Monday, February 11, 2013

Connected Learning and Blogs

Though we've been using the "CMS" (course management system) since grad. school, the concept of "connected learning" still seems relatively new to education.  It's only about a year ago that our school began to pursue options for what we now call an "LMS" (learning management system).  Until this fall, only about 10% of faculty regularly used Moodle pages for their courses, and we wanted improve on that.
After evaluating the available options, we decided to adopt Instructure's Canvas as our LMS.  Unlike Moodle, which most faculty disliked for a multitude of reasons, we are all now strongly urged to maintain a presence on Canvas, affectionately called "the Hub" on our campus.  Canvas offers many features, which has been both good and bad for us.  It's good, in that it allows each faculty member to develop each course in a way that best suits them; but that's also bad, since students are then required to use each course page in different ways and have spent quite a good deal of time simply figuring out how to navigate each course.  For example, one teacher's "assignments" are another's "announcements" and another's "discussions", etc.  After initial discomfort, though, our students have adjusted.
In addition to the Hub, we've also become a Google Apps For Education (GAFE) school this year.  Initially, most faculty avoided GAFE, while they were learning how to manage the Hub, but lately and for several reasons namely, the fact that materials are easier to share more faculty (fortunately!) have embraced Google's tools, especially for school administration, and it seems that we've enjoyed a higher level of productivity, thanks to them.

Our school is large, at least for an independent school, and because our faculty have been creating their own PLNs, our system looks chaotic right now.  I can't say that we currently have a pervasive PLN that promotes connected learning in an efficient way, but we're on our way.  This tells me that we haven't yet embraced connected learning as openly as we could (and should?).  In the #ETMOOC description for topic 1 on connected learning, some great discussion questions on this topic are asked, and three questions in particular strike me as most important in our stage of techno-curricular development:
  1. How important connected learning is to us?
  2. Can our institution support connected learning, and if so, how?
  3. How can we spread these ideas among our faculty?
I'm, of course, a big believer in connected learning, given that the idea of sharing has always been one of my great motivations for both learning and teaching.  I've been doing various things to advocate it this year, and the most interesting and useful tool I've started using is the blog.  My Latin III students have always had to keep a "Running Latin Commentary" or "RLC" in my class that's used to record notes on vocabulary, grammar/syntax, style, and plot, including anything else of interest that strikes them.  They work on these notes at home on their own, then we add to them in class.  It's a tough skill to learn, but it also approximates the sort of analytical work that we do in the professional world of Classics.  Each night, they record their reading notes and thoughts in a blog, rather than keeping them on paper, and we then work from them in class together.  I'm more easily able to monitor their work and give them feedback, and they're more easily able to keep their work for the course organized.

The experiment has been going very well, and I will continue to use blogs at our school.  I believe commenting is important precisely because it has the potential to promote the high level of connected learning that I'd like to see among my students by improving the quality of their own commentary, creating more lateral dialogue, and getting students to communicate more with each other.  I've been surprised, though, at how reluctant they are to read each other's blogs and offer commentary.  It's almost perceived as a point of pride to avoid looking at their classmates' work.  Hence, I too am confounded with the question of the value of commenting and have been thinking of ways to increase blog reading beside writing (cf. +Sue Waters' questions on the value of blog commenting).

I've still got work to do to increase the level of connected learning, both in my classrooms and across our two campuses in general.  Question 1. above is partially answered, but that leaves the second and third to address.  I believe that all schools can empower connected learning, and, to my mind, we have to accomplish it through leading by example.  We can't simply tell faculty what to do or even how to do it, but rather show them why connected learning through PLNs is important with clear examples of it.  Am I wrong to think that connected learning starts from the ground and spreads up, revealing that it's the students and teachers who spread support effective PLNs instead of the institution itself?  We've just got to find creative ways of inspiring students to engage with the PLN, and I'm excited to continue to experiment with blogs and discover new ways to accomplish this.