Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Stretching students' comfort zones

I have aimed at renewing some of my classroom practices with the help of social media to create authentic foreign language situations for my students, instead of the traditional learning in a void with a course book and only other speakers of your native language. I have believed that communicating in an online network/community with young people from many countries, as part of your course performance, would excite and motivate students. This week I was proved wrong, however.

Due to the lack of funds to pay for subsitute teachers, while attending a conference last week, I activated my students online. An extra bonus for them was that they didn't even have to go to school for the first two morning classes, but could 'take' their English lesson at home. They all registered as members on our international project Ning, and I posted 2 prompts with links to texts and videos plus discussion questions for them to reply. Naturally, I also hoped that some of the foreign project members would participate to make it the authentic situation I had in mind.

Today I met the group for the first time since last week. Only 10 out of 21 had written a reply on the Ning! Some pretended they hadn't understood what they were supposed to do, others simply shrugged and avoided my eyes. In other words, they had just taken the time off without doing any work at home!

Another disappointment - none of the foreign members have taken up my challenge of joining us in these environmental discussions, at least not yet. That is the trouble with asynchronous communication - our fast-paced 6-7-week grading periods don't allow for hanging around waiting! What's more, I only realised in hindsight that building a conversation online doesn't come naturally to my students. I should have provided them with clear guidelines and expected outcomes for this exercise. Next time I do anything like this I will prepare an assessment rubric together with the students, so there won't be any uncertainty about the expectations.

Mind you, it wasn't a total failure. I am just feeling rather pessimistic at the moment for some reason.Even without a rubric, some students did still do quite well, and managed to express themselves clearly and interestingly in English. It was the indifferent slackers and those who wrote very short and superficial comments, mainly just repeating what somebody else had already written, that really frustrated me. For them, it was nothing but another boring teacher-assigned homework exercise they weren't in the least interested in. I should probably blame myself for once again giving them schooly, unmotivating assignments. What should a task be like to make them want to do more than merely go through the motions to avoid the nagging of the teacher?

The next complaint came when I started showing them where to type their blog post that is due next week. Some of them started asking if they could just do it as a traditional handwritten paper assignment instead, and bring it to me in class. When I inquired about this preference they said that they didn't want anybody else to see what they wrote and maybe laugh at them! Fair point, although I tried to convince them that surely all of them were mature enough not to laugh at other people's writing.

At first all this made me quite angry, then discouraged. I feel as though all my efforts are futile. My attemps of practising what I preach, ie. being myself a model of a lifelong learner with a semi-active online presence, is making no difference to them. They probably need peers as models, and not a nutty middle-aged teacher. I'm beginning to lean again towards only offering online work as an option to those students who feel comfortable, competent and at ease with such environment, and are possibly drawn to the chance of interaction with international students. In this old blog post I felt like that very strongly last year, but then changed my mind after reading about many inspirational examples from around the world of how students enjoyed being active online participants (for example this one).

Then I started thinking that maybe it's a question of national mentality. Stereotypically (but with a lot of truth in it, too!) Finns are notorious for needing a lot of personal space, wanting to blend in and not stand out, keeping very private about their thoughts, and generally refusing to step outside their comfort zones. All this is emphasized manyfold when it comes to active foreign language use, despite all the efforts of modern language teaching focusing on communicative skills in addition to the traditional translations, grammar and deadly gap fills. I would like to push my students' beyond their comfort zones at times, because you simply have to if you are to actively engage in communication in a foreign language. The undeniable fact is that many Finns still come across as painfully awkward when speaking English or other foreign languages. They will politely give perfunctory answers when asked, but who would want to continuously keep asking if there is little input from their conversation partner? This is one of the lessons Finns find extremely hard to learn. What's more, it's glaringly obvious that they have no chance of developing these skills if all they do in language classes is read ready-made questions printed in the book or a worksheet prepared by the teacher. It's all just one-way and no real discussions are built. Question-answer-question-answer, perfunctorily do what the teacher tells you to do, but no more. The sooner you are finished the sooner you can sink back into your own private world and just sit there quietly or start leafing your diary, texting friends on your mobile phone or gossiping in Finnish. Regular scenario I encounter in class every day. Exactly the same pattern was repeated by some of my students in the online discussion.

How to activate them? How to come up with meaningful activities for them, and most of all, how to help them develop and get the point? With Finnish students another important learning experience would be to be positively supportive and encouraging towards others - we tend to be rather judgmental, negative and critical. I wonder whether this is why some students feel reluctant to publish their work online.

It will be interesting to see next week if most of them will now resort to the traditional paper version and not bother about the Ning blog? I didn't want to force them to publish anything against their will, so I left the choice of medium up to them. Now I rather regret not sticking to my convictions. I think I will bring it up again in tomorrow's class to try to discuss with them the educational purpose behind it all in more detail.

Only, I am on rather shaky grounds banging on about authentic situations, when at the moment it's only my students discussing the topics anyway - they might as well do it amongst themselves in class. In my previous project, dialogue between students from different countries didn't work, because of scheduling problems and overall the considerably smaller number of participants. This time there are 255 members on the Ning, which is more than enough, and only a handful of students from the Philippines have started their summer holiday so far. But still, I fail to get this more in-depth dialogue started outside the chatty teen-topic discussion forum. Possibly it's a question of drastic differences in curricula and the students' English skills plus the lack of tighter pre-project planning with all the teachers. Improvising in international projects can produce beautiful, unexpected results, but also backfire - as now.

Photo: 045/365 - Comfort Zone by TheRogue on Flickr

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Cultural differences in online behaviour

My reflections on our Asia-Europe WHAZZUP? project continue. What I have observed in my role as the Ning network creator and facilitator (controller at times, too!) are certain differences between the online behaviour of Asian and European teenagers. I hasten to add that we are only talking about a tiny community of some 250 members, and naturally I shouldn't roughly stereotype Asian and European teenagers into two groups because of their wide variety of countries and cultures, not forgetting individuals and multicultural mixes, in both. Suffice to say that the following are just my musings about interesting phenomena, the origin of which slightly puzzles me.

Back in the 90s when I attended quite a few courses on intercultural communication the talk of the day was, among others, Geert Hofstede's studies and theories on Cultural Dimensions. Although his theories have since been largely dismissed as out-dated and simplistic (eg. these examples) I can't deny there is some truth in his dimension of individualist (leaning towards western) and collectivist (leaning towards eastern) cultures. I experienced it first-hand during my ASEM-DUO teacher exchange in South Korea 3 years ago. It consisted of reciprocal 1-month sojourns in each other's countries and school by me and and a Korean English teacher. The way we carried out the exchange was to also accommodate each other in our homes. First of all, it saved us a lot of costs, but also provided a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of a family in the other culture. My Korean counterpart came to Finland with his wife and small daughter to stay with my family, whereas I travelled to Korea alone. Only my daughter joined me for a 1-week holiday at the end of my stay.

The following examples struck me as signs of a more collectivist culture (vast generalisations, I know):

1) School uniforms and more hierarchical roles and rituals at school.

2) Preference of package tour holidays (with the accompanying uniforms again!) over self-designed improvised travel.

3) Generally more closely-knit extended family units. No wonder then that I, a wife and mother, travelling on my own, became the target of a lot of pity and surprised questions: How can you possibly manage a whole month without your family - or they without you, for that matter?

4) For me, this sign of a restaurant summed up the experience I had with life in Korea. At least on the surface, since I found it extremely hard to get deeper than the permanent, rather inscrutable smile on their face.

Despite the fact that I often felt a strong longing for more personal space and suffered from culture shock quite a bit, the care, friendliness and compassion, my hosts and their relatives and friends showed to me, the poor lonely Finnish woman in a strange land, was heart-warming and something I wish we had more of here in the cold, mainly look-after-number-one Finland.

Remembering these impressions of my stay in Korea, made me pay attention to certain behaviours in our project community. One clear difference between Asian and European students seems to be in the forming of groups the Ning platform allows. So far the following groups, restricted only to the students of certain Asian schools, have been formed:

Although the whole idea of our project community was to give students a voice and allow them to 'Speak Up' and express their ideas and introduce topics, still the Philippine students wanted their own separate group with the following premise:
Welcome to this group! Well, all we have to do here is just share our daily experiences past moments of our lives including the unforgettable ones. I hope to hear a lot from you!
One discussion started there was:
what can you say about global warming? do you want to help? in what way? Speak up guyz!
This was interesting, since a European student had already started a group called Danger Global Warming. May have been a simple oversight, of course, but I wonder?

With the Korean school group there was a mix-up, and a Spanish students ended up joining by mistake, which led to the following comments:

By comparison, none of the European students have created their own school or national groups, but groups revolving around hobbies or interests instead, which allow for anyone across the two continents to join, for example this one:

Another observation stems from the (notorious) Finnish tendency of being well-organised - sometimes to the point of ridiculous rigidity. So, true to my Finnish nature, I have gone to great lengths in writing guidelines, advising the teacher colleagues involved and reminding students again and again what the different sections of our project Ning platform are meant for. But again and again, it’s Asian students who keep ‘messing’ my neat plans by writing stuff all over the place - introducing themselves in the wrong place (in my opinion ‘wrong’, that is!), for example.

It seems that people in different cultures have apparently got used to different behavioural patterns for social networks and are simply following these cultural scripts in their heads, which sometimes result in ‘collisions’ or confusion on an intercultural forum. I should learn to let go off my Finnish control and loosen up a bit, and just let the community unfold in new and unexpected ways.

Geert Hofstede has been quoted to have said:
Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.
My experiences have shown me that sometimes cultural differences may feel rather irritating, but I still wouldn't agree with Hofstede here. Cultural diversity enriches our lives making intercultural communication a fascinating lifelong learning experience, and thus should be embraced and not frowned upon.

In conclusion, I need to add that it would take more sociological and psychological expertise to know if I am even slightly on the right tracts in my speculations, but as a case study I think this does point to certain challenges concerning intercultural communication.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

The magic of social media

Back from my two days in the Finnish national conference of 'Interactive Technology in Education'. First time ever for me, and being there all alone, it took me some time to get the hang of things. A few keynote speeches and then a wide variety of parallel 40-minute forums. Naturally, a lot of exhibitors marketing their products. It seemed to me as though, now that many Finnish schools have switched from overhead projectors to a combination of teacher laptop and dataprojector in the classroom, it's then the smartboard that is being flogged as the next prerequisite for good education.

I always want to question the merit of any new expensive device being pushed into schools, as to me it often serves the purpose of appearing modern and up-to-date, possibly to attract new and better students. If I think of my school, what difference has it really made in student learning whether a teacher demonstrates ideas through text and pictures on an OHP, screen or smartboard? Basically, these are still all part and parcel of the same old teacher-centred lecture-style class, aren't they? What I would like to see in learning environments, is the shift into classes that truly activate students into critical thinking, finding some structure in the overflow of information and formulating their own understanding of the world around them - briefly, transforming the passive student audience into active and curious learners, at least some of the time. I am by no means undermining the useful role of lecturing in certain circumstances.

My main interest in the conference was the forum of SOMETU - an open network for anyone interested in social media and how it supports learning. With its close to 1200 members it is quite a significant group on a Finnish scale (NB. our population is only 5 million). Active Sometu members gave several talks on different aspects of social media all through Thursday afternoon. The atmosphere in the room was very enthusiastic and positively charged. The organisers seemed to have underestimated the popularity of this topic, since, for every forum, so many attendants turned up that some ended up standing along the walls, sitting on the floor (!) or staying outside in the hallway.

True to the spirit of social media, the Sometu team had set up an arsenal of equipment and tools to dazzle the audience - ConnectPro video conferencing for those who couldn't come to the conference, two screens, one displaying the actual presentation, the other one what was going on in Sometu Second Life, video, pictures, net applications, mini laptops going round for audience feedback for those who didn't have their own to participate in the backchannels, and the list goes on...

Of course, it's to do with technology, but at the end of the day, it's not only that. I'm glad to see that at long last we are moving away from the closed land of tech geeks into many ordinary teachers of different subjects asking themselves how technology could help them motivate and activate their students.

On a personal note, I have to admit that my brain is probably too old for this type of multitasking, since I found it almost impossible to follow several channels at the same time, eg. listening to the presentation and simultaneously typing something sensible on Twitter. I'm forever hopeful, though - maybe even my brain could still evolve with more practice!

Photos: 'Sometu ITK-foorumilla' by rongasanne on Flickr

Success with Skype video call

My work for two weeks paid off in the end and we did manage to have our first video call using Skype. It was a really exciting experience and the atmosphere in the classroom was electric. The only downside was that our Italian partners didn't have a webcam, so we couldn't see them, but the sound worked perfectly.

In the end the call was carried out only on one teacher laptop in both schools. Each student at a time had a chance to talk. The different levels of English were noticeable, but with the guidance and help of English teachers around, we managed to understand each other. A lot of laughter and loued Italian talk could be heard at the other end, which made us picture in our minds the situation over there. We teachers had prepared long lists of possible questions to ask to help the students, who might find it awkward to think of what to say next. Not many of them were asked, though. Mainly our students talked about the weather, their hobbies, what music they like, and a little bit about school. As the Italians could see us, they kept commenting on how we looked -" how many piercings do you have, your hair looks different from the profile picture in the project website etc."

From the English learning point of view it was a very good first try, and we are planning another go, possibly with more Skype-connected computers before our summer holidays in Finland start in June. I was very pleased to get this feedback from our Italian colleague:
I'd like to thank you for the chance you gave us of speaking with you.. Despite their poor English.. mu students liked it a lot.. it boosted their motivation up.. And.. GUESS WHAT ...they want to do it again.. When could we do it..? But next time we'll have a webcam installed so you'll be able to see us as well....
Boosting students' motivation to learn English better is a very good accomplishment. And having fun at the same time, as you can see from these photos:

Our students in Finland.

The cheerful group in Venice.

Improvements for next time - instead of merely chit-chatting, students could have some collaborative task to do together, which would structure their talk a bit more, and give them a more specific purpose.

Interestingly, just today I found a link to this article in Edutopia and also wrote my comment asking for some advice and possibly interested Skype partners in other countries. The net, I find more and more, is serendipitous, or maybe it's just that it contains so much that whatever you happen to be focusing on, your attention is somehow guided to helpful information.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Skype-at-my-school windmills are beating this tired Don Quijote!

For almost two weeks now I have tried to solve the difficult equation of arranging the Skype video call session between our students and the students in Italy. A lot of emails have been exchanged by us two English teachers keen on the experiment. But sadly, my initial enthusiasm and persistence is fading away ...

Every step of the way there have been bigger and bigger windmills for me to fight to get to my destination (previous lamentation here). My chances had already been reduced to only one laptop (mine) plus my own headset and webcam. I reckoned that would still be better than nothing, and the rest of the students could still carry on with the text chat while a couple of students at a time would try the video call. I was almost there this afternoon - managed to install Skype on my school laptop, got my headset to work on it, but doing the final testing with the webcam proved to be the last unbeatable windmill - I can't install the webcam on my laptop without the system manager's password and approval. And they bluntly said they were too busy to do it for me!!
One more try - a helpful friend recommended I could try my digital video camera instead via a USB cable... Windmills be aware!

Photo: Flipando como Don Quijote by FerPer on Flickr

Monday, 20 April 2009

Interactive technology in education - conference in Finland

This week on Thursday and Friday I will be immersed in the wonders of social media and all kinds of cool tools for education - I hope! First time ever, I am attending and ICT conference, all paid for by my school, thank you very much. I did have to do some persuading with my principal to get the green light to go, since I am a mere foreign language teacher, and this has traditionally been the exclusive area of ICT teachers only. Maybe this is a turn of the books, since this time I am the only teacher from my school attending - our ICT people are not into social media in any way. They focus mainly on technology, hardware and more traditional LMS solutions, so they opted out this year. Social media, interaction, or communication is probably considered more suitable for humanist hippies like myself, not something the more serious technical types would waste their time on. Oh well, I am looking forward to it very much! At least around 1000 educators from all fields will be there and I am keen to see how I will fit in.

One participant from a Finnish educational network I am a member of has put up a Google map for participants to introduce themselves. I've had funny experiences with Google maps before. Somehow I find the logic of placing your pin plus any other information there rather peculiar. I had at least 5-6 unsuccessful attempts before my photo finally appeared in the right place with all the introductions and links I wanted to include in it! Yet, after all that hard work, today I noticed that I had mysteriously moved from my hometown Turku further south-west to the archipelago. The joys of interaction!

After managing to bring myself back to where I belong, I noticed that some others had been moved across the sea from Helsinki, all the way to Estonia, while others had landed right in the middle of the Gulf. We could make this into a nice icebreaker introductions game to get to know each other. Just move other people's pins to interesting new locations!

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Is there anybody out there? - video calls for foreign language classes

A foreign colleague asked me last week, if, instead of the proposed second chat session (see previous blog post about the first one) we could arrange Skype calls between our students to give them the chance to practise their spoken English. I didn't need any convincing. Naturally, adding voice to our chat sessions would enhance the benefits for EFL classes tremendously. Little did I guess, though, how challenging putting this jigsaw puzzle together would turn out to be.

First incompatible piece: we don't have Skype in our school computers. Our ICT responsible said it could possibly be installed in some computers, but not in the special units in the small classroom I had in mind. And to complicate matters even further, he had booked the large computer classroom for 20 students at exactly the same time I had in mind, so I could only have 2 computers computers for my students anyway! Two Skype connections, with perhaps two students per computer - better than nothing, but disappointing, since my foreign colleague would like to involve all of her 22 students. I could add my own school laptop, if I managed to install Skype on it. You see, even though technically your own, the laptop is still the property of the local government, and consequently, there is a blockage of installing any new software yourself.

More missing pieces: how to register students, as none of them have a Skype ID? Some colleagues warned me against getting students individual IDs, at least not without asking their parents' permission. Maybe I could register the students as a group through my own Skype account? More research needed there.

How about other options then? Last year I attended a training course introducing some net-based video conferencing services, but all of them involved booking 'online conference rooms' and other such special arrangements that I just found it too complicated. What's more, when we had a test go during the course, most of the time was spent on people in different countries repeating: "Can you hear me?" And mostly nobody could hear anything, nor see the video, and after all the trouble and hassle, we ended up doing ordinary text chatting after all. Not worth my time and effort, I concluded then. Possibly technology has progressed a lot since, as it seems to do very fast these days, but for the time being, I'm giving such video conferencing a miss. Mind you, Skype didn't prove to be much more reliable a couple of weeks ago, when I tried it with a colleague and her students in Italy (see previous post).

Then considered Messenger, which most teenagers are well familiar with, and where, apparently, you can add voice, too. I felt very positive that this would be the solution, until I got this message from my foreign colleague:
the students at our school are not allowed to use Messenger, or other social networks (such as Facebook) at school. I hope you'll manage to have skype installed by your technician

While we here in Finland are fairly free and easy about allowing Internet access at school, it is not the same elsewhere. So we are back to square one really. And with only 3 days to go to the planned chat date. From past experience I have learned that the date and time of these sessions need to be set weeks in advance, and checked and reaffirmed several times to have even the remotest chance of having somebody at the other end of the line at exactly the right time, especially if you are dealing over different time zones. Too many times before I, as the teacher, have had to totally lose face in front of my students, whom I've motivated and prepared for the event, and gathered in the computer room ready to start, only to then find out that, to our great disappointment, our partners hadn't managed to be there after all.

For now, it looks as if it will be the old text chat version, or nothing at all. Frustrating, isn't it?

Photo: Incompatible by Rutger Blom on Flickr

Monday, 13 April 2009

Moving pictures

After years of text, still photos and slideshows as the main media in our international school projects, it is time to start learning the art of the moving image, ie. making short video clips.

I have had a digital video camera for quite a few years, but have relied on others to do any editing required and to transfer the clips onto DVDs. For some reason, I have found the idea of learning this too daunting and time-consuming. There is no denying, though, that embedding a bit of video here and there does add a refreshing live touch to any project or presentation. This weekend I finally took the bull by the horns, equipped only with the simple Windows Movie Maker on my laptop.

'Capture from video device' was my first hurdle. No can do with the USB wire that came with the camera, I soon concluded after countless unsuccessful attempts! First lesson: you need a FIRE WIRE for this, advised my tech-savvy brother on the phone. So off to the supermarket.
So far so good - got the unedited video captured as a draft on my laptop with no major upsets. Then editing clips, even importing pictures to put in between, making titles and credits. Even managed to add some clip transitions. I was getting rather carried away, and already hoping for more versatile features than the Movie Maker could provide. The final product is very rough, I'm afraid, but acceptable for a first try.

Next problem - it sounds rather bland without any background music. So where to find Creative Commons or similar music that I am allowed to use if I credit it? Luckily my Finnish educator social network came to the rescue after I posted a question in their forum. Many members seemed to recommend a service called Jamendo. Lots and lots of amateur albums of all different genres there - most of them from France, to my surprise. Yet, slightly like a needle in a haystack finding anything suitable.
In the end, I chose one piece, aptly called 'Around the world' for our project with schools from 10 different countries in Europe and Asia. With the bits of music in the background I could then save my piece, upload it on our Ning, and my first video was complete and online. Not even my daughter sniggering at it, saying that I sound like a maniac holding the poor students hostage in a horror movie, could diminish my pride!

The project students in my school are in the process of scripting a short video about a day in our school to be shot, compiled and uploaded before our summer break in June. Although I'm sure some of the students are probably used to making videos, at least I can now give them tips about legal background music.

Being a language teacher

It's Easter break - only 4 days here in Finland. Spring is finally here in the north, too, and the sun is inviting me out for a cycling trip to sniff and wonder at the first signs of colour around me after the endlessly long, white and grey, winter. But since, as is my nature, I have left tackling the last exam week's papers till the last possible moment, my Easter is spent on what I have resentfully started to consider the necessary evil of my profession - marking exams.

All these piles to go through - filled with the recurring 'Finglish' mistakes that my pen has underlined a million times during my career. Pheww, it's soul-destroying at times... It seems that, if a student doesn't learn the correct expression/word/structure straight away, the wrong (usually word-by-word translation from Finnish) expression gets 'fossilized' in their brain and is almost impossible to relearn later. This is one of the eternal questions of language learning/teaching - how to compromise the sometimes conflicting goals of correctness and fluency of communication. Too much nit-picky correction easily leads to students not having the courage to say much at all - at least with our Finnish mentality - whereas a certain degree of accuracy is undeniably essential to be a fluent communicator.

Another conflict here is between school-type testing and real-life communication situations. Finns, in particular, are almost obsessed with teaching and learning grammar as a separate structure from authentic language use. Put a group of Finnish English teachers with a native speaker and you can bet it's not long before the talk turns into the details of grammatical rules with all the inherent metalanguage. So rather than discussing interesting current issues or getting to know the native speaker as a person, the talk invariably revolves around language correctness, reducing the poor native speaker into the role of a mere informant about his/her mother tongue. On countless occasions I have also witnessed my fellow language teachers revelling in spotting native speakers using their mother tongue incorrectly, proving that the foreign language teachers actually know better!

Oh well, as much as I would like to, I can't escape my duties as a teacher in the system any longer - got to carry on ploughing through the piles in front of me.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Learning Ning by doing

Just last week I was complaining about the Ning platform lacking the facility for network creators to organise other people's discussions in the forum into categories to keep it all more structured and easily manageable.

Well, today I was proved wrong, as I found out the way I can actually do this. Thank you clever Ning team! This is probably not the only feature I have missed, and makes me like Ning even more now. I really feel good about accomplishing this all on my own. I wish my students experienced revelations and triumphs like this more at school, or with their studies in general. Undoubtedly, many of them do. Once I got the hang of what I can do to organise the discussion forum, it was a true 'flow exprerience' to get it done (so much so that it almost made me burn our family Easter dinner, as I couldn't interrup what I was doing online!).

Basically, as the network creator, you go to Manage the Discussion forum. What I hadn't noticed before, is the Add a catecory link there.

You can add as many as you like, and it's so fast and easy. So within minutes I had all the categories I wanted added.

Next I went through all the existing discussions and noticed that after the category name there is the option to change it, too.

Once you click 'Change' you get a drop-down menu of all the categories you have added to your Ning.

And then it's just a piece of cake to reorganise all the existing discussions into their new categories. VoilĂ ! Here it is, the result of flow experience, a neat and structured discussion forum now with 12 working categories (as described in my previous blog post).

All I need to do now is to introduce and explain this new categorising system to all the members, so they will learn to make use of it, too, when they next add a discussion on the forum.

Now, was all this worth a blog post? Probably not. (In fact, if anyone ever reads my blog, they will probably find me a simple and useless dabbler with online tools!) Then again, as I am more and more using my blog as a place to make my learning visible and reflect on my own learning experiences, it is meaningful for me. And possibly for somebody else, too, who learns like me, in leaps and bounds and in a rather haphasard, non-linear and organised way. Somebody with different learning strategies would probably have studied all the features on Ning well before creating their own network, to know exactly what Ning offers and how it can be used. In hindsight, I did go back to Ning help, and naturally found all this information clearly written and demonstrated there!

Unfortunately, I am the type of person who doesn't want to read any boring manuals when starting to use new gadgets, for example. I will just go ahead and try to learn through trial and error - getting hopelessly frustrated with the errors, but feeling a great sense of accomplishment if I finally get it. This learning experience of mine is a good reminder for me about the many different learning styles of my students, and how 'one-size-fits-all' strategies and 'haven't I told you this so many times before' don't really reach all of them.

Another thought springing from this is why I didn't throw my question to the Ning team or teacher colleagues in the few social networks I belong to. I'm sure I would have got the answer in no time. Well, firstly I was under the misperception that reorganising already existing discussions on Ning is not possible. Secondly, even if I suspected it might be possible, I am in two minds about keep asking 'strangers' for help online. Although I have had many marvellous experiences of the altruism and helpfulness of people in social networks, I somehow feel that I am a nuisance always asking for help and tips, using others in a way, and not really being capable of reciprocating in any way. I guess it's early days for me with social networking, and I have not yet established any proper PLN for myself, which makes these feelings quite natural.

Despite the focus on collective intelligence and learning through connections these days, learning by doing on your own at times does feel great and empowering, too!

Guiding my global classroom

What an exhilarating experience it has been this year to coordinate our AEC-NET project on the Ning platform. Managing a community of over 200 members in 10 different countries over several months has been quite a challenge at times, but all in all, despite the expected technical and other hitches, Ning has worked very well, and mostly looked after itself. It has allowed for the freedom and ownership of the platform I envisioned for students right from the beginning. In previous projects we used to have a much more closely defined topic and specific final products in mind. I am sure most teachers still see project work in that way, ie. a project is not complete or worthwhile if it doesn't result in a concrete product at the end, which can then be showcased and assessed, as need be. I tend to be moving away from this focusing more and more on the process rather than an end result. As I have blogged before, how else can you really assess any actual students' learning, particularly when the end products, although based on student work, very often are produced by teachers, and not the students themselves?

I must say I have got quite attached to my global classroom and got to know many wonderful young people from a wide variety of cultures. For me, it has been as much a learning experience as it has for those students who have been active and self-directed enough to make the most of it.

When designing this year's project I had great plans of teacher collaboration and sharing ideas, lesson plans and also the trials and tribulations of being a teacher with a group of international colleagues. With this in mind, I started the Teachers' group on our Ning. Some interaction has taken place there, and we have learned that teachers across continents seem to be equally busy and preoccupied with the daily, weekly and regular duties and responsibilities, which often leave international project work on a backburner - understandably. Just read these comments exchanged between our project colleagues to get the idea:

I do realise that I must be slightly crazy and overly passionate about all this work, and I shouldn't expect this from other colleagues. Even I often find myself stretching myself too much when exam papers pile up on my desk. There are as many agendas for joining an international school project as there are participating teachers, and you just have to try and find common ground wherever you can.

Nevertheless, I am ever so grateful for the effort of my international team of teachers, some of whom have really been extremely active, coaxing and guiding their students with their own enthusiasm and modelling good online practices themselves. It's a pity that sometimes we teachers have to resort to using a stick instead of a tempting carrot to motivate our students, though!

In international teacher blogs I read a lot about the ideal of having self-directed students jumping at the chance of learning in an online international community like this, but, as most of us well know, the reality in institutionalised education is a different ballgame altogether. Not all teachers are willing to start changing their teaching styles and investing time and effort in their busy schedules, when there is no guarantee of 100% active student participation and positive attitude. I can't blame teachers for returning to safe old practises after being discouraged by uninterested, unmotivated and passive students. I could blame the system of grading, strict curricula, parent and administration pressure... The list goes on, but this is a different story.
The way I'm beginning to see my role here is becoming a teacher of a global classroom and trying to guide all the active students in their attempts of developing their online literacy skills and overall, becoming more professional net citizens. Very often it is a daunting task and I feel quite inadequate, as I'm only a learner myself. On the other hand, learning together with all these diverse students really makes me tick. Yet, I have a couple of misgivings, too. Sometimes I feel I'm trespassing in other teachers' territory when I start guiding their students online and giving them my ideas of better practices. I keep wondering whether I should contact their teacher first and deal with each issue that way. Then again, not wanting to burden and bother busy colleagues makes me think I might just as well sort it out with the students directly. Another problematic issue is, for example, engaging in the Ning chat with foreign students, especially when meeting them there while they are at home in their freetime. My fear is whether their parents might think I'm some dangerous online predator, so I have to be extra careful what to chat about with the students. I must say I was totally oblivious to any of these issues at the outset of this project. All part of the process and the ongoing learning experience. I often wonder if I am being too blue-eyed, trusting and innocent about online activities at school. At least it seems to me that many Finnish colleagues are much more careful and apprehensive about using open online platforms for educational purposes, preferring protected, closed course and project management systems, such as Moodle, for example. Well, for future projects I now have a list of new issues to negotiate and check with international colleagues in advance.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Student activity on a project Ning

Following the case study on photo sharing I wrote about in my previous blog post, I will now reflect on the other student activities on the Ning in our Asia-Europe WHAZZUP? project.


As of today, there are althogether 216 members in the project. Since fairly good transparency is one of my aims for the project this year, I looked into all the member profiles to see how many member are actually active - the truth being that in any school project network you can make it look impressive with huge numbers of members, while in actual fact only a minute percentage may be active members at all.

In our project there are 24 teacher members, 6 of whom have been totally inactive. Some of them showed initial interest in the project, but possibly realised later that they couldn't participate with their students after all. Some, on the other hand, joined at the request of an active colleague, but as observers only. Out of the 192 student members, 27 seem to be totally passive, which represents about 14 % of all the students. Some of them have absolutely no activity after signing up, while others may have changed the layout of their profile page, or simply added a profile picture, but nothing else. In reality then, we have 18 active teacher members, and 165 active student members, adding up to a total of 183 active members.

Obviously, to take the transparency even further, I ought to really look into the activity of all these members to know the exact amount of active contributions of each member, and to see whether, in fact, it is only a small minority who account for most of the activity on the site with a
long tail of members with only minimal participation (cf. power law).


a) Wall comments

One of the features on the Ning site, similar to Facebook, is wall comments. Each member has 'a wall' on their profile page where others can leave comments for them.

Today the total number of wall comments in the project is a massive 3379. At a closer look, there are 31 members with zero wall posts (more than the totally inactive members, because some without wall posts have, nevertheless, contributed in the discussion forum or blog or uploaded photos). The power law long tail seems to apply here, since including these zero wall comment members, there are 126 members with below 10 wall comments (ie. 58 % of all the members). One students has an amazing 215 wall comments, but all in all only 3 members reach 100 comments or above.

Naturally, the mere number of wall comments is a very limited measure and calls for more qualitative study of the interactions on the Ning site. An interesting topic for further research would be, for example, how and how much the different members are connected, or whether most of the wall comments are casual everyday chit chat exchanged between already existing friends in the same school. From the point of view of educational value of the project (eg. learning valuable skills for intercultural understanding and communication), a lot of interaction between students from different countries would, of course, be desirable. Then again, there is no denying that learning can take place between classmates in such networks, too. For example, as I have already mentioned earlier, most students in the project use English as a foreign language, and thus practise their language skills even with their own friends, since we only allow English being used on the site.

b) Discussion forum and blog posts

Apart from posting on other members' walls, the Ning features include a discussion forum and a blog for each member. The discussion forum can be accessed from the main page of the network, and there each member can start discussions and add comments to existing ones. Each member has a My blog feature on their profile page, but all the blog posts will be added into one joint All Blog Posts feature, which, at least in my opinion, is a little confusing. What I would like is a feature to allow grouping blog posts into different subgroups, for example. There is also a group feature on the Ning, but the groups don't have their separate blogs, which I would find a good idea. Something to suggest to the Ning team, I think!

The blog posts can be tagged, but I must say that being still rather unaccustomed with using tags, myself, I didn't think to guide members to use them. Some students have used them, though, but not always so successfully (eg. tagging something with 'the' must be a mistake!).

The discussion forum allows for setting different categories for discussions, but unfortunately I only realised this feature too late. Ning doesn't allow the network creator to add categories to discussions started by other members, which in our case would have been useful to keep the discussion forum under better control. As it is, it is rather cumbersome to go through all the discussions trying to find what you want. Next time, I will know better and set the categories in advance, as it is rather predictable what discussion students are most likely to start. Five years ago I did a case study of a project discussion forum and found out that, if students can freely start discussions, they are mostly about freetime activities and hobbies (movies, sports, books, holidays, , school and country info (climate, weather, famous places, languages, food lifestyle). Looking at this year's project, I would say these categories still apply, so in my next project Ning I will definitely organise the discussion forum into categories in advance, probably setting an open 'Other' category not to restrict students' freedom too much.

Today there are 60 discussions with a total of 426 replies (6 discussions with zero comments). The top five popular discussions so far are:

The number of blog posts is almost the same - 63 as of today. However, I must add that students seem to find it extremely difficult to differentiate between blog posts and forum discussions and I have had to keep reminding many of them of what we expected from the blog posts. Despite our guidelines, referring students to them and asking their teachers to keep reminding them, I would say there are at least 16 blog posts that should actually have been posted in the discussion forum, or alternatively on a member's profile page as a self-introduction. Compared to the replies to discussions, blog posts have only attracted 66 comments, and a total of 24 blog posts have no comments at all! Clearly, this is a weak point in the project.

The most popular blog post, judging by the number of comments (14), is also the most impressive, innovative and creative one, in my opinion. It is a group effort with several products about the European Union by students at the German school of Paris. The products are PowerPoint presentations or even one quite funny student video. It is wonderful to have such excellent work showcased in our project, but although the students have made the effort to write replies to the comments to their work, they haven't participated in any of the other activities of our project. The same occurred with some my own students, who I gave the chance to do some of their regular course work in connection with this project. Disappointigly, after posting one single blog post they weren't interested in participating in any other way.

c) Reflections

One way to compare the student members is to look at the two clearly different groups that all student members fall into - 1) those who were registered as a whole class by the teacher, and
2) those who had the chance to choose joining up as either an optional course, extra-curricular activity or independent study. Unsurprisingly, it can be noted that all the totally inactive students belong to the first group. Motivation to participate in this type of project is paramount, and a prerequisite to help a student become a self-directed lifelong learner. Of course, there are motivated students also in the first group, but it is clear that no unmotivated student would join a project voluntarily.

There is a special group among our members - a small group of five students from a school in the Philippines, who took the initiative to contact me and request membership by themselves, without their teacher. They have shown such admirable will to learn and organise themselves that they really make my Finnish students look lazy, apathetic and frustratingly passive in comparison. They have really participated with a mission, and even started their own study group on the Ning:

All along they have tried to help each other and try to learn collectively, which I have never seen among my students in my school in Finland!

In an earlier post I wrote about a student member from Malaysia, who also made the effort to join our project quite independently, and has since decided to try to use his active participation as credit to be accepted into a student exchange programme.

These examples raise the question whether the easy life most western European students are used to makes them rather complacent and unmotivated to study, since it often seems that for them studying no longer represents a stepping stone into a better and wealthier life. Life is more about instant gratification and having fun, where boring old school is a chore they are forced to endure. In such an atmosphere, even project work becomes yet another boring chore of 'schoolwork for school and grades only' or 'because the teacher tells us to do it'. How then to spark the inner motivation of these students to be active learners and directors of their own futures? Just today I read this interesting blog post, which refreshingly focuses on the positive value of social networking for students rather than highlighting all the dangers in them. My next challenge will be to convince my students of the positive value of being pro-active about their future by starting to create their professional digital footprints as early as possible.

One of our aims was also to guide students towards more professional writing, and also writing to an audience to start interesting conversations that would facilitate collective learning experiences. Sadly, this has hardly occurred at all. True, not all learning is clearly visible and can be hard to assess, but still, I can't help feeling rather disappointed at this result.

In hindsight, I feel that our idea of allowing students freedom to express themselves in the project has resulted in trivial quantity over quality. On second thoughts, though, I strongly suspect whether limiting wall posting and demanding more homework-style blog posting would have lead to any more interactions between students. They are simply not used to constructively commenting on other people's writing and building deeper dialogues. Maybe this is partly to do with age and maturing? Yet, I don't think we teachers should give up our goals of guiding students into more mature and professional online communication, maybe we only need to be a bit more down-to-earth and realistic with our expectations.

Another factor to keep in mind is different school realities. Not all teachers enjoy the kind of autonomy we Finnish teachers have, nor do all participating students possess adequate enough English skills for anything much more than casual everyday conversation.


Learning from all of the above, we have come up with two new activities to develop the project activities. The first one (already mentioned in my previous blog post) is the photo quest activity that has now been officially launched. Our goal here is to create a type of 'community art' by students really looking into the wealth of photos uploaded by all the members and then creating their new products with them. I am truly hoping for keen participation in this activity! The second activity will be an environmental unit that I and my colleague are teaching in one of our English courses. We will do it partly on this project Ning by opening up the course activities to an online Asia-Europe classroom of interested students. I am curious to see how many (if any!) international students take up this opportunity. Designing motivating activities for this is my next challenge.