Friday, September 17, 2010

Considerations when picking an online tool

This semester I am working on two different platforms (a social network in Ning, and a hub-and-spoke blog network in Blogger) and the experiences I had getting the students to sign up for each were insightful. To wit:

It took about an hour of class time in a computer lab to get my ENA099 hub-and-spoke blog network (my blog connected to 20 students’ blogs via the blogroll) completed. This was mostly because I asked my students to join Blogger as homework from Monday to Tuesday, and only about half of the class followed my instructions and were ready to go. Therefore, I had to spend time helping that half of the class get a blog while the other half typed the diagnostic they had written on Monday. Only when everyone had a blog did I have time to sit at my computer to add all my students to my blogroll. Just in case you are interested, how I did that is HERE.

In contrast, enrolling my Shakespeare students in the Ning was a breeze. I gave them a reading, and then called on students one by one to join the Ning using the computer in the smart classroom. It took about 40 minutes to enroll 28 students (they have to create profiles) so they were set to go. That is less than a minute and a half that each student spent getting enrolled. In a way, I was lucky (smart?) to have decided to use a social network for Shakespeare because that’s a class where I cannot afford to waste any time—and it probably would have taken a whole class meeting to get my 28 students in a hub-and-spoke blog network.

This set me to thinking: if I could enroll students faster and with less work using a social network, why even bother with blogs?

I decided it is all about objectives: in the case of Shakespeare, the tool (Ning) is just an occasion for us to do work together online. On the other hand, blogs are more than just occasions; because they are individual and personal and they are publishing tools, they quickly become an intrinsic part of a writing class such as ENG/A 099, and so learning how to create and tweak a blog can be considered part of the process of learning of to write, inasmuch as writing is communication (see Luke’s comments on this subject).

In short, “picking the right tool” may mean many things; in my case, for a class where there will be much discussion, a simple, “transparent” (that does not attract attention to itself) social tool such as Facebook, Ning, Spruz and etc. seems to be best; for a class that needs to learn the ABCs of writing, a personalized and customizable tool such as a blog seems best. The fact that it takes longer to have everyone on the same page with blogs just reflects the facts that blogs are by design decentralized, personal, individual, less controllable; in other words, less teacher-centered (though I am still “the hub” of the class).

Thoughts?

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