When will the sonic boom of comprehension be heard?

“Opening with sinking spirits

Text-books whose right answers loom

Like jet ‘planes so far above them,

Waiting for the sonic boom

Of comprehension …”

Genesis – Bruce Dawe

I used to love teaching this poem with Year 8 students. Bruce Dawe captures so beautifully the essence of an Australian school at the start of a new year. The words that have always stuck with me are, “the sonic boom of comprehension”.  I know so well the feeling that comes when something finally clicks and you feel like a light has switched on within you.

When I began to understand the communicative potential of the Internet around four years ago, I had one of those sonic boom of comprehension moments. I knew my life was forever changed, but I also knew that this represented more than just a shift in the way I thought and responded. It represented a huge societal shift, a change in the way everything would work. I knew I had to get involved and develop an understanding of these shifts. I thought at the time that I was late to the party; it seemed there were so many already with an invitation and their party clothes on. I realise now I wasn’t lagging too far behind at a party that is still inviting guests along.

I’m getting a little worried right now about the guests who haven’t yet shown up. There are plenty of them out there. People who don’t quite fathom how the Internet is changing so much of what we do and how we conduct every part of our lives. Evidence of this seems to be mounting on a daily basis, but I’m not sure people are making the connections.

In Australia, we’ve recently seen the demise of Borders and Angus and Robertson Bookstores. While people seem to genuinely mourn their passing, it seems the growth of online booksellers like the Book Depository are hitting booksellers hard. We’ve even had Senator Nick Sherry, our federal Small Business Minister weigh into the discussion with this comment that has inflamed bricks and mortar booksellers,

”I think in five years, other than a few specialist booksellers in capital cities we will not see a bookstore; they will cease to exist,”

It seems to me that Booksellers, like Libraries, are experiencing what the music industry has had to contend with for quite a few years now. The model is changing, and we need to morph to fit the new, because an inflexible die cast approach just isn’t going to cut it in a world that does things differently now.

But it’s not just Bookstores that are feeling the pinch. We are seeing change feed to other industries too. Retail outlets like clothing stores and small goods suppliers are seeing consumers move to online shopping where the middleman disappears and direct buying means cheaper prices. My father in law recounted a story to me recently where he said a shoe store had resorted to charging customers when they asked to try on shoes, because they were sick and tired of being the ‘try before you buy from an online source’ store. I don’t know if this story holds true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it does.

What truly worries me is this. What happens when the take up for online shopping really starts to take hold here in Australia? I saw statistics recently that said Australia has not yet hit anywhere near the stride countries like the USA have when it comes to adoption of online shopping. What impact will this have on our retail industries and the job market these industries support? It worries me that our desire to get product at the cheapest possible price may ignore the fact that this places the livelihood of people in peril. I know this goes hand in hand with change, and new businesses will arise as a result of the shifts taking place, but I’m not entirely confident what will emerge will meet our employment needs.

Whatever the outcome, there is little doubt there is a need to understand the rise of participatory culture and the way it will change the industrial age business model still operating for many out there. Once again, the need for understanding does not just exist within the business community. Our education system needs an understanding too if we are to prepare our students well.

A good place to start to understand what business is thinking is Slideshare. I’ve taken to viewing the home page on a regular basis and looking at the top presentations of the day. You can learn an awful lot from what people are posting. One such presentation caught my eye just the other day. Take a look at ‘Invasion of the Participatory Culture‘, and see if you take something from it.

View more presentations from Jeff Hurt
I really don’t know what the next few years will bring, but I know I’m better informed than most people who’ve yet to feel the sonic boom of comprehension. There’s little doubt we’re in the midst of a pretty large rave party that’s attracting attendees by the minute. Best we start understanding how we need to dress so we don’t get refused entry.

ACER’s Digital Education Research Network launched

For quite some time, I’ve been of the opinion that those of us pushing boundaries with our use of technology in education are in need of the support of the research community. Too many of us seem to be up against school administrations who are not willing to allow teachers to push their classrooms into online spaces and use the communicative potential of the web. We share our stories and successes with one another in our networks, but they can be viewed as anecdotal and pushed aside or disregarded by those unwillingly to open their eyes to new ideas. It seems to me that administrators trust the findings of researchers, particularly an organisation like the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER). That’s why I’m excited about the launch of the Digital Education Research Network. (DERN)

But first, full disclosure. Gerry White, Principal Research Fellow in Digital Learning for ACER, invited me last year to join a Reference Group helping to inform ACER about the establishment of this network.  I was very impressed to see ACER reaching out to a grassrooots educator who could provide some perspective of informal online networks, and the efforts educators in this area are making with new and emerging technologies for learning purposes.

The site has just been launched. Here’s what it’s about from the front page;

Digital Education Research Network (DERN) is a network of researchers interested in research about education and the use of digital technologies to improve teaching and learning. It focuses mainly on Australian research although not exclusively. DERN is looking for research evidence about good educational and learning practices. Please join us to share your insights into and knowledge of research into teaching and learning using digital technologies.

The network allows you to sign up but you will need to wait for your membership to be approved. This is a big move for ACER, an organisation that forms the basis of much of the education research coming out of this country. The site contains links to research organisations worldwide, and will be peppered with articles to support all of us in our understanding of the types of research we can draw on to support us in our  efforts to validate the work we are doing with our students. There exists the ability to contribute your ideas through discussion tabs and posting comments on blog posts.

It’s not as intuitive as a Ning site, but I’m impressed that outreach has been initiated and there is acknowledgment that teachers who have accrued knowledge are welcome;

“Users of DERN may be experts in ICT, media, pedagogy, emerging technologies and related areas and are probably well briefed in the area of elearning research, as well as scholars seeking details about what research has been done, possibly for their own research purposes.”

(DERN’s About page)

I’d encourage you to sign up and read Kathryn Moyle’sBuilding Innovation: Learning with Technologies‘. Those of us who have been talking about the need for systemic change will find this paper written for the Australian Education Review illuminating. The foreward is written by James Bosco, Professor Emeritus in Education Studies at Western Michigan University. I literally stood up and applauded when I read James’ words;

Teachers, principals, and other school personnel who have acquired new techniques, and who function within the existing structural context of schools, are often discordant elements – aberrations. If they are sufficiently motivated and persistent, they may be able to make good use of their capability, despite incompatibilities with the existing situation. But to expect them to move the school system into harmony with their preferred practice is to expect too much. Their good work may last only until they burn out or move on.

Hear, hear! Kathryn’s paper addresses how our education system can respond to emerging technologies and their value to assist the learning process. Kathryn says;

“Including technologies in teaching and learning requires a reconceptualisation of the curriculum and how it can be taught. Using technologies to simply replace blackboards with whiteboards and pens with computers and word processors does not constitute a reconceptualisation of teaching and learning, nor the nature of school education. Such an approach will not support students to ‘learn, unlearn, and relearn’.” (p.4)

Kathryn makes very interesting observations regarding proprietary software and the hold it has within our education systems;

“Almost all Australian schools provide Microsoft Office® on their computers. Individual schools and most of the Australian state and territory departments of education have signed contracts with the Microsoft® Corporation for the provision of operating systems and other software. The recurrent costs to taxpayers, for school students to simply boot-up a computer at school is, nationally, millions of dollars each year (Moyle, 2003). This widespread deployment of Microsoft® products establishes a ‘commonsense’ view (Gramsci, 1971) of the necessity for its products. At the same time the company receives legitimation and authority through the state for its products, given they are considered suitable for use in Australian schools. This acceptance of the commonsense value of particular software products over others then puts pressure on parents to have and maintain compatible software at home: the marketing strategy is circular, complete and self-sustaining.” (p.18/19)

Kathryn makes the case for a shift to open source alternatives, saving schools thousands of dollars, and potentially freeing up money that can be dedicated to the professional development of our teaching communities to enable teachers to respond to new ways of teaching and learning with emerging technologies.

In Section 4, Student’s uses of Technologies, Katherine identifies a high quality 21st Century education dependent upon;

“allowing students to discuss their learning with other students, to network and communicate with each other, to share their ideas and solutions to problems they are trying to collectively solve. Networking between students and teachers in different institutions can enrich the curricula and increase the transfer of generic and subject-related knowledge and skills between practitioners.” (p.38)

Validation for the use of a Ning environment in schools right there!

Honestly, there is so much in Kathryn’s paper you just have to read it. I couldn’t sleep the night I read it, and I think it was because I had so many ideas running through my head I was incapable of rest.

This is why a network like DERN will be worthwhile. Here we will find the research we need to read; research that will help us all to make the case for systemic change in our school systems. Change that will ultimately benefit the students in our charge and prepare them well for their future lives in a knowledge economy.

Participatory learning – the Ning steps up a notch.

I read a very interesting report earlier this week that I mentioned in one of my last posts. It was called ‘The Future of Learning Institutions in the Digital Age’. It is  an interesting read and even though it is primarily focused on higher education, it has parallels with the work we do with students at secondary level.

This paragraph rang true for me;

Every university in the global north, of course, is spending large sums of money revamping its technology offerings, creating great wired spaces where all forms of media can be accessed from the classroom. But how many have actually rethought the modes of organization, the structures of knowledge, and the relationships between and among groups of students, faculty, and others across campus or around the world? That larger challenge—to harness and focus the participatory learning methods in which our students are so accomplished—is only now beginning to be introduced and typically in relatively rare and isolated formats.

It made me think of the Digital Revolution rollout of netbook computers and infrastructure happening now. While creating technology rich environments is important in today’s world, supporting them with teacher professional development to make the most of participatory learning opportunities is vital. I’m not convinced that that part of the process has been thought through.

Which brings me to our Yr 9 Ning. This platform came out of our participation in Professional Development (Powerful Learning Practice). For us,  it’s been a great week in our Year 9 Ning. Participatory learning has certainly been at a premium.

I’ve mentioned in recent times our study of Michael Gerard Bauer’s ‘The Running Man’ and our visit from Vietnam veteran Barry Heard. Well, last weekend both Michael and Barry  joined our Ning and they have been responding to reflections and questions posed by our students.  

It’s been a great learning experience for all of us. Both Barry and Michael have been very generous with their time, and have, I think, surprised our students with their presence.  The day after Michael and Barry started contributing we opened our class with a visit to the Ning. The look on some of the students’ faces was priceless. They really didn’t think that we would have real life authors make an appearance! Some of them felt a little intimidated when it came to posting a question. They were worried their question would seem trivial or unimportant and not worthy as a result. One of the ways we overcame this was to have us brainstorm a list of questions and have one student post them on behalf of the group.

Barry left a comment for every student who had posted a comment in one of the forum topics that had been posted after his talk. Each was a personalised response. I know how busy Barry is and want to publicly thank him for his efforts.  

Michael has visited frequently over the week and I want to publicly thank him too. He was posting comments from an internet cafe in Adelaide and let the girls know this in his comments. (He was there last week visiting schools.) Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday he was in the Ning helping us out with our understanding. He visited again on Saturday and even uploaded a picture of the visual he made reference to in the novel when Tom Leyton had a picture of Frankenstein pinned on his wall. I’ve been overwhelmed by his efforts. Perhaps the best way to give you an indication of the quality of this interaction is to show you a student comment and Michael’s reply (I hope Michael is OK with this!);

Hi Michael,
My name is *****and I must say I really enjoyed reading your book. Most school books don’t feel like actual stories that you can really get into, because you just know that you have to read it for school. However, your book was wonderful!

When I was reading it, I forgot that I had to read it for school and I kept picking it up because I wanted to, not because I had to. Thankyou so much for that.
I’ve also been reading your replies to other girls and you have answered sooo many of my questions and I’m so thankful. Like ***** said, you’ve really helped us to understand the book so much more.

A question for you, I think I better ask you one to keep the ‘flow of the ning’ going. I know it’s a bit off the topic of ‘The Running Man’ but anyway…

When you’re writing, do you see the story in your mind, like it’s already a book that you’re reading yourself?
I love writing fictional stories and while I write I see, almost like little clips from a movie of my story, in my mind.
I’m just curious to see, if it’s something you do too, or maybe it’s just my weird mind!

Thanks

P.S. I did spot the ‘Leighton’ in the story. My friend and I came across it and we had a little giggle 🙂  

Michael’s reply;

Hi *****

Thanks you so much for those lovely comments. I am so glad you enjoyed the book.
That’s a great question about ‘seeing the story in your mind’. I think you and I are exactly the same when we write. I have used the same description you did of writing being like seeing part of a movie. Often I ‘replay’ a scene over and over in my mind until something makes it click on to the next scene. When I write I imagine what I’m trying to describe as a movie scene with certain camera angles, close ups etc. I’ve always said that I don’t feel so much like I’m creating something from nothing when I write or making it up but that I’m uncovering or discovering something that already exists somewhere – like the story is real and my job is to find it or see it. So no, I definitely don’t think it’s just your weird mind! (Of course it could be that we both have weird minds!)

Some people thought that different spelling of Leighton/Leyton was there on purpose. They thought it might have been symbolic or something. Nope, just a typo!
Cheers
Michael

I think you can see the high level of interest from both student and author here.  

I read an article entitled ‘A book is a place’, by Bob Stein that appeared in ‘The Age’ newspaper here in Melbourne. In it, the writer speculated about the changing nature of the book and the resultant changes for authors as the book evolves in a participatory culture. Here is some of Bob’s thinking;

I was now thinking of a book as a place – a place where readers, and sometimes authors, congregate. Along with that came the realisation that this new formulation required a wholesale re-thinking of the roles of different players.

And this;

Essentially, authors are about to learn what musicians have grasped during the past 10 years – that they get paid to show up. For musicians, this means live performances account for an increasingly significant percentage of their income in contrast to ever-shrinking royalties from sales. With books, as we redefine content to include the conversation that grows up around the text, the author will increasingly be expected to be part of that ongoing conversation and, of course, expect to be paid for that effort.

What’s been happening in our Ning this week is part of this evolutionary process. Both Michael and Barry have been very obliging to experiment with the medium. Right now, this is a rarity. Not all that many schools (I don’t think!) would be exploring this kind of interaction using a platform like Ning. But this will change and so will the way authors respond to such requests. This potentially will become something controlled by agents with financial incentive for the authors.

Right now, I, and the students at my school, are incredibly grateful to two very committed and interested authors , who were willing to push the boundaries and engage with their audience via our Ning platform. Michael and Barry, you are true gentlemen!

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Is Zac Efron Leonard Whiting’s love child?

Cover of "Romeo & Juliet"
Cover of Romeo & Juliet

Honestly, I’ve no idea, but the girls at my school are wondering.

This term we’re studying Romeo and Juliet in Yr 9 English. We’ve been sharing our thoughts about the play on our shared Ning and have watched the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version of the play in class to help with our understanding. There’s no doubt tackling Shakespeare’s language is difficult when you first confront it; we have to be mindful that it is a play meant to be performed, not read.   

An observation we’ve made (and I have to admit I was the first to raise it with my class!) is the uncanny resemblance Zac Efron has to Leonard Whiting who plays Romeo in the 1968 film.  

I’ve been out to dinner tonight and took a look at the Ning when I got home to see if there was any activity I needed to follow up. What I discovered was a forum post that’s been added by the students, Leonard Whiting (Romeo) vs Zac Efron.  They’ve posed this question for consideration;

Were these two separated at birth? (Or father and son?)

and added attachments with pictures of Leonard and Zac.  So far seven students have replied. My favourite is this;

Totally, Leonard could be Zac’s Father…

and do you think that Romeo and Juliet and High School musical are related?

Now, some might say this isn’t the kind of discussion topic noteworthy of inclusion. I couldn’t disagree more. For a start, it was a discussion initiated by the students around something that has sprung from what we are doing at school. This isn’t the first time this has happened. The students are adding their own forum topics quite regularly.  What it is, is a demonstration of the community that has formed around this Ning. The students are using it as a focus point for discussion; they are relaxed in the space and feel at ease sharing their opinions.    

I love it. It’s confirmed for me once again why a participatory learning culture is important; we are human beings who need to interact, we don’t need to work in isolation and many of us don’t want to. Why should our classrooms operate as islands when we can form archipelagoes?   

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Learning U or Participatory Learning – what’s in a name? Plenty!

Serendipity.

I love the sound of the word and how its definition applies so frequently to dicoveries and interactions on the web.

The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines it as;

the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for

It happened to me tonight. Today I proposed a new elective subject for next year’s Yr 9 students, Learning U (the name it has at the moment – thanks to Chris Prout for suggesting it).  Here’s what it’s about;

Learning U has as its focus what interests you. What are you passionate about? What would you like to explore in depth? How far can you take your own learning and what would you learn if you were given the opportunity to drive it in the direction you wanted to take? 

Students will determine the nature of the investigation they undertake based on their own personal interests. They will use a range of networking tools eg: blogs, wikis, ning networks, to engage in connective reading and writing opportunities. They will be taught how to manage these sites and how to read and write in a hypertext environment. They will learn how to behave safely and ethically in digital spaces and will work towards the creation of a positive digital footprint that they can use to promote themselves. 

Language skills, technology integration and subject knowledge of the student’s own choosing will be at the forefront of their experience. Students will be attempting to attract an audience to their writing and creative efforts and engage people in what they are doing. 

Self motivation is key, as is a willingness to write in a public space and adopt new ways of doing things.

It was accepted by the powers that be to be an elective choice for next year’s curriculum offerings. I’m excited about that; it indicates an acceptance that the type of learning I think is valuable is being considered to have merit.

Tonight, Susan Carter Morgan sent out a tweet about an interesting slideshow available on slideshare. It led me to the work of Bill Farren, a teacher I first encountered last year when I joined up with Project Global Cooling. Bill is a passionate educator with a wonderful site called Education for Well- being. His recent slideshow was about Participatory Learning.

Watching it reinforced my thinking. Participatory learning is what the elective subject I’m proposing is all about. It’s something I feel our students need exposure to; the notion that they can self direct their learning and learn from participatory culture, the people out there who want to share knowledge and help advance the learning of others.

I visited Bill’s blog to discover he is doing something quite interesting. He’s quit his job for a year, and has launched into PLearn, a one year online course he is offering to 50 participants. Here’s how he introduced it in his post;

After 15 years of working in schools and observing and reflecting on the practice, I’d like to attempt something different. I’m curious to know if it’s possible to get fifty people (or possibly an institution or two) on this wired planet to step out of the mainstream of education, if only for one class, and participate in a course that operates under a very different educational paradigm than the one they’re used to. I’d like to know if learners are willing to put their own creative desires and curiosities ahead of doing what’s educationally “safe”. Is the dissonance between how people learn on their own today and how they are taught in schools jarring enough to make them want to try something new? Can the Internet’s currently evolved state and the culture of sharing, collaboration and participation that it has fueled, lead to a new educational paradigm where independent educational contractors (IECs), working in more decentralized environments, are able to offer a variety of courses serving the long tail of educational consumers in a way that more hierarchical institutions cannot?

In order to try to answer these questions, I’ve quit my job as a teacher for next year and built an online space–a class (ParticipatoryLearning.net)–based on the principles of participatory learning, among others.

Interesting to note the idea of an ‘independent educational contractor’. What this means is that Bill is charging for the course he is offering. I can see some merit in this. At the moment, many of us willingly share our knowledge and educate others for no financial return. While that’s all very admirable, there has to be some acknowledgement that the price we pay is time. Time invested in supporting the learning of others while we spend time away from other pursuits and even our families. There is no doubt we learn much in the process, but I can tell you,  my fitness level has suffered and I seem to be tired all the time!!

I can see that Bill is trying to find balance by quitting his job, continuing his learning journey, advancing the learning of others and trying to make a living in the process.  Maybe I’m wrong (and feel free to correct me if I am Bill). Regardless, it’s a very interesting concept and a site you should visit to see how it is coming together.

I’m remaining in my job, but trying to fulfill something akin to participatory learning culture through the introduction of this elective idea. I’m hoping the students who participate (if there are any takers!!) will discover some of the excitement that I know comes from finding like souls who are willing to share and assist you in your learning.     

So thank you serendipity, in the guise of Susan Carter Morgan. You led me to Bill, who got me thinking.

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