not something I would like to advertise on a school-related site!). I also emailed the teacher I guessed had referred the boy to our project. To my surprise, I received a reply in which the boy explained that he actually had a totally different name, but never used his real name on the net. Fair enough, we advise students to either only use their first name or a nickname. However, the name he had chosen wasn't a nickname, but a real first name and family name - only not his own. He had probably also faked his age. And the last straw for me was that overlooking what I was so occupied with on the computer screen my music freak husband asked: "Why are looking at the photo of that dead singer?" What, who!? Even his photo was not his own, but he had totally fooled me with it!

Feeling increasingly uneasy about this I started looking into other social networks that are popular among our teenagers. I soon noticed that it is actually quite common for them to use a photo of a favourite celebrity as their profile picture. Their peers probably instantly recognize whoever it is. I gather this is a way to portray themselves through association with people they admire while protecting their own identity at the same time. Or am I wrong? From what I hear and read, it seems that the majority of today's teenagers are well aware of the dangers lurking in online environments, and know what information about themselves not to disclose. The focus, however, always seems to be on safety first, which to me begs the question: shouldn't it be possible to be safe and truthful at the same time? Sociologist Danah Boyd conveys this dilemma nicely in the following:
I also can't help but wonder if there are other costs to all of this deception that we're promoting as a safety mechanism. What does it mean to tell an entire generation that the way to be safe is to lie? Lie about your age, your name, your hometown, etc. All for good reason. Are we creating a generation of liars? Sure, it's a "white" lie, but that's a slippery slope, no?

Matthew Ingram, also referring to Danah Boyd, writes: of the freedoms that the Internet provides is the freedom to try on
different personas, to pretend to be someone else, to role-play. By now, most
people have probably gotten used to the idea that not everyone is who they claim
to be on the Internet.

Accepting all this to some extent, I still can't help feeling that assuming somebody else's identity in a school project is something I simply can't condone. Role-plays like these should have their place somewhere else. Or has it become old-fashioned and irrelevant to instil the values of honesty and openness to students? Some of the pictures students seem to be using are violating copyright laws, too, although I suppose many of them pick these profile picture from services such as this 'Free Celebrity Myspace Icons', for example.

If I have understood it correctly, these pictures should be FREE to use by anyone without any issues with copyright. Yet, to me this is one critical issue that would draw the line between social and educational networks. I like the idea Vicky Davis advocates that social networks in education should be called EDUCATIONAL networks, as she illustrates in this slide from her marvellous presentation 'Differentiating Instruction With Technology'.

Without any concerted effort to bring up these issues with young students, the only model of online behaviour they have is their own SOCIAL networks. I feel it should be the duty of teachers to model more formal and professional online behaviour than what most of our students are used to. Online profiles are something reasonably new, and many teachers of my generation are quite unfamiliar with this part of our teenagers' lives, which is why it is critical that we at least peak into this world every now and then to have some hunch about what is going on there. We should discuss with our students what kind of profiles to create to avoid them haunting you later when applying for a high-flying job, for example. From my limited experience, this is by no means self-evident. For us teachers, it would be common sense not to publish e.g. a topless photo of yourself online, but some boys even did this in one of our previous projects - fully aware that we teachers would see them, and know who they are. When addressed about this it turned out that it wasn't a prank to make the teacher blush, but they were truly oblivious to what might be the problem with their online profiles. My next job now is to write down some basic guidelines about students' online profiles for all the members of our project. So far, I have only managed to find scattered references to this particular aspect, while online safety rules abound. So I will be largely compiling my first draft from scratch. It will be a similar ongoing process as the international school project 'netiquette' that I keep refining year after year.

I am also tossing with the question whether I should maybe make the Ning secure and private again. After all, we are not inviting comments from non-members either way. On the other hand, it would be a new learning experience to write and present for anyone to see and read. However, this wouldn't change my conviction about the requirements the profiles should comply with. Whether I am making our Ning into a 'creepy treehouse' for students with these rules and restrictions is yet another question...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

My old flame with Ning

Since my first - not so successful - attempt at using Ning for an international school project I have been toying with many ideas for this year's new projects. Should I go back to solid and safe Moodle? But I just find it so cumbersome and boring... A wiki on its own wouldn't do the trick, since in the projects we get involved with student introductions play a central role. So what then?

I started feeling more and more attracted back to Ning. And that's what I decided on. This time, however, our students were involved right from the beginning. The basic project idea came from them - we decided that students can write about any topic that they find relevant. All this goes very well with the facility of starting different interest groups inside the Ning network. Also it was our students who chose the initial lay-out of our network main page. Possibly we will ask for student contributions later on to eventually have our own, unique custom lay-out. Students also came up with the name for the project: WHAZZUP? This is what the site looks like right now:

Mostly what went wrong last year was that the participating groups had such a short joint time to get to know each other on the Ning. What's more, it was my first time creating a network like that, and inexperienced as I was, I didn't guide and prepare students enough. I expected students, who are familiar with Facebook, among others, to jump into a project Ning just like fish into the sea. To a certain extent, they did. They were very quick and competent in customizing their own profile pages - but that was as far as it got. Apart from a few chatty comments, the network never really took off during the short time we had set for it. One clear mistake was that creating a network is not really for a short period of time. Ideally, once started, a successful network would start a life of its own - for however long there is a use for it, wouldn't it?

Interestingly, only this week I was looking into carrotmob with my English group who are taking the so-called 'environmental' course. Carrotmob, which has also landed here in Finland by the way, is a good example of a 21st-century environmental initiative that has largely spread through Facebook and Twitter and other social media. From the carrotmob website there was a link to an article in the New York Times about the company Virgance, which was started to develop the carrotmob idea of 'activism 2.0'. In his article Chris Morrison writes the following:

The idea behind Virgance isn’t just setting a bunch of people loose on a social networking application and hoping they’ll self-organize, which is often the pie-in-the-sky hopes held by the sort that talk about the “power” of social networks.

Eureka! This is what went wrong in my Ning project last year. I simply set a bunch of students loose on a social network, but unfortunately they DID NOT self-organize. Most likely many of them felt rather alienated by the whole experiment. Or had a 'who cares' attitude.

I still feel strongly about only offering learning networks as an option to willing and motivated students. As replacements for traditional, old-fashioned learning for whole classes, online networks will be nothing but 'the emperor's new clothes'. Unmotivated students won't get motivated by simply a new learning environment.

Steve Hargadon, the creator of the massive educators' network, Classroom 2.0, blogged about social networking in education a few weeks ago. What especially caught my eye in his blog post was what he said about the use of networks in classrooms with students:

There are great stories coming out of engaged classrooms where the tools of social networking are helping students to be more active contributors in meaningful ways, recording their work, and writing very publicly before their peers. When I was in school, the only people who saw my written work were my parents and my teachers. I wasn't getting real feedback, I was getting the feedback of someone being prepared to someday write for real-world feedback... probably years in the future. These students are learning to communicate with their peers, with adult facilitation and mentoring, in a way that only those who wrote for the student newspaper before were able to do. What a great world awaits us.

This tells me what is needed for the new project - much more teacher facilitation and mentoring. Wiser from last year's mistakes, I now want to take the next small step on the path towards future PLN's with my students.

In an institutional school setting, I feel some frames are needed to make this type of work meaningful. The first prerequisite is to find partner schools with like-minded teachers and students. In the hectic school schedules it simply wouldn't work to wait till somebody - anybody - out of the vast virtual space joined the network and contributed. Finding partners for a new learning approach won't be easy, though. Teachers still seem to want very structured and restricted project topics and plans. One colleague wrote the following after I had introduced the new project idea to her:

I just had a quick glance at your website - it looks very modern and easily accessible! Your project is obviously designed much more open than previous projects.
Sorry to ask you the typical teacher question: it sounds like a good idea to offer this to students, but will you mark their participatrion somehow? I would like to integrate parts of it into the coursework, maybe short presentations about what students have been doing could serve a s a basis for that.
Are you going to keep it on a completely voluntary basis?
I can understand her concern - but it does concern me as well whether we will be able to find enough partner schools to start the work on our Ning. Only time will tell. Keeping my fingers crossed!

Monday, 10 November 2008

Time and priorities

I am not happy with myself. Once again I have let myself get into the far too fast lane of constantly feeling short of time. It's not that I don't enjoy most of what my days are filled with, but sadly I simply have to say no to a lot of activities that I'd like to involve myself with. It seems to me that my priorities lie with F2F interaction over online networking.

I absolutely loved our 2-week EU student exchange in northern Spain. I think - at least hope - that the students felt the same. Something seems to have clicked in some of their heads during the intercultural experience, and further trips and visits are being planned.

The Spanish exchange completed, I am now looking forward to the 7th AEC-NET conference in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, in just a month's time. It means a lot of work with preparing presentations and project introductions before finally getting onto the plane and on my way. But I do enjoy catching up with old friends and meeting many new educators from Asia and Europe. I hope that we will manage to start good online projects for this school year, which at least for me seems to be more successful after the initial F2F meeting.

Unfortunately, I have had to put the interesting MOOC, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, on the back burner. Although I have followed some of the discussions and blog posts, on and off, I haven't participated actively myself, nor had time to get down to the weekly readings. In other words, I I have become 'a lurker'. (I actually quite dislike that description - as though I was a predator hiding in the shadows ready to pounce on somebody as soon as the opportunity arises.) When everyday life with family and friends calls, my online activities will have to wait. I feel this makes me an unfit, unreliable, no good online partner. In fact, I'm wondering how people can manage full-time offline and online lives. Ultimately, I'm questioning whether I should ever try to be anything but a lurker, when my participation is so erratic!

Photo: no time for that now by only alice on flickr

Saturday, 8 November 2008

'Just getting by' in school

This picture is of my aunt in her primary classroom back in the early 1960s. How disciplined the young pupils look, don't they? I was reminded of this picture this week when I had a very different situation in one of my classes.

We were working on a text in our English textbook and I had given the students prompts to discuss in small groups - with the noble intention of them having a chance to use and practise their spoken English and reinforce the vocabulary they were supposed to retain from the text. This is what I often do, believing that creating such activities fulfills my role as a good, learner-centred facilitator. On that particular day, I wasn't highly motivated myself, and to tell you the truth, actually found the text in our course book rather meaningless and boring. After guiding the students to start their small group discussion, I didn't go round the room listening to them, helping them or challenging them to think more in-depth, as I usually do, but used this time as a welcome break to sit down at the teacher laptop and (*blush*) check my Facebook account and email.

After some time, I lifted my eyes from the computer screen to see how the students were doing. I had been hearing a steady murmur from the class, proof enough, I thought, that my students were getting on with the given task. Not this time, though! In one corner, 4 students were happily talking about their escapades of the previous weekend - in Finnish of course. On the other side, another group was busy sharing some shoe string licorice. At least 3 students were texting friends and one boy was lying on his desk, half asleep. I couldn't help bursting into laughter. Taken by surprise, all the students started staring at me, which then led to a good discussion about the absurdity of the situation.

Can I blame them? Of course not. After all, I had myself been distracted, just like them. This would never have happened in my aunt's classroom, where she was the unquestioned authority that many students were surely intimidated by. In those days, classes were also almost totally teacher-centred and top-down. No pair discussions or group work, as far as I remember. Back then, no student would have dreamt of questioning anything the teacher dictated. Luckily, education has come a long way, and now there is an ongoing negotiation between students and teachers in class. But how about actual learning, if the type of focus on task I witnessed this week is more the rule than exception?

True, our lives have been filled with ever new distractions, the pace of life has become exponentially faster and attention-spans shorter, not to mention the information overload we are bombarded with every day. All these are challenging factors in education. It was real serendipity that my blog surfing this week led me to Dr. Michael Wesche's wonderful blog post analysing why students at an American university get distracted during their lectures. According to him, students have learned to 'get by' without much engaging in learning. Among the activities that students successfully manage to avoid he lists:
studying, taking notes, reading the textbook, and coming to class
Interestingly, similar problems seem to prevail from Finnish high schools to American universities. Is it us teachers? Is it the institutions? Is it the traditional tasks and structure of our institutions? How to stop the wasted time of 'just getting by'? I agree with Dr. Wesch. Whenever I feel giving assignments in class just because they happen to be printed in a textbook, despite feeling bored enough myself to just go through the motions, I'd better throw away the book and start looking into 'the real world' for more meaningful learning experiences.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Travel blog during a student exchange in Spain

Our high school is involved in a 2-year EU Comenius project titled 'Dismantling stereotypes - Finnish, Spanish, or other...'. Our partner school is I.E.S Juan del Enzine, in León, northern Spain.

Apart from project work on the theme, during these two years, 2-week reciprocal students exchanges are organised for a group of students and teachers from both schools. During the exchange, students stay with the families of their hosts, go to school, work together on the project theme and visit places of interest in the host country.

After an eventful two weeks of our Spanish partners visiting us last April, it was our turn to return the visit in October. I and a colleague took a group of 14 students to get a taste of some exciting southern lifestyle first-hand and to test the validity of their pre-conceptions that they had reflected on before departure.

This time, to make use of Web 2.0 tools, I had set up a blog to record day-by-day experiences of students and to upload pictures - all this almost in real time - for family and friends back at home. Each student was in charge of reporting on one day of the stay.

Each student rose to the challenge and produced their share on time - despite our hectic schedule. And the texts and the photos were greatly appreciated by their families back in Finland, who later said that it gave them the opportunity to take the trip virtually with their children. Some parents and friends also sent comments while we were away.

Something we didn't anticipate was that our Spanish partners also got interested in what we were writing, and of course looking at all the photos. So much so that they persuaded us to translate the whole blog into English, so they could read it as well. And to complete this snowball effect of interest, it is now even being translated into Spanish so that all their families will be able to read it, too.

I wish now that there had been a similar blog for the Spanish visit to us last spring! Oh well, next time... I can truly recommend this to anyone doing a student exchange. It's well worth the effort, and with the modern tools relatively easy, too.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

CCK08 - looking for patterns

The second week of the connectivism course has got me thinking about the relationship between educational theory and practice. The weekly readings and following some of the discussions, have started me on a quest for patterns to help me decide if I could apply some of the theoretical approaches to my work as a high school language teacher.

In the course of this week I have learned that I am not quite competent enough to engage in academic English discourse in a productive way. It's rather disappointing, since I would like to somehow be able to be part of the negotiation of an emerging theory or pedagogy. After all, I will eventually be in the front line of implementing it if it gains a more official status. Yet, it seems that as far as education is concerned, the movement is always top-down - researchers formulate their theories first (up there somewhere in their ivory towers), and if ministries, local authorities and other vested interest groups buy into it, they will start putting pressure on practising teachers to implement them.

When I did my MA and teacher training some 20 years ago, it was all about differentiated education. We were asked to read the theories , but there was no advice as to how to incorporate it in the classroom. Teachers were intuitively expected to find their own methods, since we are all individuals as teachers with our own preferences and strengths and weaknesses. I can still remember working long hours at night trying to prepare personalised exercises to cater for very heterogeneous students. I would argue that it was practically impossible for any one teacher to reach each individual student in big classes of 30-40. But the 'good' teachers were the ones who sacrificed all of their own time pursuing this.

Next it was the introduction of constructionism, together with pedagogies and methods, such as co-operative learning, experiential learning and inquiry-based learning. I really worked hard to understand what this was all about, especially as I, myself, was the product of the good old behaviorist methods, which must have been ingrained in my system, and which teachers are said to inadvertently perpetuate in their own teaching. I read volume after volume looking for some pointers as to how to change my classrooms into constructivist workshops where all students would enjoy learning at their own pace making use of their varying abilities. The best advice I ever found was along the lines: you won't truly have understood what constructionism is until you are able to verifiably apply it in your classroom. I doubt I truly understand it even now...

And yet, I did see the need for a change and improvement of school practices. I was just left so alone, as many colleagues were happy enough with their cushy tenures and refused to try anything new. Rejecting new methods while securing long-established comfort zones is a strong survival mechanism inside the teaching profession, quite understandably, though, given the scarcity of further training budgets, for example. In addition, the straight-jacket of externally-imposed testing routines (highly respected by students' parents, by the way), still called for the old-style rote learning of pre-set facts. I also saw warning examples of ill-advised, although well-meaning and enthusiastic, teachers applying experiential learning - eg. my daughter's maths teacher, whose adage, when a student asked for help or guidance, was simply 'you will get it'. In the end, my daughter never 'got it' and now hates mathematics! Or whole schools adopting inquiry-based learning as their only method, leading to each and every teacher starting new courses in all the different subjects by asking students to define their own inquiry problems. Students soon got tired of exactly the same repetition and lost their initial motivation.

And now it's personalised learning and connectivism that are the latest educational hype. Even though I do appreciate many aspects of connectivism, I don't yet believe that it will be the one and only solution to revolutionise education. I can already picture schools letting their students loose on the net to find their own PLEs and PLNs, but what they learn and understand is another question. More and more, I think that connectivism is a good way to learn in small doses. Yet, young people especially still need some face2face interaction, too. They need
guidance about critical thinking, media literacy and focused reflection- I don't believe they will just 'get it'. Personalised learning and connectivism, yes, since they seem to enhance the enthusiasm and motivation of students, who would otherwise waste their time in the drone zones of traditional classrooms. Further, from a teacher's point of view, finally I am beginning to see the light at the end of a long and confusing tunnel of managing heterogenous student groups. Thanks to modern technology, it will at last be possible for students to partly tailor their own learning without the teacher having to do it for them! What's more, teachers won't have to work in isolation any more, if your own colleagues are reluctant collaborators you can establish your own online learning and sharing network.

But not exclusively personalised learning and connectivism, as an end in themselves, or for everybody to the same extent. Learners are different, and teachers should avoid rushing on the bandwagon and throwing the baby with the bathwater - even behaviorism still works in certain learning contexts!

I look forward to the learning and insights of the coming weeks.

Photo: Droplet Patterns by rob.owen76 on flickr

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

CCK08 - random connections of today

Many people have blogged and commented about the random nature of connective knowledge. Going through some of the course material, and getting into the hyperlink-hopping mode certainly does lead to random connections. I somehow got to look at Stephen Downes' slideshow 'Toward a New Knowledge Society', in which this slide 14 with its Andy Warhol Marilyn pictures found its way into my dreams last night.

Waking up this morning the Andy Warhol method of multiplying the same image over and over again with varying colours to create a piece of pop art made me think of all the blogs of this course. I have seen many summaries, mind maps, and other representations of this week's readings in different blogs. Basically, the content is the same, but it is presented in different forms. All these put together would create something remotely suggesting the idea of the Marilyn prints. I know, I know, this is vastly oversimplifying things - naturally each blogger or mind mapper has added their interpretations so it's not exactly the same as reproducing the same image in different colours. As far as my learning is concerned, I'm still struggling to find the significance of such a multitude of 'nodes in the network'. Possibly, just as Andy Warhol only used a certain number of Marilyn images to create the whole, out of the hundreds of blog posts on a particular theme, my job is to pick and choose the best ones / the ones that work for me.

Nevertheless, I started reading about Andy Warhol in more detail, and naturally came across his famous quote from 1968: "In the future everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes." (At this point I started worrying whether I should admit that I actually look for information in Wikipedia?? At least many of my colleagues at school don't usually accept it as reference in students' work.) This then led to the discovery of the latest adaption of this quote. Apparently the popularity of social networks and blogging has changed the quote into "On the Web, everyone will be famous for 15 people." Good, eh? I should check the validity of this statement during this course. I wouldn't actually talk about being famous, but making some connections - whether it will be min. 15 or not.

But the randomness continues. The quote made me think of numbers and remember to look at the chart that Roy Hanfling had made about the course posts on Moodle, which then got me to learn about the power law diagram (pheww, this was a link to Wikipedia, so no worries any more!). By then, after getting sidetracked so many times I started feeling slightly guilty of not sticking to my resolution of focusing on the weekly readings. Luckily, Stephen Downes' comment to Roy Hanfling gave me some consolation. He said: "It is in the contributions of the long tail that the most interesting contributions may be found."

So now I'm thinking of the great adventure that online learning can be. When before could we have explored so much, so easily by just clicking away from hyperlink to hyperlink, following every whim and instantly finding information? And just as my family's road trip across the US a decade ago revealed - it's worth venturing out to the less-trodden little sideroads for unpredictable and immemorable discoveries.

PS.PS. On flickr a conversation started how the rabbit in the photo seems to be dropping something, and what it might be. The last comment in the thread is: "he's dropping knowledge"! Which finally puts an end to all this randomness and brings me back to this week's course theme: What is knowledge ;)

Photo: Rabbit Rd. - Route 66 by dawnnakaya on flickr

Monday, 15 September 2008

CCK08 - new week, new start, going on a diet!

After the hectic first week time to refocus. In the course of devouring the abundant course material last week I came across a myriad of metaphors and analogies - "taking this course is like...". I'm now joining those ranks with my experience. For me the first week was like being treated to one of those luxurious cruise ship buffets, where invariably you end up eating too much with the inevitable indigestion that follows. Eyes bigger than your belly, appetite grows while eating - been there, done that...

After the rather ill-advised gorging, this week I know better to resist the temptation and only savour what I enjoy the most. I don't want to feel overwhelmed anymore. Last week was a strong reminder and a good learning experience of what the deluge of information means in practice. Still, I don't feel the need for more structure or guidance either. I am quite thrilled about creating my own ideal menu out of all the theories, academic mumbo jumbo (sorry, I have been a grassroots practitioner for too long!) and fascinating insights from so many different people. And definitely I don't wish to lose the wide selection to pick and choose from- there is always a little space left for some unusual, new tasting sensation even after a gala dinner.

This week I want to reflect a bit more deeply on the weekly readings. I indentified with Lisa's blog post about the constructivist nature of this course. For me it's been a few years since my last academic further studies at the university, so I desperately need to construct some
understanding of certain key ideas of connectivism in my mind before I feel confident enough to engage in the conversations more actively.

Always the pragmatist, though, I know that my main interest will be in the possible applications of connectivism into my everyday work as a high school foreign language teacher. Over the years, I have learned, though, that it does pay to try and stay up-to-date of the latest research and academic developments in education and try to apply some of it in small case studies at the school level. There should be more connections between educational researchers and teachers, I feel. The gap between these two worlds is often too wide. I am interested in seeing whether this course will manage to foster any such connections, or whether this network will soon have strictly separate subgroups of academics, teachers, IT specialists, participants in different countries etc. etc. Concerns about the lack of a prerequisite amount of theoretical knowledge have already been voiced. This kind of talk makes me feel rather intimidated and inferior plus very hesitant about daring to participate and comment. Although, at the end of the day, I will gladly leave the more academic hair-splitting of terms, for example, to the university circles.

Photo: Grand Gala Buffet by mikepilat on flickr

Saturday, 13 September 2008

CCK08 - a massive global classroom

Not thinking about all the obligations in my 'first life' I registered on the online course titled Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. Over 2000 participants from all over the world involved in finding new paths in education - and all this for free! Who could resist jumping at the chance?

During the first week, following the discussions around 'What is connectivism?' and trying to get through the interesting readings provided by the course facilitators George Siemens and Stephen Downes I have realized how totally addictive the online world can become. It has kept me glued to my laptop till early hours of the morning flitting all over the place (or as one participant, Nellie Deutsch, commented - it should now be 'all over the places'!). Ideas, theories, arguments and counter-arguments are still rather an incoherent mess in my head, to say the least, and consequently I have been more a lurker than an active participant. But maybe just as well. I am wondering about the real productivity of such a huge network. Unavoidably, a lot of the talk going on in the various forums is mere drivel. No wonder there has been a lot discussion about filtering and avoiding the 'noise' this week. I still haven't worked out how to stop all the hundreds of emails I inadvertently subscribed to when sending my first forum post. Unfortunately, I can't help getting sucked into giving all of them at least a cursory glance - just in case I find my perfect learning mate or a gem of an idea. 'Overwhelming', 'chaos' and 'exciting' are words that I have read over and over again this week - and they seem to quite aptly describe my own experience, too.

Apart from all the confusion about getting my bearings I managed to learn something about Google maps. I got rather obsessed by having my own pin on the map of course participants that Rodd Lucier had set up for us. I tried and retried in all different ways, but whenever I went back to the map to admire my pin amongst all the others, it had mysteriously disappeared! If it wasn't for the kind help and advice of Rodd himself and another participant, Pierfranco Ravotto, I wouldn't have learned in the end that Google maps only allows around 200 pins on one map and then makes a new 'page' and a new map for the next. So, I had, in fact, succeeded in adding my pin every time and appeared on page 3 about 6 times! How embarrassing... But now finally I am there! A good example of how motivation drives your learning irrespective of the time and effort needed ;)

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

New school year well on its way

Where did the long summer break disappear - once again? I seem to have taken an almost total break from anything school or work-related during my summer holiday. Must have really needed it, and thoroughly enjoyed it, too! Stress-free home life and only a short car trip to central Europe and England. Lovely!

But now it's full steam ahead again. Actually preparing a short presentation for a distance teaching seminar for tomorrow. I am a bit ambivalent about it all, since I have never ever prepared a distance course myself. But I am going to talk about students' interaction and collaboration in international school projects - a topic I hope will also be relevant to creators of distance courses.

While doing my slides I came across a nice tool for creating visual word clouds called wordle. Unfortunately, I got totally carried away with it - and am now putting the last touches to my presentation in the middle of the night. Not good! But anyway, here is a nice word cloud of my blog:
Nice, huh? But now on with my presentation or I won't be able to stay awake tomorrow to give it.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

My first fling with Ning

In my search for new tools for my international projects last school year I tried a wiki and a Ning network. After using Moodle before I was convinced that these 'flashier' tools would be more attractive for my students, most of whom are already well familiar with Facebook and other such networks. I hoped that the more personalized ‘bells and whistles’ would do the trick for enhanced activity and learning.

But unfortunately, reflecting on the work of last year, I must say I feel rather disappointed. I suspect that, at least partly, I have got my own lack of dedication and gumption to blame – at times other duties took my time from developing my networks full-heartedly. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling slightly disillusioned by the glittering promises of social networks for school purposes. True, it’s early days for me, and I am notorious for impatience, but still… Why aren’t students welcoming the new ways of learning with curious enthusiasm? Why does it seem like the same old drudgery of schoolwork for the vast majority?

Yesterday I read an interesting blog post by Jennifer, whose thoughts about using Ning actually made me sit down to reflect on my experiences. Compared with my previous projects, in which we used different simple discussion forums, the Ning actually produced far less discussion or interaction, even though I had expected the opposite. It seemed to me that active students were far more focused on creating their own profile pages and posting ‘inside joke’ comments to their own classmates than trying to get any intercultural communication started. In addition, there were a fair number of totally passive students, who did nothing but sign in, if that! Students didn’t comment on any of the beautiful photos either – probably because they were uploaded by teachers, although depicting interesting cultural student events at the participating schools. Interestingly, no student uploaded any pictures, although some did share a couple of videos they liked. Nobody took to writing any blog posts either, despite me trying to encourage this by writing one as an example. Again it was a teacher's initial input, maybe this is the flaw - the initiative should come from interested and self-motivated students, I feel.

I am wondering whether active students are happy with their existing private networks and simply find these school ones an uninteresting extra burden. And those who are not into this kind of activity outside school can’t be bothered at school either, or find it too hard for some reason (not tech-savvy enough, afraid of using a foreign language, especially when classmates might read what you write??). Just like Jennifer, I am asking myself whether the ‘pretty packages’ of these networks are actually too distracting and time-consuming for students. In addition, possibly some more introverted students find putting themselves out there in a school context too revealing and would rather hide, just like in ordinary classroom situations.

Actually I’m now thinking I might have to reconsider making everybody in my EFL classes participate in online projects. Maybe they should be the welcome new challenge for students who already have a blog or other online presence to perhaps widen their networks internationally and stretch themselves in their use of English? After all, there is enough drivel on the net as it is - why should my reluctant students add to it in their dreadful 'finglish'!

Friday, 13 June 2008

Teachers and students today - worlds apart in their use of technology?

While designing online projects I have been thinking about the seemingly huge generation gap between what Marc Prensky, the American advocate for game-based learning, calls the digital natives – that is, our students - and the digital immigrants - and that would be us, the teachers.

According to Prensky, a lot of the new motivational problems at school stem from the old teaching mentality which simply doesn’t reach the students, whose brains may even have become different in this fast-paced digital world of instant messaging and multi-tasking. Now some of this does resonate with me. I must admit I still largely believe in the old ‘no pain, no gain’ adage about learning, or that you learn certain things more easily in small doses, step-by-step, in, at least ostensibly, a logical order. But when I prepare my classes accordingly, and present them to a group of students to the best of my understanding and ability, it’s often moans and groans and dozing youngsters I am confronted with.So, what if this new generation truly learns very differently – making sense out of chaos in random order, sometimes progressing in giant leaps, which, of course, makes my gradual approach simply too boring to pay any attention to? However, there is already research to question Prensky’s assumptions about the 21st-century youngsters’ differently wired brains.

JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), a British committee supporting education and research, has published a report revealing that, what they call, the ‘Google generation’, lacks the critical and analytical skills to assess the information they find on the web. So maybe we older-generation teachers still serve a purpose in guiding our students how to navigate the stormy information seas of the new millennium, as long as we overcome our initial fear of using the new technology for educational purposes.

Thinking about all this technology use made me remember the first piece of technology that really changed my life. It was back in the 70s, when I got my first portable cassette recorder that suddenly allowed me to make my own tapes containing my favourite 70s glam-rock tunes in the exact order I wanted. For years, that recorder was the only technological gadget I had in my room. Today, it sounds like ancient history. Funny enough, just this school year, I used a cassette in one of my English groups, and the students were mystified to see it. What is THAT?? What, it has two sides?? How on earth does it work?

It was as alien to them as many of their modern music gear is to me. I can still vividly remember how mobile phones and computers literally revolutionized my communication patterns, whereas most of my students now, of course, take them for granted in their lives, not thinking twice about it. So at least in this sense, I am indeed a digital immigrant – yet, nevertheless, I still remain eager to keep learning new things all through my life.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Turning the tables

When travelling in Asia one of my greatest pastimes and sources of amusement, as an English teacher, has been spotting all the hilarious uses of English in countries such as Japan and South Korea.

Even many websites have been set up to sneer at the stupidity of Japlish and Konglish. While in Korea two years ago I asked my colleague there why there seemed to be such a fad in using, often non-sensical, combinations of English words everywhere - on T-shirts, billboards, company marketing and the like. His answer was that using English gives the image of a successful, global company, or simply that people there just like the sound of English words, no matter what they mean. Hmm, made me a bit ashamed of my superior, know-it-all western attitude. After all, why should everybody all round the world know and use perfect English?

Well, this year we have a young Japanese teacher assistant at our school. After the annual teacher-student baseball game on the last day of school this spring, he was bemused, even slightly shocked, to see one of our students wear a T-shirt with a kanji character printed on the front. According to him, the character meant 'sh*t'! No doubt the boy had chosen it because Chinese and Japanese characters are very much the fashion here, and we seem to like the look of them - most of the time being totally ignorant of the meanings behind the appealing-looking shapes. Exactly the same phenomenon as Japlish or Konglish, but this time the joke is on us! It's good to turn the tables every now and then.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The battle over textbooks

According to Finnish law, education should be free for all. Up to the end of the 9-year compulsory comprehensive school, even all books and other study materials are provided by the state. From then on, in the senior secondary school / senior high school, there are no tuition fees, but students will have to buy their course books, notebooks etc. themselves. This has been an accepted practice for as long as I remember.

Yet, in recent years, winds of change have started blowing. The national high school students' union has started strongly voicing the opinion that, according to the above mentioned law of free education, no teacher can demand a student to buy a course book. Makes sense, doesn't it? Spokespeople from this union visit all the high schools in Finland at the beginning of every school year in August, want to see all the students behind closed doors with no teachers present and tell them about this, among other important matters. Good, somebody's making students aware of their rights.

In our modular, course-based high school curriculum, the cost of course books amounts to several hundred euros per year. Let's take English as an example. During the 3 years of high school, a student will study 8 courses of English, each of them with a separate course book. The books we typically use are produced by big teams of active teachers, university people and native speakers in one of the big publishing companies over many years of involved research into the requirements of our national final examination (the so-called 'matriculation' examination) and the latest trends in language education around the world. They do a good and thorough job, but for this, the publisher asks students to pay €20-30 per book. That times 8 and you will get the cost of English studies in a Finnish high school. And the same routine applies to all other subjects as well. High school course books are big business for publishers in our country.

I probably wouldn't have thought twice about this if it wasn't for a student last week questioning this practice that we normally take for granted. In a big group of 35 students it took me 5 weeks until I noticed that this particular boy, conveniently sitting at the back of the class and hiding behind his rucksack strategically placed in the middle of his desk, didn't own a textbook. He had been fairly active in class, peeping for answers in his friend's book, so little did I suspect anything for weeks. When asked about how he was studying English without a book his replies where:
1) I don't need a book coz I know it all anyway! (He gets average grades.)
2) The guy from the union told us you can't demand us to buy a book.

At first I was furious. How dare he even dream of ever knowing it all in English (naturally, his outburst was just a feeble excuse, but I took it seriously in my anger)! And secondly, I needed to find out the official stand on this.

Principal's advice: No, you can't demand a book. Nor can you use grading as punishment for not having a book.

Colleagues' advice: Just tell him that we are no second-rate school where you can pretend to learn by listening only and without doing any homework. Also, you can give him a lower grade for not doing any homework during the whole course (for English, students have some homework - from the course book - every day).

None of this advice really gave me the answer I needed. I still don't know what to do to be fair. The truth is, today students do learn a lot of English from TV and the Internet. Why should we teachers restrict their vocabulary and knowledge of English to what the course book team, in their great wisdom, deem worth learning? Yet, my experience also tells me that many students are deluding themselves that merely passively understanding a lot of vocabulary from their particular, often limited, fields of interest counts as excellent knowledge of English. "But who needs or uses all this fancy, formal vocabulary that the course books are teeming with?" is a frequently heard, frustrated lament from certain students.

Exactly. Who's to decide which English words each student needs? Should each of them have their own personalized curriculum? Maybe that would make them enjoy learning more and be more motivated. Out with the books, and real use of the foreign language instead! But would that help students reach their optimum grade in the demanding national final exams? Do I, as a teacher, dare to discard the course book and truly innovate? Wouldn't most students - conservative as surprisingly many of them are these days - simply reject the idea? How many parents would oppose? So many questions that I think I will still have to ponder about this some more...

Do the math

Last week of school before our long summer break and time to reward graduating students with various prizes – mainly cheques donated by local or national companies or books from foreign embassies, for example.

Once again I was struck by the striking disparity in these prizes. For decades now, mathematics has clearly been put on a pedestal way above any other high school subject. The best students in mathematics receive a considerable cheque of €1,000, whereas, in comparison, students excelling in their co-operation and people skills in and outside school, or in many foreign languages, get a puny sum of €100 tops.

How revealing of the values of our society. Mathematics and numbers, cost-effectiveness and economic gain rule over softer, humanistic values. I wish that rather than making our students specialize more and more and at an earlier and earlier age, we would start focusing on educating them into more rounded human beings with an appreciation of the arts, a sound philosophical and ethical understanding plus communication and language skills combined with enough cultural sensitivity to be active participants not only in their own countries, but on global arenas as well. Add mathematical and scientific brilliance to that and maybe some of the problems of this world would be approached in brand-new, enlightened and innovative ways.

Photo: Mathematics by Robert Scarth on flickr

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Tolerance, intercultural dialogue and student exchanges

A hectic spring term with two foreign partner groups visiting our school is coming to a close. Time for reflecting on the experience once again. The above postcard found at a bar in Brussels last Christmas came to my mind. More and more I am thinking about the concept of tolerance and the challenges of establishing true intercultural dialogue in these school projects.

On the surface my school is all for organising these visits. But when the guests arrive, it is almost merely the odd few teachers in charge of the visit who have any interaction with the guests whatsoever. Yes, everybody tolerates the guests' presence, but they all remain disappointingly passive, some tantamount to indifferent - no dialogue is initiated. Interacting with the guests is generally considered a disruption to the daily routine, and the charged curriculum just simply doesn't leave even one 45-minute lesson to spare for welcoming the guests into the classroom for some cultural exchange. Maybe I have become far too cautious as well, going to all lengths to avoid any confrontation with my colleagues and consequently organising the guests' schedule so it interferes with the general running of school as little as possible. In fact, after the second visit this spring, one colleague said to me - with all positive intentions - "oh, you really organised the visit well this time, we didn't even notice that there were foreign students here for two weeks!" For me, this of course was an indication that the whole visit had been a total flop from the point of view of enhancing intercultural dialogue. In the words of Daniel Goeudevert, who wrote an article titled 'Nothing from nothing' in 'The End of Tolerance?' (published by the Alfred Herrhausen Society for International Dialogue, 2002, ISBN 1-85788-317-9):

Real tolerance - of the solid variety - is a process. It is not enough to simply bring together people from different cultures, of different ages and sexes. The important thing is how these people treat one another and others...

As for students themselves hosting the guests in their homes, gladly quite a few seemed to enjoy it. However, when the two groups came together at school, as before the separate national groups were drawn together to speak their own languages - yet again, despite our attempts to encourage our group to mingle and mix. I have written about this so many times before - it only occurs automatically and naturally to very few people - young or old - to take the initiative and be sociable and make an effort to get to know somebody in these school contexts. Some students complain that they simply haven't got anything in common with their host or guest. They have little understanding of the fact that we teachers are not matching agents to find soulmates and best friends for life for every participant. Nevertheless, I can appreciate their wish, as unrealistic as it is. One piece of advice for anyone ever doing a student exchange - never, ever let students see the guests' / hosts' photographs before the allocation of families has been done! All young people seem to be terribly fixated on looks - understandably, but sadly. And quite honestly, at the end of the day, when we are talking about a homestay of 1-2 weeks, you should be able to get along with anybody, when allergies and other health restrictions have naturally been taken into account in advance.

At the moment, I feel somewhat disillusioned about the whole business of school exchanges. I keep asking myself whether it really is worth all the extra hours and bother. After 10 years of doing this, still no great snowball effect of booming interest and enhanced learning is in sight. Yet, the same old beaming light still keeps me going, I guess (as I blogged in March) - focusing on the few individuals for whom these projects are life-changing experiences.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Learning is like...

Do you ever feel as though your students see you as their arch-enemy? Particularly our first-graders, fresh out of the compulsory comprehensive school, often find it hard to shed off the image of the teacher as somebody who is there only to make their lives a misery with unreasonable demands on their freedom and freetime. You are the evil witch who assigns horrible homework every single day - damn me if I am to regularly drink that deadly potion! And there am I, so keen to facilitate, help and support those who have found the reason and motivation TO LEARN. Learning is not supposed to be like force-feeding geese in order to be able to enjoy the mouth-watering foie-gras as a reward, is it?

One day, just before lunch, when all my students could focus on was what would on the canteen menu that day, I decided to make a little exercise to find out something about their attitudes towards learning. In pairs they were to come up with an analogy comparing learning to food. Just look at these samples:

Learning is something negative that most students don't like (even infested with worms, although I must say the worm is rather cute)
NB. The good bits (the raisins) at school are your friends and the lunch break, but lessons are the boring, tasteless grey stuff around them. (I've still got a lot to do with my students' English spelling too, it seems! )

And how about introducing 'lifelong learning' when, really, it should be quick and easy for this generation living on the fast lane!

It is a less known fact that despite Finland's brilliant success in the PISA student achievement assessments, our students rank embarrassingly low when it comes to attitudes towards school and learning. 'No pain, no gain' - maybe that's the old belief still perpetuated here.

I want more students to realize what fun learning can be! What triumph when after many trials and errors you finally succeed in learning something new! It doesn't often come automatically and without effort, but that's just what makes it even more rewarding in the end. But then I'm a product of a different generation - I have grown up not just picking the sweet raisins out of the liver casserole, but enjoying the whole plateful. Life has taught me patience and perseverance, but instant messenging can't wait. How are we teachers to reconcile these two worldviews to make school a fun and pleasant place for us all?

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Scheduling is critical in global online projects

Interesting days, watching another online project develop on Wikispaces. Once again I am realising that no matter how long and how well I try to prepare in advance, the outcome is always somewhat unpredictable, and unforeseen twists and changes complicate things, scheduling being one of the most challenging aspects to get right. Although I personally like our 5-period school year here in Finland, it is often not flexible enough for international projects.

This time round I started planning as early as last summer, finding partners in the autumn term and got everything more or less in place before Christmas. And still, even my own schedule got out of synch due to an unexpected loss of one whole week because of students' work experience and school festivals. At the moment, we only have two more weeks left before our groups and timetables change again, but we are still waiting for most of our partners to show up online.

Oh, it was so frustrating in class today, when it was just my Finnish students messaging each other in English on the private project Ning network. The following slightly sarky exchange between two boys in my group didn't actually make my day:

"Hi! Is someone alive?"

"Alive and well... (PS. Wow, finally something on the 'global' forum :o)

I know, maybe I am a bit too sensitive at the moment, but I can't help losing face a little whenever this happens. This is not the first time. I do hope that my partner colleagues will soon get things moving in their schools! Oh well, if at first you don't succeed, then try, try and try again. One day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I will manage to make it work for my students.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Reflections on international student exchanges

After a few incredibly hectic weeks I finally have some time to sit down and reflect on our latest student exchange programme. Last week we had 'an invasion' of 17 students and 3 teachers from Singapore at our school.

As usual, it was a homestay arrangement with the families of some of our students, and this time round even the teachers were accommodated by me and two colleagues. So, I could say for the last month or so, I have been truly multi-tasking in the roles of travel agent, programme manager, overall coordinator, taxi driver, guest house hostess, press liaison coordinator, janitor, caterer, cook, cleaning lady... possibly a dozen other roles, and all this on top of doing my daily teaching load as well. No wonder our Singaporean colleagues asked incredulously: "Don't you have staff?" when we started rearranging the tables and chairs in our school cafeteria after our welcoming party on Sunday. No, here in Finland, staff at schools is downsized to the bare minimum with each person outside the teaching staff having very strictly defined duties and working hours, which leads to us teachers having to be prepared to do almost anything not to lose face in front of foreign guests. And it goes without saying that we teachers do all this with no extra pay - the popular belief being that as you clearly enjoy doing it (otherwise you'd be crazy to take on so much!), surely you don't also expect to be paid for it!

(Do try to negotiate this before embarking on student exchanges. I know in some countries this is standard practise, and wisely so!):
- at least one of the teachers in charge of any such extensive exchange should be free from classroom teaching and provided with a qualified substitute for the time of the visit.

Thinking back to the busy week of running around, I thought at first that maybe my 10 years of doing these various projects would be enough. After all, I haven't managed to create a lot of enthusiasm or momentum among the majority of colleagues and students for these activities. It's always a small minority who get involved. But then again, I always come to the conclusion that if it's just one student who gets the spark of wanting to be an active, intercultural participant, then I should feel happy. Over 10 years, it's hopefully been at least a dozen who have truly broadened their horizons in our projects, not to mention the knock-on effect on their families and siblings at home. And just have a look at this picture from our sauna-cottage evening to see the fun young people across continents can have together - makes it all seem so worthwhile again.

Intercultural sensitivity and communication skills are not something you can learn from lectures or reading books, you will have to be thrown into new situations, and be guided to reflect on possible misunderstandings afterwards. Debriefing is what we will be doing with our group of hosting students on Thursday.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

PHEWW - thank you Wikispaces!

Just as I thought, despite some little gnawing doubts, an unexpected server failure at Wikispaces was soon fixed as the day started in the western parts of the world. I am so relieved! All my project work is up and running as it should be.

I was particularly impressed by the efficiency of the Wikispaces team in sending personal email replies to those who had queried about this. What a nice touch - much missed in my part of the world! I just love Wikispaces and would recommend it to any teacher. Top marks for their dedication and professionalism.

One thing that this experience made me remember is that it's actually real people behind all these Internet services and widgets and bells and whistles. Sometimes I tend to ignore this when it's just me, my laptop, the keyboard and stuff that I can magically make happen on the screen. It's reassuring to know that there are people I can turn to when technology doesn't do what I would expect it to.

Then again, we do hear about communication cables being cut in the ocean that disrupt Internet connections between continents, or friends mysteriously losing all their digital photos from their hard discs. What if one day the whole WWW shuts down? Oh well, rather than fretting about Internet doom, I will continue my adventures in the wonderland of 21st-century technology, with a little help from my friends on the net every now and then.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The issue of language in global school projects

During my short time of online networking, I have got to know and enjoy many blogs of American teachers, some of them teaching around the world in American or international schools. A lot is going on in this world, so much so that it seems to me that a lot of Europe is still hopelessly stuck in old 20th-century school practises while American educators are boldly going where no teacher has ever gone before. Not a surprise to me, though. I can still remember one great insight I got into the American spirit while spending my Fulbright year there. I and my family travelled to North Carolina where we visited the Wright brothers’ memorial at Kitty Hawk.

Sitting at the foot of the monument on that hill, it suddenly dawned on me how Europe is filled with statue after statue and memorial after memorial of ancient kings and queens, war heroes and philosophers. But Kitty Hawk celebrated two courageous and determined inventors who went to great lengths to fulfil their dream that would radically transform the whole world. Sometimes I feel that in Europe novel approaches are stifled with too much cynicism and caution. At least in my country, people with high academic degrees and learned book knowledge are generally more valued than dynamic, innovative practitioners.

The same goes for implementing 21st-century technology into schools. In Finland, there is a lot of lip service about the educational use of online tools, but not much action yet. Talk about computer games for learning here and you are labelled as a recklessly irresponsible teacher. Learning is not supposed to be entertaining or fun! Talk about the many advantages of American schools, eg. building students’ self-confidence and presentation skills, which greatly impressed me during my teaching year in the US, and most of my colleagues are all too keen to point out how poor, in their opinion, Americans’ general knowledge about anything outside their own country is. So many stereotypes, prejudices, and unquestionable ethnocentric conceptions. True, maybe much of it is to do with the hard to change educational institutions in general. The American blogs I read are probably written by a group of pioneers, while the vast majority of schools and teachers there are still as oblivious to the dire need of shifting schools as we are here in Europe. I’m just speculating here, of course.

Anyway, I can’t help being fascinated to see all the marvellous online projects being carried out in English-speaking schools around the world. I have got a lot of inspiration and helpful ideas from them into my own projects – so far almost exclusively carried out with other non-native English-speaking students. I feel it’s a pity that the popular belief is that there is no point in trying to involve any native English speakers in these projects, since they would very soon get bored and tired of their language being so imperfectly used by EFL speakers. Then again, I can see why. It often makes me cringe to realize how dull and unimaginative even my brightest and most intelligent students come across in English. It’s not their fault, though. They are still made to learn the language as an objective linguistic system, totally separate from their personality. When confronted with an authentic language use situation they are unaccustomed to expressing their true selves in this foreign medium.

I feel teachers around the world should take the challenge to collaborate much more across these linguistic lines. But it will require a fair bit of adjustment from both sides. Firstly, we EFL teachers will have to work towards making our students confident communicators in English to be able to express their ideas clearly and interestingly enough to be taken seriously by native speakers. By the same token, native English teachers will have to sensitise their students to be empathetic towards others who may not be quite so eloquent in their use of English. Intercultural communication should be part of everybody’s education, not only dealt with in foreign language classes.

Another challenge will be to find the common ground in different curricula around the world. Foreign language teachers, like myself, will have to remember that they can’t simply expect native speakers to be nothing but language practise partners for their students. Similarly, native speakers can’t expect students from other countries to play the role of mere informants for a particular curriculum unit they happen to be studying.

I feel that everybody’s worldview would be significantly broadened and global communication enhanced if young students had more experience in collaborative projects including both native and non-native English speakers.

Orville Wright by cpence on Flickr


What a shock this morning when I was going to continue getting my wikispaces finalised for the launch of a new project involving several schools in different countries. I worked on the site last night, without any problem. Yet, this morning, all I got was this:

Nothing but the frame of the page, but all the contents just plain BLANK! Hours and hours of work just disappeared. OUCH! Silly me, haven't made any backups either...

Judging from a bunch of posts in the wikispaces discussion from others experiencing the same problem, I am keeping my fingers crossed that it is just a temporary hitch and will soon be sorted out by the wikispaces team. Oh, I do hope so! You see, I have a couple of other wikis, too, that all have this same problem now. A lot of the stuff in those is totally irretrievable. Gone with the wind...

I guess what I am learning here is to keep regularly saving backups for all my online content in the future. As I am not an ICT specialist, but rather a lay-person user of the tools, I have been just blithely enjoying all the wonderful new services without a care in the world about their possible vulnerability.

I am still optimistic and hopeful, and promise that the moment my pages are back online, I will start making the backups. Please, please, keep your fingers crossed for me!

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

What is meaningful learning today?

While buried under a never-ending pile of exams to mark again (and increasingly frustrated with the poor-average performance of our students), I've tried to get inspired for the starting new courses. What I am trying to come to grips with is how to make constructivism the guiding principle in most of what is done in my classes. From my recent reading I want to quote David H. Jonassen's insights into meaningful learning. I found this quote from Jonassen's 'Learning to solve problems with technology' (2003) by Zia Ahmadi in the Journal of Educational Computing, Design & Online learning.

Children learn best by constructing their own knowledge. They learn better from each other. Learning best occurs when the teacher does not “teach,” but guides the students and facilitates the learning process by creating a productive environment in which the students can discover, explore, and build an artifact. David Jonassen argues that meaningful learning will occur when technologies engage learners in:

• Knowledge construction, not reproduction

• Conversation, not reception

• Articulation, not repetition

• Collaboration, not competition

• Reflection, not prescription

(Jonassen, p. 15)

A good list to remember when planning and introducing my new project to students. You see, with the type of students we receive in our school (mostly average and below) it's sometimes a hard job to sell any new practices, since many of the students just seem to prefer the 'old method', ie. leisurely passing the time while the teacher does the traditional 'chalk and talk' routine. No effort needed from students if they so choose. But what a waste of young, active, inquisitive minds!