The Extended Value of Classroom Networks


An interesting thing happened on the way home from Educon 2.2 last Sunday night.  Walking through the terminal and against my exhaustion, I reflexively checked my mail.  Lazy eyes lifted open, I flicked my thumb scrolling… trolling for a demand of action.   I’m hyper-connected.  I pay for it.  And yet, I’m a better teacher and leader because of it.  Cutting to the chase, here is the simple, yet interesting email I received:

self-sustaining networks


Here are the things you must know/appreciate/love about the aforementioned interaction…

  • Principles of Biology is the learning network we continue to create within our class on the Ning platform.  Begun only last year, I believe it really is a solid example of open student discourse in a core content area.
  • Kristen Sheehan is no longer a student at Benton High School.  Although she has graduated and moved on to the University world…  she remains a member of our network.
  • What is Life?” was a rather intense classroom discussion back near the beginning of this school year that continued in our online space.
  • Kristen courteously informs and carefully cites the original work.

Here is one explicit snippet providing a specific example of continued value added to the lives of our students.  Here, a former student used a current student’s online reflection as an opinion-based piece in her current English studies at the university level.  That is a pretty obvious sign that work done in this educational network is of continued value beyond the initial grade earned for the work.  If that isn’t an indicator of the continued educational value of a network then I don’t know what is.

It’s certainly not the first time we have collected evidence of this kind from our work done online.  In this network, as well as our Marine Biology network (implemented rather differently), former students often stop in to add something significant they run across in their lives after our time together in the classroom.  This might be to share an interesting experience, reflection, testimonial, news story, image, video, or webpage.  It might be to share good fortune, changes or advances in educational plans, or to announce landing a new job. Or perhaps you’re just planning to live-blog the hurricane that smashed your campus- causing you to live inland in Texas to finish out the year.  And really, these are just the public communications.  Many folks are more shy about their comings and goings after school, and send only direct messages…  and this of course is very cool as well.

PhotonQ-Woman 's Thoughts aKa Complex Memetics


I always wonder how often these former students just browse on in to do some version of a “virtual walkthrough” to see what sorts of new things are shaking in an environment they were once part of.  I wonder if those that do so actually realize that they too are still an element of our learning environment?  I wonder how I can further facilitate what is already happening organically as a result of these networks.

I try to remind myself to see examples like this one as starting points to build upon…  as opposed to merely “evidence of prior good.”  Thoughts?


*”PhotonQ-Woman ‘s Thoughts aKa Complex Memetics” by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE on Flickr
*My personal iPhone screenshot.  You know it’s art.  Come on…


Collaborative social media: How do you do business?

Shifting practices

Not long ago, the MS Office suite comprised the bulk of computer applications in the world of mainstream business.  I have to admit that as a career biology educator and instructional coach, I have precious little knowledge of the “real” business world.  That said, this past year I have found my work overlapping many trends in business as I explore the efficacy of collaborative online applications in education.  I am deeply interested in them as a framework for professional development as well as for classroom utilization.

“Yeah, but mainstream businesses aren’t using the Web 2.0 stuff…  those are mostly a few cutting edge companies with money to burn.”

How much more “mainstream” can you get than Best BuyWill Richardson pointed to the above video a couple of days back on Twitter, and I have held that browser window open since that time.  I really enjoy some of the language found within.  For example, one gentleman interviewed said that Web 2.0 applications allow the workforce to “…try a lot of different things, fail really fast, and then try things again.”  I dig that attitude in almost any endeavor.  To me it is pretty clear that being fearless and willing to innovate is a big plus in much of the business world as well as in education.  I also like the fact that another interviewee listed the following things as benefits to social media applications being implemented within the company structure:

  • better loyalty
  • less office politics
  • ability to meet other individuals passionate about the same things
  • ability to stretch an idea across an entire organization

fail gloriously

Shifting schools

Now which of those things is not good as well for a school faculty?  Of course blind loyalty leads often to the Abilene Paradox, and this is never a good thing.  However, other than that, I’m betting that this list of four things is something all school administrators and staff would value in their world as well.

Those four items, as well as a few others, are a target of our school’s shiny new social network- Virtual Southside.  This site was piloted by a cohort of 20 teachers and administrators at Benton High this year in the midst of an academic technology integration program.  Starting next year, with our entire staff online in the program, this site will be a major part of how we conduct asynchronous staff professional development.  Today I interviewed several cohort members about the benefits of working within our social network this past school year.  A short list of their replies about our foray into social media is as follows:

  • develop general comfort with social media
  • ability to collaborate asynchronously
  • differentiated professional development
  • makes all staff a “professional developer”
  • makes professional work transparent
  • allows feedback from a wider dynamic of personalities
  • provides an archival record
  • creates an avenue for extrinsic motivation

virtual southside

Nearing the end of our first year employing social media in our school and in our classrooms, I am excited to see some of the benefits rolling in.  In my opinion, the featured video showing similar strategies in a mainstream business model provides another interesting nod to the value of utilizing these strategies with our teachers and students as well.  Are collaborative social tools being used currently where you work?  What role do you see for social media in our schools and with our students?

Artwork thanks:

*Thanks to Stephen Collins for the “fail gloriously” slide image.

Connecting Biology Educators Worldwide

I have a brand-spanking new site to share with you and your colleagues who might teach biology/life science. The new site is a worldwide professional network I created with the help of five super collaborators from across the country. This new public network is called: The Synapse.

header for: The Synapse

For my non biology-geek readers (the majority) please allow a quick define of both a synapse and the site itself:

A SYNAPSE is a minute gap between nerve cells which transmits crucial information through the nervous system. The goal of this network is to perform a similar “synaptic” function between biology instructors of all levels and locations.

The Synapse is a science content-focused site on the Ning platform. Though it is managed by six people who are all relatively well versed in educational technology, it is not the primary focus of the network. It was designed primarily as a site for life science educators to connect with others without any geographical barriers.  In fact, the site owes its origin directly from a frustrating discussion in the Twittersphere between biology instructors of many levels.  On that day, it was decided that we needed a central place to meet, share and support one another from afar.

“What’s in it for me?”

Here, teachers can sign in to create a free profile to begin commenting, sharing, etc.  The Synapse is a professional social network that features a discussion forum, blogs, event listings, images, videos, chat, etc. This is a perfect place to troll for ideas on an upcoming unit, a new strategy or approach you’d like to attempt in the classroom, etc. On The Synapse, teachers can log requests for ideas, tips or suggestions for teaching those most challenging topics or using new strategies. Teachers will also notice the ability to join or form their own subgroups within the network based on region, content focus, instructional strategy, etc.

Admins of The Synapse

The facilitators of this network represent different regions across the country, varying grade levels, varying approaches, varying years of experience.  In fact, diversity within the network will certainly grow quickly even more over time. As this new network begins to expand, the power of numbers will work to produce results in an even more timely fashion.  I look forward here to what James Surowiecki quite simply called The Wisdom of Crowds.”

The real potential beauty of this network is its goal of decentralized intelligence. Online social networks such as this one harness the power of asynchronous communication to allow teachers to collaborate when and where possible within our increasingly busy lives.  Sure, your brain has a ton of neurons…  on the order of about 10 billion.  However, it also contains around 100 billion synapses.  That is, connections between neurons.  It could thus be said that the connections between these brain cells are in some ways a larger factor than the brain cells themselves.  Play that metaphor out in terms of this project.  The connections we make here are potentially larger than any of us as individuals.

Sign in

The first step is to join. The second: poke around. See what this site can do for you as a teacher who is constantly looking to improve his or her practice. The final step: share. If everyone adds that minimum of one or two special things they have to share, this site will quickly be a huge part of your personal learning network.  In fact, in the words of Dr. Geoffrey Hinton:

Learning occurs as a result of changing the effectiveness of synapses so that their influence on other neurons also changes… Learning is a function of the effectiveness of synapses to propagate signals and initiate new signals along connecting neurons. Learning and experience change the structure of the neural networks. (Geoffrey Hinton, “How Neural Networks Learn from Experience,” Scientific American, 267:3, September 1992, 145.)

Experience affects efficacy when it comes to your brain.  Aren’t we magnificently plastic creatures?  (Check out the related discussion between Dr. Doyle & I on this post.)  The fact that you could alter the structure (and thus the function) of the only brain you’ll likely ever own, is a really powerful idea.  So what on Earth are you waiting for?  Jump in.  Become one of the collaborators (neurotransmitters) within this newly-forming network.  If you aren’t one who teaches life science…  forward this post to a colleague who does.  They might just thank you.

Outpost Motel

So welcome to another outpost on the rapidly expanding web that potentially connects professional educators worldwide. With a bit of help, this tiny outpost could turn into a metropolis. We think the infrastructure is ready. What do you think?

Artwork thanks:

Outpost Motel” by Allen “Roadsidepictures” on Flickr.
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Out of the mouths of… Google?

Here begins a new post category.  We could call it “stupid things found on the web.”  Or perhaps “computers ain’t as smart as people.”  Call it what you will- here it goes:

What do you think?  Don’t see the humor?  Keep looking- I have faith in you.  See it now?  Seriously, how great is that?  Now that couldn’t be secretly purposeful could it?  Ahhh, the perils of abbrev.  😉

It actually reminds me of a post I made back in June on our Marine Biology network at Ning.  It is a quick story about how Google’s AdSense ads (now removed from education networks @ Ning) can unknowingly juxtapose some really conflicting ideals.  We spend page after page of our site extolling the beauty and wonder of living coral and the ecosystems they inhabit.

introducing coral paint!

So, when ads for what seem to be unethically-harvested coral began running on our page, the irony was thick.  Now those Google ads are gone.  I soon found out from Steve Hargadon that Ning was allowing educational networks (aimed at grades 7-12) to run ad-free upon request.  Of course COPPA requires that students under 13 not be allowed to use social networking sites for security and privacy issues.

And thus-  with COPPA, this post comes strangely full circle.  Wow.  I think perhaps I stumbled upon a vortex of web weirdness on this lovely winter day.

Artwork thanks:

*“introducing coral paint!” by muha… on Flickr.

Storm of the Century? -An Interesting Use of Ning

Gustav is one ugly storm. It is a category 4 storm that only lost wind speed by 10mph as it passed over land in Cuba today. Even uglier is the path it is taking. Gustav is taking a steady NW aim toward Louisiana, and perhaps, New Orleans.

Gustav approaching the Louisiana coast (from NOAA)

Outspoken mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin, this evening ordered the evacuation of the city of New Orleans in advance of Gustav. I cannot even imagine the struggle one goes through prior to ordering such a massive movement of people from a modern US city. The only thing that probably makes this even an easier choice for Nagin is the fact that the city is still reeling in some ways from Katrina. In his words today, “You need to get your butt out of New Orleans. This is the storm of the century.”

This is not only a storm to watch for scientific interest, but now for historical interest. Hopefully the human tragedies of Katrina will be avoided this round. Apparently even the Republican national convention will be interrupted. CNN is now reporting that McCain and Palin will be heading to Mississippi in the area of the storm. In light of these events, one has to wonder the full nature of that trip. According to CNN, some republicans are reportedly even talking of using the convention as some sort of telethon to raise support for potential victims.

From the club chair in my front room, however, there is an even interesting sub-story developing. The use of emerging Internet communications technologies is being deployed in a large scale already. Here is a use of Ning that will certainly draw attention. Perhaps you can feel proud of the fact that you are already Ning and Twitter savvy. As I type this, CNN has a giant plasma screen on their broadcast to show Twitter responses in regard to the storm and evacuation.

So Ning… Ning is versatile. I personally saw its potential for impact in education. It is now being seen as a tool that can be rapidly employed to coordinate action around an emerging crisis. Twitter was used by firefighters of the recent California wildfire outbreak to coordinate services. It will be interesting to see how technologies we are using to facilitate our learning on a day to day basis can be used to encourage and coordinate action in a really spontaneous way.

Turn on the TV, turn on the web, turn on Ning and add Twitter to not only the web, but your phone… and connect to the world. The world is talking.