Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Transparency in project presentations

Listening to project presentation at the recent AEC-NET conference made me think about how best to demonstrate what a project really was about.

I can still vividly remember the first international school projects that I participated in in the late 90s. In those days online tools available for us teachers here in Finland were still scarce. All communication between schools in different countries was carried out through email - or even by fax (what on earth is fax??!!!). A lot of the student email exchanges were thus out of bounds to the teachers, who didn't really know how much and what their students were discussing. The main goal of a project in those days was to produce some kind of 'end product'. In most cases there was a common theme, each group in each participating school worked on their own to produce something and these products were then compiled together - often in the form of a booklet or a webpage. I would claim that the compilation of the final product was more often than not done solely by teachers - partly due to our ambition and perfectionism to secure a respectable and good-looking outcome.

I have been there, too. Back in 2001, I and two colleagues spent the first week of our summer holiday calculating the results of a student survey in our first-ever EU Comenius project. We then drew conclusions, spent several days writing the text and creating the lay-out of pages of the booklet, before finally taking it to the printers to produce this:

The book did have drawings made by students, and one student had created the graphs, but in the end it was a teachers' creation. I can't deny that we did learn a lot while doing it - for example, that 'Word' is NOT the software to use for page lay-out creation. But we could have learned all this WITH our students.

Later on, with the emergence of various online platforms, student participation has gradually increased. Yet, I would still like to learn and hear what really goes on behind the scenes of protected online platforms. Many teachers make marvellous presentations showcasing their final products, but don't really highlight what each student's role, contribution and learning process was. To tell you the truth, I sometimes wonder whether any student interaction took place at all, and whether it was still just a repetition of the old 'each group working on their own in their own country' approach.

My aim and focus has always been to develop and enhance students' interaction. I was more than pleased after being awarded the AEC award in Malaysia, when many colleagues came to tell me how good it was that they could actually understand what had concretely been done in the project. Our final product wasn't really worth boasting about a lot, but then I believe in the importance of the PROCESS. 'Being on the road', as I tried to illustrate with my presentation analogy with travelling. What I want to focus on in each project presentation is some snippets from students' interactions that somehow show what they have learned together. Sometimes these may seem like rather trivial, insignificant discussions, but may actually contain meaningful flashes of insight into intercultural communication.

I am beginning to believe more and more that open online tools bring the long-awaited transparency into international projects.

The wikis and the Nings all have their history and discussion tabs that document all the contributions of each participant and the interactions between them, and this is there for anyone to see for themselves if they are interested.

For me, the only purpose of starting an international project is to bring students together - virtually or in real life - to learn to work and communicate together irrespective of their different backgrounds, languages, traditions and cultures. But, oh, the journey towards genuine student online COLLABORATION has only just begun...

Photo: KDE: Pseudo-transparency using Crystal by JW_00000 on flickr

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Two topical articles about social networks

Came across an apt article "The Kids are alright" in the Economist (Nov 13th 2008) reviewing Don Tapscott's book "Grown Up Digital".

“The Net Generation is in many ways the antithesis of the TV generation,” he argues. One-way broadcasting via television created passive couch potatoes, whereas the net is interactive, and, he says, stimulates and improves the brain.
Yet, here I am, maybe not such a typical TV generation member... But true, I am probably not quite as wired as my daughter or students, but not far. According to Tapscott the following are typical attributes of the net generation:

Net Geners value freedom and choice in everything they do. They love to customise and personalise. They scrutinise everything. They demand integrity and openness, including when deciding what to buy and where to work. They want entertainment and play in their work and education, as well as their social life. They love to collaborate. They expect everything to happen fast. And they expect constant innovation.

I have experienced this in practice while testing different online tools with students. They truly seem to prefer ones where they can customise their profiles, for example. Actually, I have had some discussions about this with colleagues, many of whom would argue that such customising activities account for nothing but trivial waste of time when the curriculum is too crammed as it is with too little time to possibly cover it all. I would argue back that if customising your profile motivates some students and possibly makes them approach a task more positively, how could that be a waste of time? At the same time, though, I do realize that these attributes don't automatically apply to all youngsters - there are the slower, quieter loners among them, too - and there are naturally members of our older generation who share the same values, preferences and expectations (myself included!).

Overall, however, I found the book review reassuring about our young generation and their use of technology, although I totally agree that they should be guided about what not to reveal about themselves online.

Which brings me to the other article I read in the Economist The World in 2009 - "The perils of sharing" by Andread Kluth (Nov 19th 2008). I, too, have got bouts of doubt about internet safety since starting to experiment more and more with different online networks with students at school. Maybe I am ill-advisedly leading my students into some unknown harm? My only guideline at the moment is modelling responsible online behaviour to students myself. I have made a point of online openness, honesty and dignity, but at the same time common sense protection of privacy, and I am striving to practice what I preach. I try to remind students about empathy and consideration to other people's feelings in anything they upload online. Appropriate netiquette, copyright, or profile creation will all need to be carefully discussed and agreed on before letting students loose on online networks in school contexts. If you pay special attention to these important new online literacy skills, I still believe that the advantages of open online networks far outweigh the threats. Mr Kluth concludes his article along the same lines:

The wise will still share things about themselves in 2009. But they will become hyper-sensitive about sharing collateral information about others, in the hope that reciprocity and a new etiquette will eventually limit everybody's vulnerability, including their own.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

7th AEC-NET conference in Sabah, Malaysia

Two more days of the AEC-NET conference left. It's 2 am Malaysian time and I am still awake at my computer in my hotel room. Partly jet-lag, partly the general buzz of the conference stops me from sleeping.

Had such invigorating conversations tonight about the future of education with colleagues from Germany, Hungary, Korea and Singapore. While we seem to share many challenges in education at the moment, there are also many different visions among educators around the world. A lot was said about possible curriculum innovations in the future towards a more holistic, inter-disciplinary approach. Apparently, in Germany they are already taking their first steps towards something like this, with school books offering tips on how to integrate other school subjects into certain units, for example.

I am especially happy about the AEC award that I was given after my presentation of our project on Saturday.

I was positively surprised to see that the panel of judges shared many of my ideas about online work at school. Gives me reassurance that I might be on the right tracks in my experiments... Thank you everyone for your great support!

Other than the hectic working schedule, we have enjoyed many beautifully colourful performances of Sabah cultural dances and music. The students from local schools were especially wonderful to watch at our welcoming dinner.

And today, I had a brief glimpse into the jungles of Borneo on our tour to Mount Kinabalu.

Working groups tomorrow to start planning the details of our next year's projects. I do hope we will manage to recruit some more Asian partners!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Our interconnected world

Busy, busy, busy - getting ready to leave for the 7th AEC-NET teachers' conference in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. It's not my first time in Malaysia, but the first on the exotic island of Borneo. I must say I am feeling slightly apprehensive about the long, long journey - 3 flights, all together well over 30 hours of travel! Pheww!!!! And with preventive malaria tablets making me feel slightly dizzy I am not actually looking forward to this...

In the last few days I have been tweaking my project presentation, and finally I think I've got it together. I am particularly proud of my title slide with this picture of me on it:

I am pretending to be a tour operator for 'Mastering Media goes Digital', using the analogy of a journey to tie together my account of last year's project. It's always nerve-racking to present in front of an audience of 100 odd peers from around the world, but at the same time I am so happy to have been given this chance to tell others what I truly believe in. The aspect of competing for monetary prizes - as I have said many times before - is slightly off-putting for me. Every finished project is an achievement in itself, and often they are so very varied and different that it is almost impossible to decide which might be better than the other. At least in my opinion anyway.

What I really wanted to write about tonight, though, is the thoughts of travelling in today's world. My journey to Malaysia was under threat for quite some time while the airport in Bangkok was closed by local protesters there. Funny, how my personal, purely selfish reasons made me frantically look for information about Thai internal politics, to understand what was going on there, and to find somebody to blame in the event that I had to cancel my trip plus my whole family's Christmas holiday in Malaysia. We had to change flights in Bangkok, you see. If my travel hadn't been at stake, I doubt whether I would have bat an eyelid at the situation in Thailand...

Today then, I received some emails from colleagues in Greece, saying that their arrival at the conference has been delayed because of a general strike in Greece after all the student unrest and riots there in recent days.

What are these incidents telling me? To stay at home and forget about travelling round the world meeting people and collaborating for the benefit of our students? At one point I was ready to write off the whole of Asia from my list of travel forever, if my and my family's plans were ruined because of trouble in Thailand.

Yesterday I read that Stanstead airport in London was blocked by environmental activists. After all the worldwide publicity from Bangkok, did they decide to copy? This piece of news did make me feel quite quilty of my carbon footprint with my long flight tomorrow. Maybe I should buy carbon offsets from climatecare or some other similar group. Seems as though in our interconnected world these incidents will be with us to stay... We live in very uncertain and complicated times. Is it a sign of my age that I am so troubled by all this? Why can't I just take these things in my stride any more?

I am keeping my fingers crossed for myself, and for all the other conference participants that we will all get there safely. Despite all the turmoil, though, very much looking forward to the energetic atmosphere of the conference once again. We have been promised wireless Internet in our hotel rooms, so I am hoping to be able to blog on my experiences.