Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Ning and school - once again

After closing a very promising experiment with an online project Ning and  having started a new similar one, it's a good time to touch base and do a bit of reflection. All last year, my aim was to provide a lively, but to a certain degree secured (e.g. monitored membership), learning community to students in many countries. Looking back now, that's what we managed to build in a year although it wasn't by any means perfect. One of the problems was that initially, most of the students only joined because their teachers told them to, and consequently, the bulk of their community presence was in the form of teacher-led assignments. Very typically, students just went through the motions of uploading their blog posts or taking part in discussions to get their course credits from their teacher, but as soon as the assignments ended, the rest of the community members never heard about them again. On a more positive note, at the very least, they got a little bit of information about a new way of sharing information - with pictures and hyperlinks as opposed to the old static and linear pen to paper approach. Also, one of the main goals last year, apart from the obvious intercultural communication and authentic language use, was to introduce students to the idea of writing more serious blog posts in addition to the conversational chatting they are more familiar with. What I'm not so sure about now is whether this brief introduction will serve them for anything in the future, when they are more mature, and possibly have more to share and contribute.

Some time ago, I came across Dean Groom's blog post Communities just don't happen. Reading the next quote made me question the success of our learning community.
A strong community is desirable over a collection of people using a portal, because members are less likely to want to break the bonds made between them. Portals have users, who have no bonds.
Did we get anywhere beyond sharing a well-functioning portal for a loosely connected group? To my surprise, Google analytics revealed that last year's Ning still has almost as much activity as this year's one, even after officially stopping to manage it and guiding students to join the new one for this year. Clearly, some students managed to make lasting friendships and wanted to continue the dialogue even after the project as such was closed. What is quite evident, though, is that without teacher guidance and given assignments, the students simply use the old Ning as a place to leave short chatty messages on each other's walls, and possibly still carry on some of the discussions in the forum. No photos are added, or blog posts written any more.

I can't help wondering whether it would have been a better idea to keep the old Ning running and just accept new members to it. The reason why we opted for starting a totally new Ning for the second year, was that otherwise we would have ended up having too many dormant members after students graduated and left school, or their teachers decided not to continue with the project. With Ning, members have to delete their accounts themselves, the network creator can't do it. In addition, I was afraid that the this year's new members would find it difficult to navigate on the site, if all last year's posts, photos, videos etc. were already there. To avoid this, more guidance into following RSS feeds, for example, would be needed, to keep students on track of the latest additions on the site. Not a bad idea anyway! I think it's the old control-syndrome of many teachers that makes me want to keep organizing the Ning instead of just letting it shape a life of its own. On second thoughts now, I can see that there should be some sustainability to the whole concept of our Ning. We had better rethink the big picture of creating ongoing dialogue between students across continents and focus on the process and creating a sustainable community rather than a one-year project with a one-off end product.

The underlying problem is the 'old school' setting of such a project. In particular, if project work is made part of the curriculum, where students get credit for it, it easily turns into just another assignment for assignment's sake. To some extent, you can 'force' these assignments on students, but I totally agree with Dean Groom that "Participation in groups at the higher levels is entirely voluntary" - you cannot force commitment. As the structure of traditional school systems rather works against this, I have some budding ideas to develop next year, but more about them later.

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