In recent weeks, teachers in my school have gone ‘Ning’ crazy. Earlier in the term, I ran some PD sessions for 7th and 8th grade teachers about starting to develop ‘discourse’ communities in thier classes. A handful of teachers came along and developed Ning’s for their class.
Whilst it is great to see kids working online, I’ve noticed that teachers are wondering about ‘marking’ what is going on inside their class groups.
What? I thought. Marking blogs, why?.
Why as in – what does a mark tell you and the student?
In the three projects this term that I’ve been involved in designing – the purpose of the ‘community’ is to develop a conversation that encourages students to discuss the project and their work in the project.
I’ve purposely avoided trying to mark a conversation – or a blog.
There is a danger in appearing as the ‘expert’ in a discourse community (Ning/21Classes). The students revert to the dominant thinking that they can’t add anything to the conversation that the teacher does not already know. So marking their posts is judgmental.
Conversely, not doing anything, but observing causes the students concern. This concern is increased if students see other teachers commenting (if it is a multi-class project). They don’t directly ask ‘hey, whats the issue?’, but the do post comments to the teacher just to touch base, in the hope of sparking an online conversation.
In this case, students seek attention from other teachers – so are pacified to some degree – but it is a missed opportunity for their teacher to start conversations that I’ve found simply don’t happen in the ‘classroom’. Some students simply do not form strong face to face relationships with teachers in class – but do in a discourse community online.
After talking to some teachers, there is a clear line of thought which surrounds the idea of ‘marking’. What do they do/say/give students, so that they will get a reply that they can/should mark?
The model I’ve offered to teachers is to be participants in the conversation. But to do that effectively, the teachers are drip feeding ideas and thoughts to scaffold the learning. It is a subtle skill – to weave several conversations together to illustrate a ‘consensus’ of group understanding.
It is a conversation, but it has to have a strategy behind it – if you want to be able to informally assess the progress of the students in reaching their goal. There has to be an agreed and understood goal suitable to the grade and ability of the students, ideally that goal should be identified by the student at the outset. Students must talk about their goal, and where they think they are in reaching it during the project – and reflect back on that progress at the end of the project. It has defined, clear stages of development.
I learned this week how important it is to clearly state the expectations of the project from the outset – this way I know that you will know what it is you must achieve within the next four weeks! I learned that it is important to set goals in order to make progress and that combined with strong individual work ethic AND effective group work, you can reach them!
Being a participant in the community to scaffold learning is most effective when it is a conversation between individuals. General ‘drip feeds’ and ‘tips’ can be offered in a forum, and students ‘speak’ in forums using a very different tone and language that they do inside their own ‘blog space’ or when ‘talking with teachers’.
If a classroom Ning is started – then the teacher has to be a participant in conversations that lead each student to attain their goals – at the individual level. If a Ning is used as a group exercise book, where the teacher is posing questions or making students respond to ‘content’ – which at some point is ‘marked’ – completely removes the major value-add of using it in teaching and learning.
Participation as a reflective teacher, talking directly with students about thier goals and their work is to me, the paramount activity. At the end of a project, there will be something to ‘mark’. What students are saying is that they get a lot out of working with teachers on this level digital playing field.
While it is great to see students moving to an online publishing environment, the pace at which this happens, may well mean that a hug opportunity is missed. People keep saying it’s not about the tools. But if the ‘community’ writing is not carefully planned and crafted, it is just kids writing online, and given that it’s fun, they kids treat it as a welcome break from the exercise book, but it’s really just replacing it.
It’s critical that teachers undertake suffiencient professional development into what makes a discourse community work and that they participate and reflect (see teacher’s post above) effectively in that community.
It’s not as simple as starting a Ning on a topic with a class. To get the most out of it, and to get students to ‘fall in love with it’ – requires planning, scaffolding and identification of key performance indicators well ahead of ‘launching’ it. It requires skilled participation for the life of the project – and at some point – it must end and have a conclusion.