Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ning Wisdom from Students

As my year winds down, I have turned to my students for final reflections. Two chose to think about their experiences with our ning work on Othello. As the actual users of the ning, their responses are invaluable. If it didn't work, they lived through it. If it did, they learned from it. As teachers, we can hope new tools and teaching techniques change our classrooms; our students are the ones who tell us if they did.

Cara wrote, "The Othello character group [that we did on the ning] ... REALLY helped in understanding the text. I felt super-knowledgeable about my character in a way that didn't come from my teacher or a book, but a peer and myself."

There is it -- the evidence that student-directed learning does happen and that it is more powerful in both the depth of the learning achieved by and the confidence instilled in our students.

Neil wrote, "Whatever you do, do not overdo online tools in place of discussion. Class discussion is still king; this is coming from a teenage kid. The best discussion ends up taking place in class, whether everyone responds or not. On an online forum where everyone is required to answer, the temptation is to read only the posts you are required to comment on. In class, you can’t really filter out someone speaking."

Neil's words are a great reminder to us that Web 2.0 tools are tools we add to our teaching kits not that replace everything we have ever done. Yes, many students write more in the online forum than they speak in class, but face-to-face discussions are important too. This is my main goal for my Web 2.0 integration next year: to link the out-of-class online work closely and thoughtfully to our in-class work. I tried to do this as much as a could this year in a few ways:
  • starting class by having everyone return to the discussion thread, read a new part they had not read, and comment on it
  • choosing a few posts to project to the class as discussion prompts
  • having the students review a discussion thread, noting something new they have learned or a question they have, then sharing these and discussing them
I saw time and again that connecting students' out-of-class thinking with their in-class work validates both and deepens their learning. Even those students who are more hesitant to speak out in class did so much more when they could base it on the online work -- they had a chance to get their ideas together and thus had more confidence. Students see that the online work is not just an "add-on" -- it is integral to their overall learning.

I want to end with Neil's reference to being required to participate. This to me is the eternal rub ... we want our students to be excited learners not because they have to be. We hope they see these tools as things they can use in their own lives to further their engagement in our world. Will Richardson would have all learning be self-driven in this way.

However, I have found I do need to require participation, at the start ... and to be honest, sometimes all the way through. I will continue to develop my use of these tools to be as student-driven as I can, but I also know my students do not always LOVE to be online outside of class time. So, thus I require responses. I try to make this requirement as open as I can -- 3 responses of any sort (new posts, comments, whatever) for homework or 15 responses of any sort by the end of our work with a text. This is a pickle I will continue to chew on [:)] -- the power of online tools to increase student-driven learning while also not being what every student always wants to do.


  1. Thanks for sharing their thoughts. I know I struggle with meeting everyone's needs and their learning styles in trying to balance online vs in-class discussions. And I need to watch that my own preference for online doesn't dictate how I run the class.

  2. One more thought...we don't ask them if they want (or like) to learn by writing an essay or taking a quiz; these are required assessments. Students need to understand that their online discussions are as valuable assessments as any.

  3. I agree, Susan. Linking the online discussions as best I can to other work I hope shows them that their learning online is integral. I think it really comes down to that very old discussion of making homework truly worthwhile (since much of the online work is done out of class). I think my online discussions have actually made my homework assignments much more valuable to students' true learning than their individual reading logs, for example, ever were.