In Real Life

One of the really cool things about being a globally connected teacher is the opportunities to develop relationships with other like-minded educators. As I’ve said once or twice before, learning is a conversation and as we start to engage in that conversation it continues to feed our need for ongoing learning. Web 2.0 tools like Twitter and the blogosphere, as well as some still-useful “old skool” technologies like Skype, email and mobile phones means that we can be incredibly connected to each other if we choose to be.

I started hanging around online communities a long time ago; in fact, as a teenager I was a geeky kid with a Citizens Band radio and used to sit in my room late at night having conversations with lots of people from all over Sydney and beyond that I mostly never met. (I say “mostly”, because I did actually meet a few of my CB buddies and became quite good long-term friends with some of them) When I got into computers I remember the excitement of logging onto the old fashioned BBSes (bulletin boards systems) and posting disembodied text threads back and forward with other users… the technology was the exciting part and it was easy to overlook the fact that these invisible “users” were real people just like me. Ah, good times.

As online communities started springing up all over the place in the mid 90s, I joined lots of them. Forums, discussion boards, IRC chat and IM… what these tools have always facilitated is conversation, which is critical to feeling connected and engaging with ideas. Occasionally, I have had the opportunity to connect with people from these lists IRL (in real life). I remember the first time I ever met someone IRL from the OzTeachers list… I was going to Canberra on a business trip and since I had engaged in many interesting exchanges with a Canberra based teacher-librarian called Barbara Braxton, I emailed her offlist to suggest that I drop in and have a look around her school. It’s a really nice experience to meet someone IRL whom you have only ever known virtually, and Barbara spent a good hour or so giving me a grand tour around her school.

Not long after that I had to go to Perth to run some workshops so I contacted another OzTeacher from Fremantle, Bryn Jones. I met Bryn at his place and then he and I went for a few beers down on the Freo docks and shared a few stories and ideas about education and life in general. Since then, I’ve met a number of other people from the OzTeachers list, including Adrian Greig, Fiona Banjer, Kerry Smith, Mal Lee, John Pearce and others. While being a member of an online community is a great thing, being able to put a face to the name and get to know someone in real life adds a wonderful extra dimension.

A few days ago I noticed on Twitter that Barbara Dieu from Brasil was visiting Sydney. I tweeted a quick G’day and said that maybe we should get together. Barbara thought it a good idea, so I tried to round up a few other Sydney bloggers to join us. In the end, it just ended up being the infamous Judy O’Connell from the heyjude blog, so the other night Judy, Barbara and I met up for dinner at a little café in Newtown. (The same café where Judy, Westley Fields and others had dinner with Alan Levine on his recent trip to Sydney)  It was really neat to meet IRL like this… I’d met Judy briefly at a conference a few months prior, and Barbara and I had exchanged a few emails when we almost presented a session together with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach at the Learning 2.0 conference in Shanghai last year, but to actually get together for a drink, dinner and some great stories just adds a very special dimension to the online relationships that Web 2.0 enables.  (Even as I wrote that last sentence, it really hit me just how amazing these connections are and how much connectivity comes out of what seem to be fairly tenuous links… I guess that’s the strength of weak ties.)

As we sat chatting we marveled at the ease with which tools like Twitter and Skype enabled us to make connections and then organise and coordinate an event like this, but the real lesson that I took from the experience was to remind myself that these networks we create are NOT about computers and technology, they are about PEOPLE. Especially for those others who just look on at what we do, who see us spending lots of time in front of a computer, it very easy to overlook the fact that we are not spending all this time just tapping on a keyboard and interacting with bits and bytes, chips and circuits… we are interacting with real, flesh-and-blood, honest-to-goodness people.

Of course, if any of you are ever in Sydney then we should meet up.  I know this great little café in Newtown…

Sitting by the Fireside

picture-3-1.jpgThe Fireside chat took place this morning for the K12 Online Conference. There was a good roll-up of attendees via the Elluminate platform, topping out at one point at about 110 people. David Warlick was on hand to answer some questions from the group, and people were firing questions at him at a rapid pace. The chat stream was like a fast-flowing river, with comment after comment after comment streaming up the screen. Sometimes I wonder how effective these really large chat streams are, as it’s so hard to have a deep discussion let alone a coherent conversation! As someone noted in the chat, it was like being ADD on steroids.

However, the opportunity to connect with a worldwide group of educators and engaging in discussion and conversation about things that we think matter was wonderful. David did well to field the diverse (and sometimes quite difficult!) questions from members of the group. I even got to throw a question to David myself.

Virtual environments like this are an interesting experience, and it was clear that it was a new experience for many there. It was great to see so many people turn up for it, take part in the event, and learn from it.

You can listen to the audio version of the chat here (53 Minutes, 17Mb)… unfortunately, Audio Hijack didn’t get both sides of the conversation all the time, so you can’t hear all of the questions being asked by the audience, but you do get the answers from David and the Moderators. Still, I’m sure you’ll get the idea!

http://www.virtualstaffroom.net/k12online/fireside.mp3

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Trying to break Skype

chatskype.pngIt’s cool to see just how our networks of connectivity are letting us find each other so easily and spontaneously, and the conversations that are evolving out of those connections.

While checking my mail tonight, my Twitter goes off. It seems that Jeff Utecht in China is hosting a chat session using something called Wiziq. A number of Twitterers are talking about it. I’m intruiged, but I didn’t have Jeff on my Twitter list so I carry on with what I was doing. More conversation tweets out about this session, and I’m following along vicariously through everyone else’s Twitters. Pretty soon I see another tweet from Kim Cofino (from Bangkok, Thailand) talking about how she’s chatting with Graham Wegner (from Adelaide, Australia) and Chrissy Hellier (from Napier, New Zealand). By this stage, I feel like the party is going on without me, so I decide to have a guess at Kim’s Skype name and do some gatecrashing. 😉

Next thing I’m in a text chat with Graham, Kim, Chrissy and Susan Sedro (Singapore). I suggest we try going to voicecall, and there is some concern over how well that will work. I suggest that we won’t know till we try it… “use it till it breaks”, I suggest.

So we move to voice on Skype, and it’s all good. Poor Graham got shafted as his computer didn’t have a microphone, so he follows along on text chat for a while. Hmm, we start to wonder how many people we can get in here before we break it? Only one way to find out…

I spot Allanah King (Nelson, New Zealand) online and drag her in to the chat (When I say I dragged her in, I don’t mean that she was unwilling at all… on a Mac you literally drag someone’s icon into the chat window to add them to the call) So now we have five.

It’s early morning in east coast USA by this time, and my friend Janet Barnstable (Oak Park, Illinois) pops up on Skype… drag her in too. Carolyn Foote (Austin, Texas) comes online, so in to the chat she goes. Sharon Peters (Montreal, Quebec) appears, and so we drag her in too. This is fun!

We still haven’t broken it, and apart from a bit of background noise and a couple of scratchy bits, Skype is holding up remarkably well. We need more!

Lisa Durff (Maryland) and Robin Ellis (Pennsylvania) appeared online and also got dragged in, although not at the same time, so the most we had online at any given moment was nine.

This was tons of fun… just being able to spontaneously pull a chat together like this is very cool. We had 10 people, from 6 countries and 5 timezones, all chatting away together. As the only male in the group I feel like we maybe need to balance the numbers up a little next time… I tried to drag Jason Hando (Sydney, Australia) in the call, but he must have been away from his computer at the time.

Thanks everyone for jumping in to the call and sharing like that. It was nice to connect some voices with some of the names I recognised. We must do it again some time.

Buried Treasure

Ahoy there me hearties! If ye be looking for a fun story about the power of the Internet, and how it can enable individuals with an idea (even a fairly quirky one!) to make it a global reality then take a read of this story about how Talk like a Pirate Day came into existence. Yarr, ’tis a tall tale but true!

It just goes to show that an idea + a communications network + the right connections can have extensive effects. Two guys playing racquetball having fun talking like pirates turns into a fun day that people all over the world take part in. My Twitter feed has been full of Ahoys and Yarrghs all day!

It’s an interesting read to see how this event came to exist, and makes you realise that it IS very possible to have an idea that spreads far and wide with amazing efficiency if you are plugged into the right networks. Yarr, matey!

Putting a Face to the Mind

Sorry to be picking on Kim Cofino so much lately, but she’s blogging like a woman possessed! 🙂 Kim just twittered about a post written by Struan Robertson, one of her school admin team at the school where she works in Thailand. It’s a great post Struan (who incidentally, started blogging after the Shanghai Conference on the weekend – good for you!)

Given all the talk over the last few days about connectedness and how our networks of like-thought are linking us all together globally, this paragraph really jumped out at me. For those that may not know, Kim is an American teacher who was working in Malaysia until last year and now works at an International school in Thailand. And how does a school in Thailand find talent like Kim?…

“I was also amazed at the impact of blogging. We met and hired Kim Cofino last year through blogging because we already knew how/what she thought. Are we “inventing” a new way to run our HR Dept.? We hire people because of how they think, independently of what “smart” things they write on their CVs? How could that impact international school job/recruiting fairs? Kim came up to me on Saturday at the conference and excitedly told me how Will Richardson (Weblogg-ed) wanted to meet her. Why? Because he follows her blog (Always Learning) and wanted to put a face to the mind, not a “name to the face”. How different is that? Justin and Dennis saw Jeff Utecht (The Thinking Stick) from Shanghai Amercian School and greeted him like an old friend. When I asked Justin how long they had been friends, he replied that this was the 2nd time they had met. In other words, because they read each other’s blog and know how the other thinks, they are great virtual and real-life friends. Whoa!!!”

It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. I remarked to someone today that if I was after advice on a particular educational question or issue, I would be far more likely to reach out to my network of connections – people I’ve mostly never met face to face – for an answer than I would even to my local colleagues at school. I mean, I work with nice people and I like them a lot, but none of them are as connected, as switched on, as forward thinking as the people at the other end of my networks…

I was surprised a few weeks ago when I had a phone call from a leader of a school here in Sydney who asked me if I would be willing to run some technology integration sessions for his staff. He wanted me to just come along for the day and “expand their minds” with regard to new media, Web2.0 and how technology was impacting 21st century education. Naturally, I said yes, and was really excited about it… but what floored me was when I asked him how he happened to come into contact with me… where did he get my name from? “Your blog”, he replied. Wow.

I’ve actually quit the teaching profession twice now, leaving to do other things outside of education, because there have been times when I’ve really doubted my ability as a teacher. But I keep coming back to it, certainly not because of the money, but because there is no other calling that makes as much of a difference as teaching and no other time in history where I feel it’s more important to be a part of it.

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Always Learning, Always Growing

I just read a great quote from Kim Cofino’s blog, Always Learning, as she was reflecting on the Shanghai Conference from last weekend…

“I didn’t realize before how much blogging (reading and writing in collaboration with others) would change my life – not just enhance my professional development like reading a journal article, but change my life – the way I think, the way I interact with people, the way I work, the way I look at the world. It’s impossible to understand the impact of these technologies unless you are using them yourself.”

I totally agree. Even before Web 2.0, I experienced the same thing, albiet on a slightly smaller and slower scale just through email forums and message boards. I’ve been active on mailing lists and forums since about 1994 and cannot imagine what it would be like to not be connected to others. Now, with blogs and RSS and Twitter and podcasts and all these other incredible tools, the fibres that forms those connections are just getting stronger and more intertwined. It really is life changing, because it affects more than just your day to day work. These connections and conversations change you from the inside out.

I know some incredibly dedicated and well-meaning teachers. They work hard, spending hours of their day planning and marking and preparing, and yet, I just think if they made even a small part of their day available for just connecting and conversing with other educators, reading the ideas of others, sharing their thoughts about those ideas, reflecting on what they read and write… it would totally turbocharge all the other great stuff they do. I’ve mentioned it to many people over the years, but so often hear back, “I don’t have time for that”.

I don’t have time NOT to. There is only just so much you can do when you work in a vacuum, and Kim’s right… it’s the networking and mind expanding that goes along with these technologies that can have such a huge impact on your effectiveness as an educator. Thanks for the great post Kim.

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Learning is a Conversation

I have the pleasure tomorrow morning of joining Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach at the Learning 2.0 Conference in Shanghai China. Sheryl is running a session called You are the Time Magazine Person of the Year and will be looking at how educators are using Web 2.0 tools to stay connected and learning. To assist her, she asked Allanah King, Barbara Dieu, David Jakes, Clarence Fisher and myself to each contribute a 5 minute spot to talk about how being connected and networked to other people has affected how we do our work. It was a nice surprise to be asked to contribute, especially in such impressive company!

In thinking about this, I started jotting down some ideas. As many of you know, I can’t just jot… it inevitably grows to a full essay! So for what it’s worth, here is a copy of the notes I wrote for myself. (Thanks to David Warlick for his “learning is a conversation” line… I suppose if I read something he wrote and learn from it and use it, that’s an example of making learning a conversation?)

The Web in general, and Web 2.0 in particular, has made it easier than ever to connect with other people. If you have a question, someone somewhere will have an answer. If you have a problem, someone somewhere will have a solution. If you have an interest, someone somewhere will partner with you to share that interest. Thanks to the Web, most of the friction that previously prevented these connections from being made has been all but eliminated. If you just take the time to look, you will almost certainly find your answers, solutions and partners.

So, as educators, why should we be so excited about these connections? Why is connecting with each other such a big deal? The reason it’s such a big deal is that these connections with other people are what enables us to grow, and in turn enables us to help our students grow. I’m not sure who originally said it, but I once read, You will be the same person in 5 years that you are today except for 2 things: the people you meet and the books you read.”

Of course, these days you may not actually ever meet “the people you meet”, and blogs can be just as effective as books. The same principle applies though… Learning is a conversation. We grow when we are exposed to new ideas, when we are challenged to think beyond our current thinking. And with the world changing as fast as it is in the 21st century, we really need to start moving beyond our current thinking just to survive, let alone thrive.

I started blogging a few years ago when I blogged my experiences during a teacher exchange to Canada in 2006, over at canada2006.blogspot.com. This blog was originally meant to serve merely as a travel diary, but it opened my eyes to blogging as a rather mind-expanding personal activity. I noticed that my ability to write improved exponentially. I started to really consider what I would say and how I would say it, and was rather surprised when the blog started to build a regular audience (and not just my family!) Writing for an global audience certainly changes the way you express yourself, and this audience would regularly communicate with me about what I was writing. As I learned about the writing process, I started to understand that Learning is a conversation.

Because I enjoyed the experience of blogging so much, I started to write a regular blog at betch.edublogs.org where the main topic was education and how it was affected by technology. Although I started writing mainly for myself, I have been amazed at how this blog has not only gathered an audience, but has in turn forced me to engage with so many other blogs. This massive exposure to new ideas and leading thinking from so many other people drastically altered my outlook on what happened in my classroom. I cannot recommend the act of blogging highly enough. Try it. It will change you for the better. It was by engaging with the words and ideas of others that I started to more fully grasp that Learning is a conversation.

The next thing I tried was to get my students blogging. The results of this exercise can be found at crowdedwisdom.learnerblogs.org, where every student set up an edublogs account and we all crosslinked our blogs together into a sort of class ecosystem. This enabled me to use the blog environment to connect and share with my students in a way that they totally related to, while encouraging them to comment and connect with each other about their work. As I watched them work and interact through their blogs, it became further obvious that Learning is a conversation.

Since the blogging thing was so much fun, I thought I’d try podcasting. In October 2006 I started a regular podcast called The Virtual Staffroom which is all about having conversations with leading teachers about the use of technology in their classrooms. These conversations are recorded using Skype, turned into a podcast feed and shared with the world. I have learned an enormous amount from talking to these amazing teachers as they share some of their incredible ideas for working with students, further reinforcing the notion that Learning is a conversation.

Having gained a basic understanding of podcasting, I wanted my students to try it. So as part of an Introduction to Business class, I had my class create their own audio version of the course, using the textbook as a basis for content, but encouraging them to go beyond the classroom’s four walls and use audio recordings of local business people, bankers, entrepreneurs, and so on, to include in their podcasts. They got creative about gathering resources, about writing and expressing their ideas, about managing their time and resources. They produced some amazing work, and became totally engaged in the process of podcasting, interpreting the course content in a way that was not happening with a more traditional approach. Their learning took place in the collaborating, the sharing, the debating, the problem solving, and the results were impressive. Just like the sharing process, Learning is a conversation.

Way back in 1998, I worked with a group of students on the AT&T Virtual Classroom Contest, where we partnered with teams in the USA and Japan to build a collaborative website. This was all pre-Web2.0, so there were many technical issues to contend with, but the real learning took place as we exchanged hundreds and hundreds of email messages. We learnt to cooperate, to solve problems, to respect each others opinions. We learnt to share, to collaborate, to think creatively. We repeated the whole thing again in 1999, and were rewarded with first prize and a trip to Hong Kong. It was here we met our virtual partners in the flesh for the first time, although we felt like we already knew each other very well. Whether chatting virtually or in person, Learning is a conversation.

Along the way, we discovered plenty of tools for connecting. Realtime instant messaging tools like Skype and Messenger are invaluable, and with the ability now to connect with voice and video, the world has become an incredibly flat place. Geography is irrelevant. Looking through my Skype contact list I have friends and colleagues now in Canada, the USA, Japan, Austria, Belgium, New Zealand, and of course all over Australia. I often chat with these people, sharing ideas and stories. I always come away from our chats richer from the experience, finding that Learning is a conversation.

The Web 2.0 revolution has provided us with a huge list of tools for making these connections… Twitter, Talkshoe, Second Life, Elluminate, Jaiku, Ning, Delicious, Flickr, YouTube… the list goes on and on, and grows almost daily. Oh, and perhaps I’m just an old fashioned kind of guy, but I even still use email to communicate! In fact, it may not be very cool and Web2.0, but I’m still an active member of several educational mailing lists and invariably find the spirit of helpfulness and community on those lists to be an irreplaceable part of my professional life. I have made dozens of friends from these lists – some I’ve met in person but most I’ve not – but they have all helped shape my thinking to make me the person and the teacher I am today. A teacher who understands that Learning is a conversation.

If I have one piece of advice for anyone engaged in teaching it would be to establish connections. Learn to use these tools of connectivity, and harness them for you own use and for the use of your students. The payoff is enormous. The conversations and connections you will engage in may be the single most important thing you do to become the best teacher you can be.

Learning IS a conversation.