This is how personal learning networks work. When I first started using Second Life for education, I was helped by a teacher there, Kevin Jarrett, who I started following on the del.icio.us social bookmarking service. I use del.icio.us for social discovery — that is, when I find someone knowledgeable about a topic that interests me, I add them to my social bookmarking network and I also look for the people whose bookmarks they often use — their del.icio.us or diigo network, another great social bookmarking service. Through Kevin, I found Bud The Teacher. I follow both of them on Twitter. Last week, while scanning Twitter, I noted that Bud The Teacher was using a collaborative document creation application called EtherPad. I asked him via a publicly viewable tweet whether he had an example of students who used it, and within a minute, I heard from someone who I had not known previously, but who followed me on Twitter – a teacher who sent me a link to the Etherpad document edited collaboratively by her sixth grade class. So I contacted the 6th grade teacher, Meredith Stewart. As soon as I became aware of what she was doing, I was interested in hearing more from Stewart. She is willing to experiment with new tools, understands that facilitating student collaborative learning and fostering in each student a sense of individual agency as a learner, not technology for the sake of technology, are the important goals for technology-augmented classrooms.
Stewart also stands out because she understands that, for a 6th grader, sharing your work with peers and perhaps receiving positive comments from others in the world is empowering, not dangerous (how empowering is it to show your work only to the teacher and receive feedback only in terms of a grade or a gold star?)
Of course it is important for teachers to moderate comments, protect the identity of students, and to shield students from inappropriate material. But far too many teachers, administrators, and school districts restrict Web access out of the wrong fears. With a small amount of intelligent supervision, none of these dangers is likely to affect students. Without experience in online publishing, peer collaboration, and world-wide learning networks, students face far greater dangers than the much overhyped stranger danger and the real but easily avoidable presence of unwholesome material online.
The far greater danger is that of preparing today’s students en masse for a repeat of life in the twentieth century, when homework was for the eyes of teachers only, where learning was delivered exclusively by an expert standing at the front of the room instead of sometimes constructed collaboratively by a network, and where students were taught to be effective but largely passive cogs in an industrial machine, rather than active and intelligent nodes in a networked learning society.
I interviewed Stewart using Skype video. I also corresponded with her via email and this is how she introduced herself:
I’m a 6th Grade Language Arts and History teacher at Cary Academy, a 6-12th grade independent school in Cary, NC with a 1:1 laptop program. The school’s mission is to be a learning community focused on Discovery, Innovation, Collaboration, and Excellence. Our school blog portal is Discovery Blogs. Here are links to my class blog and a list of web-based tools we use in our classroom. Feel free to contact me via email. I also keep a personal reflection blog about teaching. I love being a part of the thoughtful conversations and resource sharing on the English Companion Ning. It’s a wonderful example of what an online professional community can be. Twitter is a great tool for educators. Many teachers who tweet post links to articles and uesful information. Twitter is also a way to connect with other teachers with whom you’d like to collaborate. If you’re looking for teachers to start following on Twitter, I suggest the Twitter for Teacher wiki or the Educators on Twitter spreadsheet. You can find me on Twitter at @msstewart.