Wednesday, 29 April 2009
Sunday, 26 April 2009
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.
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!
what can you say about global warming? do you want to help? in what way? Speak up guyz!
Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.
Saturday, 25 April 2009
Photos: 'Sometu ITK-foorumilla' by rongasanne on Flickr
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."
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....
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.
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
Monday, 20 April 2009
Saturday, 18 April 2009
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
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
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. Voilà! 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!
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!
Friday, 10 April 2009
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.
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.
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.
ATTEMPTS OF IMPROVEMENT
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.