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.

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