Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The temptations of web networks

In his article ‘The rediscovery of discretion’, in the Economist annual magazine, 'The world in 2008', Andreas Kluth predicts that 2008 will see an extension in older people’s social networks online. He addresses many of the issues that have been bothering me in my short presence in Facebook. For one, not many people of my generation seem to have found their way there. Not at least those who I might imagine inviting as ‘friends’ (since I’m not into popularity games which would entail collecting ‘friends’ for the sake of it). In the present form of Facebook, I can’t see how I could become ‘friends’ with my current students either. A mutual feeling, I’m sure, as they would certainly not want their teacher prying into their wild weekends and other free-time pursuits. Secondly, what should I do with my friends there? I don’t really need another forum for sharing photos besides Flickr. I am also seriously concerned if I can spare the time to keep playing all the games of the thousands of applications – fun as they are. And finally, I must be too boring and serious, because I simply fail to get a kick out of finding my vampire alter-ego in search of friends to bite or learning that if I was a dessert, I’d be


All this skepticism has made my Facebook me a rather pathetic, lonely and awkward creature with barely a handful of friends. So far, Facebook for me has been reduced to a directory to track down and meet up again with long-lost friends - if you are lucky.

In his article, Kluth quite aptly describes networks, such as Facebook, as ‘walled gardens’ with their generic templates and pre-determined profiles. As such, maybe Facebook just isn’t what I’m looking for in a network. After all, initially I only joined to be in the know about what my students’ generation are involved in.

Kluth predicts, however, that this year:

In place of today's walled gardens of awkwarness, open toolkits will arise to allow anybody, with a few simple clicks, to create his or her own social network, which will be an extension of existing connections in real life.
As one example he advocates Ning, and for a reason. I, too, find Ning quite versatile for creating different networks, and above all, user-friendly enough for a non-tech language teacher like myself. There are many existing professional Ning networks for educators, among others Classroom 2.0. The opportunities in new forms of networking, as Kluth describes them, sound attractive and endless – mums’ networks, hobby networks, a new network for all your passions! But stop, stop! Time for a reality check! Rather than all of us getting into a frenzy of setting up all these networks of our own, we should bear in mind that there are only 24 hours in any one day to accomplish all the tasks of our busy lives, not to forget to have a non-virtual life, too. Personally, I'm reaching a point where running too many separate online user accounts, with all the filing needed to remember the ever varying log-in procedures, is eating into my time too much. (Possibly I'm not tech-savvy and organised enough to know how to cleverly manage all this...)

As for educational use, whether Ning is too formal, and somehow middle-aged, for our students’ liking remain to be seen, when I try it out for an international school project. Before the launch in only a couple of weeks, I must admit that I am a little bit apprehensive about how the students will take to it. Will it be a nuisance for them to join yet another online network, especially one that they haven’t chosen themselves? Will its undoubted schooliness kill all their interest? I am reminded here by what Clay Burrell wrote about avoiding schooliness in blogging. I agree with Vicky Davis about the need for Facebook to introduce new features where you can neatly separate your family, friends, professional colleagues and so on into their own protected compartments. After all, it would make sense to tap into something, where our students already have an online presence, and extend it into school use. I, for one, would welcome a tool that would allow me to manage all my chosen networks with one single password and a few clicks.

Having said all this, before a new ingenious tool is developed, I seriously need to be selective as to which networks really are worth investing some of my valuable time in. And I am probably really showing my age by asking if everything should be online in the first place! For me, even boring old last-century phone and email still serve a purpose, not to mention the rare delight in hand-written snail mail, even more cherished in its rarity these days.

Photo by josef.stuefer on Flickr
Photo by minor9th on Flickr

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Action plans for 21st-century schools

What does it take to tangibly change a school's culture to embrace 21st-century technology and the pedagogy required to truly benefit from it? More and more in-service training? Motivational outside facilitators, consultants and lectures to enlighten teachers? Or simply systematic grassroots activity and small, gradual changes, which would, hopefully in time, lead to a more profound paradigm shift in all teachers' classroom practices?

Last week, having a later morning to school and walking into the building from the parking lot, I was struck that the scene I saw in all the classroom windows was exactly the same - students sitting (many of them snoozing!) in their neat rows of desks, as usual, while the teachers were gesticulating in front. This reality was even more pronounced when I walked to the staff room through the hallway, and all I could hear from each and every classroom, was nothing but the teacher's monotonous voice. What, I wondered, was the majority of teachers' perception about their role as educators? Indeed, even though the world has changed tremendously since my childhood, has anything much deeply changed in education?

Pondering about how to bring about change at the school level, I am more and more convinced that it should be initiated inside the school and then gradually spread to involve more and more teachers until everybody has internalised the benefits and principles.

Jeff Utecht's recent post inspired by Marc Prensky's article in Edutopia about the process of technology adoption as a tool for school evaluation at first made me feel quite inadequate and inferior, and my school seem a real backward peripheria of dabblers. The proposed stages were:

1. Dabbling with technology
2. Doing Old things in Old Ways
3. Doing Old things in New Ways
4. Doing New things in New Ways

What if we turned these stages of technology adoption into questions that an evaluator could use during the evaluation process?

1. Is the technology being used “Just because it’s there”?
2. Is the technology allowing the teacher/students to do Old things in Old ways?
3. Is the technology allowing the teacher/students to do Old things in New ways?
4. Is the technology creating new and different learning experiences for the students?

On second thoughts, though, I realized that we will all have to start somewhere. Schools often seem to be rather closed fortresses effectively resisting any drastic changes, with many teachers as their most vocal and fierce guards. No wonder, since schools as institutions, at least in my country, have, since the very beginning, had the important role of preserving the traditions of a nation and ensuringthat they are passed on to the new generations. Yet, in the fast-moving modern world, where change is the order of the day, that limited old role is in dire need of expanded horizons or school education will soon become too stagnant, if not plain obsolete.

Seen positively from the point of view of school development, the above stages are quite useful. For example, I realized that a lot of my dissatisfaction with my school stems from me having my eyes firmly fixed on stage 4 and expecting sudden miracle transformations while most of my colleagues are happily stuck in stage 1, with no further goals or ambitions in this department. A prolific, readily sharing and innovative Finnish edublogger, Anne Rongas, wrote these stages as a teacher's path into the web (NB. my free translation from Finnish):

Technical stage: familiarizing yourself with the tools
Material bank stage: making use of the web as a channel for distribution and storage of materials
Interactive stage: applying the communicative tools of ICT to teaching
Net pedagogical stage: versatile pedagogical use of the web
The stage of openness and socializing: the creative development of new applications with colleagues and students
Obviously, school administrators - or those in power - need to have a clear vision about the goal and the schedule and procedures to reach it. Random grassroots experiments by a few teachers won't alone make any difference on the school level, however successful and meaningful they might be to the particular teachers and the students groups they are teaching at the time. Without this shared vision, together with peer-to-peer sharing, a lot of schools will merely carry on dabbling, and even believing that simply equipping their classrooms with state-of-the-art technology will qualify them as 21st-century establishments.

Thanks to the blogosphere, not every school needs to reinvent the wheel, but we can now learn from how these same questions have been tackled around the world.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Triumphs and tribulations of class groupwork

We have almost completed a unit where students worked in small groups to create a wiki to tell our soon arriving guests from Singapore about Finland. It was the first time I ever tried using Wikispaces in class.

I wanted to have a practise run with only my own students first, before the launch of my first ever international wiki-project next month. In my experience, Wikispaces was very user-friendly, and the students soon got the hang of it without lengthy demonstrations. For a non-tech teacher like myself, tools like this are invaluable in learning to embed some technology in my classroom practises. I had invited each student to join our wikispaces by email, and then guided them not to try and save their work exactly at the same time with another student working on the same page. Only once did one group get their work stalled, and had to restart.

However, what I wasn't too happy with was the performance of some of my students. Apparently, working in small groups presents unsurmountable problems for some for them. First of all, there is the process of group forming - agonising to some. Some researchers
recommend that the teacher should do this for them, making sure that each group has as even a distribution of boys and girls and different abilites as possible. If I ask students, the most vocal of them will quickly shout out that they want to form the groups themselves, which then leaves the few odd, quiet, shy and nerdy people sitting uncomfortably alone staring at the ceiling. Random selection would probably not lead to the best result either. Taking all this into account, this time I decided to let every pair of students sitting together join some others, but demanded, however, that each group must have both boys and girls. With a little bit of discreet help from me, in the end groups were formed fairly easily.

Next, it's the crucial planning phase of their work. As could be expected, some groups quickly thought of separate subtasks for each member and then went on working individually. They seemed to be happy enough, but I wouldn't call this groupwork.

Some students even put the headphones on to listen
to music and effectively cut themselves off from
the other students around them.

Even after I coached them at the beginning of the next class to consider the benefits of sharing their ideas, brainstorming, combining their strengths and weaknesses to achieve something more than each of them could manage individually, these adamant youngsters wouldn't budge. Probably a personality trait again, but also the result of our highly individualised school culture, where you only learn for yourself, you design your own learning paths, and you choose the courses and classes that you consider personally beneficial. I have noticed that especially many of the highest achieving and most intelligent students are often the keenest to work on their own, as if they arrogantly didn't want to lower themselves to sharing their knowledge with those who aren't in the same league with them. This is probably a rather misguided generalisation, but that's the impression I get, sadly.

Fortunately, to my delight, there were also the groups who worked well together from the beginning, made their plans together, worked together the whole time, decided on homework together and, I must admit, created more original products than the others. What's more, they quite noticably had more fun in class than the other groups. To me this is clear proof that genuine groupwork and sharing ideas with others as soundingboards does pay off. I've only got to think of a concrete and convincing way to try and share this insight with the whole class, so that the reticent others might get it, too.

All this makes me think more and more about the importance of developing students' social skills in our schools. True, teenage years are a traumatic time for many, but still, we teachers shouldn't just let students mope around and exist quietly in their own worlds well hidden behind their long head of hair, should we? Naturally, we can't expect everybody to be a suave centre of attention, but with little steps and gentle guidance even the most reserved and frightened youngsters might start coming out of their shells a little bit.

On the whole, it was a pleasure to be a teacher - actually a facilitator and guide! - in these classes. There wasn't a sign of the frequent passive yawning atmosphere of traditional language classes. Everybody was busy working (although I did catch some incorrigible slackers on messenger or playing games a few times!), lots of questions were flying about, more tech-savvy students helped others (even me when I got confused!), and, most importantly from the language learning perspective, they were really involved in using the foreign language for a purpose, not just to fill in gaps in a ready-made exercise. Students have got one more week to fine-tune their work on the wiki until next Thursday, when all the groups will orally present their pages and we will do the final evaluation of the unit. The finished pages, which will be qualitatively very heterogeneous, should be viewable online then.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Asia-Europe project Awards announced - an anticlimax

At long last we can put an end to all the speculations around last year's AEC-NET Award. An e-newsletter arrived today announcing the winners. Instead of rewarding the 3 most outstanding projects, as expected, the lame compromise this time was to give half of the award money to all the 6 finalists. I can understand why this decision was made - what else could they have done after all the protests during the ridiculous voting that I ranted about before Christmas.

Even though our project was one of the Award winners, I have no uplifting feeling of accomplishment as I had the previous times our project was recognized. Today I am only happy and relieved that it's all over... I hope some valuable lessons were learnt from this infuriating process and that it will never ever be repeated again!

Monday, 14 January 2008

Our baby steps into 21st-century classrooms

Today I got inspired by Kim Cofino's post about Moving Teachers into the 21st Century. In my school we are in the process of slowly moving into this direction. The big thing at the beginning of this year is supplying each classroom with a fixed dataprojector and an attached laptop. Wow! One classroom already has a Smart Board, although it's reserved mostly to the exclusive use of maths teachers. I can't wait for the installation, since I'm dying to use some net material to enliven my English lessons. However, good as this is, it's only the very beginning. I'm afraid most of my colleagues will simply see the new gadgets in the classroom as a replacement for the old OHP and slides. There is no talk yet about any changes in curriculum, or actual pedagogy to fully embed the use of the new technology. No talk about students' active net presences in our school context. And for the time being only 2 classrooms equipped with student computers, but as they are in constant teaching use (shortage of classrooms!), so an English teacher will really be lucky to get a chance to teach there once in a blue moon. Up to now, there has been absolutely no integration of ICT courses and any other school subjects - both are done totally independently.
I overheard our headteacher talk to our ICT teacher wondering how to 'force' teachers to actually use the new equipment. Her idea was to remove all the OHPs from the classrooms. Hmm... Maybe not such a brilliant idea. I can only imagine the outcry such an announcement would stir up among my colleagues! You can't force seasoned teachers to anything - they may agree in public, but in the safety of their closed classrooms, business will go on as usual. Old habits die hard, or how about teaching old dogs new tricks? It must be something to do with our personality, mustn't it? Some people's safe and structured lives are shattered by the slightest distraction, whereas others constantly seek the thrill of being active change agents.

I couldn't agree with Kim more that teachers are a species of their own. There are almost as many styles to do the job as there are teachers, and what's more, many of us have developed this exaggerated need to always be right, and to protect our own little territories at school. Don't you dare to invade mine and suggest to me a different approach! Although I quite like Kim's three-year plan to get the whole school involved, I am slightly dubious whether showcasing the work of the first-year willing teachers would work for us. Sadly, it is just not the Finnish way to proudly present your work - it's better to keep quiet and modest, unless you want to instil envy in your peers. Yet, maybe it would be about time to start changing this, too, for the 21st century. Only yesterday I read in the paper how a globally renowned gene researcher critised Finnish schools for not teaching kids enough presentation skills, or how to market wonderful new Finnish inventions. It's us teachers who should learn it first before we can guide our students. But this is another story.

Back to embedding technology into our everday classroom work. You've got to start with the willing, no doubt about that in my mind. Unfortunately, at the moment I am about the only willing teacher in my school - but I am not the headteacher or the ICT responsible. A real drawback in our Finnish school system is that schools have no funds to hire a full-time ICT support person. It's usually the maths/ICT teacher with an already full teaching load who gets lumbered with these tasks for a small compensation. They spend the time they see reasonable on guiding colleagues, which in our case is minimal. You've got to catch them at exactly the right moment with your queries. Moreover, this system doesn't require them to keep up with the latest, since this would require investing their own time after school. No wonder things in this field don't shift in our school. It seems ironic that many teachers around the world are up in arms because their school administration is blocking the use of certain Web 2.0 tools. We have access, but there is no willingness to grab it. In the end, why am I even complaining? Why don't I just go ahead with it, irrespective of my colleagues? No doubt I will, but it's a rather lonely existence, I can assure you. I'd love to share, consult and collaborate!

Interestingly, even many of our students seem to be as resistant to change as my colleagues. Sometimes I despair at how conservative the majority of our students are. Just last week I introduced an interesting article from the Students 2.0 blog about the use of technology at schools. I asked my students to write replies to the Scottish boy who had written it - fully expecting them to agree with him that, of course, students should be exposed to more technology at school. Quite the contrary, my students were wondering what on earth the writer was going on about. According to them, school is school and technology use is something outside school that everybody should be responsible for learning themselves. No need for teachers' guidance here, they burst out! I've got to get back to this with them in their next lesson, since I'm afraid they don't fully understand what incorporating technology would actually mean for their learning experience. They described our school as advanced and high-tech, because they can watch YouTube videos in some classes. Mere passive reception, or using the Internet as a resource library to find information are examples of advanced technology incorporation for them.

It's a long a winding road ahead of us...

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

The mysteries of motivation

For the last year our small school development group has been pondering over the concepts of motivation and self-directed learning. For a long time, these have been rather elusive among our students leading to a lot of teacher frustration. Why do these kids drag themselves to school day after day only to sit in class yawning, fiddling with their mobile phones, learning very little? We looked for reasons in our style of teaching - maybe we are too behind the times and fail to reach today's teens anymore. Partly true, I'm sure. What's more, many of our methods still allow mere passive reception from the part of the students - enough to lull many of them into daydreams or half sleep. Where's the action, active participation, sparking their creativity and curiosity? What about the students themselves? What is wrong with this young generation who don't seem to get truly engaged and interested in much at school? Passivity -often tantamount to apathy - among young people is worrying.

It wasn't until December, when we got the chance to visit a motivational researcher at Helsinki University, that I got some new insight into these baffling questions. Her clear message was that teachers may be able to temporarily awaken students' interest in class by using something out of their bag of magic tricks accumulated over the years. Yet, this fleeting moment of interest shouldn't be mistaken for true motivation. According to her, the most important prerequisitive for the development of inner motivation to learn is KNOWLEDGE. A penny dropped for me.

When students enter our high school they have already been learning EFL for 7-9 years, and it's amazing how huge the differences in their knowledge are. We receive students who can't formulate the simplest English sentence or utterance, or have any understanding that English isn't simply Finnish translated word by word - which, for example, leads to sentences without any articles, prepositions (as these don't exist in Finnish!) or totally jumbled word order. Put these students together with those who read Harry Potter in the original version in their freetime in a big heterogenous group of 36 and you've got your work cut out for you. No wonder these poor kids can't find the motivation to learn. They simply lack the strategies to process a foreign language, and consequently never have any positive experiences of success in a foreign language class.

When it comes to finding solutions we are back to square one. Our fast-paced, too hectic in fact, high school curriculum doesn't allow us to start from scratch with the students whose previous knowledge is insufficient. Should we just consider them lost causes and concentrate on those students who more or less get it? After all, students can stop formal schooling at the age of 16, before entering senior high school, so there is no obligation to graduate from senior high school. I must admit I feel very uneasy about abandoning young people like that. Of course, we try to guide them to search for private tuition, but not all of them can afford it. In the past students used to be grouped according to their level so that it was easier to find the pace that best suited each level, but it was soon found out that the lowest achieving groups got branded as failures, which so demoralised them that the system was abolished years ago. Yet, the present system doesn't seem to work for them much better.

This is probably yet another one of those eternal pedagogical and social dilemmas for us teachers to discuss and work on.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008


What bliss - over 2 weeks of lazy holidays in Britain. Finally some time to catch up with some reading, especially as we had no Internet connection either, so no excuse to be drawn into any net activities - although I did miss my lovely little laptop companion at times...

And now it's 2008 and back to school. A lot is awaiting me this spring - exciting stuff, starting with the Singaporeans' visit in the first week of March. Time for the host family hunt again.

While we were away, a parcel had arrived from America. What a marvellous surprise from our exchange student from last summer and her family. A beautiful compilation album of some of her pictures from Finland.

In leather covers and such colourful glossy pages with photos in varying arrangements and sizes. I was amazed at the quality of it and straight away tracked down the webpage of the company called Shutterfly who does these. Well worth checking out, and the prices are not half bad either! When I get a good collection of pictures from my travels or an important occasion I will definitely compile my own photobook, too. Sometimes it's so comforting to actually hold a book in your hands, and leaf through paper pages instead of clicking away and staring at the screen, isn't it?