My Shifting Landscapes of Professional Learning

In a blog post last November I set off on a one month trial of Twitter, mostly to see what all of the hype was about but also to look for any practical use for classroom teachers. This post is a second follow up on that venture to describe a little of the huge impact Twitter and other social networking applications have had on my “shifting landscape of professional learning.” While I’m still not convinced our too often over stressed and isolated classroom teachers have time to add this on, I’m also starting to believe that making the time might be the best way of beginning to reduce stress and creating connections to change thinking and alter classroom learning. For me this foray into the world of social networking has caused a significant shift in my personal and professional learning networks. And, while the shift is mostly for the better there is also a down side to it all.

One needs to understand that I am a relatively shy person. It isn’t easy for me to “cold call” people. I’m not the type to walk up and introduce myself easily. And when I do, I have trouble following up with the requisite small talk. Yet I’m social in that I love good conversations, I am comfortable being part of groups, and I enjoy listening to others discuss and debate when I can get myself in there. So like the quiet student in the classroom, or the isolated teacher behind the classroom door, the use of Twitter and Facebook has moved me into some new and different spaces in ways that it wasn’t easy for me to be a part of before. As I reported in my Dec 17 post “[b]y far the most exciting result for me has been the fun I’ve had getting up the courage to participate in the interaction. Twitter offers a kind of light weight connection, if you will.”

The tools:

Mostly I use Twitter for my professional network and Facebook for my more personal family and friends network, although the boundary between the two blurs as family and friends have begun to find and follow me on Twitter while colleagues “friend” me and invite me to groups from their Facebook accounts. For my own clarity I maintain the boundary more by separating the use of the tools than the people by keeping my tweets generally about education and work and my Facebook updates of a more social nature. I open Twitter while working and save Facebook for other times of the day. The colleagues I choose to “follow” are generally those who use Twitter to tweet about topics that are of interest to me professionally.

By having Twitter on in the background while I work, I’m alerted to and reminded of the digital network of colleagues around me. When I suddenly don’t know how to do something, find something new and interesting or just need to pause and be inspired I flip to Tweetdeck where I can tweet and/or scroll back through any one of several columns that I have running. Generally I have an “all friends” column beside a “local friends group” column as well as up to five or six for any current gatherings or topics of interest at the time. Today I’m following #celc2009, the hash tag for the Canadian eLearning Conference (and ETUG workshop) as well #necc2009, #iranelection and #education. I find other hashtags to follow often by watching those that my colleagues are posting to. Through those topics I find other colleagues to follow because of the tweets they post, and on and on it goes. As I come across tweets from respected colleague with suggested sites to check out and/or questions to ponder, I reply with tweets and allow myself bits of time to check out new tools, sites or posts.

Which of course leads to the downside: how to constrain those “bits of time”? First off, it is important to let Twitter posts go by. I often hear new twitter users ask how one can possibly keep up. The answer is simply that one can’t. But with all that I read, and the sites and tidbits that are of interest, Diigo is helpful because it allows me to bookmark, tag and organize sites without needing to fully explore everything I wander into. I can mark things as read or unread and can write notes and comments about the site to myself as a way of knowing what to come back to if and when it might be a useful thing to explore more fully. I have yet to really learn to use Diigo to its full potential, but as I use it more and more I see that it too allows for social networking potential on a much larger scale than Getting to know it better is my next challenge.

The people:

The number of people I’ve come to know since first signing on to Twitter is quite frankly, for a shy person like me, staggering. I can easily divide the 256 people that I follow into a few simple categories: 1) Bloggers and thinkers whose writing/work I follow, 2) Known colleagues with whom I interact in person and/or online, and 3) People who have chosen to follow me and have represented themselves on their Twitter page in a way that makes me curious about what I will learn from having them in my network. Once that follow and following connection is struck, the playing field levels out and I view them all as my colleagues regardless of how they may choose to read my posts. I allow myself to freely “tweet” to them all as I would any colleague and similarly I reply to their posts from that same perspective of being on equal ground. In my mind, that opens up the room for dialog and sharing that makes this all so valuable. Similarly, replying and commenting in Twitter, which is referred to as microblogging, is not that different from using an RSS reader to “follow”, read and respond to blogs. Both create a similar shift in one’s learning landscape in terms of the people connections that are built.

The challenge to my thinking:

In a school, college or university where the working space is limited by the physical space, it is all too easy to close doors and physically distance oneself from differing views and opinions. For me one of the greatest advantages in networking via blogs, tweets and online social networks has been the ease with which I am finding that exposure to other perspectives and ways of thinking. In an easy and fluid way this forces me to keep a critical mind. Because I am interacting with individuals with whom I may not yet know well I am challenged to listen, to think and to enter into discussions especially when silence might be seen as agreement. In my opinion this discomfort and unfamiliarity is clearly the most valuable aspect of social networking for developing professional learning networks.

Ok, So I’m back.

A bit of a hiatus since my last post but all for good reason. Quite honestly I’ve been overwhelmed by the amazing blogging world. Then add in twitter, so micro blogging, and I was struggling to find time for work, let alone my family. Life has to have a balance. On top of all that I’m still bound and determined to learn Spanish and I’ve increased my efforts at that to really honest daily sessions. Estoy haciendo progresos finalmente. At the same time my colleagues at SFU and I have begun doing some solid research work around Self-Study, plus I’ve been attending various conferences including this week a small SFU sponsored conference with Amanda Berry and John Loughran from Monach University in Australia on Self Study. (See my previous post on Self Study.) Yesterday I sat in on Day one of the Virtual School Society Conference: Learning Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere. I am feeling so immersed in thinking and learning. I am fortunate to be surrounded by amazing thinkers and excellent, supportive critical colleagues. But it has all stewed enough and once again it is time to write.

So the inspiration which has pushed me to do this today is Tod Maffin, the end-of-the-day-keynote at the VSS conference. The first time I heard Tod Maffin was on CBC radio early one morning when I woke up to him being interviewed about why he had just deleted his Facebook account; yes, he deleted his Facebook account! His friends were all, rightly so, immediately concerned about his well being. Tod is funny, articulate and provocative. Thinking back to that, I shouldn’t have been caught off guard when he spoke, but I was. While I don’t have today’s speech but if you haven’t heard him speak before, its worth watching one of his YouTube videos to get a sense of who he is:

Appealing to the Facebook generation isn’t particularly contentious, nor really was today’s talk. Early on he asked who believed in multi-tasking. A good portion of the audience raised hands, me included. This was bold on my part given some of my previous thinking on the subject such as one of my earlier blog posts on LIveJournal in 2007 Flow vs Multi-Tasking. But understand that since I wrote that post I’ve been immersed in teaching with technology. I’ve become a real blogger AND a microblogger on twitter. I now have my own ipod touch and I’m learning spanish partly through long walks with little white wires dangling from my ears. So while I do still find it rude and I would agree 100% that one cannot totally be at one’s best when multi-tasking, I would not agree that learning and multi-tasking are incompatible. But I guess one has to start this discussion with actually defining learning and that may be wherein lies the real meat of the argument. Tod Maffin didn’t go there.

His talk though based on his opinions was, he said, well backed up with research or at least reading he has done. Certainly there is lots of research coming out about brain plasticity and how digital media and imagery is changing the way brains are developing. We both agree that children’s brains are developing differently. Children who spend a lot of time using digital media scan a page of text differently. They process images differently. He spoke to the over identification of learning disabled students in a world that might really be about learning disabled teaching environments. I applauded that point as well as when he started to look at what an amazing creative, critical thinking generation of students we are beginning to see emerge from this digital, imagery driven world. Then he took a turn back to three ways to help these digital student learn better, presumably in our text based world without really ever bringing up the question of what learning really is. His example, two university classes one in which the students kept their tech toys while the in other students were asked to leave them at the door, may have demonstrated that the students paid attention to his words differently, but says nothing at all about the learning, the critical thinking, the retention, the risk taking or creative thinking that may have come from what was presented in either group. This is of particular interest to me as I consider with my colleagues in our self study the question of what learning really is. What do we except as evidence of learning?

So while I do agree that we do want to be attentive to helping our students to monitor the learning space (consider the tech toys, rethink multi-tasking), by informing the habits (get enough sleep, have a good breakfast) and by informing the balance (be mindful, keep perspective) I’m not yet ready to buy in to believing that learning just happens if we set up the right environment. Learning needs active participation on the part of the learner that I still believe might be enhanced by keeping the tools in the learners hands. All good food for thought though. Thank you Tod for an inspiring, stimulating talk.

[Editor’s note: this post inspired by “quiltily” watching and contributing to the #VSS2009 twitter conversation during the Tod Maffin talk while also note taking. So I ask you, what do you consider to be evidence of learning?]

In Response to CCT

I just read Cool Cat Teacher’s blog on the dumbest generation which starts off with this YouTube video by Don Tapscott.

Like many parents and teachers I do worry about what the amount of “screen time” our children engage in, yet I can’t help but notice a growing awareness of issues spanning across generations. Sure, I don’t see it in every person young and old or maybe it is simply my own growing awareness and concern for more systemic issues and connections. Yet, knowledge changes and shifts so quickly and it seems that perhaps those who are “tapped in” are more adaptable because they are experiencing this movement and shifting tide. They are perhaps more willing to challenge and question information because they can so easily find conflicting, skewed or divergent sources and opinions. They have more access to and control over what information they are “fed”, digesting it in different ways. The digital generation, whoever it encompasses, is beginning to be cognizant of a mass access to creating, mixing, mashing and producing. Knowledge as power has taken on a new meaning.

I think this second video, one created for the AARP U@50 video contest in which it placed second and posted on YouTube by metroamv adds to the discussion.

In her post Vicki Davis (aka Cool Cat Teacher) writes:

To me: ethics, digital citizenship, cultural awareness, global collaborative skills, and discernment are all things that should be part of our student’s upbringing. Then, we will inoculate them against becoming corporate executives who lie on their financial statements to get ahead – people who build bridges with other cultures instead of burning them, and people who treat each other with ethics.

Whether we want it or not, whether we teach it or not, these issues such as ethics, digital citizenship, cultural awareness, global collaborative skills, and discernment are a part of our children’s upbringing. The students themselves are bringing them into the classroom right along with their cell phones, digital cameras, mp3 players and social networking spaces and accounts. More and more teachers are bringing them out of the students’ pockets and into the teaching/learning arena because our students are insisting. That’s how the students engage and any good teacher is engaging too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Don Tapscott’s introductory video or on the Lost generation video. If you decide to comment in your own blog, please use the technocrati tag netget_stereotypes so that your response can be “aggregated from the blogosphere!”

Exemplars in the field

Anyone who’s followed this blog knows about my ongoing struggle to bring together technology in education with the principles and ideals in support of global education.  While in many ways it is a natural match as well as perhaps an inevitable contradiction, I’m always curious why we aren’t seeing more of the two coming together, or more aptly, ed tech supporting systems thinking and global perspectives.  Today I’d like to highlight two brilliant examples and direct you on to the blog posts that describe them. First visit Jennifer Whiffin’s new blog at In Pursuit of Purpose where she details how she uses Kiva to teach 4th and 5th grade math. Then have a read of  Phil Macoun’s guest blog post on TLITE Online.  Here Phil has written about the Digiteen project.  Kudos to Jennifer and Phil for their excellent work.

As things take off

SFU’s new Learning and Teaching with Technology Graduate Diploma Program started up in Coqulitlam, BC two weeks ago. What is truly different for me with this program is that while the teachers coming in to the program have a wide range of skills just like previous teachers in TLITE programs, this time they have all just dived right in. And the first dive is higher, with more bounce and flair than I’ve seen at the beginning of a program before.

Last night, in just the second class, James McConville presented on ‘Digital Learning Networks’. He covered a lot and challenged the teachers to start building an online network with a fairly comprehensive final assignment. It included

contribut[ing] to the human network [by] comment[ing] on 5 news articles, 5 blogs, and 5 other networks (twitter, facebook, etc.).

The teachers were then asked to summarize their experience and create a mind map such as the one David Warlick has done here, in his blog post The Technologies we Make. (Read about PLN’s in his post Networked Learning at Conferences and/or try his PLN Survey.)

What is curious for me is that the information James presented could be considered to be cutting edge. James had only recently attended the International Congress for School Effectiveness in Vancouver and so what he was talking about was current for him. It was new and exciting, connections he’d made at the conference and how that impacts his work. Yet this group of “new to the program teachers” weren’t out of their depth as a group. Sure, individuals picked up on different things: some joined Twitter on the spot, others busily signed up for a Google Reader account, a few were following along with the blog posts his slide show directed them to, while still others were setting up new Google Docs account for the next activity I had forewarned them about, and yes, some were wondering what was going on. But overall, these teachers were demonstrating something very exciting in the way they participated in the presentation, a kind of readiness for change. A readiness for change in how they learn and how they will teach. Immediately after James finished, one teacher excitedly told me

I’ve realized it’s not at all about the technology. It’s about me and about my learning.

That comment came through in an interesting way in the profile sheets that the students filled out after the first introductory class. For the most part they genuinely have enrolled in this program to gain a deeper understanding of how to effectively use the technology to enhance student learning in an informate manner, rather than simply to automate their teaching. The “what we know” and “what we hope to gain” Wordle art from this group is interesting to consider. In both cases the word technology was removed from the mix. In the first wordle it would have appeared 39 times, in the second 51.

What we Know:

What we hope to gain: