Sunday, November 14, 2010

More Than Bejeweled: Social Networking for Learning

I am fairly new to Facebook; it was actually one of the last social networks I joined.  I avoided joining for a long time. I was happy with all of the other pieces of my Web 2.0 life, and I had no desire to add another, more personal piece. Most of my time online was spent networking and thinking professionally and I saw Facebook as a personal piece to this time-consuming world that I didn't need.  However, I changed my mind when I discovered Bejeweled Blitz.

Ranked with other Facebook friends

I am a Bejeweled Blitz addict.  I love to play Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.  (If you have not tried Bejeweled Blitz, I suggest that you stop reading this post and go give it a try!)   I am not a gamer. I don't play Nintendo or games on the Wii.  I don't even enjoy board games. And, I honestly can't tell you why I love Bejeweled. But I do.  I have wasted more time trying to beat my husband's score in the weekly tournaments than I care to admit.

As I reflected on this week's study of social networking, I could not ignore this story of how it was I came to be a Facebook user.  Since I discovered Facebook through Bejeweled,  I have since discovered some of its other great features. As a member, I am able to keep up with relatives and see photos and videos I would miss otherwise. I have participated (quietly) in book talks and have become a fan of a few things.   But, something pulled me in that had nothing to do with the actual tool. A game with blitz and noise. This seems to be true of so many social networking tools I use.  I am pulled in for one reason and later find myself using it for something far better than what I could imagine.

This Bejeweled experience has helped me think through the reasons I join certain networks and the ways I move beyond the initial glitz. I think what I am learning about myself is helping me think through how best to support my students through social networking.   I am finding that my experience is not much different from that of my students.

We have been looking hard at their use of technologies at home and at school.  This fall, we did a GoogleDocs survey with our 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students.  We asked them several questions about their uses of technology at home and at school. We weren't sure how many of our students had computer access and how many of our students used technology regularly.  We wanted to look for patterns across our school. We were happily surprised to discover that most of our students have computer access at home and many spend time regularly on the computer.  But what we found was that most of the time they are spending on the computers is time spent playing games and visiting sites for entertainment.  Many are regular visitors to social networking sites like Webkinz while others play games daily on the computer.

 In his piece, "Five Socio-Technology Trends That Change Everything in Learning and Teaching" (p. 85 in Curriculum 21 by Heidi Hayes Jacobs), Stephen Wilmarth says,   "The new power of social media and networking technologies to teach is perhaps the least leveraged technology in formal education systems today.  Social networking technologies are powerful tools for enhancing the process of learning to be, of defining our identities." As I read and reread this line,  I was reminded of my Bejeweled experience.  Games often pull them into social networks and if we want them to expand the ways they use these networks, we need to help them see what is possible.

Moving Beyond Bejeweled with Social Networking

I have been a dabbler in many social networks for years.  I have become better at my use of Facebook although I still find that using it for personal reasons (family and friend connections) works best for me.
I am a member of several Nings. I have tried to use it for my professional learning but there are far too many distractors for me, once I get on the site.

For me, Nings seem to fill the professional learning gap for me when it comes to online professional networks. Will Richardson, in his explanation of Ning (from Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom) states, “Briefly, Ning allows you to create your own free social networking site around whatever topic you want, complete with personal profiles, photos, video links, groups, discussions, blogs and more…For educators, the best part about a Ning site is that it’s totally self-contained-meaning all of that sharing and posting happens under one roof, and it can be totally private only to those whom you want to participate.” (p. 140)  

I agree that the strength of a Ning is the fact that it is self-contained. That is also its weakness for me.  Just as with Facebook, I get very distracted on Nings.  I joined the English Companion Ning when it was first created and actually began an elementary group in the Ning. I am a member of Classroom 2.0, Library 2.0 and Teacher Librarian.  I have been a lurker on all of these Nings, participating quietly when the discussion or event meets my needs. I have attended several Webinars sponsored by the librarian Nings and have learned a great deal. When I looked at my Ning account as I began to work on this project, I realized that I have actually created two Nings. Neither lasted for long.

I have become part of so many online communities, that I don't even remember all of them.

I have found that I love something about all of the social networks that I am part of. Individually, they all fill a need, but together, they become so overwhelming.  There is a great deal of overlap in these social networks in terms of people and learning but each also offers something unique that I hate to give up.  

So I entered this study with a few big inquiries:
1.  How might I  use social networking in a more focused way?  
I have come to the point in my exploration where I know I need to do more. It is time to move past the dabbling stage and begin to be more focused in my use of social networks.  I don't want to quit any of the social networks I am part of but I feel that I need to commit more strongly to one or two in order to utilize them well.

2.  Which social networking tool around books makes the most sense for me, personally?
Which social networking tool around books makes the most sense for my students?
I have joined Goodreads and Shelfari and have looked at a few other social networking sites around books.  These sites intrigue me but I can't figure out which one makes the most sense for me personally and which makes the most sense for students?

3. How can we build on our students' use of technology at home to move them beyond playing games and using computers for entertainment?  Knowing what I know about the power of social networks, how can we move our students to use the Web 2.0 to support their learning as well as for entertainment?

Because I am part of too many social networks and because some of the networks already fill certain needs, I wanted to focus on a piece that I have not yet figured out . Although I love to share and talk about books, I have not put in the time necessary to become a contributing member of a social network focused on reading. I have joined both Goodreads and Shelfari but have not put much time into becoming involved. My thinking is that a social network around reading could help me focus my learning (both personal and professional) and be a way to support my students in moving beyond games to more academic uses of social networking.  I believe that if we are strategic in our use of these tools with ourselves and with children, we can extend our work as real readers.

Social Networking Book Club Experiences
I have joined several book groups as part of the social networks I belong to. One of the first book groups I joined was on the English Companion Ning. This ning offers book groups monthly and the book is usually a professional book around the teaching of English/Language Arts.  The unique piece of this book club is that the author of the books are all part of the Ning and each author facilitates the discussion around his or her book.

The author of the book being discussed begins and facilitates the conversations on the English Companion Ning.

This summer, I was invited to join a Facebook Book Club that was organized around a professional book I had coauthored. I didn't participate but it was interesting to see how the discussion worked.  This group was designed for teachers as part of an assignment for a college course/workshop. They were answering specific questions based on an assignment.
A Facebook Book Group as part of course credit.

I joined the Goodreads Newbery Group a while ago and find myself paying very little attention to it.  The group chooses a book to read each month-one that is a Newbery Award possibility. Because I have not kept up my Goodreads account, I don't visit the site often so I don't participate in the conversation. I use the list as a resource when I am deciding what to read next.

Books that the Goodreads Newbery Group is reading.

Shelfari Groups
After studying the groups I had been part of, I wanted to learn how to make the most of groups on Shelfari. I joined Shelfari this summer with teachers from my school, knowing that we would invite students to join this fall. We wanted to play around with the tool and build our own shelf so that we were ready to begin with kids once school began. I worked this summer to build my shelf but I hadn't explored what was possible. Since the students in our school are using Shelfari, I knew I needed to spend some time learning more about its features--beyond merely adding books to my shelf.

I took some time to learn about groups in Shelfari and I found quite a few that were more like Facebook Fan Groups than discussion groups.  Any member of Shelfari can start a group and many are.  But I looked at about 10-20 in various categories and many did not include much in terms of discussion. In Shelfari, it seems more like a status thing--to join as a way to show you are a fan of something.  Some groups are designed to recommend books but that seemed repetitive since the entire site is designed to do that.

It was easier than I thought to start a group on Shelfari. I am in the process of creating a Newbery Book Club to run from Jan 2011-Jan 2012 and I think taking advantage of a tool kids are already using might make sense. So I thought I'd learn to start a group by starting one that we might use for that club.  

In order to create a new group, there is a tag called "Groups" under the user's profile tag.  This pulls up the groups you are a part of and also invites you to create another group with the click of a button.  
Once you decide to start a group, there are a few questions to answer including the group's name, category, etc.

Then you can set the participation guidelines for this group.  This step takes some thinking.  This is not only about who can join the group and how but it is about who can see the group.  This is important for teachers depending on their district's policy. I wanted to make sure I was meeting our policy by keeping things private so I took a bit of time reading these categories carefully.   I want all members to participate but there are definitely good options that make these Shelfari groups great for schools as well as adult book clubs. There are many choices for the creator.

Once you create a group, it is your responsibility to invite others to join and to begin the conversation.

As the group administrator, I have the option to invite friends. I was happy to see that I could invite members of Shelfari as well as people who were not yet members.  I could also customize the invitation that I wanted to send out.

There is also a form that allows me to send out group announcements. This seems like a great feature for updates, etc. so that they don't get lost in discussions, etc. 

Goodreads Groups
I then moved to study groups in Goodreads. There are many, many active groups on Goodreads.  The site seems to be built for good discussions. 

 It was also very easy to create a group in Goodreads and I was able to choose the privacy levels as I was in Shelfari. 

One feature that I especially liked in Goodreads was the choices I had in how to get my discussion. I could choose to get them in digest form, in individual emails or neither.  These options lend themselves to quality discussion as people are committing to keeping up with the conversation.

You Are What You Read by Scholastic
Scholastic launched a new site to celebrate books. This one is very different from the others out there in that it asks you to choose only 5 books as your "bookprint".  These 5 books should be the books that influenced you the most.  By browsing the things other members have on their bookprint, the intent is to get conversations going. The site is clear that there is a five book limit so this makes it very different from other sites where readers share their current reading.

There are features that are fun to browse.  Celebrities like the Jonas Brothers have included their Bookprint. Members can find which books are mentioned ofen. And there is a "pass it on" feature that encourages you to share books you love with others.

The site organizes the most listed books so you can see those that are listed by many people.
Pass It On! encourages members to share books they love with others.

After looking at these three options, I am convinced that Goodreads is the best option for conversations around books.  The members seem committed to authentic conversations and  there are many ways to participate.  Shelfari seems to have the potential to support good book talk but many of the groups tend to be more like fan groups at this point. For Shelfari's discussions to be worthwhile, a committed facilitator is needed.

Because I am a reader and because I have joined social networks, I can see the benefits that social networking around books has. When I think about my own learning, my Ning conversations around books were the most influential. Because the Ning is already created by members who have similar needs and beliefs, the book club groups have depth that I haven't seen on other sites.  Having a facilitator and a focus for the discussion also enabled depth in the discussions. As a reader and professional, I have decided that the English Companion Ning is the best place for me to become part of a community of readers talking about books. Personally, I will commit to becoming more involved in those conversations again. Personally and professionally, the Ning Book Clubs provide the best option for me.

When I think about my students, I know I want any online community to provide learning beyond something merely social.  I think it is possible to take advantage of the socialness of these sites to build collaboration and learning.   It was interested to read a recent comment by Doug Johnson in a piece called Don't Confuse Social Networking With Educational Networking. He says, "
I’ve come to the conclusion that we should stop using the term social networking to describe the kinds of collaborative online learning experiences we’d like students doing as a part of their formal education. The term connotes recreational or frivolous use of Internet resources."  

Although I am not sure we can stop using the term, I do agree that it has a certain definition that limits its uses in schools.  I think if we want our students to move beyond the recreational and frivolous uses of internet resources and move past things like bejeweled, we will need to find tools and ways to use them that support learning and collaboration in ways that go beyond social.  

When I think about using Social Networks around books with students, I have to think about my bigger goals. 
If we only use these as glitzy logs, we are missing the bigger picture of our goals for students.

I want a site that helps them not only collect titles of books they've read but to see how readers live in the world. I want a social network that helps them build their identities as readers.  In Choice Words, Peter Johnston says, "Building an identity means coming to see in ourselves the characteristics of particular categories (and roles) of people and developing a sense of what it feels like to be that sort of person and belong in certain social spaces."  I think social networks allow our students to be part of a network outside of school and to begin to build that identity as a reader that we so want for them.    The key will be for us, as educators, to build conversations and to facilitate learning so that these social networking sites become educational for them.

It is our job to help our students create networks that support them as learners just as our social networks support us as learners. . In her article, 
Through their social networks—Nings, listservs, Twitter, and social-bookmarking activities using Diigo or Delicious  sharing—today’s librarians are, or should be, on the lookout for resources tools with which to serve the curriculum and engage learners across content areas and grade levels. I make exciting discoveries for others nearly every day. That’s my job. Librarians should help students and faculty develop similar networks for academic and professional sharing, modeling collaborative information-seeking behavior. "

If we keep in mind what Joyce Valenza says in her article, we can better keep an eye on our bigger goal with social networking for ourselves and for our students.  We can move our students from using these tools for the fun of it to using them in ways that support their learning.

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