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!

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