Is Networked Learning Doomed in Virginia K-12?

classblogsThe Fall semester wrapped up mid-December with my departure for two weeks to visit family in New England, so I never really had the opportunity to reflect on my first use of blogging as a mode for instruction and class communication.  Three grandkids have a way of prioritizing your time!  Now that I have returned to Richmond…and before Spring semester starts, I wanted to think about my Fall class again.

Those who follow me will remember that this fall I had 13 bright Masters students in my ADMS 647 Educational Technology for School Leaders class.  Back in August, I noted that I would have my student blogging into the new academic year, something none of them had done before.  Over the 14 weeks of the class, I had the opportunity to watch each of them evolve and mature as bloggers.  We aggregated their blog posts on our class Google Sites page to facilitate viewing and commenting.  Their first posts were tentative and more like paper essays than real reflections.  Through commenting, they learned from each other and began to add links and then multimedia.  A tipping point occurred when several recorded  personal videos using Jing or YouTube and uploaded them as their blog posts.

I remember that almost all of my students self-reported themselves as technophobes back in August.  That did change.  By December, they reported that they felt confident with using blogs, and more importantly, they were experimenting with new approaches to both blogging and the use of educational technology in their classrooms.  It appeared that they were no longer scared of technology, and in fact felt empowered.  As one of my students said quoting Vicki Davis:

“…I will not be waiting on the fence where technology is concerned. As Vicki Davis had said in the video that I had outlined earlier “we need to stop waiting on SUPERMAN and be SUPERCAN“. I will definitely be looking on what I can do…”

Similar sentiments were expressed by quite a few of my students.  I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this evolution and growth.  I made a point of commenting on each blog each week, and over time, several students began to reciprocate and comment on my blog.  They easily took to commenting on each others posts, primarily since they were already an established community from the summer face-to-face classes.  By the end of the semester, I felt a part of this community, one filled with excitement!

Part of the intent of this class was to expose these future school administrators to the open and public web, with both the opportunities and the threats associated with being a public intellectual.  I was therefore disappointed that with one exception, no one outside the class ever commented on any of my students’ posts.  Over the 14 weeks, these students generated 210 blog posts covering a variety of topics.  Yet, 209 of these posts could have just as easily remained within the walled garden of Blackboard.  Of course, I do not know who outside the class might have read these posts but not commented.  If my blog is any indication, that certainly happened.

I definitely will continue to use blogs as a means of networked learning in future classes I teach.

So if I appeared to develop a class of Web 2.0 explorers, why the grim title to this blog post?  It started with a tweet from my friend Jon Becker last Friday:


That link led to a Daily Press editorial “Texting While Teaching“, which reported that Virginia is developing guidelines that require teachers to only communicate with students through official/professional/school-based channels.  In other words, as I read this – not through social media or open Web 2.0 applications.

There was an associated article Saturday in the Washington Post: “Virginia school officials consider state guidelines to prevent sexual misconduct.”  This article notes that these guidelines are a response to a horrific case of child sexual depredation by former Manassas teacher Kevin Ricks.  The article reported:

“Ricks, 50, a former Osbourn High School teacher, was arrested in February and convicted of sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy who had been a student at the school. A Washington Post investigation, whose findings were published in July, revealed that Ricks had abused boys over three decades and had infiltrated their lives by plying them with gifts, taking them on trips, staying in touch with them via Internet social networking and throwing alcohol-soaked parties.”

Definitely unforgivable.  However, the reaction by the Virginia Board of Education is that all teachers must forgo the use of social media with their students due to the actions by one.  It would be as if after a male drunk driver killed a nun in Virginia back in August, guidelines were established to ban driving by all males in the state.  I am being cynical, but the knee jerk reaction is similar.

Interestingly, the Washington Post website reporting this proposed ban gives you the ability to share this article through Facebook, Twitter, and a host of other social media.

facebook_banIt is also interesting that at the same time these guidelines are being developed, Facebook passed its 500 millionth user.  I watched Lester Holt‘s documentary “The Facebook Obsession” last night on CNBC.  There was an interesting comment towards the end of the show.  Facebook was viewed more as a utility than an application.  One person stated that Facebook is becoming a global infrastructure for communication.

Our children deserve a safe learning environment in school.  At the same time, a role of education is to prepare children for the world they will inhabit…and increasingly, social media is a part of that world.  Guidelines are needed, but flat out bans are the wrong approach.  Rather, a tiered approach is needed to introduce elementary aged children to safe networks, with graduated access as students age, so that high school students understand and are capable of operating in a socially networked world as they reach their teen years.

We have not even reached Facebook’s sixth birthday yet.  Social media and networked learning are still in their infancy.  Yet amazing teachers like Kim Cofino, Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay have shown the potential networked learning affords.  It will take some time to sort through the issues and the rewards.  I find total bans on texting and social networks counterproductive at the very time we are attempting to engage our students in learning with the tools they are already using for informal learning.  We do not ban teen males from driving…we provide driver’s education.  Should we not do the same for social media?

As always, I would be interested in your thoughts.

{Facebook Graphic: Michael Garrett}

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Hope and Purpose

I am sure that I will not be the only one blogging today about President Obama’s Inauguration speechBud Deihl and I walked over to the student commons and watched it with several hundred students and staff.   Our new President crafted a wonderful speech with both hope and purpose in mind, founded on the idea that we are all in this ship of state together.  Looking out over the cheering students, I could not help but reflect not only on the journey, but also on the idea articulated by another young President that indeed, the torch had passed…and that we will be okay as a nation.

I probably will also not be the only one using Wordle today, but I like the way certain words jump out at you from his speech.

As a retired Navy Commander, his call to service for this country really resonated with me.  I was reminded as I listened to Vice President Biden take his oath of office that that particular oath was the same one I swore to as a Navy Ensign.  It is an oath of allegiance to an idea, not a person…something I have always held dear.

As several Twitterers noted, the White House website rolled over to the new administration’s site on time at noon.  It proclaims that change has come to this country.  I was happy to hear the word “digital” in Obama’s speech, and it appears likely that the digital age will be part of that change…and that these changes will impact education.  I see that as positive.

I have not blogged for the past three weeks for a combination of reasons.  Some of it is old habits.  When I was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, January was historically known as “The Dark Ages.”  Old habits die hard.  I was also sick for a week, followed by the hectic nature of a semester start.  The Dark Ages began to thaw this weekend when several of my students remarked in our online class that they were excited and enlightened by the first week’s activities!  I was simply introducing Delicious and Web 2.0 to these school teachers, but I spend so much time immersed in Web 2.0 that I can forget how exciting and refreshing it is to discover it!

So today’s speech seemed to lift those dark feelings off me.  It may still be January, but I am looking forward to this semester and the coming days with a renewed sense of hope and purpose.  I know I have a part to play in education…and I will look for opportunities to serve in other ways as well.

Three words captured the start of our country and three new words capture the direction forward,

We, The People!

Yes We Can!

The speech today merged these two concepts into one unified direction for our country and all of us.  I’m stoked!  🙂

{Photo Credit: Jim Young / Reuters}

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My One Political Post (Maybe…)

It has been interesting (to say the least) to juxtapose the two political conventions with the start of classes.  I must admit that my mind draws some strange parallels sometimes, but I am seeing some interesting parallels between the candidates and my students.

2008 Candidates

I should begin by admitting that while I consider myself an independent, I have voted Republican in every election since John Anderson in 1980, with the exception of 1996, when I voted for Bill Clinton‘s Cabinet more than him.  There was a statistic recently that said military officers were primarily Republican, and I fit that stereotype.  So it is a shock to my family and my friends that I have been a Barack Obama supporter (in name and financially) since early in this contest.

So my viewpoint is not without bias.

My online class consists of 21 K-12 teachers in the Visiting International Faculty program, all from other countries spending three years in this country teaching in our K-12 schools across three states, while simultaneously working on their Masters in Education from VCU.  My class focuses on instructional strategies for using the Internet in K-12 education.  This is my second year with VIF students, and I find them delightful and engaging.  Jeff Nugent and I were discussing our Fall classes today and as with most teachers, we are finding a wide range of knowledge and experiences in our students.

This is the first week in which my students post comments in the Discussion Board, and the comments are falling into two categories – despair and hope.  I have to admit that I hit them right off the bat with Michael Wesch’s The Machine Is Us(ing) Us video, which overwhelmed many of them.  It forced them to confront their lack of knowledge about the web.  Some felt scared, others energized.  Some said “Where Do We Start?” and others said “Jump In!”  My role thus becomes one of reinforcing the positive vibes and rechannelling the negative vibes in a positive direction.

So far, I am seeing similar vibes in the two conventions.  I came away from Barack’s acceptance speech energized and excited by his focus on the future and the positive.  I have not been as energized by Sarah Palins or John McCain’s speeches.  They seem to spend more time highlighting the fears and negatives with little focus on issues of substance.  By McCain’s own admission, he was a hell-raising junior officer until he was shot down.  He should be honored for his service and sacrifice as a POW, but he spends more time looking back than looking forward.

I hope this country channels the positive and mitigates the negative as we move forward.  We have survived Millard Fillmore and Jimmy Carter, we as a country will survive either candidate that wins.  But my vote and my energy will be focused on the candidate that appears to thoughtfully move forward to the future rather than shooting from the hip.

Probably my only political post…I intend to reflect more on what my students are beginning to do.  But I needed to get this off my chest!

For those in America reading this, what ever you do, don’t remain on the sidelines – get involved and make your voice heard!

{Image Credit: farlane}