Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pupils aren't stupid / don't build us a creepy tree house

As creepy as this...Image credit: Steampunk Treehouse by AlmostJaded. Found using CompFight.

A post from Martin Weller at the OU (now in my Google Reader Shared Items list) co-incided with many thoughts I'd been having about online learning environments and how they're spun to students / pupils, some of which was due to an Education Guardian article I'll mention shortly. Much of the discussion is based around postgraduate or undergraduate students, but I think the idea of the creepy treehouse resonates with Bart Simpson's recurring Treehouse of Horror experience.
Trying to track the genealogy of the phrase "creepy treehouse" feels a bit like chasing one's tail - a post by John Krutsch refers to a conference session led by Chris Lott and these (and other) references are summarised by Jared Stein, who says:
In the field of educational technology a creepy treehouse is an institutionally controlled technology/tool that emulates or mimics pre-existing technologies or tools that may already be in use by the learners, or by learners’ peer groups. Though such systems may be seen as innovative or problem-solving to the institution, they may repulse some users who see them as infringement on the sanctity of their peer groups, or as having the potential for institutional violations of their privacy, liberty, ownership, or creativity. Some users may simply object to the influence of the institution.
The use of the word "institution" tells us that this post is primarily associated with Higher Education, but it is also worthwhile pursuing this area in the use of educational technology in schools.
I had an interesting conversation with someone who's been leading the development of Moodle in one of our schools for a couple of years now, who asked whether I saw a role for Facebook in terms of supporting teaching. My answer was essentially similar to the Guardian's Students tell universities: Get out of MySpace! article of last year - there is a social aspect to support which the students already use themselves, but in terms of using Facebook, MySpace, etc. as explicit tools for learning - kids aren't stupid. They know that being at school has an underlying purpose - it's something to do with their learning, development, etc. etc. - no matter how much they might resent this on some days. They also see things which try to pass themselves off as "A Myspace for schools" (if someone else uses that phrase near me again I might have to leave the room) and know instinctively that this is school trying to make itself cooler than it is - "like a teacher turning up at a nightclub" as my questioner put it, after sharing that of course the students said that Facebook was no place for a school to invade.
Whenever anyone asks about this my answer is always that schools who can show that they take their learning environment seriously - i.e. it may have tools which are similar to those on other socially networked sites but are clearly meant to support pupils' independence in their learning - then learners will take them equally seriously and are more likely to engage with them. If a school were to pitch its learning environment as Hey! Come and chat on this cool space about things you'd normally chat about on MyBook or FaceSpace or whatever it is you do outside of school... then the reaction from students would be predictable and probably wholly merited - and would be indicative of a "Creepy Treehouse" under construction.
However, I do think there is a slight differential between phases (i.e. primary and secondary schools). One of our primary schools used its VLE as a tool to support its programme of raising awareness about online safety:
  • ensuring that all pupils had been through the GridClub Internet Safety programme;
  • making sure they could all access their school's VLE;
  • launching the site to parents/carers as somewhere worthwhile for their children to be online, since it would support their work at school and their friends would be there.

It's no surprise to me that this has become one of the most successfuly primary VLEs in the county - and I do think that the vaguely social aspect of the VLE has an important educational function in terms of digital literacy - enabling teaching and learning about privacy, interacting online and those other elements which are deemed essential to children growing up in a digital world.

In the secondary environment, the recent Guardian Link article Alternative social networking: Overprotection or necessary control? is worth a read. I'm not sure that tools such as the Learning Landscape for Schools (which is a paid-for service based on the open source tool Elgg)will ever work if they are touted as "a safe(r) version of [insert useful social networking site here]". Students in secondary schools will already have habits, history and a wide network of online contacts and practice - and a school trying to squeeze these free-roaming individuals into its own network in place of something else will have the experience of the proverbial cat herder. As is often the way in these things, possibly the most enlightening comment comes in the final paragraph:

It is being pitched as a safer alternative, but it's true they [students] are not as enthusiastic. Some sharing now goes on between other schools and between students, but it's by no means a social network of choice for them because it is still limited to just a few schools so far. Plus they know it is being policed.

And therein lies the rub. It's my intention that our secondary ePortfolio tool will have some social tools and features, but with a clear focus on supporting learning we can hope that it won't take on a Treehouse of Horror motif...

Some think that students should build their own tree houses (I sense a PLE spider diagram coming on) but I'd say that many of them already have them - and that this analogy could run out of legs if ladders, neighbours and planning permission were introduced...

1 comment:

  1. There are several ed tech folks who have tried mapping their own PLEs, and I agree that if educators want to encourage students to "build their own" or even engage in the network, we as educators should start by looking at what we do, why we do it, and how it works. My PLE map attempt is here: