Monthly Archives: August 2010

Finding the right Ning alternative – does it exist?

Image representing GROU.PS as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Last week was extremely busy, and a combination of successes and failures. I’ve been grappling for awhile now with what to do as an alternative to Ning. We’ve paid for a few networks in the school to be mini networks, and that’s no headache at $20.00 for the year. A mini network enables you to have forums, blogs, to embed videos and pictures and to run this ad free. It suits the functions of the Yr 9 Ning we run, which is into it’s second year now, and other Nings that support our book club and our Sleepout for Schools effort. Another teacher runs a Ning that has pages and chat and her faculty has paid the $200.00 fee to sustain this for the year. As I’m sure you’ve gleaned if you read this blog regularly, I’m a big fan of Ning and its use as a virtual learning community in our school. I don’t object to having to pay the fees either; I think we’re going to see more Web based services begin to charge and I think our school communities will have to start budgeting for this, just like we do for placing books on library shelves or subscribing to databases.

Last year we ran a really successful Ning for a week long inquiry project at Year 8. That Ning contained groups and chat, and the students used these really productively throughout the course of that week to publicise what they were investigating and to collaborate and organise themselves. This last week saw the Inquiry week run again and we wanted to use Ning to support the students and encourage transparency with what they were doing. The issue for us was this; the project runs for one week of the year. Did we want to pay $200.00 for a Ning, a cost that was necessary if we wanted to encourage the formation of groups and utilise chat? Well, no, we didn’t.

So, I looked for alternatives. I set up a site using Grouply, but it wasn’t as intuitive as Ning and forum discussions didn’t seem to be highlighted on the front page, you had to move into a tab to see them. We wanted the students to see forum discussions front and centre when they reached the page. It also didn’t support any sort of chat feature so that made it limited in its use for us. A bit of a callout for suggestions on Twitter led me to Wall.fm, and it seemed I had found the answer.

Wall.fm lets you have forums, blogs, photos, videos and, importantly for our needs, groups and a wall where you can post comments. (a bit reminiscent of Facebook) There are only a handful of themes so you can’t go to town customising the look of the site, but it is functional. You can make it private or have it open. I set it up and it looked like it was going to do the job we needed it to do. I launched it with the kids on their first day of solid research and they were keen to get started. Frustratingly, we hit hiccups when a number of them were unable to validate their membership because the emails didn’t reach their inbox. It was hit and miss. Some kids were flying and forming groups and leaving comments, and others were locked out of the site. As a result, we didn’t have the dynamic virtual learning environment supporting this inquiry like we had last year. Pretty disappointing for all of us.

I sent a message through the site asking why it may be that we were having issues. I tried changing the email address at the back end of the site to see whether or not validation emails could then get through. No reply at all from the help desk at Wall fm. left me floundering really. If you can’t get support then that doesn’t bode well for a social network really.

Ning don’t look like they’re going to announce education packages that will make something that runs for a limited time frame affordable. So I’m once again looking for an adequate alternative that gives me what Ning Pro can do but at a reasonable price. If my project ran the full year and I needed groups and chat, then I don’t think $200.00 is a big ask. I’d happily fund it through a budget. But a short term project like the one we’ve run really doesn’t warrant the outlay.

So, the hunt continues. I’ve been recommended to try out Grou.ps, so I’m going to set up a trial space and see if I can make that workable. If anyone’s had any success with Ning alternatives, I’d love to hear about them. I spent time tonight uploading videos and photos to our Yr 9 English Ning, and I have to tell you, I just love the ease of uploading content and the look and feel of Ning. It just may be that I’m going to have to suck it up and pay the price!

The inquiry week for the students was a great success, even without the virtual environment. The students all immersed themselves in what they were doing and presented some impressive findings. Twitter came to the rescue for one group. That’s the happy tale I’ll relay in my next post. : )

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School’s out Friday

This is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Literally.

The girls at my school have been entertaining me with this over the last week. It’s spreading like a virus. One group, then the next, then the next. Any wonder. It’s clever and funny all at once, and you get to see the preview of the upcoming two part Harry Potter finale. Yes, you will have to buy two tickets.

I’ve just come off the end of a pretty demanding week that saw technology bring rewarding experiences and not so rewarding experiences. I’ll try and put fingers to keyboard over the weekend to outline the successes and failures. The good thing was that even the failure brought with it a learning experience that I can benefit from.

Still waiting for a hint of a warm wind to grace us here in Melbourne. It’s pretty dreary but at least the dams are filling. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder! I seriously feel like I need a strong dose of vitamin D from the sun. Sydneysiders, I hate to admit it, but I’m envious of the blue skies I’ve seen you boasting over the last week or so!! The weather forecast for the next four days is sunshine all the way, so maybe I’ll be revitalised by the end of the weekend.

Hopefully sunshine comes your way this weekend, wherever in the world you may be. Soak it up. : )

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What’s in a name?

The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.

Marshall McLuhan

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, recently made a some very interesting comments while being interviewed by Holman W Jenkins from the Wall Street Journal;

“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.

Danah Boyd’s response to this is equally interesting, if not moreso;

This is ludicrous on many accounts. First, it completely contradicts historical legal trajectories where name changes have become increasingly more difficult. Second, it fails to account for the tensions between positive and negative reputation. Third, it would be so exceedingly ineffective as to be just outright absurd.

Surprisingly, I spend quite a bit of time discussing things like this with prospective parents at my school. Our school registrar tours with them and visits me often. I talk about the vision of our new library under construction, the work we are doing at Year 9 using Ning as a virtual learning community and our efforts with Cybersafety. Parents are really interested in this last point, and I see many nodding heads when I discuss the need for our students to establish a positive digital footprint for themselves. Plenty of them realise their kids use sites like Facebook as their communication platform, but they do want them to do so with some understanding of how they conduct themselves responsibly to protect their own reputation, and the reputation of others.

Jonathan Zittrain discusses a similar idea to that raised by Eric Schmidt, but he calls it ‘Reputation Bankruptcy’. It’s the idea that you will be able to wipe your digital identity slate clean and start over. Who knows, one day it just might be possible, but what if you have a good deal of positive web content that you don’t want erased? Will we be able to be selective about what stays and what goes?

Danah makes another very good point in her post responding to Eric Schmidt’s comments;

All it takes is for someone who’s motivated to make a link between the two and any attempt to walk away from your past vanishes in an instant. Search definitely makes a mess out of people’s name-based reputation but a name change doesn’t fix it if someone’s intent on connecting the two.

So, what’s in a name?  Will we need to grapple with our digital identities, identities that can be forged by our friends (or enemies!) as much as they are forged by our own hand? Once again, we need to take this on board as educators. We need to help our students understand that they can create the long tail of good searchable content that will make their name a blessing, not a burden.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

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School’s out Friday

I love this ‘mockumentary’ I found after following a Twitter link this week. (sorry, can’t remember who it was that sent it out). ‘The Majestic Plastic Bag‘ serves a dual purpose. Great for a giggle, but there’s a serious message behind it that we all should heed. I used it in two classrooms this week and the kids were right onto it. All of them agreed that it was better hearing and seeing the message via this format rather than hearing a teacher talk about it. Yet another reason why I send my students to YouTube and encourage them to seek out the learning opportunities that can be found there.

Big weekend here in Australia. Election day tomorrow. I’ll be glued to the screens (both old media and new!) waiting for the first hint of who might carry this one off. I’ll be fascinated to observe the workings of Twitter tomorrow. Will it be the place where we will hear things first? Is the user base large enough and varied enough to ensure a decent spread of the community? Will hashtags evolve that will enable us to track interesting developments? I’ve already seen one of our major commercial networks advertising that they’re going to be screening a twitter stream throughout the course of the evening. What is apparent is that it’s going to be interesting and social media may be one of the things that makes it so.

Melbourne is hideously cold – has been for quite some time now. I can see blossoms erupting, but I’m desperate for the first hint of a warm breeze. Hopefully it will happen this weekend, but to be honest with you, I already know that I’m hoping in vain.

Enjoy your weekend and whatever it brings with it. : )

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Learning Spaces/Learning Futures forum at Bialik College

Today, Bialik College hosted a Learning Spaces/Learning Futures forum for their staff and members of other school communities. I was asked to sit on a forum panel at the end of the day and address questions posed from participants. I’d like to thank David Feighan for the invitation; it was an enlightening day and I was able to take away many ideas for our new library that is currently under construction.

Jon Peacock, General Manager, Learning Environments at the University of Melbourne, shared with us reasoning behind new generation designs of learning spaces. Considerations such as social inclusiveness, functionality for collaborative learning, comfort and even retention of students were all factors that have contributed to furniture selection and configurations of space. For someone who has this at the forefront of her thinking at the moment, it was fascinating. Jon shared with us the thinking that the University may not replace desktop computers when they reach a three year turnover if it is evident that students are bringing their own devices with them. They have student interns who act as facilitators to connect devices to networks; they look for students who have strong communication and mentoring skills as they are often catering to international students who are grappling with language barriers. This kind of thinking would bode well in many of our schools today; accept student owned devices for learning purposes regardless of platform, and encourage our student population to offer peer support with technology. An interesting idea was the University’s IT Pitstop, a place where students go to do printing, photocopying, quick searching and charging of devices. Interesting name; maybe something we could utilise. Jon shared with us many visuals of learning spaces at Melbourne University; it’s very impressive, and I’m thinking it will be worth visiting to glean new ideas that we can apply to the space we will be developing.

Dr. Leon Sterling, Dean of the Faculty of Information and Communication Technologies at Swinburne University of Technology, spoke about the changing nature of new technologies and their potential impact for education. He drew heavily from the Horizon Reports from the the last three years and made some interesting comments about opensource courseware like that provided from places like MIT. Leon was unsure that students would access such resources. I’m pretty sure they will, but I don’t think they’re going to stumble on these kinds of resources without being alerted to them first. I recently came across Khan Academy via a twitter link, and think I’ll be pointing students towards it. Here’s what it says on the site;

The Khan Academy is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) with the mission of providing a world-class education to anyone, anywhere. Despite being the work of one man, Salman Khan, this 1600+ video library is the most-used educational video resource as measured by YouTube video views per day and unique users per month. We are complementing this ever-growing library with user-paced exercises–developed as an open source project–allowing the Khan Academy to become the free classroom for the World.

Interesting philosophy, one that marries quite well with the intentions of Students 2.0. I ran a series of sessions in that space about the tools of social networking, but we failed to see student participation. Is it just that the kids aren’t interested, or is it that they just don’t know the possibilities that exist for self directed learning today?

Leon mentioned that Swinburne University will possibly be offering a Graduate Certificate in Teacher Technologies, designed to assist teachers in getting up to speed with new ideas for teaching and learning. A great idea, and something so necessary today. This was something I discussed in the forum at the end of the day. My concern lies with the human capital we have in our school systems today. Many of us dealing with new technologies are the product of self directed learning. We have skilled ourselves up without being sent to expensive professional development. We have immersed ourselves in learning communities and many of us are attempting to educate others by sharing our knowledge. But how many people are there like this, and is the spread enough to ensure the school system has access to this kind of skill set? My bet is there aren’t too many, and this is the challenge facing our governments who need to ensure we have workers armed with the skills necessary for working successfully in a knowledge economy. Something like what Leon was suggesting will be worth it, but how much will courses cost, and will our systems fund teacher participation? I’ll be very interested to see the outcome of upcoming election. My hope is that a Labor Govt. is returned. I want to see the vision they have for the digital revolution unfold, and a large part of what is promised is teacher professional development. It is key if we are to see real change realised.

Dr. Scott Bulfin, from the Faculty of Education at Monash University, spoke about rethinking the approaches to new media in schools today. Scott spoke of some challenging research he has conducted across 25 schools about the use of technology in education. His research saw students engaging in unsanctioned technology practices at school, and students complaining of being bored with school authorized work they were doing with technology. My take on this relates to my forementioned point. Teacher professional development is key if we are going to see teachers using the technology meaningfully in classrooms for teaching and learning purposes. People need to be exposed to a range of possibilities and make discerning choices about what they think may work with the students they have.

Mary Manning from SLAV was with me and the aforementioned speakers in the forum discussion at the end of the day. Questions from the audience were well considered, and saw us debating content knowledge necessary for VCE study, versus the skills needed for learning beyond the school years. It’s a vexed issue, considering that University entrance in Australia is underpinned by scores based on students ability to know content. Leon Sterling raised the idea that universities will move to interview format and teacher feedback to determine university entrance. How refreshing would that be, and wouldn’t it be the linchpin that could change the focus of education at the senior years of schooling.

I found the day very worthwhile, and applaud Bialik College, David Feighan and the school’s Principal, Joseph Gerassi, for organising some wonderful speakers and proactively thinking about what is important for students today. On their school website, Joseph talked of their foremost priority as being, “… to educate tomorrow’s leaders, by infusing them with the life skills to master the challenges posed by an ever-changing world.” Today was evidence of a school actively seeking to make that a reality.

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School’s out Friday

Here’s improveverywhere’s latest mission, a reenactment of the first Princess Leia / Darth Vader scene from Star Wars on a New York City subway car. I have written before of my love of the original Star Wars trilogy and I really enjoyed watching the amused faces looking on as this played out.

On a completely different note, the Gruen Nation took my eye once again this week with this ad that was created by Republic of Everyone to support the Greens campaign. It’s a great ad with a very simple human message being transferred. The Greens liked it so much they asked to use it, but the ABC couldn’t let them do that. Undeterred, the Greens have posted it on their site with this message;

But Greens supporters are “glass half full” kind of people – and just because we can’t show it to people on TV doesn’t mean that, with your help, we can’t show it to the same number of people online.

You can help by posting this video to your personal Facebook page or share it on Twitter using the buttons below (don’t forget to use the #gruennation and #ausvotes hashtags).

Take a look at the ad and see what you think of it.

Hope your weekend is full of fun, laughter and happiness. Enjoy it. : )

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Erica McWilliam – PD to savour

I had the pleasure of attending a session run by Professor Erica McWilliam last week. How refreshing to listen to a no nonsense presenter state some home truths about our education system and challenge us to think of what it is we need to do to make it better. Erica talked of our schools offering mandated learning for routine work. Not lifelong learning. Not teaching them skills that will make them successful in a 21st Century workforce.

Erica talked of us needing to reinforce that it’s the pleasure of the rigour of the work that is what we should be on about when we work with students. We should be ensuring that this is part of the Australian Curriculum, not the ADHD Curriculum we are being presented with where we have lots of content ensuring that most of it will be narrowly misunderstood. The fundamental skill of the 21st Century as far as Erica is concerned is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. How many of our students would be stagnant when faced with open-ended tasks expecting them to direct their own learning? Plenty, I’m sure. I found myself nodding in agreement as Erica articulated the concerns I have about the direction of our education system today.

What was most refreshing for me was Erica’s understanding of the role of the Teacher-Librarian in today’s schools. She described Librarians as existing in a hybrid space – a space where we have an invading species present. We as librarians, are often the first to  wrangle with new technologies and figure out how to colonise the new landscape.  As such, we serve the purpose of being the borderland force that can understand how we work in new learning spaces; spaces that often challenge the existing set up employed in many of today’s classrooms.

The difficulty many of us face (me included, as one who feels that she is a hybrid Teacher- Librarian, largely misunderstod by those hanging onto the old model) is that while we may have changed our mindset and are prepared and willing to charter the new landscape with our students, we are hampered by those who have yet to adopt the new way of thinking. How we overcome this is the challenge we face. We need the support of our administrations; we need those in positions whereby they can enact change, to appreciate our new skill set, and assist us in moving our colleagues with us. If that means mandated change to curriculum then so be it. I’m tired of offering to work with others but finding very few prepared to work in a co-teaching capacity. We don’t pose a threat; we pose an opportunity. An opportunity to expose our students to new ideas and open their eyes to what is possible.

If you’d like to read more of what Erica has to say, access her monograph ‘Schooling the Yuk/Wow Generation‘ from ACER. 30 minutes well spent in my opinion.

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eT@lking – Creative Commons and its impact for education

Last Wednesday night I presented a session about Creative Commons for eT@lking in elluminate. These sessions are very ably moderated by Anne Mirtschin and Carole McCulloch, and feature some fine speakers who are interested in sharing their knowledge and moving people forward with their own learning. (Sounding a bit like Julia Gillard there, aren’t I!).

I uploaded some slides to support the presentation, and I’ve added them to Slideshare so that they can be of use to other teachers and students. They contain the six different Creative Commons licences, and some screenshots of sites that are useful for learning more about copyright and where you source CC licenced material. It’s not earth shattering stuff, but it may prove useful if you are starting the discussion with people in your school.

The session was well attended and there was some interesting discussion in the chat. Anne Mirtschin has included many of the links mentioned and questions posed in a post she wrote about the event.

You can listen to the recording of the session here.

Thanks Anne for inviting me to present, and thank you Carole for moderating this week’s session.

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School’s out Friday

Yes, we’re still in the grip of an election campaign here in Australia. This is the ‘Moving forward remix‘, put together by radio station Triple M. Julia Gillard has copped a few knocks this week (just as she did last week) and seems to be lagging behind in the polls. With two weeks to go, it will be interesting to see if the Labor Party can re-ignite their campaign and win back ground.

It’s been a busy week for me. So busy, that I’ve had no opportunity to get anything posted. There are a couple of posts brewing from some professional development I’ve been involved in this week, so hopefully I’ll get something up over the weekend.

I have to finish writing a journal article this weekend, so it’ll be head down for me for quite a bit of it. Hope you get to see sunlight, and hope I get to see a little bit too. That’s of course, if it ever stops raining here. Been a tad gloomy in Melbourne this week. Spring can’t get here fast enough really!

Rest up, relax, enjoy. : )

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