Networked Teaching: A First Installment

I teach a two-year gifted program which covers the curriculums of English 9, 10 and 11* (if there are capabable learners), Social Studies 9 and 10 1, Math 9, 10 & 11* (again, with the proper students), Science 9 and 10, as well as ministry-mandated Career and Personal Planning, and extra-elective Leadership 11 2.

I have taught in this highly flexible and interdisciplinary environment for two years now, and have found great traction in the use of various technologies to further the aims of our program’s bedrock Betts Autonomous Learner Model, which espouses the following:

 The purpose of the model is to teach gifted learners strategies for and attitudes toward independant learning.

Autonomous Learner Model

In bits and pieces I have seen the power of collaborative work in the classroom, from Wikis to develop class notes, discussion boards to facilitate peer editing, and publishing on Wikibooks to integrating the vastness of web information and access to each individual’s area of passion or expertise. At the same time I have come to unify my own pursuits in lifelong learning around the totems of RSS, social networks and my classroom and school, where my own learning – as well as that of my students – is fueled with the cooperation and expertise of a continuous conversation about methodology and practice.

At its core our gifted program harnasses the power of community into its ethos and structure, creating an environment where teachers (facilitators, under the Betts description) and students (learners) are each striving for growth and knowledge on a daily basis. Key to the facilitator’s strength in creating such an environment, where learners are empowered to pursue their individual curiosities, is the notion of transparent learning. Past incarnations of our school’s gifted students program have seen teachers participating in Night of the Notables events, and my teaching-partner and I routinely and candidly participate in class discussions of group processes and creative writing exercises used as reflections upon our own learning with the class. Though it is unlikely that Betts foresaw today’s development in network-science which has emerged, the model clearly sees exponential potential in expanding the learning environment beyond the classroom that is facilitated with the read-write web.

Growing Networks

The shape of a social network helps determine a network’s usefulness to its individuals. Smaller, tighter networks can be less useful to their members than networks with lots of loose connections (weak ties) to individuals outside the main network. More open networks, with many weak ties and social connections, are more likely to introduce new ideas and opportunities to their members than closed networks with many redundant ties. In other words, a group of friends who only do things with each other already share the same knowledge and opportunities. A group of individuals with connections to other social worlds is likely to have access to a wider range of information. It is better for individual success to have connections to a variety of networks rather than many connections within a single network. Similarly, individuals can exercise influence or act as brokers within their social networks by bridging two networks that are not directly linked (called filling structural holes).

The power of social network analysis stems from its difference from traditional social scientific studies, which assume that it is the attributes of individual actors—whether they are friendly or unfriendly, smart or dumb, etc.—that matter.

Social Network: Facts, Discussion Forum and Encyclopedia Article

Clarence Fisher writes eloquently in response to the above:

What does this look like in a classroom? The smaller, tight social network mentioned at the beginning of the piece would be the students immediately present in the single space of one classroom. Certainly a useful network and one able to share it’s knowledge. But as it states in the quote: “a group of friends who only do things with each other already share the same knowledge and opportunities.” This network needs to grow and expand in order for new ideas and opportunities to emerge. Our students need their own networks outside of the immediate classroom and this often terrifies people involved with formal education. We are used to the role of being the finder and provider of all information in our spaces. We tend to see ourselves as the channel from which unknown information comes flowing into our classrooms.

But this is not right. We are not a network by ourselves. We are one node in a network.

Remote Access

 Across a variety of units this year I had students undertake various pieces of networked learning: contacting experts across the globe, producing reliable web-information themselves, as well as collecting and investigating areas of interest in individualized and self-directed units where accountibility is placed most prominently at the peer or self level. But in a manner that has mirrored the stumbling development of my own personal learning network – which I see to some degree culminated in the creation of this blog – I have failed to see the means by which I might incorporate the diverse threads of classroom web tools and resolutely demolish the boundaries separating my stude- learners’ study of Socials and English 3, unifying not only each learner’s course of study in what shape up as busy semesters, but presenting each facilitator as truly that:

fa·cil·i·ta·tor
Pronunciation: fə-ˈsi-lə-ˌtā-tər Function: noun 
: one that facilitates ; especially : one that helps to bring about an outcome (as learning, productivity, or communication) by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision <the workshop’s facilitator kept discussion flowing smoothly>
Merriam Webster

 As echoed in Bloom’s taxonomy (another model which extrapolated to include the prospects of the digital age suits the predictability required of a sound theory), the scope of ambition required to enable consistent higher-order questioning is attainable through the networked learning prized by many prominent educational technology thinkers. The notion, too, that the act of watching someone learn enables learning, is key to the practice sought in such learning environments. Beneath the disparate pieces of my implemenation of networked learning, there lies a unifying purpose in synthesis that enacts the varied philosophies which ground my current teaching and learning. As I look toward summer, and the prospect of my third year of gifted teaching, I hope to form the construct of a learning environment that begins and ends in the classroom, and the personal bonds which are forged through the nurturing of an immediate social network, but which is fueled through the connections available in the fostering of individual networks across the globe.

World Wide Web

To this end I will be attempting to enact Clarence’s Five Ideas for Moving in this Direction:

1.) Give your students time to find connections with people and content around the globe. If we want them to be connected, we must make this a priority. They need time to search, to surf, and to read, watch and listen to content made by others. Don’t see this as “extra.”

2.) Have conferences with the students in your class on a regular basis about who they are reading, watching and listening to. Ask questions. “Why are you reading that? What have you learned from that source lately?”

3.) Help your students to find new nodes of connection. Make regular contact with other teachers and classes around the globe who are prosumers of digital content. Keep a blogroll, an email list, a delicious account, etc. Knowing your students better than anyone else, you can make suggestions to them about people they might enjoy reading.

4.) Allow your students to have individual networks they work with. This is vital. They all don’t need to be subscribing to and reading the same content. A larger, loose network will allow ideas from different parts of the globe to flow into your space. While as the teacher you certainly need to be ensuring that your students are safe online and reading information that is appropriate for your place, encourage them to add additional sources of information outside of those that you have officially sanctioned.

5.) Content comes to us in all sorts of modes. Don’t restrict yourself and your students to just reading blogs. Find news sources from around the world, YouTube channels, podcasts, flick groups and delicious accounts. Kids need to learn how to locate content in all of its forms and dig out the valuable pieces of it. They need to learn how to filter information more and schools need to filter it less.

  1. These first five are taught by myself.
  2. The maths and sciences are evaluated by my teaching partner, while we share our observations of class activities and projects to evaluate Planning and Leadership
  3. Why stop there, though: student-based personal network learning could unify the breadth and scope of all of our myriad sujects.

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