Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Balance Beam

Picture 3

My mind is doing mental gymnastics as I consider the many ideas and concepts I’ve read and discussed over the last few weeks. I’m trying to stay on my virtual balance beam and not get lost in cyberspace.

My on-line learning journey has been bumpy so far. When I blog or tweet I seem comfortable and grounded – I can interact and think at my own pace. However, when I dive in head first, in Elluminate, for instance, I’m treading water and looking for land most of the time. I’m catching bits and pieces of information, and I feel unable to interact as meaningfully as I would like. When I do have ideas to share or questions to ask it seems that the moment has passed by in a flash and my ideas are already yesterday’s news. I contribute to the back channel from time to time, but mostly I’m trying to follow the audio, visuals, and text. I still haven’t decided how I feel about an extraordinarily large class mostly because I really like connecting with learners and educators from all over the globe. But, the cost of this seems to be not getting to know other students very well. I would like to be able to read every entry of everyone’s blog (here I can’t help wonder, does anybody read mine?), and I would like to be able re-watch Elluminate sessions, but there simply aren’t the hours in the day. Multi-tasking isn’t the issue as I’m a mom, high school teacher (with over 200 students this year), and a graduate student currently taking 2 different courses at 2 different universities – one f2f and one on-line. I realize as a high school teacher that I am challenged to design lessons that include all learners and consider different learning styles. I’m not sure if I understand how this plays out in the on-line environment. Are there are a range of virtual classroom styles and what might they look like?

Another type of balance beam I walk every day is that of an educator (and learner) in both formal and non-formal learning situations. One explanation of formal, non-formal, and informal education I discovered was in an article by Alan Rogers. He writes “When we step into a pre-existing learning programme but mould it to our own circumstances, we are engaged in non-formal education.  When we surrender our autonomy and join a programme and accept its externally imposed discipline,  we are immersed in formal education.” Informal education occurs when we control our own purposeful learning and individualize it, we learn what we want for as long as we want and stop when we want.

I feel extraordinarily fortunate as a teacher of elective courses in media and creative arts that I tend to lean to the non-formal to informal end of the spectrum. Most of my students arrive open to new ideas and (usually) they expect to take responsibility for both their processes and products of creation.  I am very aware that I mustn’t muck this up by getting in the way. It is not unusual for my students to challenge the typical conventions and structure of public schools precisely because they are searching for better possibilities for their learning. I have the luxury of teaching subjects that allow for this rethinking to occur. Interestingly, Alan Rogers example of formal education is a chemistry class (which has clear and necessary outcomes) versus a non-formal creative writing class which is not as clearly defined until the class and teacher meet (and even then it remains flexible). My role is to teach a broad range of foundational skills, facilitate and question my students’ creative choices, guide them to places they might not have known, encourage them to learn from each other, listen to them, and, ultimately, learn with them.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Raphael Goetter

The Back Channel and the Buzz

cc licensed flickr photo shared by saaam

I have been struggling with a vision of what the ‘back channel’ means for educators. Specifically, it got me thinking about my high school classes (all but one are f2f), and how the concept plays out in reality. To simply describe it as electronic note passing during class is very limiting, while saying it represents the voice of the silent majority seems an overstatement. As a learner, I found myself in agreement with Michael Wesch who argues that it is not a tool for every situation, and, further, that it is a myth that 21st century learners are somehow amazing multi-taskers (I believe that some are and some are not). Wesch goes on to say that in lessons where one focus is needed it might not be the best tool, but in classes with a broader range of ideas on the table it has a place. To enhance this, breakout discussion groups can be created.

So what does all of this mean for creating community in my classroom (whether virtual or not) since the lines are blurring quickly as my high school students use media to connect all the time? As Richard Schwier aptly states “The urge to control and shape the learning environment has to give way to a stronger urge to encourage learners to explore, connect, shape, and find their own learning paths.” I’ve always strongly believed this, but it was my students who gave me a lesson on how it actually works.

I’m big fan of what I call the ‘buzz’. Let me explain.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by mickeymox

I love it when my students talk about what’s going on in my class (and I really mean their class) because they want to and not because they have to – this ‘buzz’ is when they have questions and ideas and comments that they want to share. These instances might happen as part of the entire f2f class community, or just as likely they might be quieter asides during class, text messages, Facebook postings or hallway or home chatter. I have become increasingly aware of listening to this murmur, because it seemed to me that much of the truly authentic learning was happening there. Nowhere did this become more apparent than with the Creative Writing class I’ve taught the last 5 years. I first got wind that something was up when my students seemed to be having discussions about writing that had clearly extended beyond the confines of the classroom, and yet were totally on target with what we were studying in class. I was the one that felt out of the loop, but sensed this was might be okay. My eyes were opened even wider when summer holidays arrived and a group of my writing students informed me they intended to keep meeting. I naturally assumed they meant in person, and it turned out I was partially correct, but I was still missing one crucial piece of information. I asked them some questions about how this came about and this is where I discovered the missing puzzle piece. They had created a Facebook group. They had been using this social media site for most of the past year and indeed had their own version of  back channel discussions going about our class. I felt humbled that they had been able to improve and transcend the traditional classroom. Could this have happened without some type of social media and web environment – I don’t think so. I love that I had nothing to do with the creation of this group, instead, my students (as a learning community) felt they needed it and so they created it.  I love that it allows my ex-students to mentor my current students as they interact in this virtual space. I’m hoping to introduce Twitter to my Creative Writing class this year – any suggestions or ideas on implementing this are welcome. I know they’ll have no trouble figuring out the mechanics of Twitter, but I’m not sure how (or why) to facilitate tweets specific to this area. However, I expect once my students figure it out they’ll be teaching us.



cc licensed flickr photo shared by khalid almasoud

In the book Educating the Net Generation (2005), Malcolm Brown challenges us to consider learning spaces as encompassing “the full range of places in which learning occurs, from real to virtual, from classroom to chat room.” Having dabbled in a variety of web-based learning opportunities I found it both challenging and exciting to finally be able to break out of the traditional school classroom and enter a new learning space.

Seeking a calm virtual space to contemplate my first Elluminate session in EC&I 831, a University of Regina grad class taught by Alec Couros, I came across this beautiful image and sat down on the virtual bench to think. It occurred to me that much of what I focused on during class consisted of the nuts and bolts of the technology and tools. While technology was the obvious focus, I realized that what really intrigued me were the people. I felt a little like my Grade 10s on their first day in high school. I hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself and I hoped that I would make a good first impression. And, just like that Grade 10 class where some students seemed more comfortable, others preferred to observe their surroundings first. For the record, I was somewhere in the middle – both quietly watching, but occasionally trying out my on-line persona and voice. While it wasn’t a familiar experience it did become a little less awkward. I became aware that the very structure of what I was “doing” (or constructing) mirrored much of what I was studying.

When the session ended, I was surprised how tired I was after 90 minutes in Elluminate. I realized I had been “hyper concentrating” and had been worried that I would miss something if I didn’t pay 110% attention or that I might click on something unintentionally. Hopefully I can relax as I get acclimatized to the nature of a virtual class. I would be interested if anyone else has experienced this same intensity of concentration(?).

I really enjoyed meeting my classmates from many different locales and want to get to know them better. I definitely want to get a better sense of who teaches what where. (Note to self: check out a map of Saskatchewan ). I admit I missed the subtle glances and unspoken messages of a traditional classroom, but it’s highly unlikely I would have met many of the participants in this class otherwise.

Expanding the definition of learning spaces has allowed me to experience new insights and face new challenges. That’s a good thing.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by kiwêhowin.