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In October, a Pepperdine colleague of mine asked this question via Facebook Questions. There were several responses, including one that said her “general opinion about students and teachers being friends on Facebook is pretty similar to my opinion about students and teachers sleeping together: not if you’re currently in his/her class or if you plan to be at any time in the future.”

I have quite a different view, which so far has gotten the most positive votes on this thread. Here is what I shared:

I teach computer information systems at a community college, so my perspective might be a little different from my K12 colleagues. I also teach the majority of my load online, although I do usually have one or two on campus classes each semester.

I maintain a pretty active FB profile (as Derek will attest to!). It is an eclectic mix between personal and professional. Very often I will share links or discuss educational topics and get quite a robust response from friends, colleagues, educators, students (past and present) so it makes for a very rich discussion environment. One educational thread ended up with over a hundred responses a few months ago. It was awesome!

Because I teach online, I try to make myself accessible whenever possible. Having a profile makes me a “real” person to many of my students, as opposed to a static name on a page somewhere. It builds trust and opens communication channels. I very often have students ask me questions via FB chat (and google chat and all the other chats). I teach about social media as a dynamic, active personal learning network space, taking them well beyond what someone had for lunch or who is dating whom, and I do it by modeling what it *can be* instead of what lots of people *perceive* it to be. We talk about what happens when your mom or your teacher or your boss (or future employer) stumbles across your myspace/facebook page with drunken party pictures all over the place. We talk about how to use it to expand your network (safely) to increase your opportunities for learning. We don’t just talk about it though… we do it throughout the semester as they build their network on Twitter.

I do know many K12 teachers that will either have a “professional” FB page that students can add or make it their rule to only add “alumni” students. My rule of thumb on FB is that I never search out students to add them (too stalkerish) but if they send me a friend request, I will usually add them. I am pretty sure that I don’t put anything on my page that I would be embarrassed by.

Overall the response has been positive to my online presence and students like the accessibility. I haven’t run into any problems because I set the boundaries right up front and students know what to expect. We can hide our heads in the sand and pretend social media doesn’t exist (block it all!)… Or we can use it as a learning opportunity to teach our students what it means to be good digital citizens engaged in actively building a personal learning network that will benefit them well beyond the classroom walls. Of course, unless we figure out how to do that ourselves, it will be hard to help our students figure it out as well πŸ™‚

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I received this email on Facebook out of the blue the other day. It was from someone I met through networking on Twitter and then connected with on Facebook. A few months ago, I had sent out a crowdsourcing plea for help with a Java outline. A professor from Sierra College had responded and we began to follow each other and interact a bit. The author of the message below is a colleague of this professor and back in school to work on a CS degree. She responded to something I posted, or I responded to something she posted… either way, we connected. This is one of the reasons I find social networking/media so facinating. You end up meeting people you’d never have a chance to be in contact with otherwise, and, in some cases, you might end up influencing someone without even being aware that is what you were doing. Here’s what she wrote:

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I received this email on Facebook out of the blue the other day. It was from someone I met through networking on Twitter and then connected with on Facebook. A few months ago, I had sent out a crowdsourcing plea for help with a Java outline. A professor from Sierra College had responded and we began to follow each other and interact a bit. The author of the message below is a colleague of this professor and back in school to work on a CS degree. She responded to something I posted, or I responded to something she posted… either way, we connected. This is one of the reasons I find social networking/media so facinating. You end up meeting people you’d never have a chance to be in contact with otherwise, and, in some cases, you might end up influencing someone without even being aware that is what you were doing. Here’s what she wrote:

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I am always amazed at how social media brings together people from all walks of life. Just the other day I was watching a TED talk on this topic called How social media can make history. The premise of the talk was that news has gone from the realm of the “one” talking to the “many” to a conversation between participants outside the traditional boundaries of the “official” media establishment.

I experience this many-to-many phenomena every day, in lots of different ways. This evening, I posted a brief status update on my way home from a workshop I was teaching. Within hours, there were fourteen responses from seven different people. What makes this interesting to me is that a few short years ago, interaction between these individuals would be highly unlikely. I am the common link, but they all know me through different networks that don’t really overlap much in my real life (high school friends, hubby buddies, teacher types, former students, pepperdine peeps, charter school folks). A few of them have tenuous connections to each other (a teacher type took a class from me at the same school the former student did… but in different disciplines; two high school buddies are people I knew through different social circles). But the rest… well, they only “know” each other through their interactions on my page. On the periphery, the conversation even involved two men who only have indirect involvement through their wives, where we discovered that they both would probably have a “blast” together if they ever met in real life. The conversation itself steered off-topic as one person made an interesting suggestion and another offered some advice on how to follow through on the idea. All because I posted a blurb about my day.

In this conversation, I suppose I was a catalyst for discussion, although I did not contribute any more to the thread. In others, I am a facilitator, bringing people together and guiding the train of thought. In many, I am a participant in other people’s lives, virtually posted for the network to engage in. The interesting thing about all of this is how fluid and dynamic it is, like a giant digital cocktail party or academic symposium where people meet, break off into groups, reorganize themselves by interest, flutter from one conversation to another, pursue ideas here and there… you get the picture. Some conversations dig deep into important topics and many others are much more socially oriented, part of creating an ambient presence in the overall community with those you know and others you’ve never met. A lot of social learning happens in informal ways as people exchange ideas, ask for advice, and share experiences, links & tools. It’s fun to be a part of the network πŸ™‚

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As the teacher representative on the Ridgecrest Charter School Board, I was recently asked to facilitate a meeting with the teachers regarding an increase in medical insurance costs. The administrative staff felt that they had reached an impasse and asked me to intervene. They indicated that some of the staff had become hostile and resistant to compromise and they were uncertain on how to proceed at this point. This was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I am NOT good with numbers. I have a hard time keeping lots of details in mind at a given time. I didn’t really have much information about the available plans, costs, and other variables in play. What I am good at, however, is delegating to the right people and giving them the support they need to do their job. I am good at bringing together people under the umbrella of collaboration and community building. I have the ability to refocus a conversation back on the topic when it inevitably wanders off while helping people feel their opinions matter. That skill probably comes from many years of experience facilitating student discussions in a variety of venues, both synchronous and asynchronous.

This is a difficult discussion under the best of circumstances, and even more so given the current climate of declining state funding, local educator layoffs, and the overall economic climate. As a board, we could easily set the constraints and tell the teachers that their benefit costs would be rising, like it or not. However, I prefer to facilitate a conversation with those most effected by the issue. I made a pledge to the teachers to create an open and honest conversation, giving them all the data I had access to, and letting them know that their voice would be heard.

I put some thought into how I wanted to invite the teachers to the table, and then set about gathering information from a variety of sources. I asked the school accounting firm to provide me with solid data. I asked the school secretary to call other comparable charter schools to see how they were handling their benefit budgets. I discussed money saving options with the business manager to see where it was possible to scale back and what effect that would have on the bottom line. I thought about how I wanted to start the meeting and what goals I wanted to achieve. Because of a rescheduled doctor’s appointment in Lancaster, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it to the meeting before 4pm, which was a little late, but there was nothing I could do about that. When I had that all mostly in place, I sent out the following email to the staff:

I apologize for the time. I will do my best to be there by 3:30, although it might be closer to 4. I had a doctor appointment in Lancaster get rescheduled and they didn’t give me much wiggle room. I should be able to leave there by 2:15 at the latest and I will come straight to the school. If you need to get kids and bring them to the meeting that is ok. I’ll bring along some munchies and do my best to keep the meeting to an hour.

This is an important meeting. Believe me when I say that I have enough meetings in my life and wouldn’t want to add another one if I didn’t think it was worth the time. My goal is to facilitate a positive conversation that will generate some unique ideas for how to deal with the budget situation that is impacting all of us. The result of this conversation will have a direct influence on what we as a board have to decide. We have seen first-hand what happens when an administration does not take into account the collective wisdom of the group in coming up with creative solutions… many of our colleagues locally and across the state have their jobs threatened because of that. A number of SSUSD teachers have told me that no one even asked them about their ideas on how to deal with the budget. Are you kidding? You have one of the most highly educated work-forces in the state and no one thought to bring them to the table and see if they had any ideas? In my mind, that was just dumb. I want Ridgecrest Charter School to be different. This meeting is about asking YOU what YOU think and seeing if we can brainstorm some ideas for moving forward. I want to let our board know that you do care about this school and that you do have a stake in how things turn out… but unless you come, your voice won’t be heard. I always tell my students around election time “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain”. What you have to say IS important.

In preparation for this meeting, I’d like to ask you to think about a couple of things:

  • What are the most important issues to you concerning benefits, salary and working conditions? What issues are you willing to compromise on?
  • Are there non-monetary benefits that are important to you? (faculty development, flex Friday afternoons, classroom management workshops, field trips, mentoring, etc). Can you think of some that would be useful that aren’t already a part of what we do here?
  • In what areas outside of your classroom can you make a contribution to the school?
  • What are some places that you see “wiggle” room when it comes to staffing, work load, student services, and other areas involving the school?
  • What is your vision for this school? Think beyond your classroom… what would you like to see this school become?
  • What have you seen at other schools as far as innovative and interesting solutions to tough problems?

We need to be very careful when looking at other schools that we compare apples to apples. We are a small, rural, single school district, charter school. When looking at benefits, salary, classroom size, and lots of other variables, it’s not really useful to compare to what the bigger districts and schools are doing. My family moved here from a single school (3 classroom) district of 56 kids grades K-6. Mr. Dave, the bus driver, was also the janitor, fix-it guy, hot lunch picker-upper/distributor, and the guy that kids had to talk to when they got out of hand. Here at Cerro Coso, I have a department of 3 people to do all of the same reports and accreditation stuff that Bakersfield College has to do with their department of 15-20 people. Why do people stay under those conditions? Because they love what they do. They enjoy having a voice in the decision making process (without having to go through 10 levels of administrative foolishness). They believe in the mission and vision of the school. Most important… they know they are making a real difference in the lives of real students and not just warehousing them through to their next destination.

My commitment to all of you is to do my best to bring out all of the available information so that we can have a complete set of data upon which to discuss and make decisions. I can’t promise that we will come up with a perfect solution that everyone will be perfectly happy with, but my hope is that if everyone understands the details, contributes good ideas to the conversation, and has a stake in the outcome, that we can come up with something that is workable and even agreeable. The alternative is that others get to decide for you, and that’s not an option I am particularly ok with. I hope you will attend on Tuesday!

Always feel free to email, instant message, social network, call (384-8771), or ask me to meet with you at the school to talk about concerns and ideas. Thank you πŸ™‚

Teachers are always an interesting group to work with. They are quite independent. However, especially at the K12 level, they are not always given due consideration as the highly-educated, creative professionals that they are. I began the session letting them know that I appreciated their participation and that I valued their experience and opinions. I wanted to get them focused on the positive aspects of their situation so had them break into small groups and brainstorm about their vision for this school, what they liked, where they wanted to see things go. We discussed the topics that were brought up, including the ability to have a voice in the process, their academic freedom, and an appreciation for the current leadership of the school. I then tied that into the topic at hand by letting them know that they DID have a say in how health benefits would be determined, that I DID trust in their ability to come up with good solutions, and that I appreciated their time and efforts in coming to the table with their ideas and opinions.

In the conversation that followed, I was able to determine their priorities (reasonable monthly premiums, flexibility in applying the benefit, equitable distribution, and making the agreement part of the teaching contract). In turn, I shared with them the information I had received from the school’s accounting firm about the state of the budget, projected funding, comparisons to how other charter schools operate, and recommended actions. It was important to me that we compare apples to apples (small, single-district charter schools). I had the school secretary share the information she had prepared about what other similar schools were doing for health care, what options we had available, and what some of the plans entailed as far as coverage. We discussed possible areas to save money that could then be redirected to the benefit package fund. The business director was able to comment on the financial impact of those different choices.

The conversation was lively at times, there were certainly strong opinions to be heard, and I frequently had to respectfully refocus back to the topic, but everyone had a chance to discuss their needs and concerns, and everyone felt that they were working with all of the information available. One of the teachers told me that she had never, in her career, been asked what she thought about issues like this before. Others expressed appreciation for what we were trying to do. In the end, we came up with a reasonable solution that I think will be accepted by the board at large. I felt confident that we had achieved the goals of my email to the staff quoted above – a workable agreement was achieved in a way that everyone involved felt included and informed. Hopefully, our efforts will make a difference. Today, I got the following message from the school accountant:

Staff at RCS has shared with me the terrific job you are doing outlining toΒ your employees the financial situation of the school and in particular as it relates to employee total compensation. I do appreciate the extra time you are taking to do this. Many staff have no idea about the fragile fiscal margin on which RCS operates. Providing them opportunities to hear this info in multiple settings is helpful for all. What is particularly difficult in this situation is that, as of now, there is no light that in the near future the US health system, including care and costs, will be ‘fixed.’

Thanks for all you are doing in helping secure health plan options that best meet the needs of staff and school.

Stuff like that means a lot πŸ™‚

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Status message commentary from one of my students (VM).

VM at 12:50pm April 26
Twitter and Facebook updates are like disembodied accountability…

DK at 12:53pm April 26
hmmm… interesting… explain…

VM at 2:56pm April 26
normally people around you keep you accountable for your actions but there are with you. Present.

But with twitter and facebook updates you post what your doing at the moment and people comment on it. there are not present disembodied so to speak.

you can always not post something that your are doing but when you get in the habit of posting all the time it turns into a form of accountability. People become transparent on the internet. So hence where all this came from.

Just thinking about the connection between people and technology and what the internet has done to the human condition. That’s all.

Both sides have there pluses and negatives. But nothing should replace nor nothing can replace face to face communication. I’m still thinking on the subject though…

not sure the full implications of either and how they effect each other.

CT at 3:40pm April 26

But at the same time, people may not actually put on their statuses what they are feeling. They may post something else in order to keep what they are feeling/slash going through a secret. Therefore, what people are holding them accountable for may be irrelevant.

If people truly want to hide themselves, they will, whether in person or online. It is true that some people are transparent online or in person, but not all. What you are saying, Vinnie, may be true for a vast majority of people, but not all. Definitely not all.

DK at 3:49pm April 26
There’s actually a phrase coined for this… ambient presence. The sense that you are in contact with people because of continual micro-updates even if you aren’t physically there. A text message here, a twitter update there, a changed FB status now and again… all serve to build a fuller picture of a person than you might get otherwise. It’s like adding pieces to a puzzle to get the big picture. Is it an accurate picture? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it is definitely interesting to think about πŸ™‚

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reading timeSeveral months ago I read with interest an article in The Atlantic that lamented the effect that the Internet (represented by Google) had on reading, learning, and thinking. There were many good points. I, too, have felt the effects of years of web work on my ability to focus on long sections of text. I sometimes joke that the job that has immersed me in technology for a dozen years has also given me ADD. I often wonder if my inability to stay on track when reading was a result of the context in which I find myself most often (lots of kids, lots of students, lots of distractions, lots of life changes, lots of ideas floating around in my head) or if it was an organic shift in the way my brain is wired due to the prolonged exposure to the digital world. I mean, I used to be able to read those lengthy Atlantic articles faster than a speeding bullet, finish off long novels in a single bound, develop ideas more powerful than a locomotive… um, yeah, well, you get the idea. And now? I read in short bursts, at opportune moments, often using the same strategy our precocious three year old has recently discovered to squeeze in some quiet reading time. A few pages of the book by the bedside here, an online article or two there, parts of articles from several magazines in the basket next to, um, you know where. The question is… is that a bad thing?

This morning I read an article from the Campus Technology website by Trent Batson that made me think again. The Response to Nicholas Carr’s ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid? began by describing the arguments made in the original Atlantic article. He then added a perspective that I hadn’t considered before, but that made perfect sense. I’ve added the bold below to stand out some good points.

Books are heavy and expensive and take a long time to produce. Knowledge based in books, therefore, is slow to develop, hard to respond to, and is scarce. People responded to books with reviews, with articles, and with new books. Human gregariousness was therefore slowed to a snail’s pace as conversation around a book was carried out in the lengthy print process. Books built our culture, don’t get me wrong, and have provided wonderful wealth, but ultimately they also undervalued and ignored the natural ways that humans learn: through oral interaction and in a group.

It is easy to criticize a new technology; it is much harder to understand how the new technology can help create new abilities in humans. And even much harder to understand how technology can actually recapture and re-enable human abilities.

What Carr describes and is most worried about, how we “skim” and “bounce” around in our reading, is actually a kind of new orality: We are reading as we speak when we are in a group. We “listen” to one statement, then another and another in quick succession: Our reading on the Web is like listening to a bunch of people talking. It’s hybrid orality. We find ourselves once again the naturally gregarious humans we always were. We find ourselves creating knowledge continually and rapidly as our social contacts on the Web expand. We have re-discovered new ways to enjoy learning in a social setting.

Way before books were the primary mode of knowledge transmission, people learned by talking with others who were more capable, by observing and experiencing first hand in a social context. You can hand someone a book on computer languages or gourmet cooking, but until they actually try writing a program or cooking a souffle themselves, it would be hard to say that they have actually learned the process. Even better if they are able to work with someone who already has some experiences to share and if they are given an authentic context for their task. In a mobile, global society such as ours has become, perhaps the social nature of web 2.0 has brought back a sense of community where people can talk, listen, learn, and contribute in real and meaningful ways with others who are similarly seeking out those connections. Maybe this “hybrid orality” isn’t such a bad thing after all!

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