July 19, 2007

Angela McFarlane @ BLC07: Why do we build communities?

Angela_mcfarlane Angela McFarlane sets out some of the conclusions from the two talks I was working yesterday, but adds some wonderfully more eloquent background to them, breaking down some of the rhetoric, those myths, of the Knowledge Society: that we are set up to have a disappointing 30 years of technology use in the classroom if the last 30 years are anything to go by, that the teacher is the most important person in defining the way children use technology but also the one most likely to get in the way of it, too.

If our learning ideal involves a degree of content to talk about, some media context to produce one's thoughts (and maybe share or publish them), then we often forget about the pedagogical framework that supports all this. Yesterday, at the closing session, we saw that barely a fifth of the BLC07 community felt that their institution had such a framework for student-led learning.

And pedagogical frameworks are vital.

While kids may say that they know what they are doing with technology, and many educators are guilty of believing this, too, the truth is that while the clicks and drags are there, our students have little understanding of how to learn from their games, their blogs, their online work. They need a teacher so that they can learn, and they should want to learn to actually get through their game, their project or get the most out of their online community.

Fan production
There are a huge number of sites that help fans write about their favourite fiction, or even create new fiction based on their favourite books; Will showed this one on Tuesday. The developments in the web of late have meant that more and more people are not just able to write, but get more enthusiastic readership than they ever could have had. Such adoring public and glowing comments mean that some have gone from writing "What happened next" to writing whole new novels.

In China, kids and young adults are typically writing over 10,000 word novels over a period of about a year, in chapters, in the form of a Wuxia, a type of writing that celebrates the martial art and Chinese cultural history of their past. "God help them if they're late", says Angela. Why? Because if they miss a chapter posting then their comments will start to ask where it is - they don't just have a public, they have an active public. Negative comments in these communities are stamped out by others (is this always a good thing? what about two stars and a wish [reference link here]?); they are, however, constructive rather than congratulatory, so maybe it's one and the same thing.

The ethics of remix and learn
If graphics are included they are often taken, adapted, photoshopped, remixed and republished. In the example Angela has shown a debate ensued about the ethics of doing this, turning one person's manga from a black and white version into a lurid purple one. In the end, one finished by giving a tutorial on Photoshop to resolve the issue and empower the original artist to create better artwork themselves.

Communities of learning
Plant defines an online community as a collective group of entities, individuals or organisations that come together either temporarily or permanently through an electronic medium to interact in a common problem or interest space. There's a really nice example of some real community through blogging from the San Diego State University students of ICT and learning.

We tend to see good uses of communities where people are

  • reusing assets: "I have a good article on... I'll send it to you".
  • discussing developments: "What do you think of... Does it really help you?"
  • making contacts: "Can we come and see...?"

I think eduBuzz.org has helped create not just this, but far more in terms of explicit reflection that wasn't there before. I'm wondering whether reflection is, in fact, a personal, private thing rather than a community issue, since often the community at large may not choose to be 'interested' in what you have to say. Take live blog posts, for example, written for the author more than the audience.

Firefoxscreensnapz001 The biggest problem of online communities, and we've seen this, too, in East Lothian and eduBuzz.org, is that novices in particular find it hard to filter information. Angela says that the problem is one students have, but so many of our teachers and managers also have trouble filtering

  • what is important,
  • what is of interest and might be important,
  • what is of interest but might be a waste of time, and
  • what is of no interest at all, personal or professional.

Teachers and students are guilty of not knowing how to question the authority of an information source, other than to say blogs must be relatively poor quality and the BBC must be of relatively high quality (both, of course, had had their moments).

And again, not just students but for many teachers, too, it is not cool to have an extensive vocabulary to express oneself. We see a resistance in students to use words to say how they are feeling beyond 'good', 'bad' and fine (and I'd be advocating the use of sites like We feel fine to both educate our students and help counter this claim to some extent), and we also see resistance from some teachers to use a more extensive vocabulary to think about teaching and learning.

Finally, both teachers and students, because we over test, tend to not want to do anything that doesn't fit into the test. We cut and paste without engaging with material, we can take tests but cannot learn.

There are many things Angela has put into the role of the teacher there, but so much of what we need to do for and with students actually remains to be learnt for and by teachers.

Update: You can listen to the whole of Angela's talk over at Bob Sprankle's Bit By Bit podcast.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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