Why Should We Connect Students?

This article first appeared in Fractus Learning on April 10th, 2013.

Last month was the Vietnam Tech Conference in Ho Chi Minh City. Our school hosted it with another and it brought together over 300 educators from Southeast Asia. I presented on Google Forms, and learned a few other web tools, but I left asking myself: "What blew my hair back?"

It was not actually a workshop or session, but actually a comment made in passing that I've been thinking about in the middle of the night. It was disturbing and said so matter of factly by my co-worker, Robert Appino. What he said was this: "Our middle school students are very active bloggers, but when the go to high school, they stop." Participating high school teachers confirmed this as well.

Why did this bother me so? You don't have to convince me on the power of e-portfolios (whatever their form) to show improvements of student learning over time or to collect artifacts of a school's curriculum as students progress through it. However, Robert's comment highlighted a symptom of the state of digital citizenry: students are blogging only because we tell them to. They only blog for school related topics and after a student publishes a post, teachers consider their work done.

I wake up thinking about this. Some of my students have done some amazing work on their blogs and through other electronic media, and I wonder if they do so because I make it a requirement. As I've started to work more and more with blogs, I asked my students point blank yesterday if any of them felt that anyone was reading their blogs. Overwhelming, they said "no".

A snapshot from our school's youtube page. Most projects have very few views.
The Keillor Effect
I notice this same phenomenon on our school's "Youtube" site. We have thousands of videos but most of them have under 5 views. Since the emphasis has been on content creation, teachers seem to be happy when students publish their work for purposes of grading, but don't do anything with it afterwards. I think we're seeing symptoms of what I call "The Keillor Effect" coined by Garrison Keillor in this quote:

"I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numbers.... The future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $175."

Teaching Students How to Network
One of my classes recently finished up a project on basic two step geometry. Rather than let these projects languish with no views I gave them some tips to Twitter hashtags that they may consider, always sharing to Google + and the pros and cons of sharing to Facebook.

Students upload media but share it to a variety of social media sites to gain readership.

It's amazing how attentive and engaged they were. Usually, with my typical math class, I can tell when students are drifting in and out with yawning faces as not so subtle signs. However, in this case, they were captivated. Many of them confessed to having their own youtube site but not knowing how to get readers and viewers. I'm reminded of Mizuko Ito's work in which she notes that students are increasingly becoming content creators and helping them refine their craft is essential to keeping their interest with this medium. Once they do, their interest takes flight.

Using Media as a Teaching Tool
There are many notable uses of the above. It's a differentiated project where students can choose a problem right at their ability level. As a multi-step problem, there are higher level elements of Blooms taxonomy at work. Students also have a more personalized learning experience rather than "One size fits all" which leads to apathy. Above all these, what really interests me is the ability to use warm ups or even homework as a time to view and give feedback around stems related to mathematical reasoning and nature of science such as:
  1. Note the method of deriving the solution and demonstrate a conceptual under-standing of the derivation by solving similar problems.
  2. Develop generalizations of the results obtained and the strategies used and apply them to new problem situations.
  3. Express the solution clearly and logically by using the appropriate mathematical notation and terms and clear language; support solutions with evidence in both verbal and symbolic work.
  4. Use a variety of methods, such as words, numbers, symbols, charts, graphs, tables, diagrams, and models, to explain mathematical reasoning.  
  5. Communicate scientific procedures, data, and explanations to enable the replication of results. Use computer technology to assist in communicating these results. Critical review is important in the analysis of these results.
Turning Standards into Commenting Prompts
The media is diverse. There are many standards. But how do we translate and amalgamate this into a learning experience? As a warm up in the beginning of class, I took standards and turned them into the following questions:
  1. Could you use the work that this group to solve a similar problem? Give an example.
  2. What problem strategies did this group use when solving this problem. Can you suggest another? 
  3. Did the makers of this video "leave out a step" or go into "too much" detail? Explain. 
  4. Can you suggest a different approach to solving this problem? 
  5. Did this help you learn? Why or why not was this effective or ineffective?
Commenting can be a powerful tool in blended learning environments and provide a record of discussions that are often forgotten.

What Teachers Can do to Foster Connected Classrooms
  1. Consider putting all your students blogs on a blogroll. This makes it easy to access and all blog URLs are in one place. A number of teachers have some great classroom blogs with their blogrolls easily accessible.
  2. Network. See if other teachers are interested in having classes comment on each others work. Communities such as Edmodo or "#edchat" on twitter are great starting places to ask for partnerships. The spring (now) is a good time to start experimenting with networking in order to have a system in place for the next school year. 
  3. Become a blogger or video creator yourself. It's difficult to understand how to help in the digital realm if you have no experience to speak of. You don't necessarily have to blog or create videos on education either. Blog about your hobbies like parenting, running, or diving. Make videos about the things you like to do such as cooking, or how to swing a golf club. You'll grow alongside your students.

Personalizing A Learning Experience
There have been many implications of this work for me as an educator. For starters, I have a greater database of work to help my students learn which makes my life much easier. I can make this media accessible for reviewing later and students quite like looking at the work of their classmates rather than some stranger on a video. In an age of learning through digital citizenry, shouldn't we teach good digital citizenship?

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