Aug 012011
image from Melody on Flickr

Amazingly, I did not write a single ISTE reflection piece this year. It’s always a little overwhelming trying to digest everything, but there are a few things that have stuck with me even into the beginning of August. Now that I’m on a bus headed to the #140edu conference , it seems fitting that I’m thinking about some of the conversations I had about networking.

Over the course of the 3 days I found myself in discussions about networking, relationships and learning on more than one occasion. Most discussions concluded with the idea that while networking is invaluable, building relationships is really what matters and is really what we’re about.

My involvement in social media over the last three years has taught me the priceless skills of making connections and networking (skills, I would argue, that teachers are deprived of through the nature of current programs within schools of education). I’m an outgoing person, but 4 years ago I would not have had business cards, approached people I’d never met or felt connected to larger conversations enough to pipe up in a conversation while able to bring enough to the table to join in and then sit back and learn.

I’ve been telling people how much I’ve learned about networking and I’ve been following many conversations centered around the networked teacher. In fact, I have been working with a colleague of mine to help her become one.  I always tell people that I’m only as smart as the people I know. I know a lot of people. 

But is “networking” really what is helping us learn? Is it really what we should strive for?

David Jakes has a great blog entitled The Strength of Weak Ties. I’ve always loved that name. While searching for the exact link for this post I stumbled across Mark Granovetter‘s highly influential sociology paper of the same name. (I’m kind of ashamed I’d never heard of it before!) As networked teachers we are connected loosely through social media, conferences and in a more local sense, our Intermediate Units, Regions, Districts, Unions, etc…  These connections make us better teachers, they facilitate learning, but when I talk to members of my ‘weak ties’ network (mostly Twitter) what we really seek are relationships, stronger ties that enable ongoing support and deeper learning opportunities.

When I think of networking in the traditional sense, I think of an exchange, an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” attitude. Relationships, however, involve a give-and-take with one side sometimes giving more than the other. Relationships involve a giving of self and ideas rather than a give-in-order-to-receive mentality.

Though I began honing my networking skills through the lens of social media, I have begun to build a network here in Philadelphia as well through the work I do for the South Philly Food Co-op and the annual edcamp Philly unconference. Some of the connections I have made are ‘weak ties.’ They are limited to the skin-deep needs each party has for his or her project. However, many of those ties have bloomed into relationships that go beyond our original purpose. It has made Philadelphia ridiculously small for me over the past year or so.
Similarly, many of the weak ties that I have built through social media still remain weak. Even so, I still value them. These are the people with whom I network because we share similar jobs, viewpoints or interests. However, the more powerful, deeper connections that have blossomed from such weak ties into friendships and professional relationships have and continue to push me as a teacher and helped me discover my own passions and beliefs.

While it’s important to maintain those weak ties, let’s look beyond networking and begin to build relationships that matter.

Aug 282009

Just recently I posted this question to my Twitter PLN. Within half an hour I had about a dozen tweets in response. I promised Stacy Bodin that I would post the responses for everyone, so here ‘goes!

This seemed to be the most popular site that was sent to me. It is hosted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the New York Zoos and Aquarium. Students can choose their gender, their skin tone, and add eyes, hands, feet and ‘backsides’ that are all animal parts. To use this as an avatar, students would have to click ‘I’m Done’ and then save the image to their desktop to use. It is free and does not require a login account. The only downfalls are that you can’t link to the image unless you email it to someone, there is no embed code, and the image includes a fairly large background since it’s intended as a desktop image.

This site allows you to create a personalized avatar for free. However, it requires signing up for an account. It seems that there are more options in wardrobe, accessories, etc… if you make one using your account. A drawback is that you can’t access your avatar without opening the confirmation email and logging into the website. There are embed codes available once you have an account and create an avatar.

The Hero Factory This site allows students to create an avatar

that looks like a superhero. The female character is wearing underwear, which some teachers or adults might not approve of when creating avatars with younger students. It creates a downloadable .jpg file of a comic book cover that can be uploaded to a site (see the image to the right).

Reasonably Clever Lego Avatar You can use this site to create a Lego avatar. Just choose your hair, clothes, etc… and then you can save the image by selecting it using Shift-Command-4 (Mac) or a screen capture software/Print Screen (Windows). The directions on how to do this are on the site.

The Simpsons Movie Avatar Creator I’m not sure if my district blocks this site, but it’s an obvious winner with kids! I was able to save the head of my avatar by clicking ‘download.’ To save the avatar, you need to create an account. This site allows a user to upload a photo from their computer and add lines, shapes, color and text to it. Although it is not recommended that students use their real photograph as an avatar, they could use an photo to edit. This site also requires an account to save and work with images. I was able to play around with it using the Demo version with pre-loaded images to see how it works. This site creates animated gif files from a photo you upload from your computer.

You can then get a link to the image and an embed code. You can also ‘quick post’ the image to a number of social networking sites. Again, teachers may want to have students use an image, not a photo of themselves to protect the students’ identities.
This site, though written in another language (Portuguese?), has a list of 20 sites you can use to make avatars. Ah, the POWER of Twitter that my message got all the way around the world! It looks like a great site. I wish I could read it!
You could also use to create an image for an avatar. I reviewed this site in an earlier post here.
Most of the other avatar sites I found were connected to social networks that I knew would be blocked by my district’s filtering system. (They block Animoto, VoiceThread and Glogster right now because they are considered ‘social networking.’)
If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comment area. I want to teach my students how to safely use an image to represent themselves online on their blogs and Gaggle profiles.
Here’s a link to my Diigo bookmarks tagged ‘avatar.’
Thank you to:
David Kapuler (@dkapuler)
Jennifer Dittrich (@jkdham)
Ruth Cohenson (@tearoof)

Matt Boot (@mattboot)
Isabel de Valdivia (@Castellano3CAS)
and all the people who re-tweeted my question around Twitter!

…who helped me in my quest on Twitter!

Jul 252009

After talking about if for months, I finally took the first step and started a Ning for Philadelphia Teachers!

A Little Background

In a district as large as Philadelphia (over 270 schools & about 180,000 students), it easy to feel isolated. I know it sounds crazy, but the larger the system, the more out of touch people become with the system. I have been teaching computers for 2 years now, and I have managed to survive thanks to an email listserv called the “PTRN” list (Philadelphia Technology Resource Network). It is a community of teachers that share information and help each other with technology problems on a daily basis. I have, on many occasions, sent out an email and received a response within minutes.

This resource is invaluable, but it is a difficult place to really share resources since you must go through your email to find past conversations or answers to questions that you may have forgotten. I have been asking for months about the possibility for setting up a Ning or some kind of network for us to use that is more permanent and allows for more in-depth conversation. The listserv is also very impersonal-I have discussed resources or emailed back and forth with people for 2 years without knowing anything about them! I’m sure many of these people have a wealth of knowledge to share were we able to connect in a different way.
With no response from above, but a few positive responses from fellow members, I decided to take things into my own hands…..
Starting the Ning

Step 1
Think of a name. It must be:
  • easy to remember
  • easy to recognize (based in Philadelphia, a network for teachers & technology)
  • would not deter non-technology teachers from joining
I chose the name Philly Teacher Techs.

I felt it important to include the technology aspect, but I wanted to put ‘teacher’ first so that people who did not teach technology would feel included. The only thing I regret is how similar the name is to the name of my blog.
Step 2
Decide the purpose.
  • What need will this Ning fill that is different from the listserv?
  • What are my goals (high level of participation? Information dissemination? Social networking?)
I decided that the Ning fulfulled the human element that the listserv was missing. It also allowed for public dialogue without filling up people’s inboxes and providing a kind of archive for these discussions since they can be accessed easily over and over.

My goal was for people to get something out of it. I spent time putting up resources and giving discussion starters to get the conversation started. Kind of like a warm up activity at a meeting or conference.

Step 3
Choose content. What should I put on the Main Page?
  • Are there Nings that I find easy to navigate?–what are they doing right?
  • Are there things I don’t like about other Nings?
  • How do I keep from having an information overload on the first page?
  • How to I use the Main Page to make my Ning inviting?
I am a member of a bunch of Nings, so I took a look at them.

I like the way I Education Apps Review put the Forum at the top so people could easily see the conversations that were going on.

I like the Classroom 2.0 idea of having ‘hosts’ or ‘greeter’ to help new members out. I hope to have a few more people help out soon.
I also like the purpose of One Comment Project that has a focus that fits a particular need/interest in the education community. It also works as a support group as well.

I also like the way both Nings use a text box to add original content.
I do not like when the Forum is below the Latest Activity. I think the Latest Activity is too busy, and that discussion should be easy to find.
To make my Ning more inviting, I explained every aspect of it for people who might not be familiar with this kind of community. I also referred to the Ning as a community as much as possible to reinforce the idea of it belonging to its members, not me!

Here is my Main Page:
Step 4
Invite members. I had to think:
  • Will the Ning be public or private?
  • Will I allow anyone to join, or should I accept people who apply?
  • How will I spread the word?

Since I knew that some people were interested, I contacted them first to let them know the Ning was up and running.

I decided to make it public to allow for people to peruse the site before joining, or use the information there without being a member.

I decided to require authorization of members so I could keep track of who was joining and welcome them individually.

I used the PTRN list (how ironic!) to spread the word about the Ning community. Since I used my district email, I made sure to note that the Ning is not endorsed by the School District of Philadelphia (though I added ‘yet?’ to the statement!)
I also used the tool in the Ning to send out a welcome message to new members and remind them of the Ning’s purpose and how to use it.

Step 5
Keeping the conversation going.

The biggest challenge I think I will face is making sure that people are visiting the Ning, contributing to it and getting something useful out of it. I started a bunch of discussions to get people started, and a few members have already started their own discussion threads.

I hope that I will be able to watch the Ning have its own momentum led by its users. To me, that is a sign of a successful Ning.
Final Thoughts

I need to remember that this community is only a few days old and many teachers are on vacation and don’t check their District email over the summer. I am heartened to hear that people are as excited as I am about the possibilities this community offers!

Feel free to visit:

Why I finally got a Twitter account

 social networking, twitter  Comments Off on Why I finally got a Twitter account
Jun 232009

Ok, ok, ok, call me Arlen Specter. I broke down and joined Twitter. As a Technology Specialist attending a four day technology conference in DC, it really just had to be done.

While you make a great point, Nana, about all social networking sites not being a ‘one size fits all,’ I discovered that by not participating in Twitter I was missing out on an opportunity to network and stay informed at the conference.

I didn’t imagine that I would need to learn things like how the @ works or the # in creating Tweets. I basically use it to keep up with what ‘important’ people in the education and technology field are saying. I could see it taking up a lot of people’s time looking through hundreds of posts and links. Fortunately, I have no luxury of extra time!

It is pretty amazing how Twitter users have molded it into what it is today. My recent reading of The Wisdom of Crowds has gotten me thinking about this phenomenon of bottom-up coordination and management on the internet. I highly recommend picking up this book. It’s a bit dense, but worth it!