Ning, Pearson and Who Own Our Content

It’s July and for many of us who have Ning sites, that means changes are soon to be afoot. I have a handful of sites that I have created in Ning for various elements of my writing, technology exploration and more. Most of those I am going to let vanish into the ether (really, though, do things really vanish anymore? Some echoes will remain in the far corners of the Net). These sites are too small to deal with, although I hate to see them go.

Ning now has a three-tiered pricing plan and for most of the sites that I manage (most for the National Writing Project), the middle tier makes the most sense, but I am still not completely clear on how the change will impact the way the site has run in the past. Can I still embed videos hosted elsewhere, for example?

When Ning announced it plan to move away from the ad-driven model to a pricing plan, there was an uproar of concern from educators who were using the platform for work with students (only 13 and older are allowed by Ning) and other educators. We liked “free” and wanted it to remain “free,” although free meant ads on our sites (which I paid to remove, whenever possible). Ning listened and promised that a company would be providing free “Ning Mini” plans for educators. Many of wondered who that would be.

It’s Pearson, and that has given rise to some mixed emotion in me. I won’t be using Pearson’s sponsorship program. I have done some work for the National Writing Project and Pearson (see my resource around using claymation in the classroom at a Pearson “Profiles in Practice” site). It was fine and I have no complaints. I did opt out of a video interview by Pearson once because I worried about how I was giving them something for free that they could use to gain revenue.

Apparently, you have to be an educator in North America to get Pearson sponsorship, and you have to brand your Ning with Pearson logo, and you have to create a “Pearson member profile” in the network, too. The sponsorship lasts for three years, too.

So, here is my question: Who will own the “content” on the site that is being funded by Pearson? Is it you, the owner (and students, if it is a class site), or is it Pearson, the sponsor? Or is it Ning that owns the content?

This is a crucial questi0n in this day and age of managing information on digital platforms. And the issue is not addressed in any of the Ning announcements, as far as I can tell.  I would worry that Pearson, while seeming generous, is gaining access to a vast data set of what teachers are doing, what students are doing, and then leveraging that access down the road. Pearson’s business is built on educational trends, remember.

On the Ning FAQ site, they pose the question of whether Pearson can contact your members directly through your site. The answer (which sounds good) is:

Pearson will not contact members without the Network Creator’s consent. Pearson may contact you, the Network Creator, directly from time to time, but these communications will not extend to your members unless you agree to do so.

Am I being too skeptical of Pearson and Ning? No. These are questions we have to ask before we put our work in the hands of a company who makes their money in our educational circles. Ask the questions and get the answers before you let Pearson into your site.

Peace (in the questions),

Using Cool Tools: Don’t “just do it”

(I wrote this last week at the New Literacies Institute and shared it at our site, but thought I might share it here, too.)

I’ve been thinking about this issue in light of the Cool Tools sessions in which we have gratefully been given time to learn and play around with a technology tool. For many, this may be a first introduction to Voicethread, Glogster, Jing and more. Once you get past the initial technical barrier (sign up, bandwidth, etc.), it’s easy to get immersed in the technological tool and then use that “wow” moment to want to integrate that tool into our Inquiry Projects. (Spend a few minutes building a wall at Glogster and you will see what I mean — here is a book review that I did on Glogster about The Socially Networked Classroom that I look at now and think, there’s too much going on here.)

I suggest a cooling off period, first. Let the “wow” moment pass and then think clearly about:

  • What are the aims of the project, lesson or professional development concept? What do I want my students/teachers to learn?
  • Does the technology enhance the learning experience?
  • Why am I using this particular tool and not another?

In other words, use the technology as a tool for learning and not just to use the tool. One mantra that I use with my students (but also, with myself) is: Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it. It’s easier to say the mantra than it is to enact it, but still, I try.

I suggest there are a few reasons why you would want to step back and reflect before forging ahead with a tech tool integration:

  • Students may become distracted if they, too, get caught up in the technology. Make sure the technology complements the learning you are aiming for. Provide focus and structure and clear expectations of your students. Again, is the tool the right fit for the goal? Remember: it is not the tool that is important, it is the learning (there I go, sucking the fun out of school again)
  • We should always be wary of advertising on sites we bring our students to. Glogster is one that has lately become bombarded with ads. We use Firefox, with Adblock Plus add-on (you should, too), but the last thing we need are schools to become yet another place where our young people are forced into the role of economic consumer
  • Web 2.0 sites die all the time, or get revamped, or change unexpectedly. This is a fact of life in the unsettled connected world. We don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket, or one application or platform. (Corollary: always have a back-up plan for days when a site is down or the filter unexpectedly decides to kick you out.)

I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t integrate technology (I’d be at the wrong conference for that — perhaps the Luddite Convention down the road?) but I do recommend thoughtful integration, with the backwards design model of where do you want your students to be at the end and what tools can help engage them to do their best and most creative work along the way. Keep in mind: What affordances does the technology bring to the learning experience?

Meanwhile, the best way for us teachers and educators to figure all that out is to “play” with the tools ourselves. Put yourself in the role of your student (or your teacher, if your aim is PD) and work with a variety of tools to determine the best fit. This takes time, but it is worth it. Your own experience “creating” goes a long way to understanding the possibilities and limitations of whatever you choose to bring to the classroom.


Testing with Errors

It’s almost a bit too easy to take a shot at this, but I saw this short news piece in our paper this morning in which the superintendent of the largest school district in 0ur area admitted that a standardized test given to high school students was riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. (See AP story)

I’m resisting the urge to create a comic about it. Resisting ….

What I wonder is how many students caught the errors  and then wondered if the errors were part of the test? Maybe one error might make you think, that was a mistake. But 100 errors? That becomes like some Jedi mind trick, don’t you think? And who are the “district proofreaders” and what were they doing when they should have been reading the test?

Sometimes, in novels, I stumble across an error and it always makes me stop and wonder about the editorial process, and the layers of proofreading that go on (we went through it with our Teaching the New Writing collection) and still, that one erroneous werd finds its way in there like a worm in the ear.

Peace (in the proof),

PS — Yes, werd was intentional. I hope you caught it. If so, give the Springfield schools a call. They may be searching for some folks.

Running a Webcomic Camp for Kids

I am in the midst of planning out our Webcomic Camp for middle school students. The camp takes place next week at our local vocational school and there are about 15 young comic artist/writers signed up. My colleague, Tom, and I ran the camp for the first time last year and it was quite interesting.

Like last year, we will mix in the use of traditional paper and pen for making comics along with using a few webcomic sites: Make Beliefs Comix, Bitstrips for Schools and ToonDooSpaces. We also have invited a few visitors who are local folks who work in the field of comics and graphic novels, and I am hopeful they can come in to work with our students.

The camp runs for four days, for four hours each day, so there are some limits to what we can do. But I am going to use elements of Barbara Slate’s You Can Do a Graphic Novel as a place to develop some lessons for the camp kids. (Listen to the podcast interviews I did with Barbara earlier this year at The Graphic Classroom).

Essentially, I want the camp kids to create a character they believe in and can develop, and then use that character in a series of activities throughout the week as they work on traditional comics and then, a longer graphic story format. Last year, we did not have an end product in mind but this year, I am trying to come up with something they have to complete as a comic showcase. I am trying to envision the backwards design principle here.

Here is a glimpse of some of the comics from last year:

Comic Camp Art Gallery from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

Peace (in the camp),

Cool Tools, shared

On the New Literacies Ning, Ian asked folks to add their own cool tools they have used or that they recommend for others to consider using, and I thought I might compile those recommendations here. It’s great to gather collective resources together.

Here is what was on the list:

In the week, during the various sessions, we also used:

Peace (in the sharing),

Reflections: Teachers are just like Students

I’m continuing to process what I learned from the week at the Massachusetts New Literacies Institute. I am coming at this reflection from a teacher-leader perspective, knowing that we have three follow-up sessions with the 100-plus teachers over the next year, and our friends Don Leu, Hiller Spires and others have moved on from Massachusetts to likely work with others. And, if the state funds it, we may do a second week with all new teachers next summer. In other words, this movement here in Massachusetts that we started this week is now in our hands.

And so, some thoughts that I notice could also pertain to students:

  • Participants were paired up in Dyads, working as a team (or Tryads, if necessary) in order to explore a shared interest or lesson plan or curriculum subject. I liked that intermixing. It forced a networking mentality on folks, even those reluctant to mix it up. Clearly, some teams integrated each other better than others. And some made clear they were there at the week to work with colleagues from their districts and they were determined to do so. Just like students …
  • Part of the week was spent showing teachers Cool Tools (such as Glogster, Voicethread, Zotero, Wikispaces, Word Sift and more). That’s good. Hands-on work is crucial. Here is what I noticed, though. Almost all of the projects used only those tools they were shown in the sessions. I did not notice too many folks branching off to now discover more tools on their own.  Instead, they seemed to become locked in to whatever tools they were shown. Glogster, wikis and voicethreads were all over the place. The danger of using mentor tools or text or projects is that they become replicated around the room. Just like students …
  • Lots of freedom on what their projects might encompass (even with the tools noted above) meant an incredible range of ideas. The lesson here for teacher-leaders is that a framework of learning is necessary for connecting, but then, for the most part, we teacher-leaders have to step out of the way and let the groups make all of the decisions. This put the learning in their hands. Most of the teams took advantage of that freedom. Some teams did not, seeking out exactly what was expected of them, and foundered a bit. Just like students …
  • The collective mentality of all of us seemed to be that technology can inform literacy (I agree, too), but perhaps we should have found more ways to question and be critical of that premise that technology in schools is the right path for education (something the Mass Commissioner of Education did, but then did not leave any time for teacher response or questions). I worry that if we don’t leave room for arguments against technology (shallow reading, advertising on sites, time away from learning, etc.) then we too easily buy into the “wow” factor. Just like students …
  • One of the elements of feedback that came in was that the ‘talking’ parts of the week — the keynote addresses and sessions that centered around research — were too long. People were itching to get to the tools. I thought the balance of pedagogical insight with the hands-on work was fine and crucial for a week that was more than a “how to use technology” seminar, but attention spans became short at times. Just like students …
  • The teachers and administrators I worked with were very appreciative to have me there in their midst, even as the wireless became overloaded and sites did not work quite right. I tried to calm down the frustration by talking through alternatives and workarounds and even a hack here and there. Most of the time, they could step back from frustration, take a breath and then get back to work. But they needed a helping hand to navigate those moments. Just like students …

And just like students, these teachers were able to push beyond their safe zone with technology and dive into the unknown. Our hope is that momentum carries into the school year and back at the distance. We want ripples to happen.

Peace (in the reflection),


Book Review: You Can Never Find a Rickshaw …

  • You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons: The World on One  Cartoon a Day

I’ve been slowly savoring Mo Willems’  You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons for a few months now. This book — with its subtitle: The World On One Cartoon A Day –  is a collection of one-page comics and illustrations that Willems did when he went on a low-budget backpacking tour of the world, starting in the United States and then heading out to Europe, Asia and more. The tour began before Willems was a published author of crazy kids’ books  (the Pigeon books and more) and before he was married, so he was a single man on an adventure with his pen and paper.

Unlike most tourist guides, Willems’ illustrated insights capture the daily color of life (shining through Willems’ own sense of humor) and what makes the book special is that Willems went back to his drawings and added short narratives of his memories of the scenes. Or his faulty memories. Or, in some cases, he admits he doesn’t even remember drawing the scene.

The use of comic illustrations is another lens into culture, I realized, and I think I learned as much about Nepal and Paris and China as I have from any other book that I have read.

Give Willems’ book a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Peace (in the sharing),

Some Final Reflections about New Literacies Initiative

The Massachusetts New Literacies Initiative week is over, but I surely hope the real work has not yet begun — that of our teachers bringing ideas back to their school districts and emerging as leaders around technology integration. Here is my reflective voicethread that has some final thoughts at the end (It’s been a day-to-day threaded journal). My intention is to showcase some of the projects in the next week, just to give you an idea of some of the work that was being done.

And here is a Wordle that we created of words and phrases that came to mind about their week at the Institute. I can’t help but notice that “overwhelming” and “amazing” are high on the list.
wordle new lit

Peace (in the reflections),


New Literacies: Day Four

I added another page to my reflective VoiceThread this morning as we begin to wrap up our time at the Massachusetts New Literacies Institute. Yesterday, our keynote speaker was Dr. Bridget Dalton, who talked about reaching diverse (ie, struggling) learners with technology, and a guest visitor was our state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

Here is a video of Dr. Chester addressing us (with Don Leu using a virtual Sen. Kerry to lead the introduction via Voki):

Peace (in the sharing),