Monday, September 29, 2008

If you build it -- they will come -- or will they??

Our parent Ning, has, from the beginning, been a place built by parents for parents. However there is a lot of discussion right now about how schools can utilize the same types of Web 2.0 tools to engage with parents. So I wonder what would happen if the school created a site similar to the community parent Ning and invited parents to join. Would it suffer from the "creepy treehouse" syndrome?? Personally, I think that it might. Ownership, whether of an idea, action or physical space, is a powerful determinant of the investment an individual is willing to make. Parents simply would not invest in a school-owned network the same way they would invest in a parent owned network. And, as I have mentioned, the opposite is true as well. We find ourselves at an impasse.

Or have we?? What if we can each own our individual spaces but passively collaborate to meet the needs of each group?

There have been two key developments, in our situation, that has made this possibility a reality for our community parent Ning. The first, is that the school has begun to publish it's calendar online via Google Calendar. It may not seem like a major development but that simple choice allows the parents to import the "official" school generated calendar into the parent Ning. This has the potential to address one of the Schools major concerns about "misinformation" on the Ning. Now instead of volunteer parents transcribing school events onto our own calendar we avoid any transcription mistakes by using the school's actual calendar. The School can also access any of the parent generated community, club and sport Google calendars that are maintained by parents on the Ning.

The second development is that one of the teachers has started a blog . Through the use of an RSS this can be transported, by parents, to that specific grade group within the Ning. That link to the teacher generated content enriches the environment without the teacher having to actively participate in the space. It maintains a level of separation that is important to school administration at this point.

At one time I bemoaned the fact that the School was unwilling to join us in the Ning. Now I am beginning to wonder if we can each own and control our own space and use threads of collaboration to loosely tie us together. In a way this issue surrounding ownership and collaboration reminds me of "free trade agreements". While we all want to preserve our own space, culture and identity we realize that there are certain commodities that are so valuable and so integral that they should be traded freely. The question then moves from "If we build it will they come?" to "How can we build it so they can be there without coming?"

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Who am I??

What you've done becomes the judge of what you're going to do - especially in other people's minds. When you're traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don't have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road. ~William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

When I first joined Facebook I really had no idea what it was all about. A friend was concerned that her daughter had joined so asked me to go online and see what the site was all about. As my "demographic" had not really caught on to Facebook at that time I did a quick look around and then left. After Facebook patrons moved beyond college and highschool kids, it didn't take long for my friends to start popping up all over the place.

At first it was fun getting in touch with highschool friends and family, then it started to be University friends (who are now my pharmacy colleagues) and people that I have met through the Ed Tech world. The boundaries between my worlds started to blur. Then someone posted a rather horrid "joke" on my wall and a giant spotlight landed on the question of "who am I?" when I am on Facebook. My kids mom? A pharmacist? The girl from highschool? My Nieces/Nephews aunt - my Aunt's/Uncle's niece? My mom's kid (yes even my Mom is on Facebook)? Most importantly what does it say to all of these people to see something so awful posted on my wall?

The answer to that question is a difficult one. The people who know me, and have known me for an extended period of time, would not hold that post (ie Is she really the type of person that would find that funny?) against me because they have knowledge of what I have done in the past and can use it to predict my current behaviour. But what about the people who only know me in the "right there and then" sense? I can't predict how they would percieve seeing such a thing, they have no knowledge of "the yesterdays on the road" to give it context. At best, they'd think that I have poor taste in friends or at worst that I shared that sense of humour. It made me want to create walls around each of the roles that contributes to who I am as a whole.

It was this dilemma that led me to choose Ning to create our Community Parent's Site. It seemed the perfect solution to create a place where there was no question "who you were" in this space. You were a parent -- plain and simple. But it is never that simple, I live in a small town and those roles are not very easy to partition. While someone in the city may go to work, do their shopping, participate in service clubs and have a night on the town without ever crossing paths with another parent (or teacher) from their child's school, it would be impossible for us not to interact with eachother in situations that have nothing to do with our children.

What implications has this had on our "on-line" community. I guess the first has been on the teachers. While they can participate as parents they are discouraged by adminstration to participate as teachers. In a town where school matters might be discussed, with a teacher, in the grocery aisle, in the stands at a hockey game, or even a community dance this "exclusion" has created an awkward dynamic for both parents and teachers. It raises the question -- what makes this online "place" different than any other place we may inhabit? -- but that's another post.

The second, somewhat expected, side effect involves the parents. As most of us grew up in a small town (and most this same small town) we are very used to functioning in a place where one role overlaps with another. This partitioning in a way feels unnatural. For example one teacher asked me to post a community fundraiser on our Parent Ning for her. When I told her the Ning was enabled for anyone to post events she indicated that wasn't the issue -- she felt awkward posting an "adult" event with alcohol involved to a site where everyone was a parent and she was a teacher (even though she is a parent too and most of the parents will attend the event!). The interesting thing was that creating a Facebook event did not cause the same concern. On Facebook she has not been reduced to only a portion of who she is (a teacher) and felt free to function as a whole person.

We have also seen a group, that started on the Ning, create and migrate to a Facebook group. Why? I haven't had a chance to ask but it think it is mainly due to the ease of then integrating that group into what you are already doing on Facebook, you can be everything all in one place.

Part of why I enjoy traveling is that opportunity that is referred to in the opening quote. It is extremely interesting to see how people react to you in the "right there and then", with no preconceived notions of who you are and who you have been. But there is still comfort and utility to be found in the history and "yesterdays on the road" of a small town. So when you set up a specific role-defined online environment such as our Parent Ning in a rural location there is a trade-off -- everyone knows who they are "supposed to be" but it makes it hard to function in the way they are used to -- as a whole person with all roles wrapped into one messy, complicated and fantastic package.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

An uncomfortable country...

“Remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” - Clifton Fadiman

The residents of places like Facebook, Ning and Myspace are very comfortable in their Social Network place. However, as the quote suggests things can be extremely uncomfortable when you first think about or join a social network such as Ning especially if you aren't familiar with the customs and conventions.

Let's say you were planning a beer tasting tour in country XYZ when you heard that burping in public was a punishable offence. I think you would start to change your plans -- I mean how could you possibly guarantee that a burp wouldn't catch you by suprise and land you in the local jail. However, as you research further you realize that you will only be carted off to jail if you don't follow the traditional custom of turning in a circle twice while saying excuse me. Once you understood the customs and conventions of that country you became a little bit more comfortable packing your bags.

Introducing a Social Networking tool such as Ning or Facebook to a community can garner the same sort of reaction. There are so many media stories about the possible perils and consequences of social networking sites that it makes it seem like an extremely risky place to visit, let alone inhabit. As parents began to set up grade-specific groups on our Ning, the school inevitably became involved. The administrator had many of the fears that the media perpetuates and, as his job is to protect the students in his charge, as well as the teachers and staff in his school, he needed to address those issues.

I was able to assure him that this Ning had been set up as a private community, people had to apply to be able to see any of the information that was part of the Ning. Pictures and video have to be approved before they can be posted. Concerns were raised about what may happen if someone said slanderous/unkind things about teachers or other parents on the site, so we instituted a 'proper' use agreement that had to be agreed to upon joining. Any contravention of that "agreement" would result in a member being removed from the site. He was invited to join so that he could see for himself what was being said. The final assurance was that if this site "got out of hand" it only took one keystroke to remove the entire community. Once administration knew there were conventions in place to address the concerns they became a bit more comfortable with how this would all work.

But, just as some people feel so uncomfortable in a foreign land that they will never leave home, some will never be comfortable in a Social Network environment. That is the case right now with most schools. Administrators are not comfortable enough with the conventions that are in place at this point to allow schools to participate in a social network environment. So while our school has not asked us to shut down the site, they have made it clear that there will be no active participation from the school. (Just to clarify -- we never asked for school participation -- but as some parents are teachers the school felt they needed a policy that addressed what "teachers" could contribute to the site).

The fastest growing sector of Facebook right now is in the "over 25" demographic. As parents join these sites and begin to see their utility in connecting and collaborating with others, I think it is inevitable that they will want the school to be a part of that. I guess my advice would be to be patient, and to go slow, especially if social networking is a foreign land. In Michelle Martins blogpost she describes how newcomers face new language, new behaviours and customs, a different sense of history and that horrible feeling of being an absolute beginner. It always helps to have a willing guide, someone who knows the language, customs and behaviours can make an uncomfortable country comfortable and with a little perserverance it may even feel like home.

What's coming up....

I am very fortunate to have been included not once but twice on a great webcast (Parents as Partners) about engaging parents in schools and more importantly in their children's learning. In our latest discussion we started to talk a little bit about using social networking (facebook, ning etc) as a tool for connecting with and engaging parents. I had, quite innocently, started a Ning geared towards the parents in my community but really had no comprehension of the reaction that was to follow. The most suprising revelation for me has been that anyone beyond my community would care what we were doing. As I watched Cindy Seibel research how to create a K-12 Parent Portal and Lorna's excitement about what we were doing, it slowly (and I mean reeally slowly) began to sink in that what we were undertaking was a bit of an experiment. So in the next series of blog posts I'd like to share some of the difficulties, triumphs and random thoughts that have come about in the course of the last 5 months.

But first some background -- I am very new to the school system (my children are 8,5,3).I was searching for a way to be involved with the school and I began thinking that my interest in the internet may be the special skill that I could bring to the table. I suggested that Parent Council should have a website and was entrusted with the mandate to make that happen. When I sat back and thought about what I, as a parent, was hoping to find on a website, I quickly realized that it had very little to do with Parent Council. I wanted a virtual clearinghouse of information on community events, school events, sports schedules, and an opportunity to connect with other parents who were in the same boat as me. All of that seemed too daunting of a task for one person to be in charge of so, after some deliberation, I decided to start a community Parent's Ning instead of pursue a Parent Council website. In the environment of a Ning the whole community could pitch in and maintain the site. No-one owned the site, anyone could contribute to the site, in true Web 2.0 fashion it was us using us to create the content we needed.

It seems simple right?? Straightforward?? Shouldn't be a problem?? Well there has been, and continues to be some interesting and unexpected side effects from the process. As you continue through the next few postings I think it is important that you keep in mind a couple of important facts -- actually just one -- this Ning is in a small community -- pop ~1,200 -- those from a small-town rural setting understand what that means. For the rest I think a small explanation is in order. Our children don't just go to school together, they see eachother in the community, attend the same extracurricular activities, and often have extended family in the school (cousins etc). As parents that means we have a lot of interaction with eachother through the kids but it also means that we work, do community service, and socialize together independent of our connection around the children. The real-world ties are extremely strong so the Ning is merely an extension of those ties. I believe this creates an entirely different dynamic than would be found in a more urban setting. Can our experiences to be transferred to what is esentially a different culture?? I'm not entirely sure -- I hope to find that out via the comments I recieve with this series of posts. So -- here goes nothing.....

Sunday, September 14, 2008

You better be listening to your Ipod!!

Have you ever been utterly lost trying to help your child tackle homework at night? Well if you haven't had the experience yet I can guarantee you it will be coming in the not too distant future. But what if we could turn homework around? What if the lectures were the homework and homework was done at school? Well that is exactly what a couple of innovative teachers at Woodland Park, Colorado are attempting to do.

From a parent's perspective this is an amazing idea. My children haven't hit the "homework nightmare" age but many of my friends are right in the thick of it. They thought their math nightmares were long since gone and now they find themselves up late at night learning "new math" so they can help their child get through whatever problems have been sent home. Now turn that scenario around and the parental responsibility becomes having their child view the lecture and help them formulate a list of points they need clarified. Whew -- now that would be easier -- no need to learn "new math"!!

Kids will benefit as well by having timely help instead of struggling and getting increasingly frustrated at home. Children that have trouble concentrating on a lecture in class may find it easier to comprehend when they can listen/watch in a quiet, distraction free environment. Lessons can be viewed at an individual pace, paused, and replayed for review before an exam. It is a service I know I would have enjoyed when I was student.

It seems the world is continually shifting under our feet. Where once we yelled "Take the ipod off and get doing homework" we may have to change our refrain to "You had better be listening to that Ipod". I think I can make the change -- it beats learning math all over again.

Monday, September 8, 2008

This always happens....

Just when I finish a post my surfing brings me to a resource I could have included. This video is a fabulous kindergarten -- aaahh why can't it last?

Why can't kindergarten last forever?

My son will start kindergarten tomorrow and I am very excited for the year of learning he has ahead of him. It only take's a quick look at the Kindergarten Handbook to see that it is a year of exploration, learning and fun. I'm excited to take the journey with him and watch him explore someplace new.

In my real-world travels I have taken a couple of different approaches to exploring new places. I have been on the package bus tours, I have arrived in a city alone and figured things out from there but for the most part I have existed someplace in between those 2 extremes. My brother or sister was usually living in whatever exotic locale I was visiting and served as my guides. Their role went beyond just showing me the sights. Having them there allowed me to venture off on my own knowing that someone was there to bail me out or point me in the right direction. They gave me the basic information, a sense of security and from there I could explore, take chances and experience places in a way that was relevant to me.

Each time I head off to a new place I'm a little better prepared than I was the time before. I move further and further away from the safe, predictable package bus tour and more towards the independent explorer that I hope to be. I wonder why it is that in schools that we seem to have that process backwards? As kids progress, learning seems to change into something that resembles a 10 European countries in 9 days bus tour. You see a lot of sights, are given a lot of information but it always leaves you feeling a bit cheated. Interesting sites pass by your window but there is never time to stop and explore because the group needs to stay together. Rarely is there an opportunity to interact with the communities in any meaningful sort of way. There is an itinerary to follow and strict time constraints each step of the way.

Kindergarten, on the other hand, seems to be the perfect blend. These tiny explorers are given the opportunity to explore and discover, and take responsibility for selecting and completing a
variety of activities. (from the kindergarten handbook) The class often explores a topic of study that arises out of children’s interests and brings together learning from different areas. (also directly from the handbook) In other words -- the bus makes unscheduled stops depending on the interests of the passengers. Many people from the community contribute to the Kindergarten program.(again a quote from you know where) Sadly as more and more curriculum (stops on the tour bus route) is added to the kindergarten program we are in danger of losing this type of learning.

There are many problems that need to be adressed to change the face of learning. The internet and Web 2.0 are only one piece of the puzzle but I think that used correctly they can play an important part. Never in the history of learning has so much information been so readily available to so many people. But information is such a small part, the connections that we can make with members of our larger, global community are unprecedented. Our students can have access to paleontologists from The Royal Tyrell museum, astronauts from the Canadian Space Agency and so much more. They can communicate in real time with classrooms around the world. They can explore, create, share and play. In other words they can make the magic of kindergarten last forever.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The transition from tourist to traveler...

The theme of my last post was all about vacations and I must have taken that to heart as it has been 3 months since I have posted anything to my blog. Now that's a vacation. I have struggled to determine why my writing so suddenly dropped off and I think there are a number of factors to blame. Warm weather, longer days, vacation and children home from school would be the usual culprits. Those reasons certainly played a part but I think more importantly I had exhausted the path I had originally set out on.
Make no mistake -- there are many destinations left in the world of Web 2.0 and I have visited many of them over the last 3 months. I have found a fantastic Blog from an educator in the United States that alerts me to several great tools a day, participated in a live webcast, harnessed the power of podcasts for my own continuing professional development, created a Ning for the parents of my community, and have even started reading works of classical literature one RSS feed at a time. It has been an amazing journey, but, the question becomes are the stops along the way the really important thing?
Henry Miller said “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” As I have made my way across this new landscape of the internet I have certainly begun to see things differently. Interaction, communication, socialization and education (both my children's and my own) don't look quite the same as they did 6 months ago. Do I like everything I see -- well of course not -- but I see a lot that makes me very excited for all that is now possible.
So I think that I am ready to resurrect my blog. However, I'd like to think that I have made the transition from tourist to traveler. I will no longer be offering bus tours of the best tourist stops on Web 2.0. I offer instead a narrative of what it is like to be a parent traveling in a land where our children are natives and we are foreigners. With that in mind I will leave you to ponder one of my favourite travel quotes that I often mutter to myself when abroad .....

“Remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” - Clifton Fadiman