Well, it’s been a while (some time in March, I think) since Maria Toomey and I joined forces to teach 7M English – actually I joined her, and she’s made me feel so much a part of the class, and a real partner (I want to say ‘in crime’) in the classroom.
Maria is a brilliant teacher, and she’s comfortable with her role in the claas a teacher. She is also always looking for new and innovative ways to engage students in authentic learning. The perfect person for me to approach about trying out Web 2.0 ways of teaching. And so, I approached her about starting up a ning for 7M English. I hadn’t created a ning before, but I had been participating in many, starting with the Powerful Learning Practice ning which was the platform for learning and sharing as part of the PLP program run by Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum Beach. As part of the PLP team, I enjoyed a rich learning environment shared by Australian as well as international cohorts. Whitefriars College joined 3 other schools in Victoria, as well as the State Library of Victoria, 3 schools from New South Wales, one from Queensland and one from New Zealand. We were part of an international cohort including 9 schools from USA. The ning provided a virtual platform for communication which proved to be easy to use, rich, collaborative and extremely enjoyable.
I began thinking that this would be a wonderful way to function in a class, and so 7M was signed up for the ning ‘What are we talking about?’
It would be misleading for me to say that everything went without a hitch. I’m so grateful that Maria is patient, flexible and can see the bigger picture. Finally now, in July, things are coming together for us in the ning. But there were many difficulties and many times of frustration that we had to weather. I’m sure that when I set up a second ning for the classroom, my experiences will ensure a smoother process, but in case anyone would like an insight into what the difficulties were, here they are:
- internet access has to be booked for the class at our school, and sometimes you just forget
- we’ve had ongoing issues with the students not being able to get onto the internet, either because of problems within our own school, or because of individual laptop problems
- interruptions to the process with students having to go to sport or music lessons make it difficult to follow a lengthy process, aborting it mid-way
- students sometimes misspell their email addresses, and this needs to be checked
- students should record their usernames and passwords for future use; we wasted so much time because of forgotten passwords, etc.
- teachers should write down student’s login details as a backup
I think that it would be fantastic if there was an IT person who could come in regularly and troubleshoot individual or school problems with online access.
At the beginning, before students become accustomed to the ning, it would be a good idea to plan short activities, such as profile questions as a way of getting to know everyone. Small steps keep everyone happy. The rest of the lesson could be devoted to something else.
You really have to be flexible because unseen problems can occur, and in that case we just got the students to write in a word document, then copy and paste it to the ning when possible.
It’s important to discuss online etiquette, including the use of respectful language, manners and positive commenting, appropriate subject matter. We made it clear to the boys that everything they wrote or posted could be viewed by everybody, and we had also invited our principal. You should have seen their faces!
We decided that the students would not upload videos because initially, when they could, we had lots of silly videos. The same goes with pictures – we had many car pictures. This is really a matter of personal choice. Educators may decide to permit students to upload pictures and videos in order to make them feel ‘at home’ in the ning. Our boys are very young, and we decided that they would start off strictly controlled, and then perhaps be allowed more freedom as they became more mature and responsible.
Overall, Maria and I have been happy about the way things have gone. Amidst the difficulties and frustrations was the hope in providing a rich learning environment, and the belief that the interactive nature of the ning would engage the boys. The ning is also a wonderfully transparent platform, containing all the lessons and discussions in an orderly manner, making it easy to find.
The discussion is my favourite part of the ning. You can create a group for a topic or book study, and then you can create different discussion threads within this group. Everything can be supported by pictures and video which is appreciated by the boys, since they love visual stuff.
Another valuable aspect of the ning is the fact that students take part in a discussion online, and they are writing for a peer audience. This is much more motivating than writing for a teacher. Our boys are learning to respond to posted comments in a thoughtful way, and the whole discussion thread is visible to all members. This is an opportunity for those who are generally quiet in class or unsure of themselves to take their time to respond, and to see their contributions alongside everyone else’s. It’s a very democratic process really.
Another thing to remember is that the ning will not work without good teaching. The teaching is even more important in preparing students for online participation. Maria always takes the time to tease out topics for discussion, unfolding thinking and language, before allowing the boys to jump into the ning. Unsupported, the ning would be a failure, in the same way as any technology tool used in teaching would be.
One of the most exciting things that happened to us within the Ning was when Marita Thomson from The Kings School, Parramatta, Sydney, organised for a year 7 class to join our 7M. So far we’ve only had time to share personal information, such as family background, likes and dislikes, interests, etc., because our holiday period is different to Sydney’s, and so we’re waiting for The Kings boys to come back to school and join us for further conversation. It makes a difference when the boys have a real conversation, wanting to know about similarities and differences about things they share a passion for.