Keeping in touch, the Words with Friends way.

I do love my iPhone. It’s changed the way I interact with the Web. I like the fact that I can easily check my work email and personal gmail accounts easily, and I can check in with Twitter via either the Tweetdeck or Twitter app. I can do a quick web search easily via my Google app (I prefer that to Safari) and I can check into this blog via the WordPress app. The Google Maps app has proved invaluable as I try and find my way around locations. Even though it’s slightly disconcerting knowing the satellites are tracking my every move, knowing that the blue circle has me heading in the right direction has given me peace of mind on many occasions. I can even check the developments happening with the Australian Curriculum via the new app released from ACARA. Sometimes I read downloads from Amazon using the Kindle app, and the other night I was watching the latest TED Talks when I was having trouble sleeping.

What I’m loving at the moment is an app called Words with Friends, which is a game of scrabble that can be played by people who’ve signed up to the site. It was introduced to me the other week by my friend Melanie who lives in New York. We had known each other online through our association with the international PLP cohort, and met when I was in New York in January this year. We shared some very fun times together and have remained in contact via Twitter and email. Melanie suggested that I download the Words with Friends app so that we could engage in a game of scrabble. Simple idea, but a lovely one. Because of our time zone difference, it’s not played at a frenetic pace, just once a day, but we can send messages to one another and know that we are doing something together, despite the physical distance that separates us.

I’m happy to let you know that Melanie is trouncing me right now, but I’m enjoying trying to figure out how to play my letters in the most strategic way possible. My competitive spirit and sheer desperation led to me search on Google for ‘scrabble help’. I discovered ‘Win every game‘, and it’s helped me score 40 points for my last move! Pssst… don’t tell Melanie!!

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. : )

Lurker or Contributor, or maybe Innovator?

I didn’t get to the DEECD‘s Innovation showcase on Friday. I’d sent in a proposal for a session but it was knocked back. The fact that I teach in the Independent system and not the Public system may have had something to do with that, but that’s probably just sour grapes from me!!

Thanks to the very obliging John Pearce, who is truly one genuinely nice guy, I’ve been able to partake in some of the experience by reading through his Cover it Live embeds on his blog. Cover it Live is an application that allows you to ‘live blog’ your observations as you watch someone present. John has embeds on his blog from presentations delievered by Jason Smith, co-founder of TeacherTube and Martin Westwell, Director of the Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century.

John recounts something Jason referred to that has me intrigued; 

the 99:1 rule 

  • 90% of people in online communities are visitors, (lurkers)
  • 9% are early adopters who add to the commentary and/or content but can’t really be depended on
  • 1% are the givers who continue to maintain the innovation

I don’t know where he got those figures from, but if they’re right, they have implications for the use of social networks in schools. I know that the Ning we are using for Yr 9 has some regular contributors, but it also has a spread across the year level. I know it’s artificial to some extent because we ask the students to make contributions because it relates to curriculum, but I am heartened by the fact that forum topics are being created by students. Of the 34 forum topics posted, 15 have been initiated by the students. That’s a pretty good number posted by a spread of students across the year level.

There’s no denying also, that there are students for whom this forum is just not their thing. And that’s OK; you can never guarantee that any teaching method you employ is going to hit the mark for every kid you teach. But maybe they’re lurking?? It’s something I hadn’t really considered. I think what I need to do is set up a Survey Monkey for the end of this term to attempt to get some feedback and derive some statistics from which I can draw some conclusions.

Lurking is something that I find very interesting. By nature, I’m a participant and not a lurker, so I find it a little hard to understand why some wouldn’t want to enter the conversations. But then again, I’m the ‘E’ personality type who’d prefer to go the party rather than sit by the fire with a book. I think that translates to my online life as well. But those figures Jason referred to are mind boggling for me. I suppose if there are 90% of people out there lurking (a word I really don’t like – the connotations are sinister I think) then that accounts for the small number of comments in proportion to the number of hits on this blog. 

And as for the 1% of innovators, well I guess I can see that in the networks I operate in. When I first started reading educational blogs I had this perception that the base  was huge; I now know that is not the case.  I suppose that translates to our teaching communities as well; if you think about schools you’ve worked in, who is innovative and who sits back and lets others come up with new ideas? What proportion of your school community does this relate to and do the figures translate to the 99:1 rule?

Mmmmnn….interesting things to consider. Thanks John for providing me with a PD experience on my weekend. 

*Update – read this post re research on the 99:1 rule. Makes for interesting reading.

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The Horizon Report: 2009 K-12 Edition

Educause and the New Media Consortium have just released the K – 12 Edition of The Horizon Report. Horizon Reports always make for interesting reading, as they predict the time to adoption of many of the emerging technologies finding their way into the fabric of our teaching. Horizon reports usually have as their focus higher education institutions. This report has K – 12 education as its focus so their evaluation of likely adoption in Primary and Secondary education is especially interesting.

One of the very interesting observations they make in the findings is that assesment and filtering impact on the degree to which some technologies can be adopted in school settings. It’s the old story of assessment driving curriculum and affecting adoption of new ways of doing things. There is no doubt it is difficult assessing someone’s efforts commenting on blog posts or their participation in ning networks. And yet these are valid pursuits that can lead to real engagement in learning. Filtering is another issue; the unfortunate fact is that impressive tools like Voicethread and Ning are often classified as ‘social networks’ or ‘chatrooms’ and filtering software prevents them loading in some schools. I’ve had to go to my network administrators to have blocks removed and I’ve heard the same story from many other educators.  

So, what are the findings, what are the trends to watch?

Time to adoption – One year or less

  • Collaborative Environments
  • Online Communication Tools

Time to Adoption – Two to three years

Time to Adoption – Four to five years

I don’t know if I totally agree with their findings. I’d find it surprising to see Nings become mainstream in the next year within school settings, given that most of the educators I know stare at you blankly when you mention the word. Unless we some some major investment from Government to support  Professional Development for teachers in the field of new technologies, I just can’t see mainstream adoption in such a short time frame.

Take a read for yourself. It’s well worth downloading and showing to your school administration. Congratulations go to Judy O’Connell who served on the advisory board of the project.  

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Twitter’s going mainstream

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

It seems like I keep hearing about Twitter in the mainstream media all the time of late. Celebrities are using Twitter, radio personalities like Dave Hughes here in Australia are talking about it and journalists like Mia Freedman are joining and writing about their experiences. My friends, who have been perplexed by my use of Twitter over the last year, are now interested and fill others in about what it’s used for, based on the ear bashing they’ve been exposed to from me!    

I’ve seen my followers grow considerably since December last year. Quite a number of them came to me from a post written by Richard Byrne (from Maine in the USA), recommending people to follow on Twitter.  But what I’ve also noticed is the amount of people following me who are using Twitter for their financial gain. I can understand this. I use it as a means of connecting to like minded educators whose ideas and recommendations lead me to new learning, but I’ve no doubt there’s money to be made by promoting a service to others and publicising what you can do.

Today, my list of new followers appeared in my email with a couple of surprises. My cousin’s wife has started following me; they are using Twitter to promote a business they run. But the really interesting one was a new follower who I suspected might be a student from my school. When I checked out her profile I discovered I was right. She was in the audience last Friday when we skyped in Mark Lukach from San Francisco who talked to our students about Daraja Academy, a free girl’s school in Kenya that opened its doors last week. We are thinking about trying to support Daraja Academy in some way and the focus group for this is our Year 9 group of students. Her first tweet said, ‘I am researching the Daraja academy’. The second tweet was;

I was apart of the year nine students you talked to the other day via skype on wekbcam at TC. i want to be more involved. how can i be?           

and her third looked like this;moniques_tweet

I just love the evolution in her thought processes that you can see from these three tweets. First she’s researching, then she tries to make contact but hasn’t directed her message to anyone in particular. By the third tweet she’s discovered Mark Lukach is on Twitter and has realised you need to put the @ symbol at the front of his Twitter name in order for the message to reach him. Fantastic stuff, and amazingly proactive. Can’t wait to catch up with her at school tomorrow to see what she wants to do because I suspect she could be a powerhouse to get support for Daraja going.

I wonder how other professionals are using Twitter. I’m sure it’s very similar to the way educators (particularly those interested in Educational Technology and how it’s utilised in school systems) have adopted it. It’s a means of disseminating information quickly and forming reciprocal connections that prove beneficial. It’s certainly much more than the trifling treatment it received in the article by Mia Freedman, ‘Tweet Tweet nothings’  that appeared in last weekend’s ‘The Age’ here in Melbourne. I think you can see that in the above example. It’s not all mindless drivel; it can be an incredibly powerful means of communication, and all in 140 characters at a time. 

By the way, I’m jennyluca on Twitter if you’re not there yet and wanted to find someone to follow!

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Ning – why would you use it?

Image representing Ning as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

Why?

Because a ning helps build community amongst your students. And a community that is supportive of one another and where students feel comfortable sharing is one where learning can thrive.

So what does it need to achieve this? It needs motivated and interested leaders who can prompt discussion and help foster it. It needs buy in.

It’s what I’m trying to develop this year with  the Year 9 English students and staff at my school. I posted this comment on our International PLP ning in reference to it;

 I launched a ning this week for our Yr 9 English students- approx 80 students in all. More than half the yr level have already joined and some are posting comments over the weekend. One student even signed up at 10.55pm tonight! When I introduced it I made it clear that at this stage it was for our school community, but explained that we may invite classrooms from beyond our school in or eventually make it open. Right now, I’m interested in seeing how community forms amongst the yr level inside the ning. I’m pretty sure my colleagues will be supportive and will encourage their students to participate.

The sheer fact that kids have been participating without prompting has me excited. Now we have the platform to showcase what they can do. I hope to get them working on some digital tasks that they can upload and share with their peers. Linking our classrooms is the first step. Next step, the world! 

One of the things I think I’ve observed over the past year is that there are many people in our networks who participate but don’t do. I think I ‘do’ or at least try to. We have to start thinking about the tools we can use that are going to extend the thinking of our students and help them make some connection to the idea that they can make use of these tools for their educational benefit. When I launched this with the students I asked them did they belong to any social networks. They didn’t know what I was talking about – the language was unfamiliar to them. When I mentioned myspace and facebook at least 95% raised their hands. I’m hopeful they will start to see the connection between what they are doing socially and what they are going to be doing educationally. Then they may see how it is they can create a very positive digital profile for themselves that will serve them well as they make their way through life.

I’ll keep you posted as to how our community forms and what kind of buy in we have. And I promise I’ll be honest about it. If it’s not succeeding I’ll let you know, and if if it’s thriving, I’ll be doubly sure to let you know!!    

 

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