Archive for August, 2007

19th August
written by Tom Banaszewski

It’s nearly 3am here in Shanghai and I’ve got technology on the brain. Since leaving friends, family and my beloved Red Sox on the Atlantic coast and bumping the population here in Shanghai to 18,000,001, I haven’t had many moments when I had edu-tech ideas buzzing in my blood. But, tonight I’ve got online communities on the brain, specifically how to build successful ones for schools. And I think I’m staring at some textbook examples of how a successful online community could fill some pressing needs.

Example #1: Along with about 150 teachers, I live within a ten minute walk to the school. Shanghai American School has two campuses: Puxi and Pudong. I live and work on the Puxi side. When you combine the two campuses you probably have nearly 400 people including the teachers and their families.

The Need: Shanghai is not an easy city to navigate on so many levels. It took me three weeks to find dishwasher detergent and dryer sheets, I haven’t bought fresh vegetables for fear of the rumored frightening fertilizer treatments, and figuring out the basic policies of my apartment complex has left me wondering when the Ex-pat’s Guide to Working and Living in Shanghai is going to appear in my mailbox(but i’m not really sure mail from outside "The Bubble" actually gets to me).

There are several websites that cater to the significant ex-pat population here, yet they are too vast in audience and fail to pool the body of knowledge that only gets shared in random run-ins with people on shuttle buses or over lunch. When I was living in Boston, Yelp was a fantastic resources. When I had a craving for the best donuts in town, I went to the site, entered "best donuts in Boston" in their search tool and immediately had a half dozen glazed options to explore with links to Google map directions and the key piece of info of how far away they were from my apartment. Our school tried to create an intranet to fill this need, but the reality is why try to recreate the wheel if it already exists. And who among us teachers is really a skilled wheel-maker these days? Yelp is restricted to the US right now, but craigslist expanded overseas. Why not borrow the code for creating a Yelp site and set-up a Shanghai Yelp site?

The company behind Yelp just received another $3m in venture capital support! Online communities are cash cows. There are so many schools around the world facing this need to easily disseminate info and allow its members to add to a shared knowledge base. Craigslist could serve our needs. The Shanghai section is evolving into something more than people looking for "friends" or "conversation partners." The  downside of the craigslist option for us is that it wouldn’t be governed or created by us. I think if the SAS community knew there was a place to post questions, such as "Can anyone help me switch my Wii system so it’s in English" or more pressing matters like finding a reliable dentist, they’d find it very helpful.

SAS has been here in Shanghai for many years. Thousands of teachers, parents and students have come and gone. Every teacher and family member has had to figure out Shanghai. When they leave without recording what they’ve learned about Shanghai, all of us newbies miss out on an amazing resource. It would be so sad to live here for a few years and not know that what others feel are the real gems of Shanghai.

The SAS online community could not only tell you the best place to find [insert chinese word here](dumplings), it could have photos of local and far excursions, a section helping ex-pats learn to speak Chinese, classifieds, DVD swaps, a page of scanned business cards with directions in Mandarin/Shanghaiease so people can just print them out and give them to the taxi driver. I can see this really taking off. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been in so many meetings and had so much info dumped on me that I’ve probably only digested 1/10th of it. And the real problem is when I need to find that info I have go crawling back thru an inbox that already has a couple hundred emails in it. An online community successfully organizes info so people can access it quickly. It nurtures a sense of belonging and keeps them coming back.

As usual the students are way ahead of the adults when it comes to using technology in their lives. Whether it’s mySpace, Facebook or here in Asia Mixi and Cyworld, millions of students belong to these online communities. But when they come to school there’s nothing like it available to them. Not yet.

Example #2: I’ll try to be more concise in this example. A teacher asked me about helping her ESOL team get reacquainted with their use of Grouphub. Teachers spend an excessive amount of time looking for info they need to do their job. They rely on email to send and receive a dizzying array of info. They need to be able to share resources, create documents collaboratively and asynchronously, trust that those documents are secure, and have tools (other than Outlook calendars) available to them that help them manage lengthy To Do lists and 190 day marathon.

Schools are often at the mercy of "The Network." I’m not going to get into that in this post, but will say that one shoe doesn’t fit all feet. Whether it’s WebCT, Blackboard, StudyWiz or some other Learning Management System(LMS), you have to remember that each school is unique in its sense of community. I firmly believe that technology can nurture and sustain a genuine sense of community. With a careful assessment of the school’s building culture, planning, and training, an online community will meet many of the school’s needs.

More on this later. It’s 4:30am and I’m supposed to go on a bike trip outside the city in a few hours. When muse calls, you have to listen. Tonight she took hold. I had few other ideas that need to be jotted down here so I can come back to them later.

  • Post a challenge for students to find, describe and illustrate in a variety of ways the connection in Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows and the rise and fall of the Nazi regime
  • With the new Evoca widget, teachers can post a passage from a current novel/textbook/print resource and have students respond by recording their response orally instead of text. Great differentiation support.
  • With another new widget(can’t remember the name) you can do PD by creating a Tech Teachers talk show to that teaches/showcases a particular use of technology in action