Thursday, October 8, 2009

Construction of Personal Learning Environments is Messy

My goal was to keep a running journal of my dissertation research on the blog. I suppose I could cut and paste my field notes, but that wouldn't be very reflective. Time is definitely the enemy. This doesn't amount to a deep reflection, but I feel inspired to share. I'm learning as much as the 7th graders about student construction of personal learning environments. The project has gone quite well in spite of numerous challenges and technical difficulties. I owe this to an unbelievably gifted and flexible classroom teacher in addition to 24 "normal" 7th graders who surprise me every day. Here's a short list of our many hurdles.
  • As the project began, the school network was locked down like Fort Knox.
  • The computers go into deep freeze when dormant for 10 minutes.
  • Deep freeze does not allow for new applications to be permanently downloaded. The process to fix this requires shutting down, turning off deep freeze, rebooting.
  • Most Web apps require users be over 13. Students turn 13 in 7th grade.
  • This is not a laptop school, but we managed to gather up 24 laptops - just enough. Three have gone down since the project began so some students are working on desktops in nearby rooms.
  • We were using NoteFish as a web-clipper and note taking program. We upgraded to the latest version of FireFox. Guess what? Not compatible with NoteFish.
  • 7th graders can be notoriously disorganized. This can be a problem when you're trying to manage numerous online accounts and passwords.
  • Occasionally, key Web apps go down. The probability of this is positively correlated with the importance of the activity.
  • Today as I arrived on campus, the power went out. No power, no network. At the same time 7 visitors arrived from a community leadership group made up of local business people who came to observe the class.
You would think from this list that every day was a new disaster. However, neither I nor the participating teacher see it that way. In fact, every day is a new science experiment, a new adventure, a new learning opportunity. The students are all engaged in their own unique ways... for the entire hour and 40 minute block. On the one hand, they've had to learn a whole new way of work riddled with frustrations and unknowns. On the other hand, they've embraced it with a vengeance. They work together to solve technical problems, dig deep to find answers, and share with classic 7th grade enthusiasm.

Happily, the power came back on within a few minutes. The students accessed the agenda on the teacher's blog from their Symbaloo account and plowed right to work on their individual scientific inquiries. The adults in the room were mesmerized. I didn't let on, but I was also mesmerized and smiling inside with pride for the kids. I have no regrets about the technical difficulties. There is always a work around. Sometimes the kids are the ones who figure out the best alternative plan. My only regret is that more students are not empowered to learn this way.