Sunday, 8 February 2009

Guidelines for students' blog writing

The next phase in our Asia-Europe project starting up. We have devised two more sets of guidelines - BLOG GUIDELINES and COPYRIGHT - and sent them off to all the teachers for consultation. Hopefully we will receive good constructive feedback from at least some of them, to then adapt the guidelines for everyone to happily commit to In our closed membership group/community we made the conscious decision to control the features to an extent. This involves reserving each member's blog to longer, more in-depth writing on a specific theme. So far, we have had to ask quite a few students to cut and paste their self-introductions or short 'hi there' messages either to the discussion forum or in the 'text box' that everybody has on their own page. I must say I feel bad every time I have to point this out to students, who have eagerly just joined the project and taken ownership of their own page and the features provided for them, and keen to meet others have written their 'hellos' in their blog. We have now learned that next time, with a similar project, the basic structure of the Ning should be made clearer to all members at the outset to avoid having to ask people to change something they have already uploaded. Or am I trying to control things too much again? I have thought a lot about this, but I keep coming to the same conclusion that for students to really differentiate between chit-chat between friends, forums and blog posts, guidance and modelling is needed.

Both the sets of guidelines are rather long, and we have advised each teacher to consider whether their students might need help and explanations in their own language to get the idea. We feel this would provide for useful material for a whole lesson or sets of lessons that could be used in any subject that students might write about in their blog.

Our experience so far points strongly to students not bothering / daring / knowing how to write much more than very short chatty lines on other students' walls. Statistics today show that with 143 members in the project, only 5 blog posts have been written (2 of them by teachers!), while there are close to 2,000 messages on members' walls.

Yet, all sorts of essays are required as part of credit work in schools, so our premise is: wouldn't it be more motivating for students to actually do this writing for a real audience rather than just to their teacher for a grade? Other forms of expression (slide presentations, videos etc.) are also encouraged instead of the more common writing, if schools have the facilities and teachers the time and interest to guide their students in such endeavours. Commenting on other people's writing to get a conversation going also seems rather rare. That's why, we wrote a special set of guidelines to remind students of the importance of feedback and learning through conversations.
We hope that once students get the hang of it, they will soon realise the benefits of blog writing and comment discussions to their own learning. Or then not... My pessimistic side fears that this will just turn into another forced homework-type assignment that most students will only do half-heartedly if their teacher sets sanctions for neglecting it. Is it any wonder, though, if this happens? Isn't this what most school systems condition students to do anyway from the moment they first enter inside the four walls of an educational establishment?

Saturday, 7 February 2009

'Friends' feature on Ning

Doing our online school project has made me wonder about the usefulness of the 'friends' feature on the site. For some time all I could see was classmates befriending classmates, which in my opinion hardly contributed anything to anyone's learning process. Because of my mission or attempt of actually enhancing students' learning through involving them in this project using social media tools I thought that this feature was nothing but an irritating distraction, tantamount to leading to unwelcome competition between students over who seems to be the most popular.

The other day, however, checking through student messages, as I routinely do to keep a watchful eye on what is going on, I found proof that the feature might serve a purpose after all. I had assumed that most young people swim in these social networks just like fish in water. Yet, I found this message written to a classmate:

Surprisingly to me, some of them find it hard to approach unknown students in the network. Maybe this is also reflected in the fact that the majority of messages so far have been exchanged between classmates from the same schools.

The benefit of the 'friends' feature is apparent in the following message. This student is using it as the icebreaker to get to know others from different countries.

I am now trying to find out from the students themselves how they feel about 'friends' in this project and some other aspects of the network through this discussion. I look forward to seeing if anyone is brave enough to give us any insights into this! It seems that all the students are still rather apprehensive about any initiatives set by teachers on the site. The playground mentality still largely pervades.