I woke up to a wonderful surprise on Monday morning. The icy cold rain that had been pounding on my roof when I went to bed at midnight, had magically transformed the scene outside my window into a winter wonderland when I awoke the next morning. It reminded me of the gingerbread houses I used to make each Christmas with my sisters. We would always get carried away at the end and coat the entire thing with an overly generous helping of icing. My car was so buried under snow that it was just a blob of frosting, next to similar looking blobs of white. The roads were still unplowed and I couldn’t see any footprints where the sidewalk must be. A big smile spread across my face and I got as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. The lure of all this beautiful whiteness was too strong - I decided to bundle up and walk the two blocks to the bakery for my morning tea and a treat. I tromped through the snow, and was shocked to see that when I reached the main street, the population of Jasper had grown overnight from 3,000 inhabitants to 3,007. There, on the main corners and spread strategically up the street were 7 round, gigantic, happy looking snowman with benevolent smiles made out of pinecones. I looked up and down the block. It was devoid of any other people…or elk. It was just me and the snowmen! I grinned for a second time that morning. I was alone in my magical winter wonderland, but I also had some wonderful company to enjoy the brisk, sunny morning.
I keep thinking back on that particular morning, as I reflect this week on what my semester has been like, and it seems to be a fitting image. I made some big changes in my life this fall. Most notably, was taking a leave of absence from teaching and moving 2, 000 km away from my friends and community to reside in a remote town in Northern Alberta. The change in pace and lifestyle has been quite dramatic. Instead of spending each day with hundreds of fun, lively, and NOISY, teenagers, I have been working in my quiet kitchen each day with my computer set up in front of the window that looks out onto Whistlers Mountain. I was unsure of what learning in an online environment would be like and anticipated that this year was going to be quite lonely for me. In some ways it has been – but not quite like I expected. I found that my peers were not unlike the cute snowmen that popped up unexpectedly. I found that through building an online, personal learning network, I am able to make connections with people who have similar interests and topics that they want to learn about. As Will Richardson pointed out in an interview, “it no longer matters where we are in physical space. What matters is that we can find and connect in some way and begin conversations about thing we really want to learn about.” (YouTube). Essentially, we create our own spaces and learning environments and find our own ‘teachers’ to engage in conversations with that involve the topics that we are interested in and passionate about. I have found this to be particularly true this year, and my learning has become much more individualized, relying on the articles and blogs I choose to read and the contacts I have made through online discussions. I must say that at the beginning of this course, it was quite intimidating not to have an instructor giving step-by-step instructions on how to utilize the tools, or a list of articles to use for our research. We did however, have two excellent books as resources and the trailfires that Joanne provided for each new Web tool to get us started were invaluable! For me, this course really did exemplify self-guided, inquiry based learning. Looking back, I feel like I fumbled my way around for a bit, mainly using the online library at U of A to access most of my articles. However, as the concept of a PLN became much clearer, I started to use and reference more current articles and blogs that were having existing relevant conversations on our chosen topics and tools.
It was also a bit intimidating to just “jump” right into the course and start “playing” with the tools to learn about them. Although I do have a tendency to be the kind of person who ignores the instruction booklet and tries to assemble their item instantaneously, I also am the type of person who gets frustrated easily, and doesn’t find technology intuitive. (I usually end up searching grudgingly through the mess to find the instruction booklet.) Will Richardson acknowledges in his book that there is a wide gap between teachers that were not surrounded by technology growing up and their students who have been born digital natives. I anticipated that I was likely going to ‘screw up’ multiple times with the Web 2.0 tools we were being asked to experiment with, and I was pleasantly surprised that it went much smoother than I expected. (Whew!) Which goes to support Richardson’s claim that the tools we’ve learned about in this course have a good chance of closing this gap because “they are relatively easy for anyone to employ in the classroom” (Richardson, p 7.) So how am I going to apply what I’ve learned? Well the first step for me is to remember the few frustrations that I did encounter (why can I not find my podcast in my online archives anymore?) and empathize with my own students and colleagues as they go through their own learning process with the tools I introduce them to. These moments of frustration, that can sometimes be all too time consuming, may also be a critical point for teachers new to these tools as to whether or not they will continue to use them in their classrooms. It is incredibly important for me to remember the supportive and helpful role that my own classmates and online community played when I asked or looked for advice and his is a role I will need to embrace when helping my colleagues that are trying to incorporate technology into their classrooms.
The amount of information that I’ve learned in a mere few months is quite surprising to me. When I look back to September, the only Web 2.0 tools that I’d used previously were the social networking tools Facebook and Twitter. One was very successful for me and the other was not initially. I feel both happy and proud that I’ve at least learned the basics of these Web 2.0 tools and feel relatively comfortable instructing my colleagues on how to use them. The personal highlights of this course were playing with the tools Animoto, Voicethread and Picassa because all three have helped me to organize my photos and find fun ways to archive them so that they will not be lost, should my computer crash and burn like it did last winter. The other personal highlight was being able to organize and simplify all my bookmarks, websites and research methods by utilizing social bookmarking and my RSS reader. I am amazed at how much more efficient I am now, and it feels great to accomplish more each day in a shorter amount of time. However, I did find the pace of this course to be quite challenging, especially while taking other courses. The last 14 weeks have gone by incredibly fast. As soon as I felt I’d learned the basics of one new ‘tool’, it was time to start learning about another. I do wish that I’d had a bit more time to just ‘play’ with each tool, but on the other hand, it did give us a realistic view of how our own students will view and cope with the ‘information overload’ that the internet can sometimes bring on.
I am incredibly thankful to my classmates for the invigorating conversations that we had in our online discussions. All of them brought such unique and interesting viewpoints with them and raised some very fascinating questions as well. The range of topics that we covered was far greater than the initial five questions we had to answer and I was sometimes surprised by where they would sometimes meander. Katherine, I particularly appreciated you playing ‘devil’s advocate’ in these discussions, keeping them lively and motivating us to push the boundaries further. Bruce, your wealth of knowledge and timely insights were also valued greatly. Corey, your sense of humour always shone through and I knew that when your name popped up on the discussion board, a smile was sure to follow. Pam, your warmth, sincerity and support was also evident and well respected. It was also interesting to follow your blogs and read the different perspectives that everyone had on the same topics. It was neat to see how much everyone’s personalities have shown through in their blogs, despite the fact that we all felt we were struggling to find our own personal ‘voices’ throughout the semester. Your blogs have shown me how effective this type of writing can be at “facilitating reflection and metacognitive analysis” and developing “connective writing” skills that Will Richardson emphasizes all students should be able to do to be successful in the future (p. 27 & 28). It is through reading your blogs and the online discussions we’ve had, that I feel I have learned and progressed the most. You have all pushed me to consider how to keep students (and ourselves) safe in an online format. The importance of being critical of reliability, credibility and authenticity of the sources we read has also been emphasized for me. Most importantly, these postings and discussions have reminded me to be mindful of how personal relationships are built and maintained online and how this affects our communication skills both online and in person. Thank you all.
Where do I go from here? Since it is going to be quite some time before I am back in the classroom and library, I feel my journey is still a personal one. I plan on using this blog to continue to find and build my own ‘community’ and Personal Learning Network over the next few months. However, I am already excited at the prospect of introducing my students and colleagues to the some of the new Web 2.0 tools that will help create collaborative learning opportunities. I saw this video called “A Vision of K-12 Students Today” (Nesbitt) early on in the semester, and it is one that I have kept thinking about throughout the semester. How can I use the new tools that I’ve learned about to give the students I teach today the social learning and communication skills they want and are going to need in the future?
One of the first things I will be doing in my science classroom when I return to teaching is creating a class blog to replace my old webpage. Currently I have photos, class notes, homework assignments, marks and missing tasks sheets, study guides for chapter tests and the provincial exam as well as links to sites which complement the curriculum. However, every time I want to make a change to my webpage the tech teacher has to upload my changes for me, as he has control over the school website. It is a frustrating and sometimes very slow process. Creating and maintaining my own blog has shown me how simple and effective it could be to create my own class portal. I would include the same information that I always have, but now would have the ability to communicate information about the class more easily and also archive course materials. If I set up an RSS feed, it could also notify parents and students when new information about the class is posted. Giving students a chance to create their own weblog is also something I would like to try. Having an “online filing cabinet” as Will Richardson calls it ensures that students work is always organized in once place and never gets misplaced (p. 22). This also gives students the ability to look back and reflect at what they’ve learned over the course of a semester, and also gives their peers and teacher the ability to give feedback on their work (Richardson). Having their own blogs also allows students the ability to create spaces where they can collaborate with others online, not only with their classmates, but with the rest of the world as well.
In the library, I would also like to create a blog that would help promote some of the special events and programs that are being offered. The blog could also be used to increase communication with the students by posting new book reviews or award lists or by creating a book discussion area to make recommendations to other readers (Fichter). Having an RSS feed could also be helpful to highlight new materials and provide community information. I also look forward to teaching students the benefits of using RSS aggregates for information retrieval when researching topics and how easily they can share it with their classmates, either by sharing in their readers or using a social bookmarking tool like Del.icio.us.
These are just some of the many ideas that I have spinning around inside my head like the snowflakes swirling about outside my window. What I have learned most of all through this course is that once shown the many ways that we can improve teaching and learning by using technology in a social, collaborative fashion, we can never look at our students the same way. Like snowflakes they are each unique, and they will build their own social learning networks, with or without our help. I think we have a responsibility to teach them how to do this safely and knowledgeably. As for my own personal learning network, I can only hope that it continues to grow and flourish, long after the snowmen have melted.
Fichter, Darlene. (Nov/Dec 2003). Why and How to Use Blogs to Promote Your Library’s Services. Marketing Library Services. Retrieved from: http://www.infotoday.com/mls/nov03/fichter.shtml Nesbitt, B.J. (November 28, 2007). A Vision of K-12 Students Today. YouTube. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_A-ZVCjfWf8&feature=related
Richardson, Will. (2009). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press