Sunday, 12 April 2009

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.

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