Chris Betcher on Blogging and “Publicness”
Selena Woodward recently interviewed Sydney educator and previous CEGSA Keynote Chris Betcher on his recent blogging project. The article below shares the reason why Selena chose to interview Chris, the interview itself and asks us to consider the benefits of being a connected classroom teacher.
Have you “Googled” yourself lately?
You might not actively participate on the Internet. You may be aware of the idea of a ‘digital citizen’ but don’t feel like that’s you. You don’t want to be an active citizen as it doesn’t interest you and might even scare you a little bit. You worry that if you create content on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or even a blog, there will be a record of that forever. You don’t want to have a presence online as it feels far too risky and surely we ought to be thinking about cyber safety? I mean, what would that potential employer think if he saw you gallivanting on the Internet? Why would anyone even care about what you have to say anyway?
These sentiments will either have you nodding in agreement or raising an eyebrow in surprise The truth is, however, that there are still many educators out there who feel that way about the Internet and its use. Educators who consider it to be disastrously unprofessional to post a video on YouTube; even if it is an educational video. They are under the impression that if you are applying for jobs in South Australia it would considerably damage your chances of gaining employment if potential employers were to find anything about you online.
Go on, Google yourself right now. What comes up? A blog post you wrote showcases your thoughts on education? A photograph chosen by you and placed online showing you and some of your students working hard together? A video you made about numeracy in the world around us which demonstrates your knowledge of curriculum, ICT and how it can be used by educators to enhance learning? Or are we looking at a photograph from a past event that you didn’t even realise was online; a Facebook group created by one of your students that you have no part of or a review of your skills on ratemyteacher.com?
If we as teachers are not actively participating in online communities how can we expect to have any control over what Google (or any other search engine for that matter) reveal to our potential employers? Despite what some people may believe, they do look online for information about prospective employees. They know about Google and there is an expectation that educators are also aware of its place in society. So what is stopping some educators like you and me actively participating?
Perhaps the issue is that we’re all too aware of perceived problems without stopping to consider how they might be overcome? For example, three years ago in its document on Cyber Safety, DECD advised its teachers that we must ensure that “digital footprints from [your] personal online identities, including social networking sites, are consistent with the role of educators.” (DECD,2009, Cyber Safety – Keeping children safe in a connected world).
Although this statement is sensible and valid, when viewed on its own like this, it seems ill defined and therefore discouraging. Having searched the DECD website, I failed to find guidance which helps educators meet this advice. I found nothing about being a connected educator, about the benefits of sharing knowledge and networking online and, for those who are beginner users of such networks, advice as to how to do so safely. As a result, un-supported statements like that may even be the reason (or, dare I say, excuse) why many educators in South Australia have stayed away from collaborating online and the reason why there is a strong feeling that our best option is to protect students from the social world of the Internet by keeping them away from it entirely.
Even more concerning is that if we allow ourselves to be intimidated by statements like that and by thoughts of the dangers of ‘being public online’, we might have a reason to ignore the other responsibilities we have in our role of educator, namely teaching. Preparing students to operate in the world in which they live; including the world that occurs on-line.
Statements like the one below, taken from the same DECD document quoted above, make it very clear that educators do have a genuine responsibility to give students opportunities to learn about and actively become digital citizens:
They need to learn how to use ICTs, including mobile technologies and social networking sites, in responsible and ethical ways. In addition, they need to feel confident about alerting the adults in their lives when they are feeling unsafe, threatened, bullied or exposed to inappropriate events. In response, these adults need to take appropriate actions to protect the child or young person. (DECD, 2009, Cyber Safety – Keeping children safe in a connected world).
“The role of educators” includes the responsibility to provide an education to our students which will prepare them to function in the hyper-connected world in which they live and will eventually work. If we, in our role as educators, are not equipped with the knowledge, understanding and skills to operate, at least in part, in that world ourselves then how can we expect to prepare our students for it? That’s exactly why your future employer might ‘Google’ you and expect to see some evidence of your ability to operate within that world.
What we need is some guidance on how to get started; some parameters to help us to work safely with our students and our colleagues; parameters to enable us rather than fill us with doubt and fear. The 2009 DECD document, “Cyber Safety – Keeping children safe in a connected world“ does offer some suggestions to help us with school policy but we are all aware of how fragile the situation feels. Examples of good practice would help us to conceptualise what working in these new parameters might look like.
Perhaps that is where we at CEGSA can help? I do strongly believe that DECD have a responsibility to provide the documentation I mentioned above but, in the in meantime, those of us who are already taking steps to be connected educators are also willing to help locate the information new comers need. We can use our personal learning networks to look for examples of good practice. Examples from normal, everyday teacher practitioners who are already blogging and sharing to see if we can follow in their footsteps.
As an active blogger and participator in the world of social networking myself, I came across this tweet from former CEGSA Keynote speaker Chris Betcher
I watched the video that he had shared with his PLN and was really blown away by what I saw. This is an example of good practice when dealing with the question of how we create a culture of ethical and responsible digital citizenship. Perhaps one that we can learn from.
The teachers featured in his video are very honest about how they felt about blogging and almost seem surprised that the process was worthwhile and that they can see value in the sharing process that blogging creates. They can also see the benefit the process has had for their students.
“I see it as a wonderful tool for them to express themselves… they can take it on next year and keep a record of their own blog.”
The students featured seem excited by the idea of the authentic audience that the blogging gives them. They tell us about how they feel knowing that they have to put in extra effort so that they don’t look like someone who can’t spell and how sharing makes them feel good.
“It sort of makes you feel good because you’re being helpful because other people might look at your blog and think ‘Ah that’s how you did the maths question!’”
This was such an important example of good practice that I contacted Chris to ask him if I could share his project with the CEGSA membership. He agreed to a Skype interview so that I could share with you his insights about blogging and the idea of what he calls “publicness”.
The background to the project
Chris works at PLC Sydney an independent girls’ school in Sydney. Although the school already had their own blogging server, running WordPress, he felt that tthere had not been sufficient buy-in from the staff due to a lack of time to develop the right skills. When the local AIS provided funding as part of an AGQTP government project, it enabled them to fund five or six release days for the staff in which they were trained about what blogging was and encouraged to keep their own.
It’s up to someone to develop some expertise in this and share it to protect kids and teach them.
In his first session with the staff, Chris came up against a degree of pushback from his staff as they questioned the idea of putting events from their own lives in the public view. He told me that the teachers needed to explore why they would do this… “Why would you take anything about yourself and make it public?”, they asked. He also recognised that “if teachers don’t understand the benefits of ‘publicness’ then getting them to embrace blogging is going to be a very hard slog.”
When discussing the benefits of being ‘public’, he pointed out that the reason this interview was happening in the first place was because he decided to make public the video he had made of the project. Twitter had allowed me, as a follower of his tweets, to connect with his school’s good practice and then to communicate so that I might be able develop my understanding of it. He also commented that people’s perceptions of ‘being on-line’, and especially those who feel it is a good thing that they are not represented there, as being extremely naive.
“Employers WILL search to see what’s out there about you – Wouldn’t you rather have the option to place information online of your own choosing rather than leaving it in the control of others? Don’t be naive – just because you didn’t put it up there doesn’t mean someone else won’t. Are you gonna be the one to put it there or is someone else? And if a search reveals nothing at all about you, don’t feel too smug… having a negative online presence is probably only marginally worse than having no online presence at all.”
Keeping it safe
On the subject of putting kids online, Chris made his position very clear. “When people say ‘why should we put kids up online?’ my answer is always “tell me why we shouldn’t we put kids online”. In fact, quite a few of his students experienced the same thing with search engines that we might as adults. When considering what they should share in their blogs students were also asked to ‘Google’ themselves.
“Two thirds of the class found something about themselves online – sports results, family photos – the others found something about someone they know on line. So the question is not ‘will I have an digital footprint?’, but rather, ‘what will my digital footprint say about me?’ ”
The opportunities given to the staff to develop their own understanding of the blogging process enabled them to share this experience with their students and to guide them in answering the question of how to create a culture of ethical and responsible digital citizenship together.
Without this knowledge, it would have been far more difficult to manage the situation – especially if your students are using a technology you don’t fully understand. ”It’s up to someone to develop some expertise in this and share it to protect kids and teach them.”
In fact, the teachers working with the Year 6 girls at Chris’ school are so confident that their students can demonstrate an understanding of responsible digital citizenship that a decision was made that pupils would be administrators of their own blogs. That means that they have complete control over how their blog works. They decided whether or not comments are on, they choose the theme for their own site and they are the ones who moderate comments. Chris believes that this gives them the opportunity to practice and refine the skills of good digital citizenship”.
There are no restrictions on who can comment on the pupils’ posts. Comments from those outside the school community are welcomed. Chris questioned whether we should be upset when an unknown adult leaves a positive and supportive comment on a child’s blog. He pointed out that there are far worse things than someone praising a student from afar.
“If you’re really genuinely concerned with reducing risks for students let’s stop driving them to school everyday because the statistics on car accidents are terrible! Lets get a grip! When kids writing something about “I walked my dog in the park” that’s hardly dangerous. There are far greater risks than writing on a blog.”
Personally, I have enjoyed writing comments on lots of children’s blogs. As an English teacher this gives me the opportunity to see what other schools (often in other parts of the world) are doing. I’ve even sat in on one American class’s live performance of Romeo and Juliet! I totally agree with Chris. If we teach children about being on-line, about being responsible digital citizens, then they need to have the opportunity to work with an authentic audience. We shouldn’t hold them back because of our own fears.
For the students at Chris’ school this level of ownership and responsibility is made possible by a well planned program of study which begins in reception. Even at that young age the students have their own class blog. Teachers ask them to record what they’ve been doing using Easispeak microphones and cameras and the content is placed on line for parents to see. The response from parents has been very positive as they get to see, first hand, what their children are learning.
“We are putting photos of kids on the Internet. We are putting the voices of kids on the Internet. We are putting kids’ work on the Internet”
The response from the parents has been incredibly popular. Despite some initial concerns over the open and public nature of the blog, most of the parents from Chris’ school have responded positively. They now strongly agree that the benefits of their children sharing their work in a public space far outweigh any concerns they may have had to begin with. The school has also been very supportive in recognising the benefits brought about by this notion of publicness and publishing to an authentic audience.
The importance of the understanding of ‘publicness’ is not assumed knowledge for these students. It develops slowly as they progress through the school. At each year level they are introduced to a new skill and a new level of responsibility. As well as their class blog, they begin to experience Voice Thread, Wikis and Google Sites. All of this experience gives them the grounding that they need to take on the responsibility of administrating their own site in Year 6.
The results for the children have been phenomenal. The year 2 blog has been nominated for an Edublog award this year and has had over 20,000 visitors. That authentic audience has a big impact on the students’ work.
“We tell the kids ‘You know that story you’re writing? Lots of people are reading it’… they respond with “ I better fix the spelling!”
The class blogs have also created opportunities for family members to connect live with their children’s work. Chris told me how, when one class were giving a speaking and listening presentation on inventions, a decision was made to stream the students’ contributions live online. This meant that mums, dads, aunties, uncles and even brothers on the other side of the world could watch and share in their relatives learning experience. One little girl was moved to tears because her brother was watching from England.
“She was in tears of happiness because her big brother was able to watch and say ‘You did a great job. I love you’. How do you put a price on that?”
This success has not been limited to the students either. The librarian you saw in the video above has also been nominated for an edublog in the category of “Best librarian /library blog”. What an achievement after only 12 months of blogging! You can check out the blog here
Tips for Beginners
When I asked Chris if he had any tips for teachers thinking about starting the blogging process (both for themselves and for their students) he advised teachers to “get into it, immerse yourself in it”. He also said that it was important to be yourself and that there is no need to adopt a public persona! Your blog should reflect you, who you are, what you’re interested in and, if you choose to write about your profession, what teaching means to you. Get to know the process of blogging, get used to it and then approach your students and ask them to give it a go. At the end of the project, the staff involved were asked to reflect upon what they had learnt. Some very interesting commentary resulted. The most interesting for me came from “SueEllen’s Snippets”. You can find a list of all the teachers’ and students’ blogs here
As for the pupils? Well Chris said, quite honestly, that there had been mixed opinions from the kids about the blogging process. He feared, however, that this had come as a result of the way blogging was used throughout the year. He had hoped that the blog would be used as a more integrated tool for creating and showcasing poems, short stories, reflections on work done in class etc. For some staff however, it was hard to separate the ‘blogging’ from the ‘computing’. Some saw the blog as an unrelated task that should be undertaken in the timetabled, one hour a week, computer lesson.
“Blogging should be a writing activity… an any time activity for any task that you’re doing. You’re writing poetry? Why not do it on the blog? You’re writing a story a book review? Why not do it on the blog?”
Where children’s experiences did not reflect this creative outlet, they seemed to resent the process. They wondered what had happened to all of the fun things that used to happen in computer time. Instead of video editing, using cameras etc. they are being asked to write – sometimes about things that were unrelated to what they have been learning. Chris reflected that if the children see the blogging task as mandatory writing as opposed to an alternative, creative outlet for producing work in class then they can become switched off to the idea.
I have to say though, having spent some time flicking through the students’ blogs, there are some fantastic examples of blogs being used just as Chris had hoped. “Rachey‘s” blog contains some incredibly creative examples of poems, short stories, movie reviews, recounts and more, demonstrating perfectly the creative, fun and meaningful outlet that this technology can become for a student.
If you have a blog then why not share a link with us in the comments block below? It would be wonderful to have a collection of educator blogs from South Australia to draw from. Chris’ is here, mine is here. If you haven’t got a blog and you are feeling inspired to give it a go then why not start one and see what happens? Be really strict with yourself and post once a week, EVERY WEEK! I know, sometimes it’s hard but give it a go – something interesting must happen at least once in your week. It doesn’t even have to do with education. You might share a recipe, post about a nice walk down the beach on a warm day, share your favourite poem. It doesn’t matter because the point is that you are participating and experimenting with technologies that your students use all the time.
If you are really stuck for ideas then I’d recommend having a look at plinky.com I used to spend a fair bit of time on there as an English teacher using their writing starters and contributing myself from time to time. You just sign up and answer the prompts.
If you think that during the holidays you are inspired to try blogging, then I recommend the following FREE and well supported blogging platforms to get you started.
www.blogger.com – I started here with my first blog 7 years ago. It’s all linked to Google so- if you have a gmail or google+ account you are on your way!
www.wordpress.com – This is the very same platform on which the CEGSA site is based.
Both of these are great for beginners and are well documented so you know you will be supported!
Some more documentation and information from DECD:
After spending some time searching DECD’s site I managed to find the following:
Cybersmart Outreach Professional Development Dates: If you really are concerned about cyber safety and want to get some free training then are two dates in SA next year that you are able to book into.
Cyber Safety – Keeping children safe in a connected world : This is the document from which I have quoted in this post
Some Blogging tips from DECD – they do get a little ‘techie’ though so be warned!
Bringing a 1:1 Program to life – This rather large and very interesting document contains information about all sorts of 1:1 technology use. Its been created with Microsoft in conjunction with the governments of SA, VIC and QLD. On page 8 it has a nice explanation of digital pedagogy. On page 38 it starts talking specifically about blogging.