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.