Friday, April 1, 2011

Musings of a short-lived Night Elf Hunter

During the past weeks, I have been reflecting about my journey to the land of 21st century education, of 'classrooms without walls," mobile learning, and use of technology to enhance and enrich education. Below is the (shortened) essay I wrote in November 2010 for the course Building Online Community using Social Media (BOCSM) through @One Institute, which was a turning point in my perception of online learning and social media .

"One January night of 2009, a Night Elf Hunter came to life in one of the wondrous landscapes of World of Warcraft. Tall and powerfully built, with long braids and a tight leathery outfit, the avatar looked ready to embark on her first Quest- except that she did not know what to do. Creatures around her “spoke” to her in sometimes cryptic messages, and colorful windows floated around the screen offering coins, weapons, and tools. The Elf did not even know how to move.

In panic, I hit the Escape button and exited the virtual world.
I had taken the offer of a ten-day free trial of WoW to understand what drove my teen son to his room for hours, neglecting school and household chores. In the beginning he would tell me about his team, scattered around the whole world. I could not grasp how he
could spend hours chatting with those faraway friends he had never met. But I also felt that he was onto something, maybe not of my liking, but something powerful that I needed to explore.
Years later, I am starting to understand.

There is a saying in Spanish: “Subir monta├▒as hermana hombres,” which literally means “climbing mountains make men become brothers.” The idea is that people working on a common task (especially if hard and daunting) will form a community. This is achieved in many ways: we share about ourselves, compare opinions and ideas, give constructive feedback and advice, and sometimes are just plain silly and have a good laugh. We look for what is common between us and enjoy learning new things.

As many other "digital immigrants," I could not grasp that all this could be achieved online. I started to change my mind when in a previous course I watched the weekly address of the instructor- I saw her slightly tensed face before starting the recording and I knew what she was doing (looking at the countdown on the camera). I heard her sharing some facts about herself (which resonated with me). And I thought: “I could chat with this person!” Somehow, she became real.

Now, how important community is in an online class? I had some doubts in the very beginning about it- because it takes time. The past two weeks I had lots of things to do outside of this class and it was hard to find the time to roam around Ning and the Moodle site to comment, answer to others' comments, or just look at pictures and watch the videos. It was more than just completing the assignments- I was concerned about being perceived as rude if I did not get back quickly to all. I still feel that I did not make connections with everybody the way I would have liked, and I hope I can do it during the remaining days.
So I was concerned that putting the extra-load on students could be overwhelming.
Right now I feel that it is worth the extra mile. I feel very much at ease with my BOCSM teammates, and feeling at ease makes the learning experience more fun and also less stressful. I also realize that the instructor has to set the tone and find the best tools to make this possible.
Of the topics covered in class, the most essential for me to incorporate is "collaboration" as it is the one I have not really harnessed yet. I am not really clear how to design blogs and wikis so they are efficient and true:  that they are actual student contributions and not just automatic copy & paste.
How to do that? When I try to remember learning collaboration in my life, I fondly recall days spent at my friend's Maria's backyard with a group of other college students. We would sit in a circle and pound away (no study guides, no tutorials, and no web resources), book in hand, taking notes, explaining issues to each other. Maria's mom would bring us snacks, and between studies we would chat about little things. And it just dawned on me that we had such a great group together because we were a community- we shared, we felt safe with each other, and we had lots of fun together!
So the idea has come a full circle, and I can now fully embrace the idea of building a community as an essential foundation for a successful learning experience. Especially when we want collaborative learning- we need to make students feel safe and heard- and for that I will use many of the tricks learned in this class, from ice-breakers to Voicethreads.
And I think this is the most valuable lesson- the importance of building a community- that I take with me from this class.

On a November morning of 2010, “Annie” made her entrance to “Breakthrough to Cures,” a 1-day global game designed to promote awareness and global brainstorming to address degenerative neurological diseases. Sponsored by the Myelin Research Foundation, the game's no-frills structure allows players to propose solutions or name possible pitfalls, with other players being able to build upon those ideas- support, criticize, inquire, or modify. This was Annie’s second try and she knew what to do- she proposed some concrete ideas and commented on others’. Soon she and another player, “Gardener” had agreed on a framework to establish a global knowledge network and discussed ideas about how to make information accessible in remote areas of our planet. Not all exchanges were supportive- there was questioning and sometimes contradictions, but  never unpleasant. Moderators of the game were tweeting about the best ideas of the game and bloggers were identifying threads with immediate practical applications. In less than one hour, Annie felt she knew most of the gamers present. It was a fun learning experience. It was also an experience of online community building with a common purpose, just like the online courses we build or even the WoW games our children play."
How did you journey start, dear reader?