Thoughts on bells, whistles, and frivolity


no-laughter

Recently, I’ve had  teachers ask me questions about teaching using social networking sites like Ning and Grou.ps,  and I’ve noticed a trend. They like what social networking sites seem to make possible and they want to use technology to increase student engagement, but they’ve expressed concern over the fact that the sites have a lot of bells and whistles. I think they’re concerned that students will confuse the educational sites with the social sites they use outside the classroom.

I understand this concern because I am well aware that students behave inappropriately on sites like Myspace and Facebook, but if you decide to use a site like Schoology or Edmodo (which are cool–don’t get me wrong) because you don’t want to use something that looks too much like Facebook, then aren’t you kind of defeating the purpose? Aren’t you missing out on opportunities to teach appropriate use of social media? If you want to have students create Facebook-like profile pages for characters in a novel you’re studying, but you don’t want to use a site that mimics what Facebook can do because it doesn’t look “educational” … then why bother? If the goal is to increase student engagement then you should use a tool that’s … well … engaging. Shouldn’t you?

Now, I’m not saying Edmodo and Schoology are not engaging. They are. I’ve used Edmodo and my students have thought it was cool. I’ve checked out Schoology and it looks pretty useful too, but you need to really think about what you’re trying to achieve and then choose the best tool for that task.

I’ve had teachers tell me before that they tried blogging with their students but they weren’t really into it. When they tell me what tools they’re using for blogging, then I get it. The tools are boring. Yawn…. Appearance matters, okay?

I think some of the concern comes from teachers worrying that other teachers, administrators, or parents might not think that students are learning when using a site that looks too “social”. My response? Invite those teachers, administrators, and parents to join your site. People fear what they don’t understand (duh), so let them in.

And who says education can’t be fun? Bring on the bells and whistles, I say. 

Most.Shocking.Rose.Ceremony.Ever!

Grou.ps, will you accept this rose?

It’s really hard to think about leaving my beloved Nings. Especially since they are so comfortable. But really I have to be realistic here. I can’t afford Ning Plus at $24.99 a month and even if Pearson finally agrees to sponsor my Nings (apparently they’re experiencing a high number of requests. Duh.), I will no longer have access to chat or groups. Also I’d have to moderate every blog post before they appear, and while some teachers may want that, I don’t.

Grou.ps is not quite as slick and the kids can’t personalize their profile pages to the same extent that they could on Ning but it’s still pretty good. I’ve had a couple problems migrating my data but they’ve been very quick to respond and very helpful

But I have a confession….

And now we go to commercial.

Just kidding!

Here’s my confession: I will be cheating on Grou.ps with Ning. Truth be told, as exciting as the new guy is, there’s something warm and fuzzy and comfortable about Ning. As Royan so aptly pointed out it’s like I broke up with the perfect boyfriend and now I keep comparing each new guy to him.

Seriously, though, I would like to stay with Ning only because all my stuff’s already there and yes I know I can migrate to Grou.ps, but I already know how to use Ning and I can speak about it with a fair degree of confidence. The problem of course is that while I applied to have all my Nings sponsored by Pearson, I’ve only heard back about one. Ning says that they’re dealing with a high number of requests so I have to be patient. I’ll bet. They say:

If you already submitted a question or issue but haven’t received a response yet, please be patient. We are working as fast as we can to get to your ticket. Submitting the same question multiple times will slow our team down. If your question is related to a sponsorship or billing, please rest assured that we won’t shut down any networks after the August 20 deadline until we’ve responded to your tickets.

Okay.  So I will use Grou.ps for my media class and continue using my Nings for my grade 12 English classes. It isn’t absolutely essential to have chat for my two other classes and it also isn’t absolutely essential that they create subgroups for their book clubs since I want them to look at all the blogs, not just the ones on their books. I’ll just be a little more strict about use of tags. If for some reason Pearson won’t sponsor them I’ll just move over to Grou.ps.

So that’s the plan. Two roses. You’ll never see that on The Bachelorette.

As a side note, @markhowe1982 told be about Schoology which I checked out. I think it would be absolutely ideal for teachers who are not techies and have no desire to spend hours geeking out with a new toy. Schoology was super simple to set up. It doesn’t have a bunch of bells and whistles but it’s got blogs, groups, and you can also post assignments and grades (among a few other things). In some ways it reminds me of Edmodo, but Edmodo doesn’t have a blog feature.

Ning alternative speed dating

rose

When we last left our hero…

You may have been following my on again off again love affair with Ning. Before Ning announced that it was getting rid of its free social networks I signed on to do two workshops/talks on Ning’s applications for the secondary English classroom. Imagine my embarrassment and consternation with Ning made its big announcement. Well there was a lot of shock and dismay in the Twitterverse and Ning came back announcing that Pearson would sponsor free educator accounts. So naturally I jumped right on it and applied.

Where I’m at right now…

I have six Nings that I’ve created and LOVE. I applied to have them all sponsored but I’ve only heard back about one of them which leaves me a little anxious since I won’t be able to use the other ones after August 20 unless Ning and Pearson agree to sponsor them. I’d really like to stick with Ning if at all possible but the free educator mini version doesn’t allow me to create groups, which means that it doesn’t work as well for book clubs. It also no longer has a chat feature, which is not a huge deal for me, but it’s disappointing. In addition, if it takes this long for Ning and Pearson to respond about whether or not they will sponsor my site, I don’t know how many teachers will be game to try it. So I’m currently test-driving some alternatives:

Ning Alternatives: I’m going to use a completely unscientific rating system to assess these sites. One star is gross; five stars is “just as nice as Ning if not better.” I’ll basically be comparing the sites to the things I like about Ning. Fair? Maybe not, but it works for me.

Bachelor #1: Webs.com

Look: ****Lots of nice templates to choose from.

Ease of set-up and use: ** It’s pretty complicated. I’m sure if I gave it time it would become easier but there are just so many different variables and settings.

Member Profile Pages: ** Meh. You can add text boxes that allow html so I guess it could look engaging and have interesting features.

Blogability: ** The site does have different types of pages including a blog page but as far as I can tell it doesn’t allow members to have their own blogs. They all just post to the same blog, which isn’t really what I’m going for.

Features and apps: **Most of the features seem to come in the form of different types of pages you can add. They’re okay. You can upload pictures, video, and have background music on the pages but what my students really liked was how they could customize their profile pages on our ning. Webs doesn’t have much of that.

Ads: * Pretty bad. I know that’s how these sites make money, but some of the ads that come up would be very distracting to students. One of them was for a free role playing video game site and it played obnoxious music. Not cool.

School Appropriateness: * You can choose “Schools” as a category for your site which is a good sign. Members can’t be under 13, which is pretty standard. I’m finding the privacy settings a little tricky to figure out which concerns me. It doesn’t look like I can make the site privately viewable  which means code names and hyper vigilance.

Ning Migration: Negative.

Overall: Don’t think it’s for me. Good option though if someone’s looking to set up a free website I guess.

Bachelor #2: Grouply

Look: **** Pretty nice and customizable while being simple but it’s not as nice as Ning or Webs

Ease of set-up and use: **** Since I can import from Ning, it’s pretty easy. It even kept my bookclub groups and imported them as subgroups.

Member Profile Pages: ***A little better than Webs but still not as cool as Ning.

Blogability: ** Like Webs. You can blog but it all goes to the same blog.

Features and apps: *** I’m not blown away or anything but it does have groups and a chat feature which can be moderated. That’s pretty cool.

Ads:*** All Google ads and they’re not offensive and not too distracting.

School Appropriateness: ** It would appear that Grouply members can search for other Grouply members based on similar interests, etc. This worries me because I liked that with Ning I could ensure that students’ profiles would not be visible to people who weren’t members of our group. When I joined as “Jane Barker” before I had a chance to set my privacy settings I already had two friend requests from people I don’t know. I don’t like that. Anyone can search for me using any part of my name and they would see my profile picture and name even although not my profile. So that means code names again and strict lessons about not adding friends who you don’t know.

You basically create a Grouply identity apart from the group site. In Ning, the profile only exits within this site.

Ning Migration: ***** Yes.

Overall: I need to check out the privacy concerns a little more. Maybe I’m just missing something. Because this would be a pretty good alternative other than that BIG issue.

Next up:

Bachelor #3: Grou.ps

Bachelor #4: Buddy Press

To be continued…

Time to start seeing other people?

Untitled

Sometimes when you’re getting a little too cocky and pleased with yourself (see previous two posts) the universe decides to come along and give you a good old slap upside the head.

My slap upside the head came in the form of Marc Andreesen’s recent announcement that Ning would be discontinuing its free networks. This resulted in a veritable “twit-storm” (did I just coin a new Twitter word?) of activity, including a #bitemening hashtag and a Google Doc from the awesome Alec Couros
with some Ning alternatives.

I have created six different nings that I use throughout the school year with my English classes. My students LOVE them and I feel like I’m just tapping into the potential of this social networking platform. There’s no way I’ll be able to afford the premium account price of $20 a month for all my nings. Even if I just kept one per class and modified them, I’m still looking at $60 per month, and that would be out of pocket. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand companies need to make a profit and if Ning’s current business model isn’t profitable, they need to make some changes but… but…

Ugh, I’m so disappointed. That’s all.

I was just getting some teachers really excited about the possibilities of using Ning in the classroom and now I know many of them will be frustrated and unwilling to try if they find out they’re going to have to pay.

I really hope that Ning will follow the lead of other companies like Wikispaces by providing free educator’s accounts, because I don’t want to have to stop using this amazing product.

So lesson learned. I’ll probably be a little more cautious next time before embracing “the next big thing”.

Here are some of the alternatives I’m just starting to explore if I have to give up on Ning:

  • Grou.ps-Looks kind of similar to Ning, and promises to stay “free”. But I’m bitter and jaded now.
  • Google groups-This looks okay, but my kids really like how similar Ning is to Facebook and this just doesn’t look similar enough.  I can’t tell if students can create their own profile pages.
  • Webs.com This gives me hope. It has more of the look my students like.
  • SocialGo Looks pretty appealing too.
  • Yuku Very cute! But it doesn’t seem like there are many features available in the free version. Also some of the features don’t look very school appropriate.

So the good news is, there are lots of options out there. The bad news is, who knows if they’ll suffer the same fate as Ning. For me, it’s not really a big deal to switch (provided that the alternatives give me the same kinds of features) because I’d be starting from scratch at the beginning of the next school year anyway. I’d just take some screen shots for exemplars. I hope to participate in Steve Hargadon’s Elluminate discussion this Tuesday on Ning. I’m sure there are lots of good ideas out there!

But if Ning were willing to provide educator accounts for free, or even for a $10/year per site cost, they’d keep my loyalty. I still think they have an awesome product.

I still love you, Ning I just think I may have to start seeing other people.

Now what?

rockstar

Photo credit

After TED and Saturday’s workshops, I asked myself the above question and then quickly remembered– Oh yeah! I’m bringing two students to the Board Office (insert angelic chorus and shaft of light beaming down from the heavens–just kidding. I’ve worked there. I know.) to share their experiences with Ning and bookclubs with some intermediate teachers.

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of class lately so I was feeling a little guilty but now as I sit at home at 3:30(!) sipping a caramel machiatto and eating some cookies and reflecting on the day–guilt be gone! I did–or rather–we did good today!

My super smart and talented friend Heather who I abandoned last year to return to the classroom asked me if I’d be willing to come and speak at the final sessions of a series of Creating Strategic Readers workshops. Now while I’m thrilled to be back in the classroom there are a number of things I really miss about being a learning coordinator:

  • having time to direct my own professional learning
  • being a part of important board initiatives
  • being in the loop
  • the salad bar in the cafeteria
  • being able to go to the washroom whenever I want (!)
  • But mostly — I miss working with all the cool people (particularly Heather–or H-Dawg as I like to call her. It’s her street name. It’s a thing. … never mind)

So when Heather asked me to come in I was really excited–also because I got to share things that I’d actually tried with students–unlike last year where I had to speak in theoretical terms which was often frustrating. Heather also asked me if I could bring some students.

I chose two girls from my 4C class last semester. They weren’t the highest achievers in my class and they weren’t the stereotypical “good students”, but they were really great kids–one very outgoing and confident, and one a little shy and quiet. We drove down to the board office and I explained to the girls that I would talk for a bit, but that the teachers would be way more interested in what they had to say.

The girls rocked! It was so awesome when a teacher asked me a question and I was able to redirect to the girls. eg/ Teacher: So did you find that the boys in the class were more engaged when using your class Ning?

Me: Girls?

Superstar student #1: Oh yeah!

Superstar student #2: Totally!

Superstar student #1: Like Andrew–he’d never read a book before!

Teacher: But what about bullying? How did you find the other students were when it came to saying inappropriate things?

Me: Girls?

Superstar Student #1: Well, like Ms. Barker was monitoring everything so we know we couldn’t say bad stuff–not that we would–

Superstar Student #2: Yeah, and actually I felt like the opposite happened. Like even if you didn’t really like someone, you were still writing positive comments. It’s like were a big team and we all want to help each other out.

Me: I paid them to say that.

So cool. The girls were great. I think the coolest part was what we talked about when on the way home. The girls talked about how teachers needed to be open-minded and try new things and they liked it when teachers tried to value the things they did outside of class. I know they were only two of my students, but it was so nice to feel like all of my hunches about what made good teaching were true at least for them. Plus they were so much more credible as experts than I ever could be.

No, the coolest part was when I overheard a teacher say to another teacher “They’re awesome!”

And sure, some of the teachers were resistant, or they felt like they couldn’t do this with their students, or that it must take way too much time, but now that I’m a classroom teacher, my response is simple: Yes it takes time. Yes there are challenges. But it’s worth it to me because I see the difference it makes in my students’ learning. If you feel like you’ve got enough challenges right now, or you don’t think it’s worth the time, don’t do it. I’m just sharing.

So liberating. Seriously. Last year when teachers would push back or come up with excuses I would get really defensive. Now I smile and nod and say, “Then this may not be the right choice for you.” And I can say that because I know what works for me and it’s totally worth it–especially when I hear Superstar Student # 2 say “Wow I think we really rocked that, don’t you?”

Yep. We rocked that.