The End of the Ultranet Era

This week sees the end of the government supported Ultranet (The Victorian Learning Management System)   and tonight I looked back at the blog post I wrote on the 6th of August 2011, just days before it was openly released to all Victorian teachers. It was only the third blog post I had written on this blog.  It is with pride I look back over how I have evolved as an educator in this time and part of this was thanks to the Ultranet.

Some of the tweets I read are celebratory and others are angry that the Ultranet tried to fence in our students. I believe otherwise. When I first started on twitter I locked my account.  It didn’t take long for me to realise the potential was in the world being able t see what I was saying but I needed that time to find my feet.  I did the same things when I first started blogging.  The first few posts were hidden from the world at the beginning until I felt comfortable in sharing what I was doing.

The Ultranet was a great opportunity for my kids to ‘play’ and I, my students, their parents and the school felt safe that they could test the waters of an online world without the harsh consequences the world wide web. For the first time my students were connected to every other school student in Victoria.  As much as we would like to think so we can’t do that with any other platforms.  My students could go into chat rooms and write on forums even if they were under the age of 13. They could design their own spaces and invite teachers and students from around Victoria. And as for the walled garden, I saw it no differently to the classroom, where students could take risks in their learning and I was there to help them.  Of course they didn’t stay in the walled environment, and I didn’t expect them to. With confidence they made their way to blogging and collaborating in Google docs, sharing our class account on Twitter. But the Ultranet gave them the skills. I wish I had had more of an opportunity to use the assessment side of the Ultranet and am frustrated we continue to report in a manner we know is not beneficial to our students or their families.

So what went wrong?  I don’t think we will ever know.  Was it the disaster of August 9th which would become the grey cloud that continued to hang over it? Was it the over sell that it would revolutionise ICT in schools?  Was it the infrastructure difficulties when trying to link all schools together?

As I look back for me it was a wondrous time.  I met amazing educators using the Ultranet hashtag on twitter who today are close friends. It connected me with my prep teacher 30 years on. I learnt basic html and css and it opened a world of online learning design.  It created a community of educators who saw it for what it was, warts and all, and took the potential rather than feeling boxed in. For the first time in my teaching career I was ready to share my learning with others and did so at conferences and online. Maybe I would have got there anyway but the Ultranet was certainly a catalyst for me.

I am saddened to see that after today the Ultranet hashtag will dwindle as the last few have their chance to say “I told you so.” But I look back on the opportunities the Ultranet opened up for me and my students proudly and take with me the learning it allowed me to do.

Keeping the conversation real

I have recently begun back channeling in my 5/6 classroom.  Back channeling is where you provide a space to allow a conversation to carry on, usually whilst you are teaching or throughout a lesson.  It allows a real time conversation to occur while you are teaching.

I used the Community Chat application on the Ultranet (Victorian Department of Education’s Virtual Learning Environment). This is a great space to use as it is in a walled garden but if you are not a VIctorian teacher you can still back channel through spaces such as Today’s Meet, Edmodo or Chatzy where you can set up a private room and students do not need to sign up to be involved.

Before beginning our first chat we discussed online safety and the importance to read over what we have written before hitting the send button.  Children were aware that once you post a comment it can not be taken back and they should check that what they mean to get across is actually what is written.  They also understood that there is no private conversation and everyone can see what you write.

At first I gave students an opportunity to just chat.  And I admit there wasn’t much of that!  Plenty of one word responses or questions such as ‘Hello?’ or ‘Cool’ but it didn’t take long for kids to extend these to ‘I love nachos’ and ‘I am so cool!’  Yes – I realised there was a little bit of work to do first!

chat roomphoto © 2005 doug wilson | more info (via: Wylio)

How does back channelling look in your classroom?

The next time I used it I gave students a task – to listen to the story I was reading and ask a question about the text.  The great thing about this was that other students started to answer these questions.  And all while I was busy reading a book!

Don’t get me wrong, there was still some chat about how much they loved Justin Beiber or how much they disliked Justin Beiber but after using back channelling with a group of adults recently I noticed a lot of discussion about favourite football teams!

But what was happening, was a great opportunity for students to ask questions that could be answered in real time. They didn’t have to wait for me to finish.  They could share their thoughts and respond to ideas as I was reading.  And I could then see all of this at the end of the lesson and follow up on anything I needed to.  Even students who don’t usually like to share were joining in.

We now use back channeling every time we read and I have loved seeing how the conversation behind the book is developing.  Of course there is still a fair bit talk about nachos but I see this disappearing.  I look forward to using more back channeling in the classroom.

Have you used back channeling?

What does back channeling look like in your classroom?