Meet a 21st Century Learner, a prosumer, a student! by Cheryl Oakes

For the past couple of months I have worked with 100 eighth graders as they navigate their way through a private Ning, a social network, we created for their language arts classes. We followed the protocol of creating gmail accounts for the students based on a special gmail account. The end result is that the students do NOT use that email to receive any communication. The communication from teachers and students takes place on the Ning. (This in effect is due to the CIPA regulations for students under the age of 14. )

The Ning was created as a walled garden where students can practice their online skills in a supportive environment. The skills we are teaching have to do withinternet safety, cyber citizenship, appropriate use of content, specifically looking at Creative Commons and how to find music, images and video that is available for shared use. The language arts teachers use the site for writing prompts and soon will open it as a forum for discussing a grade level novel. The clever name of theNing is grade8ourspace .

Students spend class-time working on their writing prompts, they reflect and comment to other classmates instead of the teacher being the only one to comment on a prompt. Students soon realized that they could use the site all hours of the day or week, including weekend days and they were posting their own writing prompts for their peers. I have to admit that I thought their prompts generated much more conversation than the prompts about character development. However, if we don't start with character development, there may not be the next level of writing!

Here are some examples of student prompts :

Relationship problems?

Where do you go? Who do you talk to? Who will listen? Will they understand? Why don't they care? Doesn't anyone feel the same way?

Feeling alone and depressed.

Many teenagers between the age of 13-18 go through depression. It could because of parents divorce, friend fight, losing a boyfriend/girlfriend or living in regret.
There were 22 comments in response to this.

What is your idea for the 8th grade trip?
I would like to get some good ideas for the meeting we have with Mr.G, so what are you ideas?

What is your fear?
My fear is falling off tall things like cliffs or the stage or the thingy on the rock wall. And spiders they are just creepy and gross!!!!!!

Each student prompt had about 20 responses, or 20% of the students. The teacher prompts had the full class of students responding and then students responding to other students.

During school vacation, I received an invitation to another ning. The Ning was created by one of our students. I joined and was happy to see a decidedly different ning. The student had invited all the 8th graders and teachers. The Ning was created just because she could. I asked if I could interview her about this and she agreed.
This is what I learned. Darian started the Ning because she was bored. She thought up the name based on her personality. She send out a broadcast notice to join her Ning to all in the Language Arts Ourspace Ning. So far about 20 people have responded. She mentioned that it was a place to hang out and have conversations about anything anyone decided to write. At her site, the members started a couple of groups. One student has added a series of videos about "Who will sit with Josh?" This is a spin off of a YouTube series about a boy and his life. Another group that has started up is Save the Wildlife,

A place to talk about animals... and environment!! About our planet and other things to like recycling!!

Darien mentioned that her creation of this Ning will probably help her in the future when she is working. I asked some questions about being the creator of the site and if she had a plan about how long she would keep the site alive,( probably forever) and if she knew how to make the site private or how to block people. She confessed that she saw those were possibilities but hadn't read how to do that. I shared some tips with her and she made some changes.

What does all this mean and how does it relate to schools, teachers, curriculum and content? The ourspace for language arts Ning, social network, was received well by the students and teachers. Many of the students began their own prompts and participated in replies to multiple questions on the language arts Ning. This was allowed and monitored. Once Darien realized the power of the network she then created her own social network to reflect her personality. Darien also confided that another student she knew created a family Ning for her own family. I don't believe we can restrict and confine learning to our school day hours. I am hopeful that with more Web 2.0 tools and less emphasis on school control, that we will open the pathways for our students to participate in their own form of on demand learning. How can educators use the current online real estate for projects to continue 24/7 learning? What are some projects that make sense for our digital learners? What are the tools we can provide? What are the connections we can offer? Once we share these kinds of tools we can't close Pandora's box, why would we want to?

I want to thank the students at my middle school. I learn so much from them each day. We are on this journey together. The names were changed for this blog post. You know who you are!