My school division has concerns about student safety when it comes to how the internet is used. Don’t get me wrong. We are far more fortunate than many other school districts as we do allow student access to various forms of social media. This is something colleagues of mine went to bat for this past school year and I, in my new position in the fall, will continue to make the case to those vocal individuals who feel social media is interfering with learning. Our divison does tend to stay behind tall gates, however. This gated community philosophy has gained our division the reputation of being elitist, that we think we are better then the rest of our province because we are the largest school division in Saskatchewan. This is not the case. Our gated community philosophy has everything to do with a pervasive concern for the possible negative consequences of opening the gates.
With this philosophy in mind, we are strongly encouraged to use the Learning Management System (LMS) provided by the school division. Insulated from the world or not, the LMS has some great features. A virtual classroom can be set up in minutes. Being tied to our Student Information System (SIS), the classroom can be populated with students in a particular class and resynchronized to the current SIS information at the press of a button. There are a variety of “web parts” (similar to widgets) that can be placed within the virtual classroom space. Wiki’s can be automatically generated. A blog spot can be created for the teacher and each of the students through this automated wizard. Parents of the students included in the virtual classroom can automatically be given access to the space.
One down side to these virtual classrooms is, as a general rule, student access to the information ends at the end of the semester. If they ever wanted to review their blog posts or wiki creations, well, they can’t. Ownership of the site belongs to the creator, the teacher. The system is also set up for the teacher to “roll over” the site for the next semester’s use, stripping previous students’ access. This would be one good reason to have the students create their own spaces to learn within. Should schools control the student learning spaces?
Another down side with these LMS created virtual classrooms is that there is absolutely no means to allow a non-school division member access to one of these spaces, even if the creator wanted to invite them in to read or participate in the discussions. I do believe that we should be educating our students to be critical consumers of all that is available on the internet. This would include how and who we interact with through various media. “Know your audience” is the old adage that I feel applies to this situation as well. With this in mind, allowing the outside world to participate on a student blog would be an excellent opportunity for the student to learn from many sources. The student needs to possess the skills to be able to determine if the assistance from the outside world is credible. Isn’t this just adding to the students’ learning? Is learning how to determine if a blog comment is reliable the new hidden curriculum?
While I have been considered the system expert on virtual classrooms, I have admitted to my learners (the teachers within our school division) that some of the features within our LMS are not that user friendly. Including some of the more content rich experiences does require more (or more complex) steps than many of our staff feel comfortable completing. I still see value in the LMS generated virtual classroom. Being tied into each school’s (as well as our school division’s) portal system, students have easy access to these sites. Also, there is still value in having a private and safe environment for students to be able to express ideas and discuss points. There is also value to including people from outside our school division in discussions with our students. This is where I have moved toward a philosophy of balance between the LMS and the many web 2.0 tools that exist out on the web these days. What are your school district’s policies regarding use of web 2.0 tools?
Today, on the third day of our seminar on Social Media & Open/Networked Learning, Dr. Alec Couros gave us an in-depth tour of wikispaces.com. I have had limited exposure to this site, only as a participant with one site during a spring class this year, so this deeper look at how wikispaces.com can be used was appreciated. One major revelation was that K-12 educators can create sites that are private and ad-free for no cost. Now, if I can create a wiki that is protected and still invite outsiders into it to participate in portions of class activities, doesn’t this make the gated vs open debate even more obsolete? Doesn’t wikispaces provide a middle ground that can satisfy the fear of some and still allow our students to learn from the larger community that exists in the digital world (and is more than willing to be an assistance)? How does your school district feel about and deal with internet safety for students?
When teaching about virtual classroom use, I spend a significant amount of time promoting blogs and wiki’s as I feel their ability to provide opportunity for discussion and collaboration outside the regular school hours in a way that allows more voices to be heard. I feel this classroom interaction deepens the learning and promotes more students to be engaged in their learning. Wouldn’t opening up these conversations to more bring relevance and potency to the discussions and cause the students to become even more engaged?
Photo courtesy of giopuo http://www.flickr.com/photos/giopuo/4493890179/