Monday, May 12, 2008

Are you really there??

I am trembling as I write this. I am reading carefully chosen words and sentences that have powerful meanings. I am reading online conversations and interactions and opinions that come from teachers and students. I am wanting to reach out and make everything right in the world, make people get on with each other, make people realize there are other people out there and that the world does not revolve around themselves. I am wanting to cut through complacency and excuses, cut through boredom and inactivity, slice through selfish attitudes. I want to demand engagement and higher order involvement of people I have never met, students I will never have in my class. I want to tell everyone that life is too short to be making excuses, life is too short to do nothing and life is too short to be invisible.

Our Horizon Project 2008 is in its last 2 weeks of student activity. The pressure is on to complete personal videos and wiki editing, teachers and students are getting tired, nerves are taut. There is still time for everyone to pull together, make a last effort to communicate and collaborate, exchange video clips, add some content to the wiki and finish on a high. However, now is the time when inactivity and involvement with the project really starts to be noticed.

Why are some participants more engaged than others? Is it technical ability, or lack of? Is it an unwillingness to be part of an online learning community? Is it just sheer confusion, an inability to understand the requirements and a feeling of being overwhelmed? Is the project too hard? Is it that they just don't care about grades, team members, the challenge??

In a recent blog post on our project Ning, Vicki Davis wrote,

"We have some students contributing, communicating, responding and participating. And we have some students who simply AREN'T THERE!

We are entering a new age in our society with Face to Face (F2F) is simply not enough because so many of us are communicating computer to computer (also called Peer to Peer or P2P). I say that we need effective "techno-personal" skills."

In response, student Jonathan C wrote,
"I find it slightly ridiculous. I've been busting my tail off to try and get the C3D group to work, but right now, the most complete page is the main page. A few of the pages still have very little information, and people are only editing small things without contributing anything substantial.

I am getting quite angry because of the inactivity of my peers. People are slacking off because they get out of school in less than a week, and while I agree that summer is nice, they have a responsibility to the rest of their team. I have seen pages with very little editing in the last 5 days, and i have not gotten any responses from anyone, except Mrs. Lindsay.

The students who are involved, yet do not contribute are not part of the effective Horizon Project. One of my friends commented that they would like to get rid of the people who were not contributing so they could learn who was reliable, and who wasn't. They need to learn that there are real people on the other end of the internet connection, who are pushing to get something done."

Then today Jonathan wrote a blog post titled, "Day 57 - Desperation" in which he said,
"If you are reading this right now, I thank you, because no one seems to understand the concept of communication. We have all these problems regarding completion, because people are wondering what they are supposed to be doing. Well, if you don't check the discussion on the wiki pages, or if you don't check your group, well, then it is awfully hard to know much of anything, now isn't it?

Because people are not taking the time to look into what they are supposed to be doing, or they are not taking time to contact their project managers, there is a little bit of a problem, in terms of horizon project completion. Project Managers and Assistant Project Managers can only do so much. Sub groups need to be taking the initiative, and they need to start working together to solve problems. No matter how much cyber urging the PM does, if you do not check your discussion on the wiki, or if you do not check your main page, than the group is doomed to failure.

Another problem that I am seeing across the board, is a problem with activity and motivation. A few students are working because their grade depends on this assignment. Others are contributing because they feel it is their duty, not to let others down. Others aren't contributing because they don't know what to do. Others aren't contributing because they don't have the tech, or do not have the grasp of English. Other's simply aren't . There is not much that someone can do to urge someone who has no interest in the project. You can't yell at them in person, you can't plead with them, you can't do anything. They simply disappear. They see that email notification of a post on their Ning, but they won't check it. They will see that their was a comment on a discussion board, but they won't check it. Follow up is key to the survival of this project, and the fact that people are in la la land, is not helping."

If anyone had any doubts about the benefits of project-based learning, global collaboration and relevance to real-world scenarios, you need look no further than this project. Students and teachers who are committed in value and time, and students like Jonathan who DO get it and ARE VISIBLE.

Vicki talks about the 'currency of reputation', and addresses student complacency with this:
"What would your currency of reputation be? Although now, in high school, you can take on this project and literally goof off, take the C or F and move on with your life. Very soon, you'll develop a reputation as a non-existent person who cannot be counted on."

Is the Horizon Project/Flat Classroom Project a microcosm of real life? In many ways I believe it is, there are achievers, conscientious contributors, excellent communicators, creative thinkers, and there are many who do not put in the effort, for what ever reason do not participate at all or not often enough for us to really see what their strengths are except that they are just not there.

How can we change this? How can we change the world? Is our current education system(s) promoting effective global communication and collaboration? Are these skills valued enough to be part of what we do in schools on a regular basis?

I have plenty of questions.....I do not have as many answers. For myself I lack understanding sometimes, as a highly motivated person, of those who lack interest in exploring new terrain and taking on different learning modes.
Do you, as the reader of this blog have any answers?

A special thank you to Jonathan from Glenbrook Academy for freely sharing his thoughts and concerns about the project with us.

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Harold said...

Julie - I have to ask this question because I have not been following the Horizon Project. Is the project based upon each student's interests or is it a general class "will do" assignment? That will teach them digital literacy and Web2.0 skills.

If a student is interested and passionate about the subject(s) you are teaching in the Horizon Project they will participate fully. If they are not interested in it. (Perhaps they would rather turn a wrench on a car or move around on an athletic playing field, etc.) then you will get minimal participation to no participation from those students.

There are too many variable when comes to teaching kids (as we all know-stating the obvious here) to have all students in a class vested in what we are attempting to teach them.

What we are teaching may be the best thing since sliced bread, but if they are not buying in and are passionate about other things, we can only lead them to the water, they have to drink.

So enjoy the ones that are passionate about the Horizon Project, teach students the responsibility of completing a task even when they don't like it, teach team members that there will always be team members that don't pull their weight and how to handle that frustrating situation. For those who do not share the passion of the Horizon Project, find their passion and individualize (hard to do in a class of 20-30 kids) their participation to meet their skill and interest level.

I don't know if that made sense, but there is no easy answer/response to your blog. Harold :)

Julie Lindsay said...

Harold, yes! your comments have made perfect sense. The Horizon Project is a non-elective project for all classes involved this semester. In other words, it is not an extra-curricular activity that students choose to do. I think this is significant as we are trying to embed this type of project-based global learning into the curriculum in order to raise awareness and provide experiential learning situations using technology and exploring futuristic scenarios with technology.
Therefore, you are right, we cannot mandate motivation, and yes we cannot make them drink at the fountain unless they want to. However we can keep impressing on them how this is different to being in a classroom with others face-to-face. Being online there are very few visuals, very few signals from others apart from what is posted online via the Ning, via the wiki. So, if nothing is posted, then it feels like there is really no-one there at all, whereas in a normal class setting at least the person would be sitting there, in sight.....I am trying to draw the distinction and continue to make a case for heightened digital citizenship skills.

Anonymous said...

If we took out the international, online flavor of this project, it exactly mirrors the age-old comments of teachers and students in cooperative/collaborative projects. I have been watching all your projects for several years and they are very impressive so it's interesting to read your comments today.
Part of the problem comes from student motivation surely. As Jonathan points out, the extrinsic motivation varies from school to school. As Harold points out, the intrinsic motivation varies from students.

Is this a new or growing problem this year?

It seems like a problem of growth. By extending the project, you've lost much of your control over the extrinsic motivators. By involving teachers with less experience and possibly less commitment because they are less invested in the development, you've also lost some of the ability to urge students on and hook into their intrinsic motivation.

I’m looking forward to your reflections when the project is over this year. Do you organize smaller teams next year? Fewer classes? Change the rules?

At the very least, the kids who stick with it will learn a lot about managing any project and what they can expect in group dynamics.

Good luck!

Julie Lindsay said...

Pat, thanks for your comments. Yes, we have some serious reflection to do after this project. Maybe we have let it get too big. The early days of knowing all students and being able to watch everything online are gone with this one. But at the same time we are pushing for all educators to be able to work at the higher engaged level and to value extrinsic rewards.

Unknown said...

I think this is important to talk about whether you are doing cooperative projects within your walls or something larger and global. Unfortunately, it seems to permeate much of society. How do we change this? I have had to require wiki discussions to be posted with responses to be graded in order to push members to be there (groups had members from different classes so not all face to face). There are still some who are not engaged and just going through the motions. Would they do that no matter the assignment?

Anonymous said...

Julie, I've seen the same phenomenon on all of YES I Can! Science's collaborative projects. About a third of our International Space Station Project participants never made it online. My colleagues and I e-mail, phone and even hop in our cars or on a plane to see if F2F contact will increase engagement. In some cases it does; in others it simply doesn't. We have encountered some students who may outwardly show some kind of interest but when push comes to shove lack the will to divest enough of themselves to fully engage in any part of their lives. I sense a feeling of despair in these students, an unstated attitude of "it won't make any difference anyway so why bother". I don't know what the answer is, but you've hit on the problem - they are not there, not fully participating in their own lives.

Unknown said...

Julie what a great, open and honest post. Moving in the directions of international collaboration and connection does not automatically engage all students and make all of them motivated and ready to compete and collaborate internationally. This is something valuable that people new to this side of teaching need to know or they will be sorely disappointed when they jump into a project of this type for the first time. Thanks for your openness and honesty. As always, you are a refreshing, original voice I am so glad that I read.

Julie Lindsay said...

@Louise, once again we need to look at intrinsic value from the students point of view as well as the ability of the teacher to motivate. But at the same time we need to look at ownership of learning as it applies to 'institutions' we put young people into to 'learn'. Something just doesn't add up..are there too many demands on students? Does collaboration as a skill wane in significance to passing the next mathematics test? The process of learning rather than the end results does not get enough emphasis in most educational systems today.

@Diane, Wow, you have some strong comments here, '...not fully participating in their own lives'! what a statement....maybe a little unfair, but I see this every day. This is an excellent philosophical discussion, as what does participating in your own life really mean? Does the meaning change with age? Does it change with a different culture? with economic circumstances?
Working in the Middle East of course there is no economic advantage (for most) to doing well at school...good career...better money etc., as they already have the what is left? This is such an interesting place to be from that point of view because if you have most people with financial security, then what else can you do with your life apart from something that excites and interests you! But to find this you have to be participating and be involved, not sitting back.

@Clarence, thank you for your kind comments. You are right, and Diane's comments reflected this as well, we can never expect 100% full participation and engagement on anything, and international projects have their own unique challenges. As teachers and facilitators of this experiential learning we guide students to where the great (even life-changing) experiences may be as learners, encourage and support and hope that something wonderful will grow. It will of course with some, and these are the ones that make it all worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

Julie, yes I made some strong statements and they make me very sad. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying for a minute that disengaged students are apathetic. I think most students can find a passion for something. The problem is complex:
-their parents don't understand them (I know - same old...same old...);
-school doesn't engage them;
-society's problems are in their face 24/7 - homelessness, corporate greed and corruption, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, AIDS, SARS, West Nile virus, avion flu, all sorts of pandemics, starvation, hurricanes, cyclones, earthquakes, global warming, resource depletion and on and on and on...

I think some of our students are plain "shell-shocked". They need to hold back and put up walls in order to protect themselves. For some, society's problems must seem so huge that hope is not an option - there is nothing but despair. Can we blame those students for asking "what's the point"?

Somehow in everything we do, we need to get across the message that that individual actions on a mass scale can help change our world for the better. Your project is a step in the right direction. Students can make their voices heard around the world. Unfortunately for some that lesson will be learned after the project is over.

Betsy said...

It certainly IS difficult to figure out why some people do not get involved. Sometimes there are technical issues, but I've also never been in any face-to-face committee meeting, classroom, or training program where every single person in the room was actively engaged in the discussion.

Part of the problem particularly with a virtual space is that one's participation is measured only in something very active. In a physical classroom you can easily look to your peers and nod you head if you agree with what they say. Maybe you can take a few notes that you don't share with the others. Some students will need time to pull their thinking together and feel confident about it. For many it takes courage to speak in a group. On the other hand, some who don't want to speak are more comfortable working virtually.

If you work internationally or in a multi-cultural enviroment you may find that students from individualistic cultures may be more likely to jump into an online conversation alone than those from more collectivist cultures, and those who might not feel confident about their use of written English may also feel less comfortable making a written contribution.

So, yes there are many variables to consider including many that don't relate to the content or the students' interest in the topics.

testecarla said...


Thanks for sharing your views and frustrations openly. We tend to be so optimistic and enthusiastic about our collaborative projects that sometimes the drawbacks are neglected. One question. Who chooses the topics? how are the groups formed? How is the process of project manager selection? I guess that these are all questions that might be reviewed and reflected upon for future projects. Also, I keep thinking that maybe our expectation aren't just too high and standardized in the sense that we expect all learners to have the same engagement and react proactively? I totally understand that this is a team work and they should learn to work collaboratively. These are essential skills they are learning, but maybe there are some clues you can all take from the questions I asked...

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