Thursday, July 9, 2009

Confidently leading online learners

During the last school term, after I had spoken at a conference, a teacher came up to me and told me that the 21st Century learning I had been talking about had not been happening in her class but she was determining to give it a go. "I'm thinking about where to start," she said "but everyone says that blogging is out and Twitter is where it's all at, so what do you say to me starting with Twitter in my class?" Well, mentally I was retorting, "No, don't do it - as you were - forget about anything you just heard from me". But of course I didn't say that aloud. Instead I asked, "Who is the Everybody who is saying this?" "Oh, The Media!" was the response.
Of course one teacher informing her decisions about the next step for her class (or other people's children as I always prefer to think of it) from media sound bites and a conference speaker may well be an abberation, but it was enough to get me working on another post about my musings around Web 2 issues. Over the past couple of years I have talked with heaps of educators who are starting out using Web 2 tools with their schools or individual classes. I have come to see that there are a couple of very important understandings to be clear on before setting out like Captain Cook on an exciting voyage of discovery with an eager crew of children.

One of these is to have an understanding of
the community you work in and the other is to have an understood purpose for doing this. Understanding the community - the parents, the Board of Trustees, the school vision and leadership, the policies already in place, the students you are working with - will save a whole raft of problems later on. I have loosely grouped communities into 3 categories;
  1. The 'walled garden' community
  2. The 'go-fer-it' community
  3. The 'yes - but' community
The 'walled garden' community are very cautious about the whole online thing with their children and are reluctant to have them on the internet, most concerned about their images and content being online, and even request directly that their children are not included in any online spaces - including the school website. My belief is that these parents have a right to have this attitude and if you have chosen to work in this community it is up to you to make it work! Parent education and involvement is an obvious starting place, but in the meantime you are obligated to respect their wishes and work within the 'walled garden'. Hopefully they would accept password protected web spaces, students represented by avatars and pseudonyms etc, but it is their call.
The 'go-fer-it' community at the opposite end of the spectrum do exist! As a community they 'get' Web 2 and enjoy it. They are proud of their children when they see them online and support them gaining a measure of online 'fame' through their online identities. (BTW, I am taking it for granted that, despite this open attitude, the school is working within 'Netsafe' boundaries with things like first names only, no phone numbers and addresses etc). I believe that the challenge for teachers with this level of trust and freedom is to constantly be evaluating ethics and behaving responsibly online and not just 'winging' it. Continuing to remember that with freedom comes responsibilities. And to continue to keep the community well informed of new directions the students/class/school are taking - as there always will be the next new thing.
The 'yes - but' community are anywhere on the continuum between the other two and they deserve ongoing education and information. They may well agree to one situation, eg happy to have the class blogging, but have uncertainties about another online environment. Every community has the right to be completely informed about what their children are doing and where their learning is taking place, but this group may respond particularly well to regular opportunities to come into school to see the students demonstrate their learning and hear from the teacher the thinking behind what is happening. And of course the more they are invited to be involved as a contributing audience the greater the buy in is likely to be.
In the early days of eLearning I held 'open class' once a term from 3pm till 9pm where the students could bring in their extended families and show them online, and using the data projector if they wished, what they had been learning. And of course the parents were welcome to talk to me as well, but the emphasis was on the students informally presenting. In my last year of doing this I had so many come in that we set up a mini theatre and one child brought in the neighbours as well as the whanau to look at his work.

Finally, if I was changing jobs I would be asking questions about community attitudes to 21st century learning before I bought into the job - some things take a lot of energy to change! Having a clear understanding of the purpose for using Web 2 spaces with your students will seem obvious to anyone who reads adult edu-blogs, but I am no longer surprised when I meet teachers planning to 'set up a wiki/blog' simply because they have been told that it is the thing to do now. My own experience working with children in eLearning has been to state the purpose in writing and hand it to the boss (and sometimes Board of Trustees) when I get the next new idea to try something different. And the first set of bullet points is about the learning I would hope to incur. This way of operating has primarily benefited me because writing a brief resume clarifies the thinking - a bit like writing a blog post - and when you get a green light it helps to have the support of management behind the project.
One of the questions the Manaiakalani lead teachers asked each other at our last workshop was 'Can a first time visitor to your class blog tell from the home page what the purpose of this blog is?' They worked in groups on this, analysing each other's blogs and in the end decided out of the 16 teachers present only 3 were absolutely clear. Discussion followed about how to improve the clarity of purpose on the other 13 and changes were made accordingly.
You would expect that the purpose of your blog would evolve over time, but it can be a useful exercise to ask someone else to give feedback about whether the current purpose is clear.
Having lots of teachers talk to me about their own online spaces and hearing about the issues arising in their specific situations has contributed greatly to this post - so thank you very much for your openness. This is also a continuation of the thinking coming out of our discussions around developing robust Web 2 policies for our school and cluster. As always your thoughts are welcome :)