BYO Networks

As part of the public school system here in South Australia, I have access to numerous resources and tools that help to measure my capabilities as an effective educator as well as provide essential data for possible future initiatives and directions. One tool that I've recently used is called EdCap (the Cap being short for Capability) which is a thorough survey tool that gets teachers to rate themselves in various facets of elearning and the embedding of ICT into their classroom practice. Of course, Edcap reveals as much about my department's priorities as it does about any educator's skills and attitudes level. There are 35 questions divided into ten sections which give the participant a "grade" into ore of four segments on a continuum. I finished up my Edcap survey the other day and one section that stood out in my mind was in relation to my participation in online learning. There were ten statements that I had to rate on a gradient of five starting from Never to More Than Weekly. I couldn't help but think about blogging when I came to the final statement - I engage with my peers in on-line communities.

And the reason that this statement seems to be an important one to me is because of the whole idea of communities online which could and does take many shapes and forms. For me, it's the process of blogging that has connected me with the most amazing array of educators worldwide and it's still the process that is most powerful in providing new and relevant leaning for me. It's become really important for me to tune into voices that I've come to value and respect, that challenge and redirect my own point of view. I keep adding new voices to my Google Reader and I have some of the other network tools to blame for that. I'll follow someone on Twitter and they'll post a link to their latest blog post - I'll go and read it and wonder to myself why I'm not subscribed to their blog and bang! Another node on my network.

A recent voice that I've really enjoyed is Clay Burell (I've been aware of his work for a while but hadn't really crossed virtual paths before) and his recent post that pitted blogging against newer forms of online community like Ning fits right into this exploration. Clay says:

Before you read it, don't get me wrong. I think Ning is a great thing - but, at the risk of sounding like a prig and a purist, I don't think it's in the same ballpark as open blogging. And I worry that teachers who mistake these walled blogs (or social blogworks?) for "open range" blogging will never learn the crucial role that Technorati, tagging, hyperlinking, and such play as the "ligaments" of the connectivity that is real blogging. And thus never be able to introduce their students to that experience.

I find that Ning is a bit of a walled garden, a captive audience drawn together on a common theme and it is a very useful tool, providing an online community starting point for those educators new (and sometimes experienced) to the interactive online world. It's a pre-packaged way to link up and network with others - it provides so much in one spot that it's tempting not to go any further or look at other possibilities. Even allowing for the fact that some of these Ning sites have large numbers of members (Classroom 2.0 has over 3000 members) you are effectively limiting your network by seeing this as the solution to your online learning community needs. Where Clay is alluding is that there is more power, more control in the practice of blogging where you actually become the architect of your own learning network, creating your own unique learning community. It's been argued before that it takes time to build up your audience and gain meaningful feedback via comments but I have found that taking that path reaps a lot of unexpected rewards.

Using other network tools can help fast track newcomers and get them noticed quicker than a couple of years ago. An example of this is when Darren Draper's video "Are You Paying Attention?" went viral and edubloggers wanted to know where this innovative thinker's online home was. His blog, Drape's Takes was born out of that particular avenue. Another blogger who caught my notice earlier this year was Kevin Sandridge who used twitter cleverly to add key people as his friends and in a short amount of time gather valuable attention to his blogging. He also worked out the power of Skype as well and leveraged that by seeking out voices he wanted to interact with to participate in conversations and quickly built a network that may have taken much longer even twelve months ago.

So, I would hope that if we think that giving our students the skills to sort through the information overload and become meaningful contributors to the world is important that we don't model the easy option to them and have just "joining a community" as our way of engaging with the network.  If you read and reflect , you want your ideas as open to as many people as possible.

Although I'm not much of a handyman (my wife will vouch for that!), there is a great deal of satisfaction in creating something for yourself as opposed to having it provided for you with all of the amenities provided. Building your own network from blog posts and comments, twitter connections, wiki connections, skype name exchanges in chatcasts means you have personal investment in what you have constructed. As cool as Ning is, I could abandon it tomorrow without a second thought. I couldn't do that to my own online presence - I have built up so much collegiality with people worldwide, invested too many hours in my own writing and resources and gatecrashed too many Skype chats and other impromptu sessions or webcasts to turn back now.

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13 thoughts on “BYO Networks

  1. Sue Waters

    I have written this comment on Clay’s post so will add it here and then expand my thoughts:

    Interesting thoughts on Ning and I have to say until I saw this community modeled effectively I was never that fussed.

    Last week I had to run an 1 hour online session on Video in Elearning for the Australian Flexible Learning Framework. I had to target it at beginners but was asked to make it interactive. Tough requests considering it was all online using Elluminate.

    So I decided to set up a Ning community so that participants could discuss the topics before and after the session plus use it for practicing embedding videos. You can check out more about the session and how it went here.

    What I found was that participants are slowly starting to use Ning. I have a much greater understanding of who they are and what assistance I can provide them compared to what I and they would have gained from a 1 hour online presentation. If all this interaction was based only on my blog I would not have achieved the same outcome.

    Most of these participants are not using Feed Readers and do not know what RSS is. So to see that several individuals are achieving what they see as first is for me the greatest reward and the Ning community gives me the ability to gradually increase their skills (those that want to) to get them to the point where they can be moved out into other parts of Web 2.0.

    I suggest you check out my page at etools and tips for educators to see what the participants are saying.

    Now for my extra thoughts;
    For me the Ning community is not about doing less of anything but about doing more…. As you rightfully said there are so many great conversations that can happen in these types of communities that can be lost — so I plan to use what I gain on my blog. With my aim being to help others I have to accept that my blog is just one of my tools in my toolbox and Ning gives me another tool which less tech savy people fell more comfortable with.


  2. cburell

    Your post – and Sue’s comment on both of our posts – extended my thinking and enlarged my network (I’ll be checking out your links to Darren and Keving shortly!). And it all happened through Technorati.

    And that sort of underlines what I think we’re both trying to get at, without at all disagreeing with Sue’s point that Ning is clearly powerful. It underlines that the whole blogosphere produces pathways in a different way than Ning does. Again, both have their uses and relative strengths (Ning’s media players are incredible, for example, and I embed them in my blog posts on Blogger, though I wonder how easy that is on WordPress – have you tried?).

    One distinction seems safe – Ning’s population seems comprised more of newcomers, and it would be interesting to track how often they peer over the walls, and how often and soon they establish their own blogs, their own connections through non-Ning RSS feeds, etc.

    Again, I don’t think we’re disagreeing with Sue. I’d even hazard the guess that’s Sue’s ultimate goal is for her Ning members to go “open range” once they’re in deep enough.

    Tribes v. Nomads comes to mind, I’m not sure how fairly or validly.

    And your point about the pleasures of creating your own unique fingerprint in this world is the one that really seems possible only in the open range.

    I’m glad we’ve connected, by the way. It’s been instructive and, as importantly, good for some chuckles 🙂

  3. Al Upton

    great post and comments

    … something I’d like to know and seek – As educators and leaders what are the implications for the kids and adults we educate and lead? What is the reality? At a local level … the kids in our classes – rich ongoing online learning … the teachers in our staff rooms – rich ongoing online learning that is reflected in their students’ learning. Perhaps not so much ‘ongoing’ but ‘what’s going on’?

    If the ‘unique fingerprint’ you create in open (range) social networks isn’t reflected in your students’ and peers’ learning (and online presence) then are your efforts merely self serving … no matter how valuable, wonderful, shared and serendipitous the efforts and rewards are?

    My guess is that the vast majority of educators in South Australia are not likely to tick ‘I engage with my peers in on-line communities’ … I’d like to be proven wrong. I’ve blogged, ninged, facebooked, tweeted, emailed, technoratied and RSSed etc to various degrees – and continue to do so. Quite interesting, great for personal and professional development, often inspirational and enjoyable but mostly not getting my peers closer to engaging with their peers in online communities. I’m not in a formal role that asks this of me. But for those who are … Are you meeting or neglecting your work detail in this regard?

    [My class blog and the kids’ individual blogs (although often a struggle with the basic aim to provide an initial exposure to online networks … 8 and 9 year olds) is my attempt as a teacher in an open sense. Our explorations of Quest Atlantis – a MUVE … a bit like SL but with built in learning quests and missions for 9-12yo is my attempt in a virtual 3D game like learning environment … in a walled garden sense :]

    Graham your grass roots PD day recently confirms you are addressing the issue with your peers as a co-ordinator. Could they now tick ‘I engage with my peers in on-line communities’? Are they expected to? If so (and it’s in Edcap) when are they expected to? Yes it’s a departmental priority and quite an exciting, valid and rewarding one. But how realistic is it? Open social networking is also very exciting and valid and rewarding. But how realistic is that? Especially when after a 20 hour course on Learning with the Internet (or similar course) many participants are most excited by ‘Ctrl C’ (or V or maybe even K!) or ‘Alt Tab’ or something easily grasped for ‘tomorrows lesson.’ Especially when efforts to develop blogging networks (my own attempts) are constrained by leaders’ inability to forward an email when that’s initially all that is asked of them! How realistic is it to get a majority of teachers to the point where they can type “I’ve invested too many hours in my own writing and resources and gatecrashed too many Skype chats and other impromptu sessions or webcasts to turn back now.” 🙂 We all know that there are a huge number of hours demanded by effective open social networking. And please let’s not start kidding ourselves on this one! Let’s also acknowledge that there should be no expectation from us on our peers to show this same commitment. I wished I’d timed how long it takes to write this one comment!

    I believe anything that actually gets people to dip their toes into online communities should be embraced and celebrated. Successes should be the reason for shout outs and sharing. Ning for so many is dipping the toes in. How wonderful. Where are the open social networks of teachers and students in (for example) the ranks of South Australian schools? Too many questions, not enough solutions but there is no place for purist or even to suggest that there can be such a thing as a purist (or right) way.

    How can we best encourage our peers to be in a position to tick ‘I engage with my peers in on-line communities’?
    I think that’s more the question.

    And what do we want to model to our students?

    Celebrating diversity means celebrating the variety of opportunities.

    Not – I’ve built a really beaut and big shed that everyone wants to visit (and I visit theirs) … why don’t others do the same? So often this is where I want to direct my efforts and ignore the fact that the lawn needs mowing and the garden needs nurturing.

  4. cburell

    Interesting psychologizing of bloggers there, Al, though less generous and perspectivistic than it could be at times.

    I agree with your main point: is it evidenced in classrooms? I just messaged my AP Literature Ning asking if I could switch it to “public” to let the world in, because the discussions there are so valuable. But the very desire behind that was motivated by the knowledge – through practicing this avocation out of motivations not limited to the joys, I grant your point, of being social and creative – that those Ning discussions would be that much richer if they weren’t walled.

    My goal is this, if forced to simplify: to empower these students to not be students in a virtual classroom, but learners in the virtual universe. And that’s a large part of what motivates me to keep exploring it (again, while unapologetically enjoying that creativity and connectedness and, let’s not forget, learning). It’s growing exponentially, and I know I can’t keep up. But not to try would mean less to invite my students to explore.

    Simpler: show them what they can do as free people, not as prescribed students. But then, I hate school.

    On a conciliatory note, though, I just tweeted this to my “friends” :

    Are we inviting our students to become (confession time) read-write web addicts like myself/ourselves? Maybe marriage will cure it!

    –so yes, that grass is high. (Good thing I live in an apartment.)

  5. dswaters

    Well I think that Ning only works if it is used effectively — if you check some ning communities things are happening and others things aren’t.

    And yet I can disagree with the safe distinction — Ning communities are not always comprised of more newcomers. I am part of Better Blog community (– which is made up of quite a few very experienced bloggers and you could not say that they are hidden away not looking out of the walls. Instead they are coming together in one central point, exchanging ideas and taking these ideas to improve how they have conversations on their blogs.

    Sue’s ultimate goal is to provide mechanisms to help others in buying into e-learning. What I find is that individuals are individuals — some prefer to learn from my podcast site, others prefer my blog, yet others prefer my wiki and the Ning brings them together.

    The aim of my ning community was to have what I did more than just a 1 hr online presentation — something that actually achieved some impact — and made people start to use what they gained from my session. For once I can say that did happen.


  6. cburell

    Sue, I don’t know why it feels like toes are being stepped on. Maybe I’m too tired to communicate when I try to qualify my statements that Ning seems “more” comprised of newcomers – I tried to convey that not all of them were with that word.

    And I guess I’m guilty of projecting my own goals for webteaching – staff or students – on you. My goals are to make them not need to learn from me, but to get out there and find their own pathways. They’ve got different interests, and would probably enjoy the thrill of forging new connections freely, through their own initiative and a dash of serendipity.

    But again – I see online learning as being the opposite, in my ideal, of schools: self-directed, no teachers, no students. In a strange way, I see myself (to borrow Graham’s pet automotive analogy) as a driving instructor. I want them to get their license and hit the roads.

    Peace to all in this short and lovely life.

  7. dswaters

    Actually Clay you have not stepped on any toes and apologies if I have stepped on your toes. I think both you and Graham have written great posts and we should question our use of how we use what we use and why.

    ROFL with the analogy of the driving instructor I use that every time I do f2f PD sessions with staff. The problem I have is like you I would like them to be able to and want to do their own learning but the people I facilitate PD with are not at that point. They are still on their first lesson with their parents where you need to sit next to them and be ready to grab the steering wheel. Show them too many tools and they will definitely drive into the tree.

    Can I also say that I am loving that fact that Graham has written this great post and left us to debate it while he has a nice sleep.


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  9. Graham Wegner

    Boy, I slept well last night. Now did anything interesting happen on my blog whilst I was slumbering?


    If there was ever proof needed that this online community stuff takes a fair bit of vested time and energy, Sue, Clay and Al, you prove it. Sue’s right – as keen as I am, nothing derails me from my sleep patterns and pre-ordained household routine. Gee, the only reason I’m responding now rather than after 8.30 pm tonight is due to the holidays!! So I thank all of you for dropping by and dropping your comments in here. I have this sneaking suspicion that this should be all happening over at Clay’s blog. After all, he started this particular discussion. And neatly demonstrated the power and breadth of blogging by the borderless access that blogging affords, allowing Al to “say his piece” here on my piece of cyber-turf.

    My take is that I’m not so much interested in comparing tools as comparing the different approaches to being involved in a “professional learning network/community”. In fact, we could throw another automotive metaphor is that bloggers could be seen as the four wheel drive owners venturing out into areas where you have to make your own amenities while Ningers could be more like the bus tour – someone else is driving but you’ve chosen this destination with its package of features and destinations. But at least, they’re both going somewhere! What about the folks who are just as happy at home and have no desire to go on any sort of elearning/Web 2.0 journey because they have all they need right there?

    That’s what you seem to be concerned about, Al. All of my posturing about being “engaged with my online peers” can be seen (with a certain degree of truth) to be self serving and where does that leave the vast majority of our South Australian peers who wouldn’t know their Nings from their RSS? Is it my responsibility beyond raising awareness at a site level? How do we get the importance of online community and network based learning to be resourced by our department so it’s not just your and my moral responsibility? Apparently, it’s recognised as being important as shown by the wording in the EdCap survey but is it again just up to the web-savvy and the boundary pushers to take things further? Al, you have passion and frustration oozing from your comment in equal proportions – a comment worthy of its own blog post, I might add. I’m afraid I’m tending to add more of my own questions rather than nut out answers from your thought provoking response. You ask, “Are you meeting or neglecting your work detail in this regard?” I think that by modeling what’s possible and sharing that at a site level to whoever will listen (and there are plenty that are) I’m meeting my work detail which includes teaching three days a week, managing school ICT infrastructure, providing resourcing for our IWB program, working on combining inquiry with technology and information literacy plus a whole bunch of other things that make up my role. So if I sit down of an evening after all the “must do” stuff is done and dusted and I pursue my edublogging/edutweeting/eduskyping pursuits in a somewhat selfish vein, well, I make no apologies for that. I also won’t dictate what others should be doing with their precious down time either. The great thing about using online communities like Ning or web services like iGoogle or PageFlakes is that people have an easier entry point for toe dipping, if you like. Particularly if we want the next wave of educators past the early adopters to buy in, then it must be time and resource efficient.

    And that’s not even touching what I might (or might not) be doing with my class. I’ve been very cautious in that department, keeping most of my students’ online activities in low key privacy but be assured, I’m not just setting up opportunities for my class to work online and leave my lesser-connected colleagues in the dust. But as Clay says, at some stage, they need to get their online drivers’ licences and hit the road. I’m concerned when I get a comment from a work colleague that roughly paraphrased says, “I’m not too worried about keeping up to date with any of this web or technology stuff because you’ll do that for me, Graham.”

    That’s where this bus driver needs to get off!

    P.S. How embarrassing! My own comment got caught in the spam filter. Too many links – 2!

  10. Al Upton

    Great response Graham … expected and hoped for. The others are right about this stepping on people’s toes ‘though – it would really make the reluctant and hesitant teachers turn on their heels and flee! Graham I had hoped that (as if it was even my right) you are completely exonerated from anything but effective and high level use of online learning with your class and your peers – raising awareness is our job … be that peers or students. ‘Self serving’ by the way is not at all a bad thing … by serving ourselves we have more to offer others.
    I love your extension of the driving analogy – it is not up to you 4 wheel drivers (or even me on my scramble bike:) … it’s a departmental responsibility to get educators online if that’s what the department values.

    That comment “I’m not too worried about keeping up to date with any of this web or technology stuff because you’ll do that for me” is all too frequent … and, indeed, very frustrating. I get it from people I bump into from time to time. Perhaps there is some kind of osmosis or absorption process I should be seeking … ‘dipping my toes in’ and ‘meeting tomorrows lesson’ seems a possibility for many of our colleagues? What do you think?

    Graham please continue doing what you’re doing and never feel you need to make apologies to anyone most of all me – not that (thankfully) you felt the need. I’m certainly not asking for one and if anyone does, well … refer them on 🙂

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  12. Kevin Sandridge

    Graham – just caught this entry and have to agree with you whole heartedly. I started out networking with Classroom 2.0, but have fallen off in my visitation to that site considerably. Much more frequent are my visits to other blogger sites via my Google Reader home page – as time is always such a precious commodity.

    You’re too right w/ my efforts early on. I made a concerted effort to put myself out there and offer as much value as possible to my colleagues around the world. Still taking more than I am able to give, I am always working on ways to offer more assistance, feedback, and collaborative assistance.

    As always, your forum here provides much food for thought. Thanks for the continued support!


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