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?

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10 Thoughts on “personal learning networks – the what, why and how (existential crisis remix for #plek12)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention the lives of teachers » Blog Archive » personal learning networks – the what, why and how (existential crisis remix for #plek12) -- Topsy.com

  2. Just the terminology is confusing at this point, with PLNs (N=network), PLEs (E=environment), VLEs (V=virtual), and on and on. I’m working on an article called, “Building a PLLE” (first L=Langauge), will send you a link when I get it done.

    Agree completely that PLEs are a GOOD THING, and are a result of tech, the failure of universities to address changes in learning facilities, Connectivist AND Constructionist approaches, and a desire to decentralize the learning process into a network of people, places, and websites.

    You will have heard of Stephen Downes, George Siemens and their MOOCs based in Canada on distributed learning and PLEs. I “attended CCK08 and then recently did PLENK2010. Both extremely interesting, but required a lot of discipline to keep going. I am doing #DS106 on Digital Storytelling with Jim Groom. By far the most intensive, mostly because everybody is posting new stuff all the time.

    While at this stage PLNs may be a boon to teacher motivation and work like a constant conference or teacher’s room, I tend to feel that the true value will be in using PLEs to introduce students to autonomous learning. And I think for EFL this will be a tool that resonates with self-motivated learners.

    I am really excited about this. I did a pre-conference workshop on PLEs at JALT2010 Nagoya last November. Oddly enough, about half of the 16 people attending were from outside Japan, with significant contingents from Singapore, Taiwan and China. We need to get Japan up to speed on this new development.

    Does your MOOC in Florida have a URI?

  3. I agree with Kevin that MOOCs require a lot of discipline, more than a conventional course. I did PLENK2010 too and there was an awful lot of stuff to keep track of over a long period of time. Judging from what you say here, it’s a shame you weren’t on it.
    Still,I’m not sure I go along with your distinction between teachers keeping a PLN for self-learning rather than self-motivation, at least for me, as the former is very much part of the latter, rather than separate from it. I understand what you mean about wanting to feel useful, and passing on knowledge, but I can’t imagine that not being allied to continuous learning. Perhaps it’s a cyclical process – learning then mentoring, learning then mentoring, or at least learning then mentoring in one area, before learning and then mentoring in another area.
    Anyway, good luck with the PhD, and thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas – they really help to bring focus and clarity to the same issues in my own rather muddled head.

  4. A fascinating post, Darren, on a topic I have been thinking a lot about recently, and not only because I will be off to TESOL Arabia soon to give an invited presentation which in part, at least, is meant to convince participants that developing their very own PLN is “a very good thing” to do, and a part of that is explaining to them why it is such a good thing to do. Recently, however, I’ve been finding that what I learn from my own PLN is often incredibly random and unless I am particularly intrigued by an idea or resource that comes along in one of these random moments, not much happens. Of course there a times when I will follow-up and investigate something further and then it’s just wonderful — but it’s still random and most of it really is just a blip that passes by my eyes without sparking much of anything. Some people might even call it noise. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but what I have begun to realize and talk about is that it’s become quite easy to mistake all of that, including even participation in the various organized chats on twitter or the hour spent most days reading the various key blogs and journals with actual professional development when it’s usually clearly not. It’s activity. It’s good. It’s even sometimes very good for all of the reasons you mention in your post, but unless one is MOOC-ed up or perhaps just willing to take things further, it’s just participation and not the sort of professional development that is likely to lead to real growth and change in or out of the classroom, I’m afraid. Perhaps I am just having a moment, but I have been thinking a lot about a question a school district superintendent in the US (on my own PLN!) asked recently: “How can we leverage the serendipitous random nature of social networking and turn it into professional development opportunities which matter?” Set aside, for a moment, the language that question in couched in and sit back to have a think about it. Is it possible? Does it matter? Some days I think it is and it does, but other days I think it might be better to have the time to critically read about and reflect on an issue on a sunny afternoon and then 3 close like-minded friends around to discuss it with than it is to have several hundred enthusiastic educators on my twitter and facebook feeds sending through bits of lovely but random information — ready for me to have a look through whenever I wish. Today, I just don’t know.

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  6. Kevin, great! This should take you straight to the registration page for the course. I like the sound of what you are working on. I think institutional administrations in Japan have a long way to go – thinking back to my experience of UK universities several years ago, and Japanese universities now. Is part of that down to the Galapagos Effect of Japanese technology – new technologies and systems are global, yet Japan has been both fearful of the outside world and innovative enough to strike it’s own path? It’s not working anymore, that’s for sure. We’ll see if the powers that be are smart enough and determined to guide the country into the massive changes required, or whether we will all be pushed very painfully into them.

    Tony – thanks. I wish I had been on PLENK10 … not sure how I missed it but I have been following Downes and Siemens for a long time. There is an archive which I am trying to get into.

    As for the distinction between motivation and learning, you are probably right… the two are connected and both remain important throughout a career. However, I maintain that there probably is a shift in emphasis, which of the two is more important. Chuck’s comment describes this very well, I think. I am sure he won’t mind me saying that he is a very experienced teacher, and I would suggest that he has more to teach than learn on a PLN (he might not agree, but he is too modest!). That may be why he sometimes feels frustrated – having to pick out the bits of learning becomes more and more difficult. Is it time to give up trying to learn from a PLN? It leads me to think that the ‘Learning’ aspect of the PLN acronym is being misinterpreted. It is the ‘Network’ which learns, not the members themselves.

    It’s not a PhD yet, but it might be….

    Chuck – always good to see you in real life or online ; D

    I understand exactly what you mean, albeit on a smaller scale. I am in the position of being a PLN champion who is not sure what a PLN does. But what can I measure? Job satisfaction comparing PLN / non-PLN using teachers? I can’t be sure, but based on the teachers I know who are not online, I tentatively suggest it is irrelevant. Teacher development in early career teachers? Career longevity? Like so many of the questions it is worth asking, ‘What is the point of a PLN?’ is an absolute bugger to answer properly!!

    Thanks again for all your great comments. I suppose these in themselves demonstrate exactly what a PLN can do….

  7. I share your struggles of understanding the complexity of the “PLE”. However, I do see a usefulness in regards to fields in which you have a desire to specialize. Personally, I feel that PLE’s serve as a means to enhance knowledge within a specialized topic. As a college student goes to college to enhance their knowledge of a chosen topic, PLE’s provide that information much like a college would. I feel this could have tremendous learning potential within a job field, in which a person is already working. By being able to gather information, from reliable and current sources, it empowers the learner. How this is used in a K-12 setting, where standards are nationally issued, I am uncertain. Due to the lack of knowledge of the learners in the “grand scheme of things”, I feel it is difficult to implement PLE’s in a current K-12 context. As technology evolves, so will the job market and requirements of the job. PLE’s I think are best taught as a “tool” where you can increase learning in an efficient and effective manner.

  8. Just finished (except proofing) an article on PLEs and what I term PLLEs (the other L being Language. It is destined for obscurity in my university journal in April, but I thought I’d share it around. Mostly it is a way to organize my thoughts on PLEs before getting into the subject to any depth.

    LINK: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yhxpve0c-Fvbwrtb8eYMVWfkb1upIkjcG6_crAOzhYw/edit?hl=en&authkey=CJPy3uUM

  9. Angela Buckingham on February 23, 2011 at 3:17 am said:

    “…what I have begun to realize and talk about is that it’s become quite easy to mistake all of that, including even participation in the various organized chats on twitter or the hour spent most days reading the various key blogs and journals with actual professional development when it’s usually clearly not. It’s activity.”

    I’m really interested in what Chuck says here. My suspicion is that most teachers have really very little time to even think about their development, when we are snowed under with lessons to plan, work to mark, meetings to attend, CPD sessions to get to, tutorials to log, oh yes and teaching, of course. And I do wonder from time to time how much I am fooling myself, because even the good PLN stuff, while enjoyable, may not be actually having an impact. It’s supportive, yes, but does it actually change what I do in class?
    Another v thought-provoking post. Good luck with the PhD, it’ll be great 🙂

  10. I love the next-to-last sentence in the paragraph beneath the image. I think it’s such a great metaphor for learning and the neural architecture in which it is embodied.

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