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 :)


  1. Hey Dorothy,
    What a well timed blog.
    I have been having similar thoughts.
    I really like the idea of presenting the purpose of an online presence using web 2 tools with the BOT.
    Thank you

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  3. Food for thought indeed. I have been planning a presentation on using voice thread in the classroom and I realise now that I hadn't thought through these aspects. Of course community and purpose need to be considered. Maybe I'll start with the learning - as if I was presenting a proposal to a BOT.

  4. Oh Dorothy,
    What music to my ears. I get the glazed look now when I rant on about purpose, but I is the most important thing.
    I was interested to read the way you broke the community down into groups, and in my community (and probably all communities) those three groups are present, and all the in-between groups too, plus the group in blinkers who have no idea what is going on (maybe not their fault).
    There are many unanswered questions around the future impact of the use of use of web2.0 and although I am a strong supporter of using these tools for the right purpose I hope that in a few years we are not going to say "What were we thinking!!!!" We need to be doing the thinking now.

  5. @Lenva Long before Web 2 was around I was saying the word purpose in regards to the flood of advertising material that came into the school each day with offers for the next wonderful software to buy. I bet you were too! I remember talking to staff about how we were NOT going to spend our limited IT budget on wonderful sounding software unless it had a purpose for some learning they were already planning to do! of course with Web 2 tools being free it is even more important that teachers evaluate and clarify purpose...
    @Ulimasao and @room2 , sometimes it isn't feasible to present the BOT with the next idea, but even going through the process of clarifying what you would say can be helpful. I think that asking or informing snr management is a good safe guard anyway.

  6. I feel that blogs will best achieve communicative purpose through existing outside of a walled garden. As part of the Microsoft innovative schools project we used live spaces to blog the barrier of having to be a member to comment severely limited the connectedness (sp). This is how we achieve 2 way communication and learning. In the area of social networking I have been pleasantly surprised that our walled elgg garden has passed the ultimate test. The students want to use this and feel ownership. They are almost choosing to have the walls themselves. My feeling is that this is because this suits the content and the communicative purpose from the students perspective. I would like to see this develop in its flexibility so that the walls are not a barrier a colourful wall which is honoured rather than enforced.

  7. @Dave I think you were saying that you prefer the non-walled garden but your students prefer the walls? Did I read that right? I am interested in your comments because when I visited your blog I noticed that a video of the students was published on YouTube about the very event which had restricted blog commenting available. This is where my point about needing to know your community well comes from. MY community are very relaxed about open commenting on the blogs (provided they are monitored regularly by the teacher) but NOT comfortable about the kids' images being on YouTube.
    Seems to be almost the reverse of yours then?

  8. I cannot fathom why teachers would persist with a walled garden type of blog- maybe because the purpose of my blogs is to communicate. It's hard to do the with high fences and barbed wire.

  9. Hi Dorothy yeah sorry for confusion which I will probably not remove by this attempt to clarify either lol. What I was trying to say is that perhaps there are some differences in the impact of "walled gardens" on social networking and blogging. With memberships required for elgg in our case and ning for others these seem not limit value in the same way that having a closed blog does. I personally think this stems from the numbers of individuals involved in these networks and their associated physical presence and common experiences in the social network community. Also activity in social networks is somewhat different to that of blogging. Social networking is quite profile related likes dislikes etc.

    With regard to video hosting we have posted student videos to youtube, soapbox (Msoft), teachertube, blogger as well as embedding them into elgg nd moodle. It does worry me the potential for our parents to object to or something to go wrong in such an open environment. I guess to date we have seen this as a responsible risk with the potential for benefit out weighing the potential for harm. An issue for us is how we can make these social profiles available to students once they leave our community or is it fine that this record is merely for the period of their stay at our school. We are in the process of aligning our domain with google an will no doubt be looking to what media searches and stores are appropriate. With 1to1 access netsafety is an issue at ever corner skype, webcams, msn, email, web filtering tinychat,ustream,qik,any online media? There is no correct answer in my mind only moderated risk.

  10. I love the process you went through with your staff to check that the purpose of the online spaces they had set up was clear to visitors. We have been talking as a team about some of the links contained in cluster reports to online spaces that you really can't tell what their purpose is or what we are supposed to be looking at. This continues to be such an important area to discuss and explore.

  11. Excellent post Dorothy, sound, practical advice and well articulated. This post, along with your previous one on Web2 polices, provide very useful references to point people to! I totally agree re Purpose - like you, this is top of my list of places to start thinking. It's a waste of time starting if we can't adequately defend and articulate our purpose.

  12. @Allanah Very good question, but I guess that for people who have been teaching happily at a school prior to Web 2, it would become quite a dilemna 'What to do?' if they found themselves in a place where the community demanded a walled garden. Thinking my next blog should be a question, what would be your bottom line (eLearning)requirements to teach at your next school?....
    @Dave Thanks for the clarification. Sounds like your students have quite a substantial network to engage with. However, I am still interested in the wide variety of non-walled spaces you publish in in order to embed inside your walls (was that a mouthful?).
    Who moderates/monitors the comments on YouTube/TTube and all those other sites. Interested to see how you make it work...
    I agree that there is no generic correct answer, but I do think there are answers that are correct for your specific community
    @Suzie I know exactly what you are talking about eg Some invites we get to comment on blogs are really tricky because it is unclear even whether these are child or adult blogs.

  13. I am part (leader?) of a go-fer-it community. For whatever reason my community and administration have never shown much concern over how my class is involved in the internet. This is obvious to most when they visit my class blog and notice I stream live video all day during class.

    I definitely agree that thought needs to be put into how tools should be used in the classroom. I mean all tools, not just 2.0 tools. I know many more teachers abuse worksheets than anything online.

    Does the purpose of the blog need to be obvious to the visitor or does the blog need to fulfill the needs of the class? I am not sure that you could tell the purpose of my class blog, maybe because its purpose is fluid and has changed many times over the last 2 1/2 years. That being said, I also have blogs that have specific uses that I believe are obvious when they are viewed.

    Finally, I want to say that NZ schools are truly an inspiration for me. Through viewing sites and the communication I have had with teachers, I have learned so much about using 2.0 tools.

    Mr. C

  14. I personally believe that in terms of BOT and parents dialogue around the new curriculum and the relationship of key competencies to the web other educational networks is important. Firstly the competencies and the others as their part in this. Highly related to the vision of curriculum. Connected lifelong learners.

  15. @Derek Purpose seems so obvious and a lot of the discussion following this post (and the previous one) could have helped the school/ teacher who are now facing the negative publicity being attracted by the Whale Oil post
    @Wm Chamberlain
    Thanks very much for visiting and taking the time to add an 'international' perspective to this conversation. Did laugh at your worksheet abuse remark - you are so right:) But of course they get away with that because only the class gets to see it.
    I had presumed from visiting your blog that the purpose was to open your class to the world. And in a way you should have the least problems with school management and parents because the flip side of what you are doing is providing the ultimate CCTV for them to 'keep an eye on' your class.
    However, from my visits to schools in Nth America and the many teachers sharing their stories online, would I be correct in thinking that your school's go-fer-it approach is in the minority?

  16. I don't think there is any question that my school is different than most with what I am allowed to do. Unfortunately, it seems that schools are locking down 2.0 tools more and more. Obviously, many choose to limit students education in favor of safety (of the students, or more likely of the IT infrastructure....)

  17. Yes, yes and yes again to 'Purpose'. Have also seen/heard/talked to teachers who have set up blogs wiki's etc because it's the 'thing to do'. The communities section of your post was very useful and not something I'd fully thought through before, thank you.