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Online communities: Two [or more] heads are better than one!

Telephone Exchange by PhotoAtelier (CCFlickr)

My great grandmother was a member of an online community. Well, maybe not of the type we have today, but one built around those party lines that ran through the telephone exchange in the “old days”. A party line, which enabled a group telephone call, connected people who didn’t have physical access to each other. Sure, the reception wasn’t all that great and the community was a relatively small one, but the benefits were similar to those gained today through membership of web-based communities. Party line participants could share ideas, ask advice and catch up on what was happening beyond their four walls. No doubt for my great grandmother stuck out there in fairly remote outback Queensland in the early 1900s, her online community was a valued part of her life… and so is mine.

My professional world revolves strongly around online communities. Whilst I’m blessed to work in a team environment where I have colleagues for support and advice, it’s not always easy to find a mutual time where we can sit down uninterrupted and talk things through.  Also, I think the more we work together, the more we tend to think the same, and the more we tend to only half-listen to what each other is saying–sounds like we’re married!!  Consequently, we lose the “diversity of opinions” that George Siemens (2005) advocates is so necessary for knowledge creation and learning. Instead of the sparks of creativity being fanned by collective discourse, they often flicker feebly and die through lack of fuel.

To add fuel to my fire I’m having an extra-marital affair with Twitter**(apologies to my colleagues, I hope they’ll forgive me). I rely heavily on my virtual tribe to challenge my thinking and, on a practical level, provide me with great tips, tricks and tools to enhance my professional knowledge and skills.

At a basic level, Twitter functions as my virtual help-desk. I can throw out a “How To” question at virtually any time and someone, somewhere is sure to help me out. It’s also my virtual library where professional readings are shared–no subscription needed! And what is more, these articles often come within the context of a blog post that allows for a discussion of the piece.

And then there’s the functionality of Twitter as a virtual news desk. If I want to pick up breaking news, then Twitter delivers via words, images and videos from many sources (which of course raises the issue of the validity of the info).  Interestingly, in the wake of Boston bombings yesterday, there was a segment on Today Tonight, The pros and cons of social media, that reported the way in which social media have changed the face of news reporting. Of particular interest were the comments surrounding the ability of social media to bypass censorship by the Fourth Estate.

Whilst my access to the above functions of Twitter is self-determined–I interact when it suits–I also use Twitter more formally as a virtual classroom by participating in organised, subject-specific Twitter chats. These chats are held at scheduled times and are usually scaffolded around a number of predetermined questions or topics. One person usually moderates the discussion to keep it focused. Two of my favourite chats are #ozengchat and #PhDchat. If I can’t make the chat, it’s easy enough to track the discussion by a search on the chat hashtag. Check out this list of weekly chat times compiled by @thomascmurray and @cevans5095 (we need the Australian version of this).

‘And then there were two’ by anujd89 (CCFlickr)

I like to leave my professional and personal footprints on different paths… it makes life easier if I’m using my social media with students and colleagues. So while Twitter is my preferred weapon of instruction, I use Facebook primarily to keep in touch with family and friends (although I have created a second FB account to use professionally for the PLN course).  I find Facebook’s layout makes it more suited as a journal or photo album in which to record memories. That’s not to say I wouldn’t use Facebook in the classroom… if only I could! Despite,however, the wonderful suggestions from David Herstein in How schools can use Facebook to build an online community, many schools, including my own, continue to block student access to social media.

Chubby Soapbox by daretoeatapeach (CCFlickr)

Chubby Soapbox by daretoeatapeach (CCFlickr)

And that prompts me to climb onto my soapbox! The minute we “ban” students from something/anything, we’re sending a message that we don’t value it as a teaching and learning tool. We’re also being condescending by signalling that we don’t think our students are mature enough to decide (or learn) what qualifies as appropriate use and what doesn’t. Well that’s easily fixed! Let’s give them the keys and some driving lessons so that they don’t crash their social media! Let students be social media “learners” in the safety of the classroom, where a driving instructor can help them learn the rules, navigate the twists and turns, and interact appropriately with other drivers. There’ll probably be some minor dings, but chances are driver training will help students avoid the high speed social media crashes which can cause permanent injury.

** My Twitter name is @dilaycock

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Take it, pack it and tag it…

I’m moving house next week, so the notion of getting organised is near and dear to my heart right now. We’ve already moved quite a few times–twelve to be exact–and it occurred to me pretty early on how important it is to keep things organised and labelled. There’s nothing worse than the feeling of, “I know I put it somewhere!”

As I thought about the second aspect of this PLN course – organising information – it struck me that my current process of de-cluttering, organising, packing and labelling boxes, is a fairly good mirror of how we need to organise the mountain of information that we are asked to climb each and every day. I use a number of tools in an effort to work smarter not harder, but like anything, if I don’t keep up the maintenance it can soon get out of hand.

Here’s how I currently try to arrange my daily professional workflow…

Over a quick brekkie I usually start preparing for my work day with some electronic de-cluttering. I check my email, deleting anything that isn’t of interest, and give Twitter a quick look through to identify items of interest that have been posted overnight. I re-tweet anything I think might be of interest to my followers. Here’s a couple of posts on Twitter that I’ve saved to Evernote – I’m going to use these screenshots in an upcoming PD session on Twitter.

Most days I get to work early and use the quiet time before the hordes arrive to start organising what I’ve earmarked at home.  I reply to emails, and check out the flagged links that have come through on Twitter. I  use Evernote to save clips of useful/interesting web pages into various notebooks (the equivalent of my packing boxes), and tag them. If I happen to be accessing the Net on my phone, which seems to be happening more and more, I’ll either use the Evernote app or email the page URL to my Evernote inbox.

I’ve also managed to train myself to write notes in Evernote so I can access them from anywhere, and I try to store and read documents electronically rather than print off everything – good for the environment and good for my desk!  Other ways I occasionally use Evernote include uploading a photo of whiteboard notes or PPT slides. I found Evernote so incredibly versatile and useful, that I upgraded to the Premium account, which, amongst other things gives me more storage space and offline access to my notes.

I’m currently also running a Dropbox account for online storage and sharing. I’ve been wondering whether I could do in Evernote what I do in Dropbox, but this article  convinced me it’s worth keeping both. Just as the article’s author keeps his music in Dropbox, I have my photos backed up there. Also, there are some apps on my ipad where I can send to Dropbox, but not Evernote. So for the time being I’ll keep the two.

Before Evernote, I used Diigo to store my bookmarks, but now tend to see that as double-handling. I appreciate that I’ve lost the community facet of Diigo, but to a certain extent the ability to share through Twitter and Evernote  makes up for that. And where I formerly created pathfinders for students in Diigo, I now direct them to Scoop.it, which I think has a more engaging interface.

I use Twitter as my primary means of professional development and have the Yoonoo sidebar browser that gives me access to my Twitterstream. As well, my iGoogle homepage curates my RSS feeds and the blogs that I follow. I know it looks horribly crowded, but it’s a one-stop shop that saves me an enormous amount of time.

IGoogle

To share resources with my teaching colleagues, and others “out there,” I curate two Scoop.its  and follow quite a few. I’m the teacher librarian for the Geography Department and they just love Geography in the Classroom. I also guide Geography students to this Scoop.it and show them how to filter the posts using a tag search.

Last, but certainly not least, we use Libguides to host the Barker College Library website, where each teacher librarian has certain areas of responsibility. We have deliberately made this a public site so that we can share our resources beyond the immediate school community.

So to answer the question, “How have digital technologies and internet access changed the way we organise ourselves?” I guess my answer would be that they have helped me [us] work smarter not harder. The work that we do is more accessible and more easily shared; it’s more quickly achieved and more visually engaging; and there’s more time to spend on higher-order activities such as creating.There is, however, a danger that we feel compelled to keep up with the myriad tools that flood the “market,” and soon we can actually be working less smart and harder. I’m happy to test drive most things that come my way, but if the benefits don’t kick in early, and if it’s not user-friendly, I’ll let it go and move on.

It concerns me that many students don’t seem to appreciate the benefits of organising and improving their workflow. We seem to have a constant stream of students looking for a lost USB that has the only copy of their assignment on it — backing up in the cloud hasn’t come onto their radar. They also seem happy enough to spend considerable time re-searching for the website they used a week ago, rather than have access to an online bookmark in seconds. As for the idea of  being able to share work and create together online – it just doesn’t seem to be high on their agenda (or perhaps, their teachers’ agendas).

I suspect to date a large part of the above problem has arisen from the the hassle of  students having to work on shared computers,  which means they’re always having to sign in to services such as Evernote and Diigo. This year, however, we’ve introduced BYOD, so hopefully students will start to see how 24/7 online services and being able to personalize their devices can work to their advantage. We can’t assume, however, that they know these services exist and how they work, so it’s up to teachers and teacher librarians to be fluent in their use and show the students some real-life examples of what can be done.