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Putting the Bling in Your Ning By Chad Schwaberow State University of New York February 22, 2010 According to Wikipedia, dictionary.com, and even the Oxford Dictionary as of 1999, the word “bling” is a noun that refers to “flashy or elaborate jewelry and ornamented accessories that are carried, worn or installed.” (wikipedia) Now, though The National Post labeled this word one of the “10 words to be banned from one’s vocabulary in the new millennium” and even goes as far as to say, “The word quickly became the "not!" of the aughts, cringe-inducingly used by dads and geography teachers attempting to prove they were down with the kids,” (thus rightly labeling this teacher), the fact remains that nings, as an open-source and easy to use Web 2.0 application can really bring some glimmer to any class (Grace, 2009). More importantly, this software also shines a light into the homes of students, offering parents insight into course objectives, assessment and guiding materials, models of student work, and even an opportunity to debate crucial world issues—and at little or no cost to the school. Question #1: What is a ning and how much is it going to cost me? A ning, in short, is a glorified website. However, the improvements in the Web 2.0 version of a website are the collaborative tools that come with it, including those of the nings’s close cousins, the wiki and the blog. However, as anyone knows who has worked hours to create a web page for a school, only to have it sit latent until the next time, months later, that they could relocate the technology specialist, one has to agree with Matthew Perkins and Jay Pfaffman from Science Magazine when the say that, “Most schools now have a website, but few teachers actively maintain their own web pages or make their courses available online. Creating HTML documents is not that complex, but getting those files uploaded to a server in the right place is considerably more difficult. High-end web development tools simplify uploading files to a web server, but they can be expensive and difficult to configure correctly, often making them unavailable for teachers to use at home. Add to those difficulties the complexities of giving a school’s site a consistent look and feel, usable navigation, and interactive features like forums and calendars, and the job seems intractable for all but the most tech-savvy teachers.” (Pfaffman, October, 2006) In fact, the school I currently work at allegedly spent over $300,000 in 2006 to launch a state-of-the-art website, which no teacher has ever had access to. As Perkins and Pfaffman continue, they state that, “ Time and time again educators have been promised great advances from new technologies.…(which) ultimately have done little to change how we teach and learn” (Science Mag). However, the ning is worth its “bling” title, though it is non-proprietary and is free of charge as long as you can suffer a few advertisements. One of my students did recently ask though, “Why are people always looking for Phillipino girlfriends on our ning”, which means that a school might want to spring for the $20 per month charge for going ad-free that existed on the ning at the publishing of this article. But this is a small cost compared to the costs often involved in equipping a school system with a communication device, website, or other technological advances. According to The Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, “A recent survey of nearly 6700 school principals in Canada (Plante & Beattie, 2004) reported that while 92% of principals agreed that ICT was worth the investment, nearly 67% reported that “having sufficient funding for technology was an extensive challenge to using ICT in their school” (p. 27, emphasis in original)” (Hepburn, 2005). The nominal fees associated with nings should alleviate this financial stress on schools while better accomplishing the goals that were being sought after in the first place. Furthermore, the software is web-based, which means it does not have to be installed on individual machines. The Hepburn article went on to show that Microsoft licenses on 400 computers would cost somewhere around $26,000 annually or $119 per month if each student had access to a machine in a class of 22. With a ning, $20 per month ($240 per year) covers the teacher’s use and all student usage within that class, and that is if your district is worried about the ads. Plus, students and parents can utilize the software at home, which is truly the glimmer of the ning. Question #2: What can a ning do that I could not do before? It is truly the collaborative and portable advantages of the ning that make it so fantastic. As an article in BMC Medical Education asserted, “Although the potential impact of wiki, blog and podcast technologies on higher education in the UK and elsewhere is immense, it is perhaps the combined use of the three applications as 'mind tools'  that may yield the most powerful learning experiences…Wikis in particular, and blogs to a lesser extent, enable such activities, and actively involve learners in their own construction of knowledge.” (Maged N. Kamel Boulos, 2006) Since the ning and the wiki are very close in nature, with a few advantages to each, this article definitely applies to the ning. This “mindtool” aspect is unique to modern educational software, as it adjusts to the student and the teacher, rather than visa-versa. This construction of meaning will be a central focus to the anecdote below, showing the three major advantages the ning has had so far for my 6th grade English classes. When I began utilizing a ning around one and a half years ago (http://qa6grade.ning.com), I mainly utilized it to communicate class resources to students and parents to access at home. This started with just posting documents that students could retrieve and print or work on, saved in their original format of Microsoft Word, mostly. This allowed students to see the rubrics that would be utilized for an assignment without making a number of copies, and also gave students who had been absent an easy location to independently find make-up work. The later imbedding of a Google Calendar on the ning meant that everyone involved could see what was coming in the class schedule and allowed students to work proactively and responsibly towards meeting class deadlines. As my knowledge of Google Calendar also increased, I was able to embed several calendars on several wikis and nings, meaning that I only had to utilize one calendar to imbed a number of dates for different audiences. For the often disorganized 6th grade mind, the electronic order represented in having a full units’ materials and a calendar really did help many students to see an entire unit in its organized state, thus allowing for better “cognitive reflection” and “construction of meaning.” The next evolution of the ning in my classroom was when it allowed me to share models of class lectures and student work in either a document or video format. While models of student work on Word might prove useful, I eventually utilized screen-capturing software to create a “Paragraphing Facelift” video of a student’s work. This showed what I would do, as the teacher, to move an average piece of student work up to the higher levels of success. Many students watched this video several times and commented so much on the process that I eventually graded a piece of each student’s work utilizing the screen- capturing software, which gave them a guide for the rest of the year on what their major areas of improvement were and how they could improve them. The ning allowed me to highlight this capability, for both parents and students. Additionally, through embedding Youtube or Vimeo videos, I was able to show parents, students, and even colleagues examples of the best oral debates that were held in my class. These models were very powerful for all involved in regards to constructing cognitive models of what the teacher was looking for. Also, examples from classmates were often more motivational than a teacher example, because it was the work of a peer. The final stage of development in ning usage, that of collaboration, has been a constantly changing format, largely because of improvements in the application. The first online homework assignment was utilized last year, using the forum function. Students shared resources and arguments alongside parents and teachers on three different debate topics. The sharing from parents was fantastic, as many had varying viewpoints on the topics than what had been discussed in class. Also, the collective energy for gathering resources meant that the entire class had quite a few to choose from, allowing for a good discussion of source material and good variety of viewpoints and quotes. Forums, however, eventually became too slow for synchronized involvement, which was solved by the installation of the chat feature. This has become a place that students and parents now come together to discuss homework matters, to quickly ask the teacher questions that need clarifying, and basically as a social cross-roads. It has also given authenticity to writing that would not have been possible without such an immediate and broad audience. Additionally, document-building sites like etherpad.com have been hyperlinked, giving an easy link to a site that would have been difficult for all to find. Finally, in terms of whole-group announcements, it has become an easy tool for emailing all students and parents, once they have become a member of the ning. This has saved me and the students at times when there has been a change to a schedule or a point that was notably better explained in one class than another, allowing me to ensure that all students have the same opportunities for success in my class. To conclude, nings are definitely the way to bring “bling” into any classroom. The applications referred to in this article are already a way to shine class accomplishments into the larger world and there are new applications being added monthly, including survey applications and, recently, the direct uploading of video (rather than through another site). The ning will continue to be an excellent opportunity to show an entire learning community the models and materials of a class, aiding short term organization and long-term learning for all students. I have even had students from last year coming back and asking for resources that have been taken off, so that it will aid them in new learning. And they look at me with the proper amount of scorn when I again use the word “bling”. Works Cited Grace, G. (2009, December 30). nationalpost.com. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from National Post: http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/posted/archive/2009/12/30/decade-in- review-ten-words-to-banish-from-your-vocabulary.aspx Hepburn, G. (2005, Winter). www.cjlt.ca. Retrieved February 26, 2010, from Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology: http://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/150/143 Maged N. Kamel Boulos, I. M. (2006, August 15). Wikis, blogs, and podcasts: a new generation of Web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education. Biomed Central . Pfaffman, M. P. (October, 2006). Using a Course Management System to Improve Classroom Communication. The Science Teacher .
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