Ning is the Thing:
Using web 2.0 technology to encourage higher-level thinking in senior academic English classes
Central Elgin Collegiate Instute
Thames Valley District School Board
The purpose of this action research project is to assess the impact of web 2.0 technology on student attitude and engagement in a secondary English classroom. Essentially, the term “web 2.0” refers to technologies that allow people to collaborate, share, and create content anywhere, anytime. Common examples would be blogs, wikis, Flickr, Facebook, and Google apps. For the purpose of this study, I will look specifically at one type of web 2.0 platform, Ning, that mimics social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace.
Last year, I had the opportunity to work for our board as a learning coordinator in the area of literacy. I was lucky enough to have the time to read and research about a number of different topics related to literacy, but I was most interested in a report by Kathleen Blake Yancey, called “Writing in the 21st Century,” in which she explores historical attitudes toward writing and how these attitudes have changed over time as a result of changing technology. She goes on to explain that teachers of English need to acknowledge these changes in order to provide students with authentic opportunities for writing that better reflect the kinds of writing they do outside the classroom.
This year, I am back in the classroom at a moderate-sized high school in Elgin County. The school has a reputation for academic achievement, but in recent years, the population has been changing requiring staff to focus more on strategies for student success. I have been assigned grade 11 and 12 university preparation English and grade 12 college preparation English for the first semester of the school year. Although I recognize that my “clientele” are not the most high-needs learners in the school, they have presented me with some interesting challenges in terms of motivation and achievement.
Most of my students are “digital natives” who have grown up with computers, the internet, cell phones, and mp3 players. Approximately 67% of my students have cell phones and 93% of my students have Facebook or Myspace accounts and use them regularly. They do a great deal of reading and writing online, but they have also grown up in a school system that is often suspicious of online technology. Cell phones and mp3 players are banned from most classrooms even though they can be valuable learning tools. Our school currently has a wireless network installed for student use, but students do not yet have access due to concerns regarding security. I know many teachers who are very concerned about our students’ lack of awareness or concern about what they may be revealing about themselves online, but, for a variety of reasons, the response has frequently been to ban, restrict, or filter rather than teach.
My administration have been very supportive of my ideas about technology in the English classroom and scheduled two of my English classes (grade 11 and 12 university preparation) in a computer lab. This resulted in a rather mixed reaction from students on the first day of class. Some students looked thrilled while others looked deeply suspicious and nervous. I have explained to my students that this semester will be an experiment.
While I had access to a huge range of web 2.0 technology thanks to the computer lab, the content that I taught was still restricted as my administration also felt strongly that different sections of the same course should still have the same content and assessment strategies. I found a way to work around this challenge by simply using the technology available to differentiate instruction and assessment. That way, no student was ever penalized for not wishing to use technology.
A typical period of my grade 11 English class looked like this: Students came into class and logged on to their computers. They went first to our class website, www.danikabarker.ca, and then followed the link to their class blog, http://eng3u.edublogs.org/. They found instructions and updates and began working while I talked to individual students and completed attendance. Some students then logged off the computer and chose to sit at one of the tables, while others stay logged-on. I conducted a focus lesson on a particular topic and then had a practice assignment, usually in small groups. Students could choose to take a paper copy of the assignment or download the assignment from our class site on Edmodo. We debriefed and then I assigned any individual work at which point students could choose again whether they would work online, or at their desks.
For the purposes of this study, I focused my research on one web 2.0 platform my students use regularly in my grade 11 and 12 classes. Ning is a social networking site similar to Facebook. This site allows students to form groups, add content such as video clips and music, and create discussion forums on topics of their interest. It also has a blog feature. Initially I only planned on using a Ning to support the student study of the novel, The Great Gatsby in my grade 11 class. As students worked with the application, I saw additional benefits and created Nings for a variety purposes in all three of my classes. In the end, I created five different Nings:
|Literature Circle Ning||ENG4C||
|Life of Pi Ning||ENG4U||
When I initially began this project, I wanted to assess the impact of both Edmodo and Ning on student achievement and engagement. I now realize that I based my initial question on an assumption that students would enjoy and be excited by the prospect of using more technology in the English classroom. As I received some “push-back” from students, I was forced to reassess and I came to the conclusion that what I really wanted to know was this: What benefits do students gain through use of web 2.0 technology that they could not achieve through non web 2.0 tasks? Specifically, how does the Ning allow students to use the higher order thinking skills of Bloom’s Taxonomy?
The methodology summarized in this section includes: demographics, research method, data collection, and ethical considerations. The main question in this study is: How does web 2.0 technology allow students to access higher level thinking in their responses to literature?
The study focused on a grade 11 university preparation English class composed of 15 girls and 12 boys. All students had internet access at home, although some had limited access due to dial-up. The physical environment of the classroom was unusual for students and most of them were accustomed to a more “traditional” English classroom with desks and a blackboard. While most of the students spent one to two hours a day outside of class time using computers for socializing, playing games, and occasionally doing homework, some of them had been uncertain and even suspicious about using computers on a regular basis for schoolwork.
Research Method and Data Collection
After experimenting with using the Ning for The Great Gatsby, many students became routine users of the Ning while others remained mechanical users. After they became fairly comfortable with the site, they were presented with an assignment that allowed them to choose to use either the Ning or a more traditional method to complete a character study of one of the characters in The Great Gatsby.
Since the purpose of my study changed over the course of the semester, the initial survey I had students complete asked questions about their attitudes and experiences with technology. As the study evolved I realized that my focus was not so much on attitude but achievement. With that in mind, I collected and examined the work of a selection of students and looked for evidence of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation level thought.
I am aware that some students are uncomfortable with using technology for communication purposes in an English class. While the English curriculum document supports and encourages the use of technology, I wish to be sensitive to the feelings of all of the students in my class. For that reason, technology use is simply another option I provide to students in order to differentiate instruction.
I have also spent time talking to students about how to limit their personal risk when working online. The Ning is only open to students in our class so they are permitted to use their real names. Any samples of student online work used in this study will have surnames deleted to protect privacy.
I took screen shots of student work on the Ning and then used the following criteria to look for evidence of different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in student work. Specifically I focused on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation:
|Knowledge||* observation and recall of information
* knowledge of dates, events, places
* knowledge of major ideas
* mastery of subject matter
list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.
|Comprehension||* understanding information
* grasp meaning
* translate knowledge into new context
* interpret facts, compare, contrast
* order, group, infer causes
* predict consequences
summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend
|Application||* use information
* use methods, concepts, theories in new situations
* solve problems using required skills or knowledge
apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover
|Analysis||* seeing patterns
* organization of parts
* recognition of hidden meanings
* identification of components
analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer
|Synthesis||* use old ideas to create new ones
* generalize from given facts
* relate knowledge from several areas
* predict, draw conclusions
combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite
|Evaluation||* compare and discriminate between ideas
* assess value of theories, presentations
* make choice based on reasoned argument
* verify value of evidence
* recognize subjectivity
assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarize
Character Study Performance Task
As the project progressed it began to take on a life of its own. In my grade 11 university class, students were given a character study assignment. The purpose of this assignment was for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the characters in The Great Gatsby. I wanted students to have a rich understanding of the characters’ motivations and relationships to other characters as well as their importance to the overall novel so I created a performance task that allowed them to interact in role with other students. In order to provide some differentiation, I gave students two options from which to choose:
Option A required students to imagine that Facebook was around during the time of The Great Gatsby. They could use the Gatsby Ning to create a page for their character complete with status updates, photos, blog posts, groups, etc. More importantly, this assignment allowed them to interact with other “characters” from the novel just as they interacted with their friends on social networking sites.
Option B required students to create a monologue to deliver in role. They also had to create a list of questions for the other characters in the novel. After they preformed the monologue in a small group, other “characters” asked them questions and they took turns responding in role. This assignment still allowed students to interact within role. I recorded these monologues.
I anticipated pros and cons for both assignments. While students had had opportunities to work with the Ning before trying this assignment, they were still mechanical users of the technology. On the other hand, I hypothesized that the fact that students would have more opportunities to read and consider before formulating responses would lead to richer discussion. I suspected that students who chose the monologue might write pieces that demonstrate better factual knowledge of plot and character, but that their responses to the questions might not demonstrate as much ability to apply their knowledge and understanding since they did not have as much processing time as the students working with the ning.
Twenty students chose Option A and seven students chose option B. Three of the students who chose Option B were absent on the day of the assignment which meant that they didn’t have the opportunity to participate in the “interaction” portion of the activity.
I used the same rubric to assess both options, but I found Option A very difficult to assess:
|Level 1||Level 2||Level 3||Level 4|
|Limited understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)
May not contain enough information
|Adequate understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)||Thorough understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)||Thorough and insightful understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)|
|Weak communication of ideas and may not be appropriate for format chosen and / or may a number of inconsistencies||Adequate communication of ideas appropriate for format chosen may contain inconsistencies with character portrayal from the text||Clear communication of ideas appropriate for format chosen and consistent with character portrayal from the text||Sophisticated communication of ideas appropriate for format chosen and consistent with character portrayal from the text|
|Limited transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters”||Some transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters”||Good transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters”||Excellent transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters”|
It was much easier to assess Option B for knowledge and understanding since Option B was a more traditional assignment. Option A was challenging because there were so many different elements that students could include as evidence of their understanding. Because I’d never done an assignment like this before, I couldn’t anticipate the types of evidence students would include. Below is an example of a page that I would use as a level 4 exemplar:
This student chose an appropriate image and page layout for his character. He also had a number of status updates that demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of the character, as did the groups he chose to join.
One of the elements I was most interested in assessing was also the most challenging. It was very time-consuming to track the conversations between students on the Ning because I had to click a number of different links to follow the conversation thread. Below is a composite of the conversation between two students, one acting as Tom Buchanan, the other as Daisy Buchanan:
While it was interesting to watch the interactions between the students “role-playing” their different characters, I also found that this particular activity did not allow them to access the more complex levels of thought. Most of the discussion and interaction took place at the Knowledge, Comprehension, and occasionally application levels. When “Tom” replies to “Daisy”: “Because, there is stuff to be done…it is none of your business don’t ask,” it’s clear that the student playing Tom has and understanding of Tom’s character. He is evasive and aggressive and the student is able to respond to “Daisy’s” request using the same tone.
When comparing this interaction to the discussions that happened in the monologues, the Ning conversations did appear to be more “authentic” because students had some time to craft their responses. There was also more of a flow in the conversation in the Ning version. That being said, some of the monologues did a much better job demonstrating knowledge of character than the Ning pages did. I have included an audio file of the conversations that you can listen to by clicking below:
While both options worked well, I felt that the Ning could be used in a more effective way which led me to the blogging project for Othello.
Reflective Blog Post Performance Task
The blogging task evolved from a desire to ensure that students would take more ownership for their learning and be aware of the ways in which their initial thoughts and impressions changed as they read Othello. Rather than posing questions for them, I wanted the students to ask their own questions and use their peers (as well as me) as sounding boards and resources. A blog seemed to be a perfect format for that.
To begin, I explained to students that there was a difference between a blog and a journal:
Some students were anxious about having other students read their work. I encouraged them to share their work and explained why it was important. Then I also showed students who were particularly anxious, that they could adjust the settings on their ning so that only their “friends” could read their posts. “Friends” were people they chose to add as contacts on the ning. Not all classmates were automatically “friends.” While students knew how to use this feature, very few of them made use of it after their first post.
Below is the outline for a level four blog post.
I made use of modeled and shared writing and wrote a blog post with the students and had then provide me with feedback before they were expected to write on their own.
It took some time for students to understand the concepts of tags, hyperlinks, and inserting photographs. I thought it was important to teach appropriate use of technology and show students that they had to give credit to images they found online and that just because it was online, didn’t mean they had permission to copy it.
In the example below, Alex, a student who typically performs in the level three range, blogs about the end of the film adaptation of Othello. He begins by making a personal connection with Emilia. He then uses specific evidence from the film to support his contention that “the director did an excellent job of showing Emilia’s emotions.” The image supports the post nicely and Alex uses a hyperlink to appropriately reference the image. He has, however, forgotten to use tags to help identify key ideas in his post
While I do not think this post shows a high degree of synthesis, analysis, or evaluation, it is interesting to see what happens in the comment section of the post. The first comment is by a stronger student who is able to add more ideas to Alex’s initial thoughts. Then Alex considers the comment and responds with the new thought about divorce. There is certainly some synthesis happening here that might not have happened without the comment feature. The comments about Emilia are also interesting because they were not prompted to write about Emilia. This was a topic they found interesting and chose to write about.
The next post was written by a student who performs in the level four range, provided that she finds the task engaging. Blogging seemed to be something she was very comfortable with. She even drew her own images and added them to her blog posts.
In this post, Mallory has used clear tags to help other students identify the topics she’s blogged about, specifically the idea of conscience. I find it really interesting that she also chose to include a song that she was listening to that reminded her of the play. She includes a hyperlink to the song in the comment section of her post. What’s missing from this post is a reply to the comment posted by another. It would have been interesting to see what Mallory thought about this idea of conscience. The students are—without prompting from the teacher—beginning to pose very interesting and thought-provoking questions. They are certainly working within the range of syntheses and evaluation.
I find the next example particularly interesting because it comes from a student who usually scored a level two on her assessments. What is interesting is not so much the post itself but the conversation that occurs in the comment box.
The first comment is mine. I occasionally posted questions and prompts to encourage students to extend their conversations. Another student, Ian, jumped in to the conversation and posed a new thought–that Iago is finding that victory isn’t as sweet as he had hoped. Vanessa considers this though and responds which prompts some thoughts from Jesse and Mallory. Jesse, Vanessa, and Ian’s comments cause Mallory to reexamine some initial thoughts she and then draw some conclusions.
Conclusions and Implication for Professional Practice
The value in blogging is not so much the initial post itself, but the conversations that it ignites. The real thinking occurs when students reconsider their initial ideas, change their minds, or come up with new thoughts. A conventional reader’s journal does not allow students to do this because the journal response is the finished product, whereas a blog is organic. The comment feature encourages collaboration and deeper consideration.
The tagging feature allowed students to classify their ideas. Then other students who shared similar interests could see all the posts on that particular topic which would be a great way to have students brainstorm for a culminating task such as an essay.
In the future, I would emphasize the importance of blogging at regular intervals. Some students left all their posts until the end of the unit and missed out on the “conversations” and didn’t get to see their ideas develop of change. I would also work harder on modeling the difference between a level two or three comment and a level four. Students put much more emphasis on the original posts than they did on the comment portion. I would also make this project a stepping stone to a culminating task where students used the tags to develop ideas for an essay, debate, seminar.
It would also be interesting to collaborate with students from other classes and indeed other schools. I have been experimenting with ning in my media class where my students are commenting on the blog posts of students in a different school in a town two hours away. I think this piece of web 2.0 technology presents teachers and students with very exciting and rich opportunities to learn collaboratively while encouraging students to think reflectively.
 Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Writing in the 21st Century: a report from the National
Council of Teachers of English” February, 2009.
 The term “digital natives” popularized in the paper “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” by Marc Prensky in 2001. Recently, David White, a social/educational media researcher at Oxford University has argued that we should instead talk about “digital residents” and “digital visitors,” but for the purposes of this paper, “digital native” will serve as a more accessible if less accurate term.
 Edmodo is a social networking site that is specifically developed for teachers and students. They can post assignments, questions, and notes as well as submit assignments.
 Specifically, I wondered if I would see more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation level thinking in the responses on student blogs.
 It’s also interesting to note the time of the responses. Neither of these responses happened during class time. Students continued conversations begun in class on their own time outside of class.