Ning in the time of Swine Flu*


Just over a month ago I wrote a post on the ning I am involved in setting up.  I’ve been trying to get back here for the last two weeks to update our progress but crazy things have been happening.  A month ago I could not have begun to imagine just how far we would advance in such a short time.  A month ago I would probably have predicted that by now we would be travelling gently with our trial group and be waiting for this week’s VCAA exams to be over before launching to the wider year 12 cohort and their teachers.  How wrong could I be!  (and apart from a few sick kids it’s all good)…

So the ning was created on 30 April.   Between then and the middle of May I worked on the content and  figured out some of the structural issues.  I added a couple of polls, one from Poll Everywhere and one from Polldaddy.  I started bookmarking study skills related sites to the library’s Delicious account and embedded a feed from delicious of the most recent 10 sites.  Kate and I both added blog posts and Kate uploaded some useful templates.  A few other teachers heard about what we were doing and expressed interest in being part of the project so we invited them to join and look around.  Kate set up her Psychology group and another teacher started a biology group.  We aim to have a group for each individual subject that is taught in year 12.  In a few cases that will be one class and one teacher but being a large school most subjects have multiple classes and teachers.  The students will benefit by having access to other teachers and students in the same subject.

We had our second stint of the AGQTP Building the Capacity of Professional Learning Leaders program (PLLP) on 18 & 19 May.  That time was invaluable because for some of it we were able to work in our evidence group – it is a rare and wonderful thing that the four of us can devote significant time without other forces diverting our attention.  We all agreed that baby-steps and slowly were the way to go [oh, how innocent we were] and together we decided to trial the ning with a group of students – Kate’s year 12 psychology class was the logical choice.  The game plan at that stage was to see if and how the ning helped those students with their mid-year psychology exam and then if it was all going well to roll it out to interested teachers and their students when semester 2 classes commenced in the middle of June.

On 21 May Kate and I presented the ning to her year 12 psychology class.  A link to a Google form (for some baseline data on how the students revised for exams, how confident they were about their upcoming psychology exam and what methods of communication they currently use with teachers, classmates, friends and family) was waiting for them in their internal email inboxes, once the form was completed they would be sent the invitation to join the ning.  The students appeared quite interested and about half of them joined in the following 24 hours.

It was what happened next that really sent the ning viral!

On Monday 25 May at 3.45pm it was announced to staff that the school had its second confirmed case of swine flu and that the DEECD, on the advice of the DHS was closing the school down until at least the end of the week.

Year 12 teachers flew into a panic.  There was only three weeks of unit 3 left, including exam week.  Most had completed their courses but many had SACs (School Assessed Coursework) to complete and all the sciences plus maths and accounting had exams to prepare for.  Getting in contact with students was paramount and it became very difficult to get a line out on the phone.

Immediately Kate wanted to get the rest of her class onto the ning  so we had to let them know how to access their internal email from home (not the easiest thing as many had no idea they even had an internal email address, much less how to access it).  We decided to use their personal email addresses which Kate had previously collected and I got over my discomfort at sending out invitations to hookmeupxx@whatevermail.com and the like.  [Note to self: write a blog post on the ning on the advisability of having an email address that you wouldn’t be embarrassed for your grandmother to see!].

Kate conducted her first scheduled psychology chat Tuesday evening (it had been planned the week before) and she was able to relieve some of the panic that was happening.

Now the other teachers already on the ning wanted to get their students on too but the email situation made this difficult.  Other teachers heard about what Kate has been able to do with her class and started demanding  to get involved too, even some for whom email is a novelty!

The PLLP group meet and we decide we have to take this opportunity to open it up to all interested year 12 teachers.  We recognise that in the face of adversity we have been handed a golden opportunity, we’d be crazy to miss it.

I ran two sessions for teachers to show them around the ning, explain what it is and how we want it used.  For some it was their first ever experience with social networking.  I’d already prepared a Google form for teachers to provide data for our research so like Kate’s class I insisted that they complete the form before getting an invite.  The response was huge.  By Friday afternoon 20 teachers were on board and 11 subject groups had been created although we still only had Kate’s 23 students.  That afternoon I sent an invitation to join and an email briefly introducing the ning to every year 12 student.  One of our chemistry teachers then emailed his students (he had been clever enough to collect their addresses on the Monday when we only had one student confirmed with swine flu, just in case) instructions on accessing their internal email from home.  A small trickle of memberships to approve started appearing in my inbox, including a couple from students not in the psychology or chemistry class.

On Monday school returned to normal but the enthusiasm for the ning did not wane.  I spoke to five classes, showing them around and getting them to join and we soon had over 160 members.  Students who for some reason had not received an invitation approached me while others complained that some of their subjects are not yet represented.

The enthusiasm of the students is incredible – they are loving personalising their pages, collecting friends and leaving comments.  But they are also getting involved with subject discussions and helping each other out which is exactly what we hoped for.  Looking at the latest activity it is clear that visiting the ning is a popular activity and it applies equally to a huge range of students from the ultra-studious chemistry and specialist maths types to the less-academically inclined VCAL literacy kids.  One student proclaimed ning “Better than facebook”!  The students (and teachers) are online in class time, study time, and in the evenings.

So here we are.  The PLLP group is continuing to look at study skills resources for students and teachers and embedding them in the ning.  The groups are creating their own momentum with teachers adding content and the students demanding it if they aren’t.  This week I’m going to focus on getting more teachers involved, there are still a number of subjects without groups.  We’ll have to wait till after exam week to actively seek student enrolments but word of mouth has already been working in our favour in that regard.  I think I can cautiously suggest that this project is a success.  There is already considerable demand for a year 11 ning which I’m sure will happen early next term.  Our main challenge is in keeping the content new, fresh and relevant but I’m optimistic that the students will keep the pressure on their teachers to provide.  Some of these teachers are resistant to technology – maybe ning will be the catalyst for them to shift.


*with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez


The Ning’s the thing

I’m part of a group from my school participating in the AGQTP Building the  Capacity of Professional Learning Leaders program (PLLP).  Our project is based around improving the study habits of our year 12 students and we’re focusing on two strategies.  One is to promote the use of John Munro’s Study Skills resources by teachers in their classes and the other is to set up a Ning to be used by students and teachers as a Virtual Learning Community.

My main focus will be the Ning.  The idea came from Adrian Camm’s Physics VLC which I wrote about earlier.  This Ning will differ in that it will only be for students at my school but will eventually (hopefully) cover all subject areas.

It is my first experience of setting up a Ning although I am a member of several others.  The setting up process was very straight forward, with only one or two surprises, although I’m sure there will be more hiccups along the way.  I’ve started by inviting the three other members of the PLLP group.  It’s been gratifying to see how quickly they have found their way around and started posting discussions, uploading avatars and customising their pages.  The first surprise came when I discovered that Anne had invited another colleague to join the Ning and she had accepted…and I had no knowledge of this.  I’ve now changed the settings so that I do have to moderate new members.  One thing we don’t want when this is opened up to students is them inviting friends who are not part of our cohort.  On the upside is the enthusiasm of Kate who has gone from not knowing what an avatar is to regularly checking in to see what’s been updated.  She says she can now understand why the kids love Facebook so much!

One of the discussions I’ve started is whether we should use photos or avatars on the site.  On one hand I think that given it is a closed community, just for our students and teachers, we should use photos to assist us recognising each other around the campus (900+ students on site).  On the other hand I think one of the goals of the ning is for us to promote safe online behaviour by modelling good practice – that would suggest that avatar’s are preferable.  What do you think?

I emailed the Ning team and asked to have the ads removed as we are an educational institution and they responded quickly and positively so that was very pleasing.

I’m still figuring out some of the structural stuff.  I’ve enabled chat but it doesn’t appear to be working from school although from home it does.  How do you add the Welcome page material for example.  Do we need all the sections – events, videos, photos etc.  What profile questions should we use to ensure the users are authentic?  Will we insist on using full proper names not nicknames?  How will we organise students getting invited to join? Etc, etc…

Love to hear your opinion on any of this, watch this space for further developments.