The socially networked classroom

11/27/2011  |  WILLIAM KIST
Technology and Learning
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Over the last few years, I have visited classrooms throughout the United States and Canada to watch some of the most visionary teachers who were immersed not only in educational technology, but also in the implications of using these new media in their classrooms. I interviewed dozens of these teachers and collected their ideas in a book, “The Socially Networked Classroom: Teaching in the New Media Age,” published by Corwin Press. Their experiences with technology covered a wide range of examples, from social networking in a low-tech environment to teaching at the most advanced levels of technological innovation.

Before I dive into some of the amazing work being done in classrooms today, let’s address some of the reasons why more teachers aren’t taking advantage of social networking tools for learning — tools that are often available to students in their homes and on their phones, but not in the classroom.

During my travels, I quickly saw that the issue that overwhelms any talk of Web 2.0 classroom applications is the issue of keeping our students safe. The decision about whether to take students online and how protected they need to be seems to be a difficult one for educators. Some districts end up becoming locked down with unsupervised surfing strictly prohibited. Other schools find ways to compromise and offer students at least a simulation of what being online is like.

Most educators feel that the issue of Internet safety must be dealt with somehow before any online activities may occur. Indeed, the overarching issue of Internet safety becomes a “teachable moment,” with schools developing or adopting fully written curricula encouraging teachers to bring the lessons of the online world into their classrooms. The Seattle Public Schools, for example, have developed a series of lessons that teachers can use at the middle school level to help kids be safe online. These lessons are grouped around such categories as “Respect and Responsibility,” “Cyberbullying: Impacts and Consequences,” and “What to Do If You Are Being Cyberbullied.”

Among teachers, a frequently expressed hesitation about using Web 2.0 revolves around whether they have time to “fit” new media into their already crowded curriculum. “Will I have to take time to teach them how to work with a Ning?” is a common question. “I barely have time to get through my curriculum map as it is without throwing in a five-day tutorial on using iMovie.” Teachers tend to feel that they need to get students completely comfortable with whatever tool they’re using before making an assignment. And they feel they have to do it themselves. Fortunately, this is one of the easier questions to answer.

After having interviewed many teachers who do integrate new media and new social networking opportunities into their classrooms, I have found that they have dealt with the time issue in two overarching ways. One way is to take minimal class time on demonstrating technology skills and to rely on students to give brief tutorials to each other either during class time or after school. In my own classroom, I’ve given up the constant struggle to remain on top of the latest technology development and to be able to demonstrate it for a large group. For one thing, the technology changes so rapidly that it’s hard to remain an “expert” for long. And I’ve also noticed that teaching these kinds of technology skills in a large computer lab is a waste of time, in that students just want to get online and try them immediately — or check their e-mail or Facebook page. They don’t want to listen to the teacher lecture on how to set up a blog. It’s almost impossible to resist the lure of that keyboard ready for you to try what is being demonstrated.

Rather than follow this computer lab model, I’m increasingly relying on some of my tech-savvy students to teach mini lessons that briefly introduce the technology or application being used using a projector in my own classroom or in small groups. Sometimes I even tap a student who is not tech-savvy to do the tutorial because sometimes they are the best guides to the steps that beginners must follow when mastering a new task. I’ve also found that many of the social networking tools have become so user-friendly that almost no technical explanation is necessary. Blogger.com, for example, shows the viewer how to set up a blog in three easy steps. It is not as complicated to teach these new media skills as it was back in the old days of the 1990s when technology teachers were making students learn DOS before being allowed to surf the Internet!

Another trend for coping with the time issue is to build choice into assignments. Teachers who may be concerned that they don’t have time to thoroughly explicate how to navigate a Ning or use iMovie might consider not putting pressure on themselves and the students and simply make those optional choices in a long list of possible texts that students may compose. I make sure that students are not trapped trying to express themselves using some medium with which they’re not comfortable — or I group uncomfortable students with more comfortable students to lessen the shock. Even though not all students today are “digital natives,” most teachers will be hard pressed to have a class that doesn’t have at least a few kids who are extremely proficient with technology, and those students will embrace the choices made available to them.

If you’re ready to create a socially networked classroom, where do you start? During my classroom visits, I became quite conscious of my own less-than-current uses of technology and new educational practices; I was embarrassed that I didn’t even have my own Web page. I knew that I need to “walk the walk,” even if this walk took me places I never anticipated. I also know that I needed to be part of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) and get out there to see what new things visionary teachers are doing. I began to become more active in Web 2.0 myself and to interact via Twitter and various Nings with great educators all over the world. When I came across hesitation toward a new idea or technology, I did what the brave teachers in my PLN did: I stared back at my students — and colleagues — and said, “Let’s try it!”

Teachers using technology to enhance learning

Kenneth Rochester, a teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, uses both Google Docs — a file sharing platform — and blogging to structure inquiry in his math classroom. His students are divided into groups of four and they are expected to post the answers to their classswork problems on their group’s Google Doc. Before the start of the next class, he chooses one group’s solutions to serve as the answer key for the class. That groups correct answers are displayed while their incorrect problems are assigned as homework. Each group member must show his work and contribute. Kenneth also keeps a class blog at blogspot.com with the daily notes. Students are expected to tag their entries so they can be searched. He also participates in the math blogosphere himself, often checking in on selected blogs related to math.

I encountered another example of innovative use of Web 2.0 at Edgewood High School in Edgewood, Maryland, where students are “required to complete a service learning project where they have to serve the community while enriching their minds.” In 2009, the students wanted a project to show how one person can impact the world. They decided to earn rice from the World Food Program’s Web site to help aid starving people and nations. In addition to earning rice, they also wrote reflections and did research on the issue. Kim Whitaker, an English teacher at Edgewood, said that they employed a wiki — a free educational website creator — for students to reflect.

She states, “While the intention of the site was to be environmentally conscious and keep students from misplacing their work, it connected our school in a way we were not expecting. All students have their own Web pages on the site where they make it their own.” (http://pbwiki.com) Their goal was to earn 1.3 million grains of rice by the end of May. They began their project the first week in February and had already met their goal within the first month. Students have earned well over three million grains of rice, are improving their vocabulary, and are learning what an impression one person can make on the world.

George Mayo, a seventh-grade teacher in Montgomery County Schools in Maryland, uses social networking to connect his students to the world. He set up a Twitter account called “Manyvoices,” in which students in six different countries collaborate on writing a story, entry by entry, until they have 140 entries, each consisting of 140 (or fewer) characters. The collaborative story was then published on Lulu.com. He also attracted viewers to his class Web page by uploading podcasts to that site. George had students in his class record podcasts based on research they had done on life for kids in Vietnam. Through contacts he has in that country, George solicited comments from Vietnamese students on their podcasts, thus opening up a dialogue with young people from across the world.

These are just a few examples of the pioneering work done by the teachers I met through my personal learning network. As I talk to educators about the future of educational technology, I can’t help wondering if new media and Web 2.0 will sweep us into an entirely new way of “doing” school, or if these new tools will simply be pushed and pulled so that they fit into the old mold. What will our schools look like 100 years from now? If they are substantially different, I believe it will be because of the courage and curiosity of teachers guiding their students in exploring a socially networked world.

William Kist is an associate professor at Kent State University, where he teaches literacy education courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels. His book, “The Socially Networked Classroom,” presents a snapshot of how teachers are currently using the Web 2.0 to educate today’s students. Complete with real-world examples, lesson plans,
sample assignments, and assessments, the book is available from Corwin Press at
www.corwin.com.
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