Marica's meanderings

Friday, January 28, 2005

Our stories and how we tell them

I have been an avid journaller for many years. Writing has helped me deal with many life challenges. There is something amazingly satisfying in getting thoughts down on paper. Over the past few years I have tried to move away from solely using the written word to express myself and I have been experimenting with visual journalling. As I am not what I consider a natural artist I must admit I still find comfort in adding text to my visual creations. I have come to realise that I am using all these various techniques to tell a story. I now collect things because I may want to use them in my next journal entry. I always carry a small notebook in which I can write things down, or draw. I have started taking lots of photographs. I use all of these things to create my story.

This last Christmas I received the most incredible present ever from my children - Zofia, Damian and Mira. They handmade a book for me. The opening page read Welcome to 2004. We would like to take you on a journey through your year to remind you of what you have achieved. As I read my book the tears poured down my face. They had used emails I had written to them while I have been away on my various trips. They had gone into my laptop and printed out photos I had taken. They had collected all sorts of bits and pieces to help them to tell the story they wanted me to read. I will treasure this book forever. I wish I could share it with you here. I could take photos of it but it somehow wouldn't be the same. I lingered over every page and I loved the feeling of turning each page to see what was going to happen next. I had lived the experience but they had pieced it together from their perspective.

I realise as I look back at my old journals that they are treasures as well. They tell my story - all about the ups and downs of my life. They hold a collection of all sorts of memorabilia. I hope someone will read them when I am no longer here and have a sense of who I was and what my life was like.

As I have been developing my skills in visual journalling I have spent a lot of time learning from others both online and through books, from many talented people who have been prepared to share their work and ideas. A favourite online journaller of mine is Danny Gregory. He describes his blog Everyday Matters as a series of occasional essays on creative things, journal making, drawing, etc. intended to challenge, inspire and perplex.

A fellow FLLinNZ colleague, Stephen Harlow, is investigating storytelling and its role in e-education. He writes:

Human beings are collectors, in part, because our collections tell stories about ourselves.

One of the activities Helen Barrett asks participants to undertake in her e-portfolio workshop is to reflect on their collections experiences.

Many of us are "packrats" or habitual collectors, and there are often deep roots to our collection experiences.

This has particular significance to me after I spent all of yesterday with my youngest daughter Mira (she is 17 years old) clearing out her bedroom in preparation for her move away from home. She is going to study a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a major in Graphic Design at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design in Auckland. As we went through all her papers there was this ever increasing pile of things that had to be kept - this was non negotiable as far as she was concerned. These things all spoke of who Mira was and her development. There were things I had kept for her and then there was her own collection. Everyone has these collections and they are priceless.

Portfolios have been with us for a very long time. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s or earlier recognize portfolios as reincarnations of the large memory boxes or drawers where our parents collected starred spelling tests, lacy valentines, science fair posters, early attempts at poetry, and (of course) the obligatory set of plaster hands. Each item was selected by our parents because it represented our acquisition of a new skill or our feelings of accomplishment. Perhaps an entry was accompanied by a special notation of praise from a teacher or maybe it was placed in the box just because we did it.

We formed part of our identity from the contents of these memory boxes. We recognized each piece and its association with a particular time or experience. We shared these collections with grandparents to reinforce feelings of pride and we reexamined them on rainy days when friends were unavailable for play. Reflecting on the collection allowed us to attribute importance to these artifacts, and by extension to ourselves, as they gave witness to the story of our early school experiences.

Our parents couldn't possibly envision that these memory boxes would be the inspiration for an innovative way of thinking about children's learning. These collections, lovingly stored away on our behalf, are the genuine exemplar for documenting children's learning over time. But now these memory boxes have a different meaning. It's not purely private or personal, although the personal is what gives power to what they can mean.
Hebert, Elizabeth (2001) The Power of Portfolios. Jossey-Bass, p.ix-x

The trend now is to talk about e-portfolios and digital storytelling. Another trend which I have been introduced to as I go on the hunt for bits and pieces to add to my own journals and handmade books is the world of scrapbooking. Last weekend I attended a class at Kiwiscraps on how to create a visual story on canvas. I cannot believe how big this business has grown in the last six months since I discovered its existence. Now you see scrapbooking supplies appearing everywhere and lots of people talking about it.

One of the Hot Trends for 2005 is Life Caching. It would seem that we in NZ are following the same trends:

As we learn to click to save every moment of our lives, data will become the stuff that memories are made of. "Life caching will become a given," says Reinier Evers, whose company coined the term. "Consumers will come to expect [that] they can relive every experience they've ever had and have instant access to any life collection they've ever built."

Memory making has been big business for a while. Scrapbooking has been one of the hottest trends in recent years-the $2.5 billion industry doubled since 2001, according to the Hobby Industry Association, and is still growing.

The terminology may be new, the technology involved may be new but the fundamental concept is far from different. As a human race we have always had a need to tell stories. Portfolios, whatever format they take, are becoming more important in both our professional and personal lives. Within education the use of portfolios as evidence of development and achievement is fast becoming normal at all levels.

The other day my youngest sister told me how she was expected to make comments in her son's portfolio. She was asked to write about what he did and achieved during the holiday break. My nephew Niko will be two in February and his portfolio is part of his records for the creche he is attending two days a week. Again this is not a new concept. Mothers are reknown for keeping records and presenting them to their children at the most opportune moments in their lives. No good deed goes unpunished.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Heard it on the grapevine

I know what you are thinking - what does a song made famous by Gladys Knight and the Pips have to do with anything? Read on and find out...

I bought a newspaper yesterday (as you already know this is now an uncommon act for me) and as I lay on the floor reading it this morning with my cup of coffee I had to laugh at an item that appeared in the Oddspot column of the World News. It was headed Thank you, Yahoo:

A Romanian couple who met on the Internet have named their first baby Yahoo as a sign of gratitude. Cornelia and Nonu Dragoman, from Transylvania, decided they were meant for each other after a three-month Net relationship, a Bucharest newspaper reported. They married and about christmastime had a boy, whom they named after the web's popular portal. "We named him Lucian Yahoo after my father and the Net, the main beacon of my life." Mrs Dragoman said.
The Dominion Post

The internet has permeated the normal everyday aspects of our lives whether people are aware of it or not.

It made me think about how my foray into finding out more about how communication technologies are impacting on the way we live, work and learn had an unexpected bonus - I met my husband.

I have been studying my Master of Communication degree at Victoria University of Wellington. The classes for this degree were unlike any others I had ever taken before. We had students based in Wellington who attended the lecture in the usual f2f way. However, we also had distance students participating in the class via the internet in real time. Our on-campus room was set up with a camera to record everything and we had to speak into a microphone anytime we wanted to contribute anything in class. I was fascinated by the experiences of the distance students so I communicated with them by email. This was my first flexible learning experience as a student and I was hooked. It turned out that my future husband was amongst this group of distance students.

Thanks to flexible learning we communicated, connected and were married in April 2003. You'll be pleased to know though that we were both physically present for the wedding ceremony – the internet was nowhere to be seen.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Tech Angels

I suddenly realised today while I was eating my lunch at my desk and reading online Google News New Zealand and Stuff that I have changed.

I can't remember the last time I read a newspaper in hard copy. All my news information now comes from the internet, the odd TV news programme I manage to see, or from the radio as I drive to and from work. Sadly, there isn't a piece of newsprint in sight. Part of this shift is related to time or more explicitly the lack of it. No longer can I afford the luxury of lying on the floor, spreading out the newspaper and reading it from beginning to end. Now what I do is read news headlines in between doing everything else online and then decide whether or not I want to click on the hyperlink to read the full report. I suppose this is what I also did before when I read the hard copy paper - I scanned the pages, made a decision and turned the page if I didn't want to read the articles - but I wasn't aware of it.

Somehow reading the news used to be a very different experience - there was the black ink that rubbed off, the messy crumpled pages that never folded up again as neatly as when you started reading, or the soggy paper you had to dry out before you could read it, the smell of the ink which always made me sneeze and the overall visual sensation of seeing these big sheets of paper spread out before me packed with text and images. Everyday I would read the Births and Deaths columns and now I rely on receiving this news via telephone, email, text, possibly an electronic card and even through online chat. Things have definitely changed. Can you imagine having your fish and chips wrapped up in a laptop!

Now to the real purpose of this posting...

One dark winter's evening last year as I was driving home from work I heard a report on the National Programme on the Tech Angels initiative. To hear the programme you need to have Real Audio Player installed. Once installed you only have to click on the Listen To this Programme link. Today the Tech Angels crossed my path again as I read an article in the Education Gazette entitled Where angels tread:

Tech Angel logo
When teachers at Wellington Girls' College want to use ICT in their lessons they know exactly who to turn to - their students.

Wellington Girls' College is a state secondary school for girls established in 1883 and it happens to be the school I went to for my secondary schooling. I am proud to say that they are taking a professional development lead role in using information and communication technologies (ICT) within the school.

Tech Angels are students who offer their time to coach and support teachers in their use of ICT, mentor their peers and attend to computer-related problems in class or across the school. In return, the angels receive extra ICT training and technology support from a tertiary education provider, Natcoll Design Technology, and staff at CWA New Media.

The initiative is based on a similar programme the principal Margaret McLeod learnt about in a British corporation where younger staff passed on their ICT expertise to older colleagues.

McLeod says the college is committed to providing the best education for its students, and central to this is teachers' ICT support so that technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning.

This made me think about how this model could be applied to the professional development of teaching staff in the tertiary sector. This is not your typical coaching and mentoring relationship because there could be a very significant age difference between the two parties involved and the person with all the expertise is the younger of the two. It depends on what your personal teaching philosophy is as to how an older teacher may cope with this situation. I believe as a teacher I learn so much from my students and I never think of myself as the all-knowing being that is going to spout a whole lot of information that students are required to digest and process. At heart I am very much a social constructivist and that is probably why I find the web such an exciting teaching environment. As you may have picked up from my blog entries I am interested in how we can create a meaningful "human" learning environment online.

I am constantly reminded of all the things I have learnt from my students and my own children regarding technology. For example, I'll never forget the day some of my students taught me all about Napster and what I needed to do to download it. In no time at all I joined them as an avid downloader of music files for as long as this opportunity lasted. I was really disappointed when Napster was shut down.

Tech Angels also fits in with the traditional Maori concept of ako which places both the teacher and the student at the centre of the learning process. Hemara writes in his investigation of traditional and contemporary Maori pedagogies:

The processes of learning were reciprocal - both teachers and students learnt from each other. Teaching/learning, experience and experimentation were co-operative ventures in which everyone involved learnt something new.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? It makes sense doesn't it? One of the things I see so often is the fear many teachers feel in tackling the challenges of using technology in their practice. We should always be thinking of how we can work together to share what we know with others so they too can feel empowered and supported as they practice these new skills.

At the moment Wellington Girls' College is considering including provision for wireless access to the LAN and it is actively considering encouraging all their students (approximately 1,300) to use laptops as an integrated aspect of their learning activities.

Hemara, W. (2000). Maori Pedagogies: A View from the Literature. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

A picture is worth 1000 words

Is it really? Why do we always have captions with our images then? Images communicate powerful messages but not always those intended by the sender. They also invoke strong emotions.

The Scream by Edvard MunchThis image depicts exactly how I'm feeling at the moment and I decided to share it with you. I'm sure you'll all recognise it.

My day has been spent trying to make things work on my computer and the frustration level is very high at the moment.

I know I have mentioned this before but... here I go again... I can understand why people get fed up and don't want to go anywhere near a computer and the software contained within it. I have wasted precious hours today trying to make things work when I could have been doing something a lot more productive like going for a walk in the fresh air. Screaming seems to be a fantastic option at the moment. I hope the neighbours don't mind.

I was walking along the road with two of my friends. Then the sun set. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red and I felt a tinge of Melancholy - a sucking pain beneath my heart. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Over the blue black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on and I stood again trembling with fright and I felt as if a loud unending scream were piercing nature.
Edvard Munch 1892

Saturday, January 08, 2005

The new black

Back in December while attending the 2004 ASCILITE (The Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education) conference in Perth I went to a presentation by James Farmer on his paper Communication dynamics: Discussion boards, weblogs and the development of communities of inquiry in online learning environment. I was particularly drawn to this presentation because of its focus on communication. I hold a strong belief that communication is at the heart of our effectiveness as contact and distance teachers and learners, although I do agree with James that it is not the only contributor:

The social, economic and cultural context, expectations and attitudes of teachers and learners to the process play enormous roles in defining the success or otherwise of any learning experience whether it is online or face to face. Nevertheless, while a learning experience may succeed in spite of the challenges presented by one of these factors, it is almost inconceivable that it would do so without successful ommunication.

Being a skilled communicator is very underrated and undervalued. As teachers move into an online environment very few are encouraged to explore this new communication medium to find out what changes they will need to make to get their messages across clearly. We no longer have the traditional body language cues, we can't easily "read" the people we are working with, we need to be careful as to how we compose our messages so that they are not misunderstood and most of all we have the challenge of engaging our learners without any kind of physical presence. We need to be aware how to do things differently so that our communication is effective. Just think about it - we are still working with the same kind of people but now we have some added challenges in creating our learning environment and a meaningful connection with our learners - those of distance and technology.

Two things spring to mind from all this. One is that it is really important that we, as teachers, experience being online learners ourselves. The second is that the primary focus of professional development should not be on how to use the technology (this is the easy part) as much as showing us the possibilities of what the technology is capable of doing so we can make it work for us and our learners. I think that the limiting factor here is still that the technology is not sophisticated enough to provide communication as effective as a face to face encounter. This is changing all the time and we will eventually get there. At present our ability to communicate is being challenged. We need to work out solutions that incorporate technology so that we can have quality human interactions which ultimately lead to wonderful learning experiences.

As a part of this presentation James elicited information from those present by asking us to participate in a quick survey. He provided us with some blank paper and posed a number of questions on his first few PowerPoint slides which he asked us to respond to. We were given the choice as to whether or not we wanted to participate and he also said if we wanted to receive further information about his findings we were to provide our email addresses to him. True to his word I received an email the other day telling me he had posted the results of this survey on his blog. Since then he has also published some possible conclusions and has opened these up to further discussion. What do you think?

Finally - I read the Pew/Internet report today on The State of Blogging :

By the end of 2004 blogs had established themselves as a key part of online culture... 8 million American adults say they have created blogs; blog readership jumped 58% in 2004 and now stands at 27% of internet users; 5% of internet users say they use RSS aggregators or XML readers to get the news and other information delivered from blogs and content-rich Web sites as it is posted online; and 12% of internet users have posted comments or other material on blogs. Still, 62% of internet users do not know what a blog is.

Blogs are certainly fast becoming a major communication tool. It is interesting that these surveys show that people who know about blogs and who create them are well educated (they have college or graduate degrees). I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that this form of communication relies heavily on the effective use of written language? It sometimes seems ironic to me just how text laden the internet is yet it is always promoted as an environment rich in interactivity. However, this still means people need to be able to read and write to a reasonable level.

Changes are occurring in the way we use our language. An article worth reading on this topic is The Impact of Electronic Communication on Writing. Abdullah points out that our writing is being reshaped as a result of new writing contexts brought about by word processing and e-publishing. Electronic text is malleable and as a result people are more prepared to commit their thoughts in writing because it is easy to make changes. I also found it interesting reading about how we still effectively communicate electronically with our readers in the absence of normal visual cues using techniques such as text-based emoticons, punctuation and other politeness markers. In my experience these can be a blessing and a curse and I am not sure if they do necessarily improve the communication.

Another thought before I finish ... just as we have been hearing for a while now that grey is the new black, or lemon is the new orange, is a blog the new discussion forum in online communication? Is this just a fad or will it be sustainable? I must admit I still prefer going to a book getting out my pencils, paint and pens and committing my ideas and thoughts down on paper. The benefit I get from this age old process is far greater than starting up my laptop and viewing something on a screen. I can't use all my senses and therefore I am not satisfied.

One of my handmade journals

For your information, the word blog was listed as Merriam-Webster's number one Word of the Year for 2004!