I have recently started a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with the University of Florida. It’s free, open access, and for me non-credit. The first ‘assignment’ is to write about why you are taking the course and what you expect to gain from it. One simple and practical answer is that I want to find out more about elluminate, as I may be using to run a course myself at some point fairly soon. I also want to work my way around the resources and figure out which tools fit for which purposes. It is fascinating how fragile and yet how robust a course constructed entirely in the ether can be, something akin to a spider’s web… Google Docs, Elluminate, Twitter, Youtube, Blogger and various other applications, websites and software are all threaded together to make something which is exceedingly intricate and yet surprisingly sturdy. We shall see.

But this course comes at an interesting moment for me personally. I am preparing for a workshop I will be at this coming weekend, based on a presentation I did a year ago, and at the same time thrashing around a paper on the same theme. I can tell you the what and the how of personal learning networks with increasing certainty, but I am losing my grip on the why. Hence the existential crisis. I should stress that I still believe that personal learning networks are a ‘Very Good Thing’, but I am just unsure what exactly they are good for, and to what extent. I have a few inkings, but these also raise questions.

  1. I have a feeling that teacher development ceases at a certain point, provided that a teacher remains in the same context / position for an extended period. That is not to say that ‘old’ teachers can learn nothing new – there should always be tweaks, refinements… even new approaches. But major epiphanies and shifts in beliefs become less likely over time. This is reflected in the balance between available research devoted to development in novice and ‘expert’ teachers. Given this, I imagine that there is a shift in emphasis in the way that teachers use PLN’s, from self-learning to self-motivation. A feeling that what one is doing is valuable becomes more important for teachers as they enter their late career, to avoid burnout, bitterness or simply going stale. Being a part of an active community and taking on a role as mentor to less experienced colleagues can thus be mutually beneficial.
  2. PLN’s serve both autonomy and collegiality – autonomy in that they are self- initiated, self – constructed and self – maintained, collegiality in the way they allow for collaboration and mutual support. According to research, autonomy and collegiality are both very important elements of successful teacher development, but within institutions and in formalised programmes the balance can be hard to strike, leading to abandonment (enforced autonomy) or pressure (enforced collegiality). PLN’s can circumvent some of these problems by offering both greater control and greater opportunity for meaningful cooperation.
  3. PLN’s are extremely social, and can be quite high maintenance. The amount of off-topic banter, chat and sharing which tends to take place is higher than one might expect, although if one considers the PLN as an emulation / extension of a staff room, it is probably comparable to that which takes place in daily face-to-face interaction with professional colleagues. This may explain why ‘Facebook‘ is, for me at least, a far more useful PLN tool than ‘Linkedin‘. The ‘Personal’ in PLN doesn’t only refer to the unique and personal nature of each particular network, but also to the personal input one has to engage in to be accepted as a trusted member of the network. This in turn can be very tiring, and may lead to burn-out in itself.
  4. Connectivist theories propose that members of a network do not have to learn themselves, but that the network as a whole will synthesize shared knowledge to move understanding forward. Knowledge can thus be stored in ‘non-human appliances’, not internally, as in constructivist theory. This leads me to two further questions. Firstly, I am not sure whether connectivism is the entirely new theory it sometimes purports to be, but simply Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development writ large – in both, the understanding takes place outside of the participants and relies upon a sharing of knowledge. More important, though, is the distinction between skill and knowledge. In some fields learner-participants have a need for and access to huge banks of knowledge, but their own full, personal understanding is not necessarily important. This is a suitable model for thinking about the ways in which advances in medical science research may be made. However, contrast this with the knowledge / skills required by a surgeon in practice. This learning must be internalised and available to be drawn upon instantly. Donald Schon talks about ‘knowledge-in-action‘, the sub-concious application of knowledge by an expert practitioner. I suppose the point is that teachers cannot rely solely on a PLN and that teaching skill needs to be practised, reflected upon, and polished. We require a combination of constructivist and connectivist learning to be a successful modern teacher.

What is interesting for me as I think about these things in early 2011 is that I have been in a position to write about and present on the same topics over the last five years or so. Thus I can track my own thinking from 2007 on to 2008 (and again) right up to 2010, via two separate blogs and whole bunch of tweets in between…

I have a feeling that this blog post might be quite an important one for me personally, as I try to pin down my thinking and pack it up in a handkerchief as I meander down the path towards a possible PhD (because everyone else is doing them, and I think I’d get a kick out of being ‘Dr., and, you know, what the hey…). If you have stuck with it thus far, thank you. Does it make any sense?

Searching the Cambridge CELTA syllabus for ‘culture’, I discover the following.

Unit 1 – Learners and teachers and the teaching and learning context

1.1 Cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds

Demonstrate an understanding of the range of backgrounds and experiences that adult learners bring to their classes

A quick scoot around the Trinity CertTESOL site yields similar results….

Learning objectives

Successful trainees will be able to demonstrate the following on completion of the course:

b. awareness of the learning needs of individuals or groups of learners, and of the motivation of learners in a variety of cultures and environments

These organisations are the prominent international providers of entry level TEFL qualifications, and many of the trainees on these courses will go on to their first teaching jobs after receiving their certificates. A fairly large number, I would predict, would be NEST’s , and a lot of them would be going on to their first extended forays into foreign cultures.

I am at the preliminary stages of work on a paper at the moment, and I wonder if I could draw on the expertise of teacher trainers and trainees out there. Some questions, to help me get a feel for the topic.

  1. If you train NESTs on either the Cambridge or Trinity certificate, how do you interpret the excerpts reproduced above? What kind of input sessions do you give on ‘culture’, and how do you assess whether trainees have gained cultural understanding?
  2. It would appear, from the syllabi, that cross-cultural training focuses on what happens in the classroom. How well are trainees prepared for life / work abroad? (Or is that beyond the remit of a four-week course)?
  3. If you are a NEST who has taken an initial training course before travelling to a teaching job abroad, did you feel sufficiently well prepared?

These questions are very broad but any feedback is welcome. If you would like to answer but would rather not respond in a public forum, please feel free to contact me directly at darrenrelliott@gmail.com. Any response will be confidential and identities will be protected. If you want to forward this to colleagues who are not active in the blogosphere, please do so.

Thanks in advance and your help is much appreciated!