My class started working this week on a research project. I set up a ning for them to access the documents that I wanted them to investigate. I love using nings for this kind of work. It is a tool that is easily accessible for middle school students. As an educator, I simply email to ning and they will remove the ads from the pages. It is a tool that I use for research and for online collaboration. It is a great first step in helping students to develop an online presence, while still giving them the protection of a closed site. I have to invite them to the site. I can make the site open to the public or simply by invitation.
One aspect that the students really like, and one that I think is important for them to experiment with, is that on Ning, each student has a “My Page.” On that page, they can post a photo, update what they are doing and share aspects about themselves. It is very much like a Facebook page, but it is not open to the public. I encourage them to set up their Page in a school-appropriate way. They are so used to posting whatever pops into their heads on their Facebook status, often without thinking about who can see it and what it is telling the world about them. As they interact on a school site, they can begin to learn some of the ways to project positive messages about themselves, while protecting themselves and their reputations.
After each student has set up a basic “My Page,” she turns to the research of the project. For the current project, their research involves primary source documents. After studying the document, they record their observations in the Discussion section. This way, each student can learn for herself and benefit from the ideas of her classmates. Or they can comment on the observations of others. This collaboration allows each one to stretch her own understanding, but to also see how others have learned. They each bring their own unique mastery to the sources and their reflections capture that.
This sharing holds their attention far more than when they are working independently. While some students can maintain their momentum throughout a long project, far more become distracted and lose interest. When they are sharing their ideas and commenting on each others, the energy for the project stays active. They want to learn something themselves, so that they can make a contribution. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, they are much more willing to share new ideas and test out ones that they are not sure of in this format. There seems to be a sense of anonymity, that what they write there is less personal, than when they make a comment in a class discussion. That makes the ning a powerful tool for more hesitant students.