Sunday, 25 January 2009

Our project Ning - an adolescent playground?

About a month of our new WHAZZUP? project has passed, and we already have 113 members. Some more classes are still to join, but it's getting to a point where we will have to put a stop to any more members. For the simple reason of managing and supervising what is being uploaded. In this short time, some active students have already attracted close to 200 comments on their wall! And, I am pleased to note that they are not all the typical short 'hi there' type.

For us teachers, it seems a constant tweaking effort to try and keep the site somehow organized, and especially to monitor some students' behaviour. Luckily, with our initial guidelines for CREATING YOUR PROFILE PAGE, it seems that we have got that more or less under control (see my previous post on this). Yet, other issues keep cropping up.

I have voiced before that this type of social network environment is not suitable for all our students. Problems seem to arise particularly when teachers involve a whole class in the project. You might think that all students should have the same chance of learning about online presence. Fair enough, but some students, even at high school level, just aren't mature enough for it. Personally, I have decided to offer this kind of work only as an option for motivated enough students, but I know that in many countries the school system simply doesn't allow for this kind of differentiation due to strict curricula or control over what teachers can and cannot do in class. Finnish teachers' high level of autonomy is probably quite unique.

We keep introducing certain guidelines to avoid the need for too much 'policing' around the site, and ask teachers to go through them with their students before starting. We thought we had taken enough precautions by writing the project NETIQUETTE, which says, among other things:

Always use acceptable and polite language. Also make sure that any pictures or videos you upload are acceptable. Better check with your teacher first. Online work is NOT private. Never say or publish anything that you wouldn't mind seeing on the school bulleting board, or in the local newspaper or being seen by your parents and relatives. Remember that, apart from yourself, you are also representing your school, city and country in this project.

I took it for granted that this message would be obvious, but still certain students don't get it. I don't think they do it to be awkward or to intentionally pester their teachers, they just DON'T THINK, and are not aware how their childish comments make them look. Possibly they have an image to keep up amongst their peers. Quite honestly, I am surprised that they are not even bothered about teachers reading about their boozy weekends, or their amorous messages to their boy-/girlfriends! Here is one example:

Whatever the reasons, the distinction between a private and a school website in far from clear for some of them. I have come to the conclusion that apparently much more needs to be spelled out for some students with clear examples. Naturally, in an international project, this calls for good collaboration and ongoing constructive communication among all the teachers, in addition to intercultural sensitivity to find the common ground.

Another NETIQUETTE point was:
The common language in this project is English, so use it for all the different communications - discussion forum, blog posts, comments on photos or other members' pages. This is NOT a private, social network to send comments to other members from your own school in your own language.
But still, weekly I spot students conversing with their classmates in their own language in their profile page messages. Again, I believe they do this automatically, especially if their English skills are a bit lacking. Perhaps it gives them a feeling of security to get in touch with people they know first, before breaking the ice with students from other countries. Or it's simply just part of being sociable and acknowledging that your friends are sharing this with you. Rather than second-guessing, we should really try to find out from the students themselves, what exactly guides their behaviour online.

Mostly it's very interesting to watch the online community build up day by day, and see what ideas young people come up with. But there is the irritating side of having to remind some of them of the project netiquette, and keep deleting inappropriate content. My dilemma at the moment is, how much leeway students should be given not to spoil their enthusiasm and 'ownership' of the site, and where to draw the definite lines not to be crossed. I still believe that a project like this should allow for some 'chattiness' and informal socialising, too. After all, small talk is an essential part of communication, and we are mostly dealing with learners of EFL.

An anonymous commentor on one of my previous posts raised this question:
Are there any young people out there, who feel they have learnt something valuable from the time they have spent on social networking sites?
I have thought a lot about it. From my limited experience so far, I would say one of the benefits of SCHOOL networking sites is making teachers learning companions with their students. I think it's rewarding for both to engage in meaningful conversations online, where teachers can use their expertise, experience, knowledge and maturity to encourage students to take into account a variety of viewpoints and perspectives. As for foreign language learning, an undeniable advantage of our intercultural project is the chance for authentic language use with others from many linguistic backgrounds.

We learn as we go along, and challenges are certainly good to keep us on our toes to improve. Soon the 'honeymoon' with the site will be over and we will get down to more serious blog posting. Interestingly, so far only one student has taken the initiative to write a more involved blog post. And unsurprisingly, it's the oldest student of the lot! Others are still more or less happily playing around, establishing their presence and learning the ropes.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Happy Inauguration Day, Americans!

Interesting new experience today watching Barack H. Obama's inauguration in Washington DC through the CNN and Facebook joint venture. Amazing really. Live coverage of the events on a video screen while in the right-side panel millions of Facebook users kept updating their status and commenting on their feelings and what they saw on TV. Pity I didn't have any friends online to share this with, as it would have been nice to actually share it with someone. And, of course, I was hoping CNN would broadcast the Facebook feed just as my name and comment was on the screen :)

"History in the making, history unfolding, God bless America, Go Obama..." The same catchphrases were repeated over and over, and I must admit even I went crazy at a point, updating my status every few minutes! All those millions of people on the National Mall and around Capitol Hill cheering and waving their Stars and Stripes, many of them with tears in their eyes while listening to Obama's inaugural address. What a great moment, even here across the Atlantic.

Wish I had really been there myself, though. Just like 12 years ago, on this very day, when Bill Clinton swore the oath the second time. Back then we were out and about in chilly DC for the whole day and our then 6-year-old daughter would squat on the pavement eagerly waving her flag in between adults' legs! Oh what nostalgic memories, but happy to have had the chance to be part of the celebrations once in my lifetime.

Will this be among the days about which people will later ask: What were you doing when...? Remains to be seen. Today, however, I feel like the tide is changing for the whole world.

Now back to CNN to watch the Parade and reminisce some more.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

European stereotypes

I can still remember this postcard that I sent to many friends from Brussels over 10 years ago:

Somebody's idea of stereotypes of European nations. It was even used in one of our English course books as a cue for student discussions on the topic. Stereotypes and their existence and possible harmfulness have often come up in our international school projects, too, most recently and strongly in our last Comenius project 'Dismantling stereotypes', due to be completed this spring. No wonder then that, this week, news about the Czech art installation by David Cerny caught my attention. I was going to introduce it to our Finnish-Spanish project team for discussion, as it sounded that it tackled exactly the topic we had been working on.

This installation, called Entropa: Stereotypes are Barriers to be Demolished, was launched in the EU Council building in Brussels to mark the beginning of the 6-month Czech presidency of the EU. Initially, I though the map of Europe consisting of the different countries as unassembled pieces in a plastic modelling kit was ingenious. Also a marvellous example of European collaboration across borders, since to copy the text from the website:

Entropa is the joint work of 27 artists, each one from a different Member State. Each object depicts one Member State using common stereotypes or prejudices. The Presidency commissioned the artists without any restrictions and they were free to create any object they liked.
Naturally, I first wanted to see how my country had been portrayed - this time there was Finland as a wooden floor with an elephant, a rhino and a hippo and a hunter with a rifle. In the official booklet about the installation, the Finnish artist , Joonas Tuominen, explains: "Finland is not a country of wood; no exotic animals live in Finland. Perhaps that's the way things are, perhaps it would be beautiful." Hmm, rather cryptic... I was slightly bemused by some of the other pieces, too, for example the UK's piece missing altogether.

However, once I started searching for more background to this collaborative product, to my surprise, I found out that it had been a complete hoax, and actually been put together by David Cerny and two of his artist friends. All the other European artists listed in the booklet were nothing but the fictitious inventions of the Czech trio, who mentioned Monty Python's Flying Circus as one of their inspirations. They claimed that it would have been impossible to realize the piece as a collaboration of 27 artists with the time and financial constraints at hand, and that, in the end, they wanted to see if "Europe can laugh at itself". Obviously not, since official complaints have already been issued by some governments, followed by apologies by the artist and the Czech Prime Minister, and possibly even the removal of certain parts of the artwork that have been considered insulting. Questions about freedom of speech, democracy and censorship have also been raised. Certainly proves the powerful role of provocative art.

As for the actual content, rather than showing the self-reflection of the nationality of 27 individual artists, it now boils down to a few Czechs' view of their fellow European member states. Highly interesting as a story, but disappointingly one-sided to initiate discussions about national stereotypes.

PS. While writing this post, the information page about Entropa was deleted from the site, and only the Czech text 'Zpráva nebyla publikována.' now remains in the above link. Let's see how long the fictitious booklet will remain online.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The trap of 'schooliness'

Fallen in it again... Despite all my good intentions of starting a DIFFERENT, more student-centred, more self-directed (all the great buzz words of the moment - aren't I in???) project, I got worried before the long Christmas break that the momentum started would somehow fade. So, being the prim and proper Ms. Teacher, I came up with a writing task for holidays.

It says:

Hello everyone! Good to see so many new members here! I am leaving for the AEC-NET conference in Malaysia on Wednesday. That is where we will plan the project activities in more detail. If I can I will try to post some pictures and stories from Malaysia, too. And as you may know in Asia, here in Europe we will soon be starting our Christmas holiday. So to keep you busy till January I will leave you with a challenge for a writing competition.

Write about your best / worst / funniest / loveliest / most unique memory of a public holiday/festival in your country. Make it personal, so write about something that really happened to you then. But also try to make it interesting to young people from other countries to read and learn about the traditions in your country. You can choose any special day, any season. Or maybe you would like to write about a special celebration you took part in abroad while travelling. Remember that pictures always tell more than a thousand words, so if possible add pictures or links - or if you really get adventurous and have the machinery and skill, why not video yourself telling the story! Don't make it too long - 200-300 words maximum. A catchy title will attract readers' attention.

There will be A SURPRISE PRIZE for the best entry! You have got till the 7th of January to upload your piece as a reply to this post.

Look forward to reading lots of fascinating stories! And also, keep getting to know each other as you have done so well so far. More activities will start at the beginning of 2009.


Guess how many essays I have written to date - CORRECT! Zero, zilch, not one! (The deadline is tomorrow, so maybe there will be an inundation tonight...)

If I was a student, I don't think I would have participated either. This is too much like boring homework. Who wants to waste time on boring homework assigned by an even more boring teacher??!!!

Start again! I will now delete this embarrassing competition from the Ning, and try to learn from it!! Why is it so difficult for us teachers to stay in the background, facilitate without orchestrating, observe without constantly butting in, and above all, only guide when asked for help or otherwise absolutely necessary?

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Groups, networks, collectives... or what?

Lately I have been a bit at a loss with how to define what we are doing with our new AEC-NET project. I have been trying to come to terms with the distinction between 'groups, communities, networks, collectives, teams, crews...', and I guess the list goes on.

It all started with my brief, and very superficial, connection with the online course 'Connectivism and connective knowledge', in which a whole week was dedicated to heated discussions about the ins and outs of these terms. For me at the time, it got far too hair-splittingly academically involved to seriously focus on it, although I must admit it made me reflect on the role of our international school projects in this context.

Many seemed to think that in 21st-century education networks should be the preferred learning environments. Compared to more closed, monitored, controlled and regulated groups, which require membership through usernames and passwords, networks are open and flexible, bottom-up and allow for more diversity and autonomy. According to this view, our project then is clearly a group, although when it comes to what Jon Dron wrote about groups in the following quote, I am not so sure any more.

Groups often form around tasks. Groups are about community, cooperation,
commitment and collaboration. A classic group would be supported by software
such as discussion forums, mailing lists and chat rooms.

This year we have consciously moved away from the more traditional school project model with one theme, one common goal and hence, one joint end product. The reason for this is the attempt to enhance student motivation by giving them more freedom to choose the topics to discuss rather than the old teacher-assigned homework-style task, which easily lead to uniform, uninvolved, even boring products. Having said this, true there is still a task at hand that all members of the project should accomplish, which is to actively participate, in one way or another, in our Ning. Hmm, gets confusing. Cooperation, commitment, collaboration - yes, all these are part of the project. But how about the tools? We are using a social network service, as to me it seems to serve our purpose best. But as it's 'a closed network', it is more like a group using a network tool, isn't it? Scott Wilson introduced the idea of 'a bounded network pattern', which 'corresponds to the use of specific social networking services to support a community'. This sounds more like what we are experimenting with.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that the point isn't really how we should call our group/community/network, but rather defining the purpose of the project and then finding working tools.

Finally, one more serendipitious online path led me to Jenny Mackness's blog post about exactly that. I couldn't agree more! Jenny lists 4 ideas for teachers when planning group/network activities.
1. Determine the purpose of the group, network or collective activity (my ideal would be that ultimately this would be negotiable and jointly agreed).
This is what we have more or less done, and it has been jointly agreed by the teachers involved and will still be negotiated with students once spring term starts in each school. Our purpose is as follows: "What is it like to be young in Asia and Europe today? What are you concerned and passionate about in your daily lives? What has really caught your interest in your studies at school, or in the media? What do you want to learn about and discuss with other young people in the participating countries? Our project is a small move into experimenting with new ways of learning. We want to give our students the chance to develop their understanding of what they are learning by sharing their interests, passions and concerns with other young people in different countries. We believe that by doing so, first externalising and conceptualising their learning and then getting feedback and responses from others, they will be able to gain a deeper understanding of whatever it is they are studying. "
2. Make students aware that they may be unaware that they are part of a collective -and discuss this, particularly in relation to their online persona and how this can be used by others and how they can harvest from a collective to their advantage. I did not know about collectives before reading Terry’s article, but it makes sense.
Students' online presences and several other issues connected to it will be discussed by all the participating students with their teachers. As for 'harvesting from a collective to their advantage' - I still have to work to understand this.
3. Use groups when we (I/students) want to develop a sense of mutual support, mutual responsibility and promote collaboration and a sense of belonging - using
f2f work and tools that assist this kind of working such as those typically found on a VLE. Like Terry, I don’t see groupwork disappearing anytime in the near future and hopefully it never will.
In a formal school setting, with very fixed schedules, a loose, open network simply wouldn't work, other than for individual students building their own online PLEs outside the classroom. Naturally, it can be questioned whether an online group with some network qualities created by teachers serves any purpose at the present stage of educational development. I would justify my practice, though, by arguing that it is one baby-step forward. It is utopistic to imagine that the whole massive school institution would evolve into self-organised networks of autonomous learners in an instant. What's more, I feel that it's my responsibility to instill values such as commitment, mutual trust and reciprocity in my students. These are not considered essential in networks, if I have understood what I have read correctly. I remember reading several times that people just post questions into the vast virtual space of their networks without ever expecting any answers. How strange! But then, I guess I am quite old-fashioned in many ways. If this is regarded as existing and accepted reality in online learning networks, then it begs the question if I am, in fact, doing our students a disservice by guiding them to be empathetic and considerate towards others, to reply posts promptly, to take an interest in many things and not just follow their own agenda. Won't they feel totally lost once they venture into the REAL world of networks? Or, alternatively, maybe the path forward should be somewhat more humane and less selfish than what the present model of networked learning sounds like? It can't be 'one size fits all' - a lot depends on the context. There are many different kinds of groups and networks, and very often they overlap and the distinctions become fuzzy.

4. Recommend that students use networks to link with others/sources of information outside the group, using blogs, photo sites, social networking sites and so on. I see ‘networking’ increasing as a way of working and whether or not academic institutions put blocks on the types of technological affordances students can access, there is so much ‘free’ software out there now, that students will just do their own thing anyhow. As lecturers we may as well work with them and exploit the benefits.

This is exactly how I feel, too. My humble hope is that by introducing students, all of whom are by no means familiar with online activities yet, to responsible online presences, the threshold for them to voluntarily continue building their own PLEs in the future will be somewhat lower. Perhaps...

What a long post to convince myself that what I will be doing in the new school term makes any sense.

The wonders of networks

Let me tell you a nice story about educational networks. It all started in November, when I set up our Ning network for this year's AEC-NET online project. I wanted to have the network in place before the teachers' conference and lobbying for new members in mid-December. I also advertised our new project in the AEC-NET mailing list to possibly get some early subscribers, which, luckily, we did. The common procedure is that teachers who take an interest in a particular project can contact the project coordinators by email to negotiate about further details and to sign up.

I also received a rather mysterious email, which simply said: "We are from malaysia feel free to join the project." I was a bit puzzled by this short mail and so asked for some more information.
In the next reply I learned the name of the school and some other details about the school, but it was all still rather vague. So I wrote back asking what subject this person taught at the school, how many students would join the project, how old they were, etc. By this time, this person had also joined our project network, but hadn't uploaded a profile picture yet. What a surprise to receive this answer:

"Actually I am not a teacher but a student. But I think it is okay since it is our school which will handle the AEC-NET Conference in Kota Kinabalu. Our teacher is Sensei Norizan Md. Said. We will try our best to make the conference goes well. And I also hope to see you there."
This truly proved one of the strengths of open networks to me. Never before had a student joined our project independently. Before, project groups had always been arranged by teachers at first, and with closed platforms, such as Moodle, which we used before, nobody could check out the site before joining. How wonderful, I thought! This boy obviously must be active, dynamic and motivated enough about intercultural exchanges to do all this out of his own accord! I hoped so much that I would get the opportunity to meet him during the conference in Kota Kinabalu.

And I did! At the welcoming dinner students from several schools in traditional costumes and holding colourful flowers and decorations had lined the hallway of the hotel leading to the restaurant welcoming us in. I started asking some of them if they knew the boy in question, and it didn't take long for them to point me to him. There he was smiling broadly amongst his friends - he is the one holding the yellow flowers!

He and his friends were so keen to talk to me in English, and I had the chance to hand him a little souvenir from Finland. After the dinner we had the chance to talk a little bit more. I really had to struggle to control the urge to hug him, since in his culture it would probably have been totally wrong. I was simply so happy about this chance encounter!

Later I also met Sensei Norizan, who told me that she had only asked her students to have a look at the AEC-NET website to know something about the organization whose conference they were to host. She never realized that one student would actually find an interesting project there and go ahead and join! She even told me that theirs is a boarding school and many of the students, including this particular boy, come from distant villages. Since he hasn't got a computer of his own, the teacher often lends him her computer, as he is so keen on online activities. Little did the teacher know what he was up to, but we were both so proud and pleased with what he had decided to do!

I have very good vibes about this year's project and hope that I can report many more uplifting stories like this during the spring term.

Thursday, 1 January 2009