We’ve previously written about the importance of building a learning community. Students, teachers, and librarians should work to challenge each other, share experiences, and grow together. Technology tools can facilitate the ability to create that community because they offer options to connect, share, reflect, and question.
Blogs with Aggregators
Blogs allow writers to reflect on current issues, share their thoughts, and initiate conversations by asking questions of their audience. They are unique mediums because they also allow writers to link to other writers’ works, alerting them that a conversation has begun. When I first started blogging at Flying Off the Shelf, I blogged with Cathy and my students. We encouraged them to write anything that they realized about themselves as learners, and we did the same. The posts weren’t graded. They were simply outlets. We know what you’re thinking–what’s the motivation for them to post anything? Truly, it was the accountability to the rest of the class. I then created a page on Netvibes, an online aggregator of published materials. I simply added a link to each student’s blog, which appeared as a small widget with the most recent posts for each student site. I then shared the link to the Netvibes page with the students in each class.
Aside from modelling thoughtful writing with posts like the one I wrote in September of 2009 where I explained how terrified I was to start blogging and sharing my thoughts, I also identified some of my most important reasons for doing it anyway:
For my students… how can I expect them to blog if I don’t have one? How can I engender a collaborative spirit in my students if I only watch from the sidelines and lurk on Twitter? How can I help them become generous generators and sharers of knowledge if I don’t do it myself? How can they begin to create their own Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) if I don’t start to do so myself? (Hersey, 2009)
By putting on the Netvibes site a link to my blog where students could read this post, I invited students to see my vulnerability, understand my motivation for learning and taking risks, and even see opportunities for them to contribute to my growth. Instead of simply using technology for technology’s sake, I modeled the learning process for her students.
In addition to writing with my students, I used several strategies to encourage dialogue among them. Do Nows became opportunities to read and comment on a peer’s most recent post. Displaying the class Netvibes page, for instance, I would ask students to comment on the blog that appeared above their own. I taught mini-lessons on writing posts and comments. I showed them how to link posts as well as how to responsibly respond to other people’s ideas by crediting them and linking to source information. Together, the class examined professional blogs and developed criteria for effective posts. They identified things like
- invites conversation by asking questions
- credits and links to outside sources
- provides visuals or other media
I also shared my own posts and student-written models that were inspired by others in the class and demonstrated how blogs could be used to have conversations about topics they were interested in. Asynchronous discussions among peers came alive, and as a result, they found common interests, and they discovered new things about their classmates. It didn’t take long before students were willingly reading each others’ posts and even writing without being asked. The image below shows two comments in which students responded to a peer’s post about media’s influence on teenagers.
Another way to build community is to allow students to asynchronously, yet collaboratively, read, comment on, and share texts. Social bookmarking tools like Diigo provide the space to do just that. By creating a group for a class, like Cathy’s Honors English II class that dubbed themselves the “League of Learners,” students can bookmark sites that might help with each other’s inquiry, and share it with all members of the group. They can also establish tags to organize the information. For example, the League of Learners, researching data from which they could predict future societal trends, developed tags like these: education, technology, economy, media, communication, and empathy. From there, any member of the group could search through tags for information that would help him with his self-selected topic.
In addition to bookmarking and sharing online texts, Diigo also allows students to comment on and highlight the texts. Cathy and I used this feature to have students examine a sample book review before they wrote their own (see the image below). They were to discuss what they liked and what they didn’t like about the author’s writing, to think about whether the review was effective or not. The catch was that they were supposed to do the assignment at home for homework. Cathy and I saved the samples to the League of Learners group, which meant that everyone had access to it, and when their classmates used Diigo to highlight lines or leave a comment, they had access to that as well. They could build off of each other’s ideas, share new thoughts, or highlight new sections. The result was a digital version of a text that was the equivalent of passing an article around a classroom and having each student annotate as they read. Only, this was better because everyone could see everyone else’s comments in real time.
Diigo can be useful for any inquiry group–classroom communities, inquiry circles, professional committees, or even personal inquiry. The authors of this book all shared resources through a Diigo group as they were researching and writing, and several belong to professional groups like Discovery Education’s Discovery Educator Network and interest groups like Project Based Learning. They are also members of several groups for their schools. For example, Cathy and Meg are both a part of their English Department’s Diigo group, where teachers of English share writing resources, model online works, pedagogical articles, and more. Through collaborative commentary, PLNs can continue exploring their own questions and contribute to a greater culture of inquiry. It’s a great way to keep conversation alive when it might be difficult for group members to meet in person.
As we mentioned earlier, Google Drive allows anyone with editing access to contribute to and comment on a document. Its “revision history” feature makes it invaluable in terms of accountability if used for groups to collaborate on a document. There is also one other feature that allows for collaborative decision-making when it comes to revisions of work–”suggestions.” A new option for anyone who has editing privileges, suggestions allows contributors to change the original text with visible editing marks. Accompanying them is a small comment box in the margin that provides three options for the other contributors: accept, reject, or comment. Accepting the suggestion will change the text as recommended, rejecting it will not allow the recommendations, and the comment portion allows for more discussion before a change is decided upon. It also automatically assigns each contributor a different color so that the suggestions can be attributed to the appropriate collaborator. The image below shows the suggestions made to the previous two sentences.