Write for free, it’s good for you!

This headline is a lie. There are people working day jobs who now believe when a producer or editor comes up with this week’s theme, that they have every right to crowd-source the writing from the suckers online. This is actually a job now — tapping into people someone in the office knows and offering them the chance to write for the big-league as though at some point there would be even the slightest pay back.

Ethical practice or part of the network culture?

I don’t believe it’s ethical to do this, nor is it part of network culture. It’s part of media-culture to get as much for free as possible. The exception here being The Conversation, which I have to say was a great online publication to write for. The difference between blogging and writing is a fee when it comes to ‘proper publishing’.

It isn’t okay to even try to tap-me-up for a freebie on the basis you may know someone who I know. It’s even less exciting if that person hasn’t bothered to ask how I am in a year or so. I realise there are plenty of people who believe network culture is about sharing, crowd sourcing everything and giving every idea and insight away for ‘the love of it’. The reward seems to be presented through the opportunity to ‘tweet your association’ as though this has some lasting credibility or increases your social or financial status. It doesn’t, but it’s a great way of getting free work. I have no time for people who seek to profit from others using this disingenuous form of ‘collaboration’. Screw that, why would I want to devalue my work by increasing the value of yours?

If I choose to post to my blog — it’s because I want to. If you’re tapping me up for free because you’re boss told you too — don’t be shocked if I’m offended. I value the work I’ve done in relation to kids, games and families. Why would I want to give that away simply to fill someone else’s agenda?

It’s shallow for online media properties to ‘crowd source’ when they also like to complain about copyright, journalistic erosion and budget cuts. I’m happy to be taken seriously, and happy to work with editors, copy-editors and publishers around video games and families. I welcome writing pieces for organisations which I believe are promoting awareness for social-good. However, please don’t  ask for freebies in order to fill your space — I value my work, and so should you.

Changing minds, changing tools

I’ve been using WordPress for a good number of years. Before that I used a now ‘dead’ service.

All up I’ve been ‘blogging’ for about a decade – but didn’t really call it that for five or six years until Judy set me straight. In fact in the first half of the naughties, I wasn’t in education — and in the future, who knows …

Times obviously change, and I seem to spend more time ‘encountering’ things than I once did and spend a great deal of time reaping information from networks, that often I just flick back to the network. Judy’s written about her changing use of media — so once again, I’m late to the party.

I’ve been looking for something to suit. I use Posterous, but mostly it’s a digital-dumpster for me. I fire things from Twitter and Facebook to it that I might (and don’t always) want to go back to. I use a few gadgets on Twitter to fire RT links to Diigo and Delicious, which is more like a teenager’s bedroom floor. In productivity, I’m a massive user of Evernote which is a collection of cave-wall scratchings of ideas and half-finished notes. When I want to get more serious I use Mendeley and Open Office – simply because it’s really easy to store, organise and obligingly cite research in an attempt to support my suppositions.

The new kid on the block is Amplify. I’m told people have to join to comment – but I’m finding it a great light weight way to actually write a weblog of thoughts, ideas and encounters. I like that I can harvest from it, so fire posts to secret-gardens that I have intention of sharing – but use as a sort of archive – just in case Amplify disappears. That is a bit like never backing up your hard drive to me, having lost much of what I was thinking in the early part of 2000s, I’m conscious of the fragility of Web2.0ism.

I’ve added a link over to the right – and guess it will probably contain more unfinished thoughts and observations than the trusty WordPress blog which I’ll continue to write – but perhaps less frequently.

I find it – and so I imagine others do – really hard to put borders around writing. I totally get that may über blogs are positioning pieces or revenue generators — and are written in that way. I don’t think I’m there yet, and still enjoy writing things down, that later I revisit and have another subconscious argument with myself. I may have caught myself trying to do/be something I’m not that good at recently, so the voices in my head are telling me to try something new.

Entering the new commons. Teachers can’t write.

“Historically, we humans have experienced an impulse to write; we have found the materials to write; we have endured the labor of composition; we have understood that writing offers new possibility and a unique agency. Historically, we composers pursued this impulse to write in spite of—in spite of cultures that devalued writing; in spite of prohibitions against it when we were female or a person of color; in spite of the fact that we—if we were 6 or 7 or 8 or even 9—were told we should read but that we weren’t ready to compose.”
Kathleen Blake Yancey, Florida State University, Tallahassee. “Writing in the 21st Century”. February 2009 National Council of Teachers of English

When I read this I thought – omg. If I had an iphone at the time, I might have tweeted it too.

The new commons for student writing

Kathleen argues that without a planned curriculum (the central way in which formal education has been constructed), the use of writing has always taken the primary ‘colors of the time’. She maintains this as being a rudimentary skill in pursuit of testing students understanding of ‘the text’. Despite a ‘new’ curriculum – it seems likely that composition will continue as it is now in the majority of student experiences.

The report goes on to look historically at writing as composition though modern history, identifying letters from the European trenches of World War 1, letters to loved ones etc., as examples of self-directed composition enabled by the ability to send and receive it though systems such as the postal service.

It outlines how being able to write a personal letter transformed writing, through to today’s hyper-connected world composition is has turned “its attention to the visual and to audience—is needed.”

In this model of composing, meaning – created through the interaction between visual and verbal resources is central and a key consideration and motivation is understanding the role of audience and the social nature of writing.

The report goes on to discuss how social platforms have become the new ‘commons’. As people themselves become more mobile in the 40s and 50s, travelling further from home and community – physical ‘common’ spaces began to shrink as communities stopped using them. I can vividly recall playing ‘down the common’ with friends – and it was a hub of activity for latch-key kids like me. How times change.

Students today are learning composition in pixels, though social apprenticeships – from following Photoshop tutorials, learning about writing a better blog or telling a digital story, or simply updating their status on a social network – and we are learning in the new commons created by the internet, because that is the authentic audience and virtual spaces that kids have immediate and persistent access too. Socially, we are far less likely to let kids gather in spaces than 30 years ago – and even if we do, our helicopter parenting habits will probably give them a mobile phone too. Social networks and virtual spaces have become a ‘third space’ – in which kids can ‘hang out’ – and the method by which they compose short or lengthy messages is though technology.

Why don’t teachers use the online common room?

I’ve noticed, on occasions I attend conferences – that the 95% of teachers are text-consumers, and the ‘work’ asked of students is based on a Blooms approach to unpacking them in essays, reports and other text-types that have are socially and academically acceptable. 95% seek out new texts and sessions that give handouts and 5% will attend anything ‘computerised’ – despite most EdTech’s these days focusing on pedagogy and strategy, not ‘tools’.

Teachers are far more likely to see physical spaces – their staff room, conferences, subject plenaries as their commons and to look for teaching materials in the form of ‘texts’ than use the metaverse. They are very unlikely to compose a blog post, send a tweet or create new information, but highly likely to buy a text that someone else has composed, or personally recommended during a professional development session.

It is no surprise that students predominantly work alone or rarely offered research challenges that cannot be hacked out in front of Google for 10 minutes, as writing is tied to assessment, using an academic writing style – supporting the idea that knowledge passed on by the teacher is singular, valuable, and must be remembered.

The advent of paper and pen, and word processor, flash drive, email perpetuates this culture and marginalises composition and publication online – from the classroom.

What does composition look like today?

Composing from self interest (forums, applications, games interaction) or self sponsored (emails, facebook, playlists, photo galleries, youtube) is far more likely than writing for school, which is seen as work.

Teacher use of technolgy is in composition for ‘work’ – creating tests, tasks, powerpoints, reports etc., Activities closely related to their job, to transmitting and reporting on the student ability to ‘work’ within Blooms Taxonomy. Their self interest is annexed – if indeed they use sites such as Facebook, or simply email.

School assessment is hung up on reports, exams, essays, LMS, posters and presentations – for a very narrow audience – the teacher and the examiner. Developing assessment beyond the current method is challenging.

95% of teachers have no interest in entering the digital common room, participating with others or encouraging writing in pixels in social spaces with their students – as culturally, this is not seen as proper work and in turn don’t see a social-value as their students are directly reporting to a narrow audience.

Yet – 95% of students do this a hundreds times a week to a global audience though a multitude of technologies, from almost any location.

Does anyone see a problem here? Anything that remotely represents social composition in pixels is banned, dismissed or ignored. The ‘virtual world’ or ‘online world’ is not cyberspace or the opposite of ‘real life’ – it is just life, composed in pixels. I guess the issue now is – how long can leaders insist of pressing the <deny> option – and claim that the small percentage of Outliers, who use technology well – are examples of their culture without adding 2-5% of our culture?

‘Here’s a blog worth checking out’

My blog was kindly attributed an award by Alexandra Francisco. Needless to say that I am really honored to have been thought of. I have a real thing right now about how important networked ideas are – and looking well beyond your hashtagged burbclaves.

I am utterly hopeless at maintaining a blog roll, and rely on my RSS feeder to run frantically behind the crowd.

Here’s the background: the award is part of the initiative “Vale a pena ficar de olho nesse blog”, which, basically, intends to spread the word about blogs that we think are worth checking out. There are a couple of rules you need to follow:

1- Copy and display the picture of the award given to you;
2- Link back to the blog that nominated you;
3- Nominate 10 different blogs yourself;

4- Inform the people you nominated, so they can in turn, continue the chain and spread the word about all the wonderful blogs out there.
Not too hard to follow, is it? And it’s a great way to call people’s attention to the wonderful work being done by bloggers all over the world. So, bearing that in mind, here are my nominations – which are not any measure of importance, just places that I find interesting around the things I find, well, interesting.
  1. We Fly Spitfires. With a title like that, the blog has to be interesting, Gordon delivers.
  2. HeyJude – I’d still be sitting on my ass without Jude.
  3. The Metaverse Journal – David Holloways epic look at Virtual Worlds from Australia
  4. Teachpaperless – Shelly. A gun-slinging blog. This is exactly the kind of teacher I want for my kids (if he could only stop he Hordish ways)
  5. Teaching Generation Z – Grahame Wegner. First blog I read a lot – and still do.
  6. John Connell – Giving me more reasons that I need to move to Scotland
  7. Dwell on it – Love what Tateru writes, the way it is written and the insight beyond the obvious.
  8. Learning with E’s – Steve Wheeler fights the dark mists of academic prose to make a lot a sense.
  9. Ollie Bray – Ripping out old tired ideas and filling classrooms with adventure, fun and plenty of inspiration
  10. Teacherman79 – the only teacher mad enough to let me work with his kids. Exactly the kind of teacher I’d trust my kids with.

This list is about people who make me rethink all the stuff I think I know – but obviously don’t. A fraction of the people who influence me; support me and challenge me.

Reflective Writing 1-2-3

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‘REFLECTION’ is a word closely associated with 21st Century Learning. I thought I’d write a post on how to improve critical literacy though a 3 step adjustment to read/write activities in the classroom.

Watson (1997) says “Reflection encourages students to – self examine, self-asses and evaluate their own practice. Without reflecting, the student is at risk of practicing in a manner if unquestioned routines, accepted directives and/or rote learning.”

This short observation highlights the need for students to question, not simply to recount or answer declarative questions with read/write tools. There is bountiful research that suggests talking about what they are doing, not just what they or others have done, encourages the conscious practice of discussing the consequences of their findings and actions.

We need to ensure that testing for prior knowledge is more than asking declarative questions at the beginning of a (lesson or tutorial) learning instance. The facilitator should be conscious of three stages of reflection and also consider selecting different tools to achieve this. For example: Use a combination of micro-blog, game and video. This also encourages students to explore a more diverse media landscape.

1. Reflecting before acting – preventing unnecessary errors. Making sure the student is aware of the outcomes being sought. Asking students to predict the activity, talk about their expectations and possible fears as the activity is revealed to them. What can they do already and show you? What skills are they missing that will help them? This can be though a series of microblog posts for example – as the teacher begins to reveal the activity though providing readings or given them mini-tasks to complete – not just delivering content.

2. Reflect during the activity – use methods to monitor their actions during the event in order to maintain contextually appropriate performance and effort. This is often though feedback from the software itself – such as sound, images, scores etc. In a game this is in-built, but in a MUVE it has to be designed. Teachers need to pay close attention to this phase, to ensure the learner is challenged but not frustrated by poor feedback, or not understanding the importance of it in the learning sequence/pattern – from the teacher or the software.

3. Critically review their actions and experience after. This last action is dependent on recall. Technology often allows recall to occur as events are recorded in some manner such as a blog post, or screen shot. Self and peer assessment to deconstruct the learning process should be combined with encouraging the student to record that event and use that evidence to support their critical reflection.

The outcome,  activity and the assessment should not be limited to a predicted performance. “I think they’ll be able to do it” or “I think I can teach using that”. Design the task so that the student can modify it (up or down), to negotiate their curriculum and perhaps explore incidental or peripheral ideas outside core curriculum content. This might mean making a video, interviewing people, performing a role pay together with text based activities.  Pacing the activity also helps, changing the emphasis from one activity to another to allow you to uncover more about the learner. Keep the tools VERY simple, look for ready-to-learn solutions, so that students learn to select their own tools to demonstrate their learning. Consider that when you first start using read/write media – you students will have little idea what to do and the social dynamics are all over the place. Most games will train you to operate effectively individually rather than in a group -which is much more complex. By default you have ‘groups’ of learners … but initially, this is a good way to learn more about them as individuals, which you can use later in wider approaches.


Ref: Watson S. (1997) ‘An analysis of concept experience”. Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol.16 pp 1117-1121.

Getting Online Communities – online

 

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Okay, so you’ve decided to let your students interact online, publish, make, do blah … no more passive technology use. Good for you (and them). How do you set it up so that it becomes a norm, not a storm?

Communication with parents is not only about seeking permission … its about seeking dialogue.

Parents view on home internet activity

Parents see kids on MySpace, Bebo, Messenger et al. Lots of parents in the last few years have said to me ‘he’s always on messenger chatting – how do get him to do his homework’. In a general way, teens spend more time at home with their PC for social-entertainment than they do learning. Googling/Wikipedia and slamming it into a Word document is more often than not – the kind of activity that kids do at home. But you want to change that right?. Communication is the key with parents – to change thier perceptions of what their kids are doing with a computer. This is where you kick off your campaign.

Obviously, you are going to send home a note to get permission. Obviously, you are going to ensure that your school has an effective AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) to ensure that everyone is aware of what you are doing. Fianlly, you’ve obviously decided to MODERATE all comments.

So lets get started with a simple, effective 4 step plan to get online and get parents and students talking about technology and the issues that we all know are critical right now.

The note sent home is the first in a line of communication opportunities, not purely a permission slip, and I’ll come to that shortly.

The other thing about working online at home, is that parents physically ‘see’ less paper and books. So they become concerned that ‘he is not getting homework’. This leads to kids getting hassled about that, plus the time they are on the computer … so you have to ease the migration for both student and parent.

Step 1 – Communicate the class goals to parents

Set up a new class email account for parents to contact you. Either via the school system or gmail. Use this as your communication channel to parents. Send a letter home explaining what you are doing in simple language. There are TWO key parent hot spots. One addresses the ‘what is he doing online’ – tell them that he is learning about internet safety and digital reputation and representation online. You might want to mention the 95% of digi-teens on MyFace et al, and how it is important for them to realise the importance of privacy and being appropriate online. The second one is Media Literacy, tell them you are studying this, and specifically the issues about ‘downloads’, file sharing, and copyright. Parents have seen the ‘don’t download’ messages, but often are not sure ‘how or when’ their kids do it.

So right now, you’ve got a draft letter, explaining TWO goals. The third goal is actually, reflective writing – but that one will be demonstrated.

A third point of the letter, is to invite them to communicate with you. Say that over the course of the semester, students will be participating in safe publishing activities online, and if they have any questions (about anything) that they can contact you at your new email address. This opens a communication channel.

Step 2 – Explain specifically what the students will be doing.

Give parents the URL of the place students will be working. I suggest you stick to communities like Ning or 21Classes if this is your first run. If the URL is ugly, shorten it with TinyURL to make it easy.

The next letter home should have an outline of the work, and your expectations of any ‘home’ internet use. I strongly suggest the use of the word ‘may’ – as not all students will have access at home – so you are going to need to make school based arrangements – but for those students who will be online at home in Ning for example … make sure that the parents know your expectation (max) time. Getting parents to help manage the time and activities that students are doing.

In this letter you will ask for basic permission for students to engage in read/write activities – within the boundaries set. Also ask for a parent email address (you might not get one, but ask anyway). Ask if it’s okay for you to contact them from time to time.

Step 3 – Discussion  and Collaboration with parents.

Set some homework task that the kids can’t do alone – but with parents. Focus on the TWO issues you started with – Reputation and Legals. Ask a couple of driving questions such as;

“How can you tell is something on the internet is real or fake” or “What reputation do Teens have in their use of the internet”.

Try to make them short and un-google-able. Ask the kids to discuss these with 2/3 family members and produce a short report on each question – using your new online community. Make sure they use paper and a pen at home, then transfer that to the community site. This will form your initial basis discussion online and allow you to talk about commenting and the other great things that build reflective writers (another skill to learn).

When you’ve had the discussion … post your own ‘blog’ story about the questions, and quote the students and family members (no names). Thread the conversation together making sure you are not making judgements … and prepare for the final step.

Step 4 – Parent Feedback

Send home a short survey – with closed questions – focus on their opinion of how their kids used technology and talked about their project at home.

Include a link to the community site and/or to your own reflection post.

Invite parents to email you any feedback about anything directly. (Access to student works will depend on your schools view of ‘public access’ – but comments MUST BE OFF duing that period).

In class – discuss the survey with students, throwing in any relevant comments you got via email – and then get them to reflect on it in your community site.

What did you think about your reputation as an online learner – what did parents think? – How did you’re use of technology at home change – did parents see it as a beneficial – etc.,

Get the students to grade your first project!

Conclusion

This is not an absolute science … but its very important to recognise that parents want their kids to be safe and to do safe things online. They are often not tech savvy parents, but understand communication. Before setting off, you are preparing some classroom norms for kids and parents.

You will tell them what you are doing online, you give them a method of opt-in communication to ask questions or to share ideas and feedback, and you are removing some of the ‘fear’ that parents have when kids are online – in things like Messenger and MyFace. You are showing parents that you are asking important questions and that you are ‘teaching’ media literacy and safety – along with content. This sets you, the teacher, as adding value and an open communicator.

Parents want to be advocates for their students and it’s important to include them in what you are doing. Your first venture should be simple, easy and relevant to both the students and the parents. This process allows you to do that – and to include manditory policy needs – but at the same time create a sense of ‘always responsive’ communication.

It’s unlikely that you’ll get all parents in to the school for a presentation evening – or that they will understand what you are talking about if you did. This line of communication builds trust and can be managed. At some point you might want to do more … but for your first digital field trip, you need to address parent concerns and demonstrate that you are moving your students to consider repulation, ethics and legal aspects of technology – not just social uses.

You may have grand plans, but as the ‘leader’ you need to make sure you know exactly where your students and parents are in your online activities – create UNITY. This makes what you are doing in your classroom and community both engaging and open – and you will get direction from those groups. Start simple, and keep it simple. It takes a while for parents and students to see what you are doing as ‘normal’.

But it builds, and transforms learning.

Leave your hat on!

Wearing too many hats is often cited as problematic when you are trying to grow your business. Sometimes businesses endure unnecessary strain simply because the right people aren’t responsible for the right jobs.

In some cases, it can impede growth or even result in a net loss for the business.The solution recommended by most business advisors is to re-structure the workplace. Restructuring roles and responsibilities in the business and assess your company’s activities in the marketplace.

The Extra-Extra-Curricula Hat

Schools however do not operate in the same flexible way. Most teachers do take on extra-curricula activities such as organising fund raisers, taking to soccer team, coaching the debating class or going to camp – these are our market places. We attract students to them through our marketing. Students join the ‘team’.

Successful training requires not only the acquisition of new skills, but also the maintenance of them. As staff refocus, and learn these, there is a performance dip, as everyone tries to come to terms with new work practices. The innovation generally has to come from within.

The Trainer Hat

A school that has embraced Web2.0 and Open Learning approaches – requires even more maintenance.

Right now I think that there are very few lucky enough to have the title, Educational Technologist, or ICT Integrator. Some schools do not have an IT Manager let alone some specialist ‘support’ staff in the classroom.

The Joiner Hat

The too many hat syndrome is a by product of becoming an advocate for change from 20th Century to 21st Century Learning.

I think that schools need to CLEARLY define what they mean by ‘professional development’ and ‘extra-curricula’ – as traditional notions of these ‘extras’ are no longer true of many teachers.

I have a form to fill in right now about ‘PD’ this year – how do I explain it? – 140 characters or less maybe.

The IT guy Hat

Technology is in itself not an automatic provider of 21C learning. In fact, in a recent Elluminate session with Will Richardson and Sheryl Nusbaum-Beach, the 40 or so Australian teachers, when asked to define ‘what 21C learning is’, put ‘technology’ very low on the list.

The all weather Hat

We gladly pull on the new hat without really thinking it through. Our enthusiasm to refocus our learning and restructure pedagogy is extra-curricula professional development and invisible/misunderstood to many administrators and executives – who don’t read blogs or write them.

The blogger Hat

Why bother edu-blogging at all? At some point you need your new hat collection to be recognised as important – both to you and your school community. Job change, career move, success, parent communication, peer engagement … there are lots of personal reasons that make it important to have a blog – and relatively few not to. Having a blog also encourages you to read blogs and makes you much more likely to go read a book. The more you read, the more you write – the more you THINK about learning.

The Butterfly Hat

I take input from a range of blogs. Sometimes I like the content, sometimes the passion and sometimes just the style of the writer. More often it is a combination. One non educational blog I read is Seth Godin – which is a marketing and design sort of thing.

I see a lot of similarities between marketing and schooling right now, maybe that’s just me, but some of the statements that Seth Godin makes influence my thinking.

Trying to convince a CEO of anything is a little like trying to convince a cop not to give you a ticket. It’s possible, but rarely worth the effort, given the odds. Seth Godin

I saw that as significant when thinking about trying to build capacity and change schools.

In another post, he talks about ‘critical mass’ and ‘short cuts’ – something a lot of us are trying for in our schools to kick start change. When I look at the vast range of ‘tools’ that edu-bloggers can throw at teachers it made me think about how I was going about it.

Every day at Squidoo, thousands of people build pages. And most of them lose interest and fade away. But a few stick it out and many earn $2,000 or more a month in their spare time (for themselves or for charity). The difference is clear but sad. The shortcut didn’t work right away, so they’re off to the next thing.

If you have a presence on twitter, squidoo, blogs, facebook, myspace, linkedin and 20 other sites, the chances of finding critical mass at any of them is close to zero. But if you dominate, if you’re the goto person, the king of your hill, magical things happen. One follower in each of twenty places is worthless. Twenty connected followers in one place is a tribe. It’s the foundation for building something that matter.

I thought this was more applicable to school, not so much the ‘blogosphere’. The ‘goto’ hat is probably the hardest to wear. In the metaverse you can be a very small fish, but in your school, you can be a tribal leader. To a small group, you are the ‘goto’ person for a while, but at the same time, you are also seen by other tribes (and schools are tribal) – as a serious concern.

In order to balance out your extra-extra-curricula life with your real job, blogging allows you to create a record of showing that your are working towards better professional practice, connecting with others and demonstrating changes in your practice in a neutral zone.

When reading a blog, I hope to find ideas, stories and things that challenge my own.

What do all these hats say about you?

I think that the 21C Teacher has certain characteristics – and a blog is the evidence of that.

  • Uses technology to support learning in and out of the classroom
  • Undertakes self-directed professional development in learning communities
  • Provides peer coaching and support – to teachers outside of their school and within
  • Is a teacher
  • Is a learner
  • Engages in student centered learning activities, using freely available Web2.0 tools
  • Is an integrator
  • Shares experiences with others online

In doing this, they will talk about the following things

  • The shift from prescribed passive to authentic read/write activities
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Inquiry based Learning
  • Connected Learning
  • Media Literacy (not information literacy)
  • Creating ‘content’ not ‘copying’ content
  • Develops a sense of mystery and wonder in learning
  • Explores online communities and rethinking how to use technology in multi-modal ways

How does this change the HR process?

As schools, systems and governments all seek to define and build frameworks around ’21C Learning’ – the need to build capacity is critical. Putting the 21C teachers, or the tech savvy ones in postions to under-pin the less conversant is a terrible strategy. If a teacher is wearing the ‘new hat’ and demonstrating vision, leadership and understanding of the characteristics, then surely they are better employed as Peer Coaches not ‘under pinning’ roles. Time served to me, is no indicator of a teachers passion, innovation and engagement with students, just as people agree that exams are not the best indicator of student ability.

Blogging to me, is the resume of the 21C teacher.

  • Personal reflection on specific achievements and frustrations
  • Evidence of leadership in the wider learning communities online
  • Ability to refocus ‘skills’ and ‘tool’ to provide ‘deeper’ learning opportunities
  • A range of visible profiles in Social Networkss.

I think that ‘blogging’ your story, your extra-extra-curricula work and sharing that is probably the most important record of professional development right now – and the most effective way of getting you/me/us to challenge each other and make change in schools not only sustainable, but enjoyable and exciting.

If we’re not excited about the potential of learning, we can hardly ‘demand’ it from our students.

I have had three hats at my school – IT Manager, Integrator and Teaching and Learning Designer. The first one is what I did officially, the last one is what I really love to do.

As of the 10th of November, I’ll be moving my hat to Head of Teaching and Learning Design at Macquarie University in Sydney, which is exciting. So I really hope that someone at my school will take up the blogging of what is happening, but if they don’t then I am sure that student’s like Tanuj will do it.

Marking vs Participation

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.

Engaging Reflective Writers

Reflective writing is different to other types of academic writing that students are more commonly required to do in thier studies. Students using technology will often complain about doing it initially, especially if they have been engaged in primarily ‘seek and report’ activities.

Reflective writing challenges students. They may well spend time ‘researching’ aka Googling, but a well constructed ‘reflective writing group’, cannot simply copy and paste ‘content and information’ without having to justify why it applies to the context, situation or problem.

As this is often new to high school students, I have found the following scaffold effective – to get students writing. As they become effective at using this structure, I then add more ‘structures’ – using different questioning strategies to challenge them further. Initially though, I keep it really simple. This allows me to oil-dip some basic literacy and get a sense of the student as a writer.

  • What you were learning about/to do
  • Where you think that learning experience (not just content) puts you in the particular task
  • How does the completion of this task affect your overall goal
  • What are your next steps
  • Do you have any questions

The hallmarks of reflective writing

  • The writing is about you. Your thoughts, your feelings and your learning journey in a course or task
  • The language used in reflective writing includes words like ‘I’; ‘my’; ‘I felt’; ‘I think’.
  • It can start with a description of the learning before moving into reflection of the learning
  • It is less structured than academic writing, but requires a clear articulation of your thoughts.
  • Reflective writing illustrates a ‘continuum of development’. It shows personal growth and development. It shows how you have linked your new experiences to existing knowledge and used this to move forward. It captures the strategies you used to deal with issues in your learning.

Blogs and reflective writing

  • Blogs are like online diaries, each piece of writing is called a ‘post’.
  • The organising structure is the date.
  • Blogs can be interactive and colourfull and besides text can include videos, sound, photographs and links.
  • They provide an archive of posts, all of which can be easily edited whenever you choose.
  • Your teacher can see when you write and can provide you with feedback via comments linked to your post
  • Blogs can be assessed by looking at the quality of reflection the student demonstrates and secondly how the student optimises the functionality of the blogging tool.
  • Allows the teacher and student to engage in meaningful discussion beyond the walled garden of their school or classroom
  • Blogs tell the reader, what you are learning about, where you are in the project (by learning this), where you are going next.

This reflective writing needs an audience – and I’ve previously posted my thoughts on writing communites – but I was asked today to outline a basic framework of what I am teaching in the classroom – that works.

Kicking off a learning community

I’ve been in a few online sessions recently, and one of the questions that teachers who have figured out what Web2.0 is in comparison to using regular unleaded, is this. “I want to start blogging with my students – how should I start?.

Right up front, let me say that if you are going to start blogging – in a school which has little idea what blogging is, then stop. Turn around, drop the term ‘blogging’ and just call it something like a ‘study group’ or even an ‘e-study group’. That will keep you off the radar, it won’t add new language to the kids – who don’t call MySpace or BeBo – blogging.

It’s just that you are using ICT as your job says you have to. You’re not putting yourself out there as some crusader. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did later.

Next up, recognise that you are not starting ‘blogging’, you are starting ‘reflective’ writing in a collaborative setting that just happens to be online.

Given a choice, I’d hook this up to Literacy and Curriculum rather than ICT. Sure it uses a computer, but then what doesn’t these days. A community blog is the most efficient, instant, flexible and accessible way for a teacher to get around a class of kids; see what they are doing; thinking; who is talking with whom, who is leading whom etc., You simply can’t do this with paper! The nearsest you might get is trying to listen in on hallway conversations – but thats creepy.

Kids will comment, talk about stuff, ask questions online that they won’t in the classroom. Some of the least vocal kids in your classroom are most vocal online – if you build a sustainable ecosystem.

You do have to work on scaffolding their comments into the context of the topic, you just can’t predict what they are going to be. Ah, I just said it wasn’t hard – correction, tick off answers 1 through 10 from text book is easier as it requires far less thinking on the part of the students or the teacher. So for those teachers who hand out the low order thinking stuff (tick a box, ABC stuff) then this is going to be work, sorry.

There is a place for formal assessment. The quick test is a great way of ‘oil dipping’ to see if there is content learning happening. But is should not be the major ‘norm’ in your assessment methods, and in no way summises the learning that is happing. You might have a kid with an awesome video-blog, who stuggles on the test. Remember in 21C learning – students are developing ePortfolios and ‘online identity’ so at least now, that students measure in not just the test score!

It also takes far LESS time to do than collecting books, marking (B+ is not developing the learner) and handing them back. Those who say ‘I don’t have the time’ – are basing that assumption on their personal experiences of the past. Ignore them. The only previous ICT they needed to learn in the last 15 years has been Power Point, so they know what they are talking out – grrr.

Its conversational writing – the blog posts will usually be ‘formal’, but the comments will be a hybrid of txt and formal – and thats just fine. It’s conversational language – as language is always evolving. What we as teachers are interested in – is the learning and the use of the language. If a few *lols appear, don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing.

So here’s a quick method that I suggest those who want to start ‘blogging’ have a look at. I am suggesting that you DONT create individual blogs for students, but use a COMMUNITY blog – I use Ning, but others use 21 Classes. See why suits you. But it’s NOT THE TOOL that matters, its the ecosystem you are creating.

Heres the presentation, but don’t forget to read the other stuff under it too!

Also, don’t start the lesson with ‘today we are going to start on online creepy treehouse’! -Start by getting them fired up. Start by offering them the opportunity to have input on their learning. A nice big fat discussion. It might take you a week to get the discussion to the point where they identify that their ‘could’ so amazing things if they had (x/y/z). That time is well invested. It creates buy in and give you about 30 advocates who will be amazingly vocal in other classes over time, so you won’t have to

Build your community in your classroom – it will soon spill out into the hallway and down the corridor. Its far easier to start there that trying to convince staff that your ideas are something to agree with (initially).