Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Week 7 - Blog networks

Another interesting week. What a lot I am learning in this course! Blogoswhat? I had a chuckle when I saw the word Blogosphere for the first time, what on earth are they talking about now? So after quite a lot of research here goes...

Blogging Networks
I think a Blogosphere or blogging network is a site which lists blogs relating to a particular topic or theme – I considered it like a centralised point of reference for a particular subject. Those contributing have formed an online community within this network. Regular bloggers are recognised for their expertise. Some networks rate their blogs as those most read, highest rated etc, giving guidelines to the members.

Looking in the Wikipedia entry for Blogosphere, I saw that New Zealand’s blogosphere represents an online community which seems to concentrate on subjects such as NZ politics and society in general. I personally found the site perplexing, not for the newbie that I am, it was crowded and confusing, I hated the layout and I got out of it as quickly as possible!

So I decided to find another blogging network that actually interested me (surprise surprise to do with travel again!):
Trusted Travel Blogs Network is a site for independent travel blogs. They state that they are “a community project… self-enforced and user monitored... we believe that through building a community, the problem of unreliable travel blogs can be minimized for readers”.
At the present time only 25 blogs are listed. To be listed the blogs have to have two commonalities:
  • They are recognized for consistently high publishing standards
  • Their content is not influenced by lasting or undisclosed affiliations with third parties.

I quite liked this one, but thought this is obviously a small network - is there a larger alternative? Yes, quite a few actually!

On the other end of the scale is Bootsnall. They describe themselves as “ the place where like-minded travelers come to talk and exchange stories, travel tips and ideas”. On further inspection hundreds of sites were listed. I got thoroughly lost in blogs about Asia, Europe etc. I simply had no idea such sites existed before today. Last week I looked at forums, this was so much more! I think it will be worth a further look when I have more time.

I decided to get away from travel (I do get a bit narrow minded) and find another type of blogging network. Using again my interests as my guide I found the BBC Blogging Network which was just fascinating. This is a network dedicated to those interested in the BBC, regions of the UK (I went immediately to the Northern Ireland section and got engrossed in local issues), Britain, journalism, but also gardening, music, technology etc, bascially anything the BBC has its hand in! Another site to return to for a further look.

Review this course as a blogging network to date. Does it connect out to a wider network, or is it insular?

Because it is on a public site it does connect to a wider network. It is available to anyone with Wikieducator access. However I think there is an element of insularity in our actual FOC course, in that although over 60 started off with a hiss and a roar only those really dedicated to the FOC course (as well as those of us enrolled in the actual paper) are keeping up with the course content, reading, posting to our blogs etc? With extended time others who search or just randomly come across the FOC link may join in, but with the short 18 week "shelf life" of the course will it get the chance?

Does this blogging network have a facilitator or should it need one?

In my opinion yes we do need a facilitator – because this is a learning journey with goals to reach every week or two and someone has to keep us in line!!! However Kay said in her blog something very thought provoking to me: that Leigh has provided an almost personal form of facilitation for each of us – those of us completely new to blogging etc have found someone who does not intimidate us, and for the more experienced I think he has provided thought provoking comments and issues to keep them interested as well. In an online community one method of facilitation definitely does not fit all!

Consider your role in helping to develop this blogging network

Obviously I am a member of this network but have I helped develop it? I don't honestly know. Due mostly to my lack of confidence in this area I don't think I have contributed as much as I should have (or even normally would in a more familiar environment). I am not the kind of person to jump in head first, I watch and wait and learn (I’ve found out I’m a lurker!) until I feel confident enough to contribute. Once that confidence is found I'm fine, and will become vocal. But I so far still cannot just post a blog without reading and re-reading it, looking for areas where it could be criticised or if it does not answer the questions put to us. I haven’t read or kept up to date with as many blogs as I would like, as I get simply overwhelmed. Perversely when I do go to others blogs and see they haven’t posted either, I almost feel a sense of relief that I am not the only one "on the back foot"!

Finally, comment on the strengths and weaknesses as you see them, of a blogging network for online community development

I think for me I have to always remember that blogs are simply people’s ideas and opinions, and are not necessarily always “the be-all-and-end-all”. However blog postings can either have their accuracy challenged or confirmed by other members which helps to weed out the less trustworthy ones. Networks which do encourage challenges by its members and has strict "entry regulations" such as the Trusted Travel Blogs Network mentioned above give credibility to such networks.

This week has shown me the powerhouse that blogging networks has become, where so many people are actively seeking to find out what others think of an issue, a situation etc, to learn from them and to subsequently communicate with others on similar topics. These communities are thriving.

A final comment which I thought was pertinent to blogs and their pros and cons: Steven Downes said in a comment at the end of the article Blogging - Not 'IF' but When and Where that:

"The notion of an authentic audience who reads what I write is a powerful
motivator; however, with it comes a responsibility of care for what I write and
about whom. I work very hard not to betray the trust of my friends and
colleagues as I write. It is very important to play nice and play fair when you
are putting your thoughts “out there” on the Internet. This is about digital
ethics - something I don’t believe we teach enough to our students"

Monday, September 15, 2008

Looking for online community Week 6

Apologies - I'm way behind in this FOC paper! Sick kids have kept me off work and away from my computer for quite some time. Am trying to catch up frantically before the inevitable next illness saga is bound to begin...

The online forum I have chosen to discuss is to do with my work but also my passion - travel. Travelblog is a great site which I have only discovered recently while doing some research for my own teaching.

The General Travel forum has many threads started by members so that you can choose which ones interest you. I initially found these forums a bit disjointed however with some practice and reading I am starting to get the hang of them! Further forums are split into regions so members can comment on their experiences in certain parts of the world.

Of course as with all such sites you can't take everything as fact - let's face it, these are people's opinions and so not something to bet your life on, but there is such a wealth of information and experiences out there I had to join in! I felt I just had to add my 2 penny's worth in when someone asked a question I KNEW I knew the answer to! Got me a bit hooked actually and as with so many of my forages into the web I got completely sidetracked forgetting what I was meant to be on there for!

But is a forum such as this really a place to moderate what is happening? I'm not sure how a facilitator would work in this situation. Would people resent someone trying to organise their "conversations" or requests for help when the whole purpose is to just post ideas, tips etc or to chat to those members you are interested in? We are asked to comment on how perhaps the writing of a summary could close a thread - but until the original question has been answered to the satisfaction of the original member how can someone else close it? My only other thought was that a summary of each forum could be posted at set times to update members who may not want to read through the numerous postings.

What facilitation techniques might be useful in assisting community communications through discussion forums generally?

I needed to find something that I easily understood on this subject. I found a good paper by Zane L. Berge, Ph.D on The role of the online facilitator/instructor. I found this to be clear and simple for me to understand!

The 5 most pertinent points I got out of it were:

Maintain as Much Flexibility as You Can: since we are all different it is important that courses stay as flexible as possible with the support of the facilitator. I can relate to this as my family circumstances have meant I am slightly behind in my weeks of learning, but don't feel too pressurised from Leigh (at this stage anyway!)

Don't Expect Too Much: it said that "Online instructors need to be content if two or three well articulated, major points are communicated in a particular thread of discussion" As f2f teachers we would expect more output than this in the classroom, but I can see how with an online community you would have to let go a little and let the learners find the answers in their own time.

Find Unifying Threads: Summaries can help people when there is simply too much information to assimilate, "Instructors can weave several strands of conversation into a summarization that may prompt people to pursue the topic further" When you have numerous postings to get through as a learner I would certainly appreciate summaries!

Be Patient: in this day and age we become over impatient waiting for responses. In discussion forums messages may not be responded to for days or weeks by members. "Be prepared to wait several days for comments and responses, and don't rush in to fill every silence with moderator contributions." I remember Leigh saying this in one of our first online meetings that he was tempted to fill in the silences with his comments, and that he had to learn to be quiet and to let the other members guide the discussion direction!

End the Sessions: "Decisively end each discussion thread. Conclude discussions so that they don't drag on after they have served their purpose." Once a topic has been satisfactorily dealt with, then it is the job of the facilitator to help the discussion move forwards. Conclusions drawn up by the facilitator mean that people know that the topic has ended and its time to move on to the next one.

On to Week 7 next...

The Role of the Online Instructor/Facilitator
Berge, Z.L. (1995). Facilitating Computer Conferencing: Recommendations From the Field. Educational Technology. 35(1) 22-30.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What is a teacher? I am one. I stand up at the front of the class giving my students as much knowledge as I can, hoping that they retain it. What is a facilitator? I think I am one of these as well, I encourage students along their own path of study in my blended classes, trying not to input too many of my own ideas into their learning – I want them to do it on their own. What is a moderator? In education moderation means something different from the role we are looking at here. Not sure about my role there, do I moderate their learning? A point for me to ponder on some more…

When does the act of teaching compromise the role of a facilitator of an online community? My immediate reaction to this question is that as a teacher I am used to being in control of a class, the content, how long a task will take, who will speak and for how long etc! I think that as a facilitator you have to “let go” as you can’t assume to have that form of “control” over an online community to such an extent – you can guide people back to the original task or goal (human nature means we tend to wander off on tangents very easily without too much trouble!) but you do have to relinquish that control and let the community get itself to the desired outcome by gentle guidance rather than by teaching to a prescribed outline, timeframe etc.

In Sylvia Currie’s blog it was mentioned that some members of the group were looking for or expecting more “organised” learning, but that Leigh has stepped back from that role, encouraging us instead as a group to reach the desired outcomes without so much input from him. It was noted that younger people learn so much easier through many mediums of technology that they don’t necessarily need a teacher anymore.

I can completely relate to this: in the past I used to teach subjects known as “Destinations” where we examined a particular country in depth relating to the tourism and travel product available. These days I have developed these classes using blended delivery where the students use technology, including the Web, Computer reservations systems, etc to find the information, instead of me standing up at the front of the class telling them about it. I am available if they need me and do short bursts of ‘teaching” (where we discuss a particular aspect before I let them loose again) but they have information to find and they seem much more content to get on with it – that is apart from one student who is 56 years old and really struggling with this method of learning. She can’t understand why I don’t “teach” them. It just goes to show that the difference from how Baby Boomers and Generation X were taught and learned from the current Gen Y students predominantly showing up on our campuses today.

So Leigh is fulfilling his job as a facilitator, stepping back and letting us guide our own learning, with encouraging comments to each of us, and perhaps a guiding question or two to help us on our way.

I think that as a facilitator you have to step back and let the students find their own path to learning instead of being led down a preset probably well worn track.

Do these skills overlap? Kay Lewis states in her blog that the skills of each do not need to be mutually exclusive, you can be a little bit of all of them, depending on the situation. How true that is. So in short yes the skills do overlap, but you have to know when to let go of that teaching role, to step back and let the student take over; after all we can’t force them to learn our way, they need to find their own path to learn that is best for them and get on with it, just as I am attempting to do in this course of study.