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'!

4 comments:

Jen said...

I'm so glad to see you post about this. I'm beginning to think the format is just not natural for building a certain types of communities. I'm really starting to believe everyone just needs to find their own space(s) for publishing (text, photos, video, whatever) and another space for aggregating stuff published by other people. Throw in a chat room or simple discussion board, and I think that may be all we need! Great reflection!

sinikka said...

Thank you for your comment Jen! I am also beginning to think along the same lines as you. Students, too, have a lot on their plates these days and having too many separate networks and platforms to create profiles for and keep updating (especially if they are required/imposed on them by the teacher!)easily hides the wood from the trees.

Anonymous said...

I am also not sure about using Ning for educational purposes. Perhaps the current trend towards using social networks for educational purposes is hampered by the fact, that 'social' networks are exactly that for young people - just a way of socialising.

I think most young people see social networking as an opportunity to chat to their mates, not as a means to learn something new. It's a leisure time activity... or something they do to avoid doing traditional studying.

Are there any young people out there, who feel they have learnt something valuable from the time they have spent on social networking sites?

sinikka said...

Anonymous,

You seem to think traditional learning is the only way to learn. I wonder what exactly you mean by traditional learning. I, for one, am rather tired of the old traditional learning, as it seems to motivate so few young people these days. Maybe people of my generation learnt like that in the simpler and slower old days... Schools need to really think seriously about bringing education into the 21st century - the old factory-methods of the industrial era just don't cut it any more.

One role of education, in my opinion, would be to guide students into more serious online publishing on networks than just the free-time, socializing function they are well familiar with. There has been some talk about differentiating between social and educational networks - they would share some of the same applications, but their purpose should be different, and that's where young students still need the guidance of us teachers.

Actually, I have been giving this some more thought and will write another blog post soon...