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.