Personalised learning through personalised communities

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"Yes, but is it important to the kids?" asked my wife, when I showed her the latest map of where schools are located that participate in the Writers' Club. The answer is yes... and no.

I currently look over two communities where the participants are students from schools in different countries - The Writers' Club and Science @ The North School. The way we use it at Castlemaine North is not as a whole-class activity: we don't insist that all students are a part of the Writers' or Science community, even though all students both write and do science at school.

The purpose of these communities is to contribute to the personalisation of the learning for our students by providing those who are passionate about these two areas to extend their learning by connecting with others, and give them an authentic reason to share their work by providing an international audience for it.

There is no doubt that many students we teach do not find the idea of having an international audience for their writing or their scientific experiments appealing. And that's ok. But for a group of students we teach, these communities have engaged them in school in a way that they haven't been engaged in for a long time, and it has given us the opportunity to show these students that we value their passions.

We shouldn't be surprised that different online communities appeal to different students, because it works for us as well. I use twitter, and belong to various nings, including the Global Education ning, Flat Classrooms, Guide to Innovation and Classroom 2.0. I dip in and out of these communities, sometimes being very active, sometimes less so. The thing that they have in common though is that noone said "you must join these communities" : I made that choice based upon my passions and desire to learn.

The breakdown of our participation in the Writers' Club mirrors the 90-9-1 rule, which states that in any one online community, 90% of the participants are 'lurkers' and contribute very little; 9% contribute occasionally; and 1% are responsible for the vast majority of material. We see that with our students - of those with Writers' Club accounts, most visit occasionally and contribute almost nothing; a few contribute occasionally; and a core group of passionate writers contribute the vast majority of the writing that is on the site. It is this core group of students - around five kids at our school - for whom the Writers' Club has been the best thing that has happened to them.

For me, using online communities within schools is not about pushing students into communities which they have little interest in, and pushing them to contribute. It is about creating and cultivating communities that appeal to small numbers of passionate students; create enough communities and you will appeal to all your students. These communities - like the Global Education one I am a part of - would not be viable if the participants were restricted to the local area (there aren't many people interested in global education in my immediate vicinity). However, open up the community to the world, and you can find enough passionate people scattered across the globe to create a vibrant exchange. Students will learn about collaboration and global learning on their terms; will have a chance for an audience undreamed of previously; and will be empowered to make the choice about the communities they contribute to and how often they do so.

Exactly as we do.

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