Monday, March 16, 2009

What Do Students Think about Nings?

I am wrapping up my first use of a ning with my classes, and from my perspective, it was a great success.
  • All of the students participated not only with what they had to do for their own work but also with commenting on other students' posts.
  • The ning became a part of our in-class work as well as out-of-class collaboration because the students and I referenced it in our discussions, I projected parts of it to get class started, and I set up in-class cooperative learning activities on it.
  • The group of college students training to be teachers who joined the ning pushed my students out of their comfort zones, thus making them think even more.

I wanted my students' perspective to add to mine, and I wanted them to have a chance to reflect on the whole experience (see my reflective struggles below!) So I asked them three questions:

  • What did you like about using the ning? What could be improved?
  • Do you like the idea of using a ning for one text or would it you like to use it for all year (instead of TurnIt In for discussions, the website for docs, individual notes …)?
  • How do you feel about expressing yourself to others on the web (our NJ collaborators, doing things like this overall that are open to strangers)?

Their responses were overwhelming positive. All of them enjoyed the ning, and the most often cited reason was seeing others' ideas and being able to ponder ideas more slowly because they were written down and could be returned to. They truly "got" that sharing ideas makes their own ideas that much stronger. One wrote, "I really liked the fact that just because of what the ning is and how it works we were sort of forced to see other people's thoughts on things. By that I mean, for example, through the character groups I got to really see the opinions of others, and their support for them, of such a complex character as Iago. I think it really helped me to develop my own opinions much stronger."

Half of the class wants to use the ning for the whole year, while the other half recognizes that even the most exciting things can be overused. They made an excellent point though that by using the ning earlier in the year, they will be fully versed in all it can do and then get more out of the work on Othello. One wrote, "The only improvement I would recommend is to use it more so we are used to it before we get into a major book discussion because then it is hard to think that there is a source there for you." So I plan to start the ning at the opening of the year and use it for the online discussions I used for and some other work. I am going to focus on not overusing it before I get to Othello in January, so I will ask my students to reflect throughout the first semester about the ning. Maybe I will find them asking me to use it even more.

Finally, I wanted to know their thoughts about interacting with people on the web, but not in their accustomed social way. Nancy Devine got me thinking about this when she polled her students and discovered an overwhelming fear of being "out there" on the Internet. Our society has focused so much on Internet safety that it seems to be hurting our students' views of what learning and growing they can do with Web 2.0 tools. I teach at a laptop school, so I thought my students answers would be a great counterpoint to Nancy's students because mine have had technology underpinning their whole high school career. Here is what mine say: all but two are confident and comfortable sharing their ideas on the web. What seems to be at the root of this is they feel they have something worthwhile to say and they seem to understand that this type of academic conversation is different than giving your email to a stranger. So what is the difference and how can we bring more students to a place of comfort with such sharing? Maybe you read that question and think, "I don't think they have to share on the web," but I have seen such growth in my students and more importantly in myself through my own collaborations that I have to disagree. The web is a way to help our students learn even more and even more deeply. We need to make sure this door is open to every student.

Here are some ideas I have:

  • regular use of technology is the first step and of course the step that creates our "digital divide" -- by using the technology regularly for more than just social networking (what students do on their own), it becomes a more natural and less fearful place of learning
  • the next step is slowly opening the Web 2.0 door for them -- my students knew that the people in our ning had been invited there by me -- they knew there were none of the much-discussed-child-stalkers in there -- the more we can offer of these experiences, the more students will learn of their value and seek them on their own

In the end, my students' work in and thoughts on our class ning have proven to me that technology used thoughtfully, purposefully, and creatively makes for better learning.


  1. Thank you for posting this!

    I am a few weeks away from doing a trial run class ning with my juniors and I'm nervous about it!

    My students have already informed me that they "hate" using technology and would rather just "get it over with" regarding most of the content. Since I do not experience this attitude from my sophomores, I'm thinking it is just a unique group of students.

    My question in all of that rambling is basically: are your students naturally motivated or did the ning encourage excitement(novelty) and motivation? Also, what age group?

    Thanks again for your reflective post, I know it will help me and I suspect there are many other teachers toying with the idea of starting a ning who are still anxious!

  2. Mrs. Follis,
    I would say my students have a fair amount of motivation on their own (it is an AP class of seniors), but I also think the ning motivated them. Some of my students who are less literary -- for lack of a better description -- loved the ning the most. This is not because it required less of them -- instead, they found it a supportive and engaging way to develop their ideas. It allowed them a stronger voice. I think the more you can use it for all of the classwork the better because then they see how integral it is (I posted assignments on there for example).

  3. I read your post with great interest Susan. I've just created a ning for an English class, as well as for our PLP project, and I can see that it's easier to participate than it is to create one. Do you have any tips for beginners setting up nings?
    I'm hoping to engage the students, use the ning to scaffold and inspire writing, discussion and reflection. I'll be following you to see how you're going. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Tania,
    Thanks for the comment and nice to find you here!

    Here are a few things that were good for me at the set-up/start phase:

    1. Put a widget or two on your ning -- I have one of a daily literary quote and another with world travel pics (this is a world lit class). The students like to see how they change each time they visit.

    2. Comment and watch a lot at the start -- to get them thinking even more, to engender more discussion, etc. I also found that by showing the ning in class and highlighting specific comments that were engaging and starting class discussions with them helped them to see that the ning was integral and not merely additional.

    3. I required peer to peer commenting throughout. I would love to have a ning the students automtically commented all over, but I think that takes more time then I have used mine. But they have done great stuff when I made the homework "explore and comment." And a few students were commenting on their own by about halfway through, so we were getting there.

    4. And a formatting thing -- use "threaded" and not "flat" discussions. The ning defaulted to "flat" for me, and my students found it incredibly cumbersome. You can choose this under "manage" then "discussion forum."


  5. I was wondering if you have tried blogs outside of a ning environment with your students? I teach a regular 9th grade English class, but I also teach a reading and writing elective called Read the Net. My students are using edublogs in Read the Net, and I can't decide which way I want to go next year. The blogs are only connected by the blog roll, but I think the students feel like they have more ownership of the blog and may even use it in the future once class has finished. What is your opinion, blogs or ning?

  6. Tara,
    We have done blogs and nings. I think for long-term staying power, blogs are the way to go because they can blog as adults and find great benefit. But for multiple uses, nings are the way to go because they allow so many collaborative opportunities and they can use those in the future too. It is a knotty problem indeed! Our students have not loved blogs as much as they have loved nings -- they love the multiple ways to interact with a ning, and they have found blogging to be somewhat of a vacuum (we have tried very hard to get outside audiences for our students' blogs and have had only limited success). So to them blogging feels a bit just like doing normal homework but posting it. We are however still making the blogging push, working hard to help our students write posts that outsiders would be more apt to read (not on a specific chapter of a book for example, but instead on a larger use of a lit term). I would love to hear what you decide to do.