When I read blogs or attend educational conferences these days, one issue that always pops up is the importance of getting our students connected – how learning should take place not only in the classroom but in the world through the net.

This is often highlighted by examples on how young people learn today by chatting with friends or watching instructional YouTube videos. The possibilities seem endless, from learning how to 360 on a snowboard, to playing the piano, to solving differential equations. I have no difficulty getting how motivated teenagers would prefer this way of learning. It’s accessible, instant and personalized. What strikes me is how challenging it is for a teacher to apply this mode of learning in the classroom.

It may seem easy but it is not! My experience is that there are many obstacles. Still, we want our students to be connected. How then do we help teachers connect?

I am writing this from a Norwegian perspective although I suspect is it is the same everywhere. If you truly want to take advantage of the web and connect with educators you have to invest some time in participating online. It is the first obstacle and strongest argument teachers in Norway have against participating. While I agree that connecting and participating online is time-consuming, I know you will get so much back in return. I urge you not to give up before you have even tried.

Connecting with educators online

To make it easier to get started, I’ll narrow the arenas where you might participate down to three: Twitter, blogging and Skype.

Twitter – Reading Howard Rheingold on Twitter literacy, I have to agree with him. “The difference between seeing Twitter as a waste of time or as a powerful new community amplifier depends entirely on how you look at it – on knowing how to look at it. You can’t check in once a week, you need to hang out for minutes and hours to get a feel for it. You need some advice on how to connect, follow and be followed. Once you get the hang of it you will discover that there are a lot of interesting conversations going on out there by people who share the same interests as you. Use hashtags to expand your connections (and if you don’t know what that is look it up here).

One great way to exploit Twitter’s instant communication capabilities is to use hashtags to connect with others and hear what they are talking about as they attend a conference (even if you are not able to attend in person). Apply the #hashtag for that conference ((like #educon, #bett, #ISTE) in your Twitter reader (here’s one). Other useful hashtags for educators are #teacher or #edchat. To expand the list of endless possibilities, watch when doctor Baily from “Grey’s Anatomy” introduces twitter as a learning tool for surgeons. How did I find that clip? On Twitter of course!

Blogging – Blogging is one of my most successful classroom initiatives. Before introducing new technology in class you should feel confident about your own ability to use it. Before asking your students to write blogs, create one yourself. See here for advice on how to start. Since launching my blog Teaching English using web 2.0 in March 2008, I have connected with many educators and received a lot of feedback and helpful suggestions! The EduBlogs service is trusted by many teachers who have classroom blogging projects.

When students write I try to stress the importance of voicing their own opinions, and I never cease to be amazed by their research and the material the come up with. I’ve gone far beyond teaching by the textbook and listening to them repeat back the “right” answers. Now I find that I really learn from my students’ insights every day. I list my students’ blogs on my webpage and spend some time getting other students, teachers and even presenters to comment on their posts. I do this by asking my twitter network and others I connect with to contribute. It makes the students’ writing so much more interesting for them and truly shows you are able to connect if you try! Here is one example from my English classes.

Skype – I saved the best for last. Skype is by far the best way to connect your students to the outside world. And I do mean “The World.” As an incentive to get started, I’m happy to share the new initiative from Skype called Skype in the Classroom, which carries this exciting slogan: “Meet new people, discover new cultures and connect with classes from around the world, all without leaving the classroom.” I have already found new connections in the few months I have tried this. It’s a great place to connect with teachers and classrooms in far-away places.

Here’s how:

– Establish an account if you don’t have one (it’s free).

– Then log in with your ordinary Skype username and password and post the information you would like others to read about you and your learning projects.

– You can also browse the information others have posted and send a request if you find someone you would like to connect with.

– Once you have found an interesting teacher, add them as a contact on Skype. They will then get a request from you and can decide if they are willing to accept you as a Skype friend.

For me, Skype used to be a place to connect with my daughter when she was studying abroad. Now it is a way to connect with teachers in different countries around the world. Don’t give up even if it takes time and effort. (You can find helpful how-to articles on the web. Here’s one. And here’s a story about other teachers using Skype.)

I have Skyped with students in Kansas and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. One fun Skype meeting was between a class from Iowa and three students sitting in my office. The teacher found my name on a blog post and contacted me with questions her class had about Norway and the Viking “revolution.” She asked if we could be of assistance to her 5th grade social studies classes – they would love any opportunity to interact with students in Norway and gain knowledge about the Viking era and our country. We ended up having a lot of fun interacting with the 5th graders on Skype, and my students enjoyed the opportunity to act as teachers on the subject. Age difference can sometimes be an advantage.

Another Skype project that I would like to share is connecting with the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh. In discussing megacities in our curriculum, we learned that Dhaka is the fastest growing megacity in the world. Naturally we were curious about how it is to grow up and be a teenager there. We were able to make contacts with Dhaka teens using Skype in the Classroom. And even when we’re not able to Skype, we can connect via mail and by writing on our blogs. This is a good example of a real life experience via the web, and we are learning things the textbook alone could never teach us.

Becoming a connected teacher who can, in turn, connect your students takes some time and work. But I think you can see from my own story (and by following some of the links here in my post) that the opportunities to enrich your teaching and your students’ learning are endless.

(Photo: My students writing letters to students in Dhaka.)

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Ann Michaelsen

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