Time Travel, Personal Learning Networks, and Rhizomatic Growth

October 17, 2013

Let’s engage in some trainer-teacher-learner time travel; let’s revel in a wonderfully and gloriously circular learning moment whose beginning and end have not yet stopped expanding—and won’t if you decide to enter into and further expand this moment as part of a connected educator network.

xplrpln_logoIt starts with a simple realization: that participating in a well-organized connectivist MOOC (massive open online course) or any other effective online learning opportunity not only puts us in real-time (synchronous) contact with those we draw into our personal learning networks, but also allows us to extend and connect online conversations with those that began days, weeks, months, or even years before the one we are currently creating, in venues we are just now discovering. It also can easily extend into days, weeks, months, or years we haven’t yet experienced.

I am, for example, writing this piece on October 17, 2013, and if you end up reading it on the same day, we’re in a fairly obvious and traditionally synchronous moment—the sort of moment we routinely experience face to face. By connecting this piece to others I’ve been reading and reacting to with colleagues in the Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program, and by further connecting it to interactions with colleagues via Connected Educator Month, I am in a very rewarding way extending and weaving this moment across weeks and months of conversational threads created by others. They wrote earlier. You and I respond now. They pick up the thread and run with it at some as-yet-undetermined moment. And all of us are in a figuratively synchronous way connected through a conversation and learning opportunity that flows in multiple directions, over multiple platforms, as Pekka Ihanainen (HAAGA-HELIA University of Applied Sciences, Finland) and John Moravec (University of Minnesota, USA) explain in an article they wrote in 2011 and which I explored with a segment of my own personal learning network colleagues in a blog post and other online venues.

etmoocWe see this in play through the Exploring Personal Learning Networks MOOC, where we are exploring and attempting to define personal learning networks by developing our personal learning networks. We are developing (or further developing) personal learning networks by drawing upon newly-created resources as well as resources that can be weeks, months, years, or even a century old. One colleague suggests that Jules Verne, the nineteenth-century novelist-poet-playwright, is part of his personal learning network in the sense that Verne’s work continues to guide him in his never-ending evolution as a learner. I am suggesting that a colleague from another MOOC is part of my #xplrpln personal learning network via a wonderful article she wrote months before the personal leaning networks MOOC was written and in progress; because her article is inspiring so many of us, she feels as if she is an active member even though personal time constraints are keeping her from posting updated material—for and in the moment. And several of us are suggesting that people who are still alive but with whom we have no one-on-one in-the-moment personal contact still are very much a part of our personal learning networks because they influence and affect our learning through the work they are producing or the examples they provide—something I experienced while participating in #etmooc (Educational Technology & Media MOOC) earlier this year.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoThat creates a wonderfully dynamic and continually evolving personal learning network—or network of networks—along with a tremendously expansive moment that remains open to further expansion through your participation. And the more we engage with #xplrpln course facilitators Merrell and Scott and course colleagues in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia synchronously and asynchronously, the more we find our own personal learning networks, personal learning environments, affinity spaces, communities of practice, and overall communities of learning overlapping in ways that once again transcend geographic and chronological borders—suggesting that in the world of training-teaching-learning, borders and barriers exist only to be erased (or, at very least, made much more permeable than we often assume they can be).

It’s an obvious extension of the concept of rhizomatic learning—a process of learning that mirrors the spreading of rhizomes so there is no center, just a wonderfully ever-expanding network of learning connections rooted in creation, collaboration, and the building of communities of learning, as I noted after picking up the term from Dave Cormier via #etmooc. The learning rhizomes in our personal learning network now continue to move backward to capture parts of the extended conversation we hadn’t previously noted, and they move forward into the moment you are living and extending in collaboration with the rest of us. Together, we may be on the cusp of even greater collaborations. Learning experiences. And being part of contributing to a world in which connections through time, across time zones, and over geographic boundaries produce possibilities we are only beginning to imagine and bring to fruition.

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of posts inspired by Connected Educator Month and participation in #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).


Power, Connections, Personal Learning Networks, and In-the-Moment Mobile Learning

October 16, 2013

The sight of flashing numbers on digital timepieces throughout our house yesterday afternoon was obvious evidence of a power outage while I had been away earlier in the day. But it wasn’t particularly distressing. I knew that PG&E, our local utility company, had been doing major work a block away from where I live, so I assumed the outage was over, reset the clocks, then went into our backyard to do a little gardening before joining the Week 2 live online session that would connect me to the training-teaching-learning colleagues I’m meeting through the five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC (massive open online course) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoApproximately 15 minutes before the session was scheduled to begin, I was about to step back into the house to log into the Adobe Captivate space where #xplrpln colleagues were to meet, but noticed something strange: the water in our fountain had stopped flowing. Wondering whether it had become clogged, I turned off the pump, turned it back on, then recognized the problem: the power had gone out again.

In an extended in-the-moment response that unexpectedly continues up to the time when I am writing—and you are reading—this piece, I begin considering options to fully participate in that live online session—and think about the importance of back-up plans. My desktop is clearly not an option since it’s reliant on a flow of electricity that is no longer available. My laptop, running on its fully-charged battery? Also not an option: it relies on a wireless router that is no longer functioning because of the power outage.

Then it hits me: my Samsung Galaxy tablet has a fully-charged battery. And 3G connectivity. So I fire it up, follow the link from my email account to the Exploring Personal Learning Networks session, and discover another barrier: I don’t have the free Adobe Connect app on my tablet. Following a link to the Google Play Store—all the time thinking “This isn’t play. This is serious!”—I tap the “install” button in the hope that the download will be quick and that I won’t face a high learning curve to be able to use it.

With moments to spare, the download is completed. I plug in a set of headphones as the PowerPoint slides for the session appear legibly on the seven-inch screen, and am hearing a stream so clear that it feels as if I’m in the same room that session facilitators Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are occupying—which, in an appropriately visceral and virtual way, I am.

Curious as to whether the full range of interactions available via a desktop or laptop computer exist on the tablet, I struggle with the on-screen keyboard to enter a chat comment letting colleagues know that I may not be fully participating in the session because of the tech challenges. And it goes through, making it visible to them and to me.

xplrpln_logoThey respond audibly and via the chat to say how impressed they are. I respond by telling them how relieved I am that it’s actually working. And we all walk away with another example of the power and increasing ubiquity of m-learning (using mobile devices to augment our learning opportunities and experiences), personal learning networks, and the levels of creativity that adversity inspires.

PLNs--Writing-and_Technology--2013-10-16P.S. – Using a fountain pen to write the first draft of this piece the morning after the session ends, I face another tech challenge: the fountain pen runs out of ink. The fact that I have a back-up fountain pen with me moves me past this final tech challenge, and further confirms the importance of having effective back-up plans in place whenever we step into the wonderful intersection of technology, learning, and collaboration in our well-connected communities of learning.

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of posts inspired by Connected Educator Month and participation in #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).

James Paul Gee, the Anti-Education Era, and Personal Learning Networks

October 15, 2013

You won’t find the terms personal learning networks (PLNs) or connected learning anywhere in James Paul Gee’s wonderfully stimulating book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Though Digital Learning. But his plea for greater collaboration, the use of what he calls “affinity spaces,” and  recognition that the combination of “human + tool” is a winning equation suggests that trainer-teacher-learners (and many others) are on the right track by developing those dynamic combinations of people and resources that help us cope with a world where formal and informal learning never stops.

Gee--Anti-Education_EraGee, in providing a no-nonsense and often critical view of the state of our early twenty-first-century learning landscape throughout his engaging preface to the book, sets the stage for an exploration of our “human + tool” predilections regardless of whether we call our communities of learning “personal learning networks,” “affinity spaces,” “communities of practice,” “personal learning environments,” or any other term I may inadvertently be overlooking. (And yes, there are subtle differences between the way each term is used and what each represents, but they all appear to be products of our drive to associate, collaborate, learn, and create something of meaning and value to ourselves, our onsite and online communities, and those we ultimately serve in our day-to-day work.)

“We live in an era of anti-education,” he writes. “We focus on skill-and-drill, tests and accountability, and higher education as a marker of status (elite colleges) or mere job training (lesser colleges). We have forgotten education as a force for equality in the sense of making everyone count and enabling everyone to fully participate in our society. We have forgotten education as a force for drawing out of each of us our best selves in the service of an intellectually and morally good life and good society” (p. xiv).

We have no shortage of opportunities to pursue what Gee describes and advocates in The Anti-Education Era. The five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC (massive open online course) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program, for example, is inspiring a newly-organized and quickly evolving community of learning connecting participants from many different countries via explorations of personal learning networks while fostering the creation of one of those networks, affinity spaces (through Google+, Twitter, Adobe Connect, and other online resources), and a community of practice that has the potential to thrive long after the formal coursework ends.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoWe gain a visceral understanding of and appreciation for this far-from-radical yet still-underutilized manifestation of social learning through participation in Exploring Personal Learning Networks; we’ve also seen it through #etmooc, the Educational Technology & Media MOOC that earlier in 2013 drew many of us together for our first experience in a connectivist MOOC (cMooc); and we’re seeing it through our participation in Connected Educator Month activities.

Gee’s work fits right in with what so many of us are currently pursuing as trainer-teacher-learners: collaborations that help us better acquire the skills and knowledge needed to make positive improvements in the local, national, and global communities that our use of contemporary technology fosters.

“I am now convinced that we cannot improve our society by more talk about schools and school reform, but only by talk about what it means to be smart in the twenty-first century,” he explains in the preface. “I will argue that when we make people count and let them participate, they can be very smart indeed….by education I mean what a twenty-first-century human being ought to learn and know and be able to do in order to make a better life, a better society, and a better world before it is too late. A good deal of this education will not go on in schools and colleges in any case, and even less if schools and colleges do not radically change their paradigms….

“I want to warn that digital tools are no salvation,” he adds, turning to a theme explored effectively in the final sections of the book. “It all depends on how they are used. And key to their good use is that they be subordinated to ways of connecting humans for rich learning and that they serve as tools human learners own and operate and do not simply serve.”

xplrpln_logoAs if addressing the need for personal learning networks, Gee offers what I have only half-jokingly referred to as a PLN manifesto: “People who never confront challenge and frustration, who never acquire new styles of learning, and who never face failure squarely may in the end become impoverished humans. They may become forever stuck with who they are now, never growing and transforming because they never face new experiences that have not been customized to their current needs and desires.” (p. 115). We can’t, I believe, actively create and participate in our personal learning networks without being open to hearing about and reacting to a variety of ideas; expanding our understanding of how we learn and applying that learning to the world around us; and finding ways to effectively collaborate to produce results that further nurture (rather than stifle) community development in the most positive ways imaginable.

Gee, in his consistently intriguing book-length exploration of “how we can all get smarter together,” leads us toward a question that again supports the development and maintenance of affinity spaces and, by extension, personal learning networks: “…what if human minds are not meant to think for themselves by themselves, but, rather, to integrate with tools and other people’s minds to make a mind of minds? After all,” he adds, “a computer operates only when all its circuit boards are integrated together and communicate with each other. What if our minds are actually well made to be ‘plug-and-play’ entities, meant to be plugged into other such entities to make an actual ‘smart device,’ but not well made to operate all alone? What if we are meant to be parts of a networked mind and not a mind alone?” (p. 153)

There is much more to explore in Gee’s work. We can certainly continue those explorations on our own. Or, as the author suggests, we can pursue them together. Using the tools available to us. Including our personal learning networks and the wealth of resources they provide.

N.B.: This is the third in a series of posts about Connected Educator Month and the third  in a series of reflections inspired by #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).

Blogging, Connecting, and Learning

October 14, 2013

Looking for wonderful examples of connectivity in action leads us directly to “Personal Learning Networks: Knowledge Sharing as Democracy,” written and posted by Alison Seaman for the Hybrid Pedagogy digital journal/blog in January 2013—particularly if we’re celebrating Connected Educator Month and immersed in the five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC (massive open online course) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program.

xplrpln_logoSeaman’s wonderful example of how a well-written blog posting can engagingly serve as a valuable learning object—the piece is among the recommended readings during the second week of Exploring Personal Learning Networks—not only carries us through a first-rate exploration of what personal learning networks (PLNs) are and how they function to our benefit, but also extends our own personal learning networks if we care to follow the numerous well-chosen links to other writers’ work on the subject.

Even reading nothing more than the first paragraph of the piece leaves us with the recognition that our personal learning network is expanding in very rewarding ways and our role as connected educators working at trainer-teacher-learners is similarly growing. Seaman herself becomes part of that PLN if she wasn’t already there. Then, by following the link to Nathan Jurgenson’s Cyborgology blog article about digital dualism (the questionable practice of seeing our onsite and online personalities as different rather than seamlessly interwoven), we add Jurgenson, the blog he and PJ Rey created, and Rey into the mix.

While the potential connections to be forged through Seaman’s links are numerous, one that is particularly rewarding introduces us to global networker Shelley Terrell. It has the added benefit of calling attention to its writer (Howard Rheingold) if we’re not already familiar with his work, and it brings the topic back to human scale through Rheingold’s description of how Terrell refers to PLNs as “‘passionate learning networks’ and defines simply as ‘the people you choose to connect with and learn from.’”

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoWe don’t need to dissect the entire article paragraph by paragraph and link by link to see the value of exploring these online resources and increasing our PLN via connections on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ (particularly its communities, including—in the context of connected educators and personal learning networks—#xplrlrn and #etmooc), and the MOOCs in which we encounter these wonderful learning partners. But we can step back a bit, recognize the interactions that are already in place between the potentially new PLN resources (several of us have shared virtual space in #etmooc, #xplrlrn, and #lrnchat—a weekly online tweet chat for those involved in training-teaching-learning), and marvel at the real lesson to be absorbed here: our online interactions in personal learning networks continue to stretch our most rudimentary ideas of what it means to “meet” someone for the first time. (Does it have to be face-to-face, or are we already reaching the point in which interacting via a Google+ Hangout, Adobe Connect, or other more sophisticated forms of telepresence provide that initial all-important meeting? Does it have to be that traditional in-the-moment synchronous experience, or can it be via a much more protracted exchange that starts with someone posting an idea that we come across days, weeks, months, or even years later; respond to; then find ourselves engaged in online exchanges that remain alive in a very extended moment via our online means of communication?)

These are the sort of contemporary, mind-twisting, landscape-changing questions and challenges we can explore through our ever-expanding and resource-rich PLNs, drawing upon the people and the resources at our physical and virtual fingertips.

Reading James Paul Gee’s The Anti-Education Era, leads us to an interesting extension of how we and our resources interact to produce something positive that might otherwise not have come our way:

“The genius of human beings was and is the invention and use of tools to make themselves smarter. It is misleading to talk about human intelligence and think only of unaided humans. Humans are tool users. The real unit of analysis for intelligence ought often to be human + tool. If you want to know how much a human can lift, pair them with a forklift. If you want to know how much information they can store, pair them with a computer. If you want to know how far they can see, pair them with a telescope” (p. 122).

And, to continue his thought: If you want to know how much they know, connect them with a vibrant and vital personal learning network and then see where that takes them—and the rest of  us.

N.B.: This is the second in a series of posts about Connected Educator Month and the second  in a series of reflections inspired by #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).

Acknowledging Connections, Community, and Learning through Connected Educator Month

October 11, 2013

Celebrating Connected Educator Month, for those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, is a bit like celebrating the existence of air: connections pump life into much of what we do, yet we often take them for granted rather than indulging in joyfully inclusive acknowledgement of what they produce.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoIt’s well worth expressing gratitude, therefore, to our colleagues in the U.S. Department of Education for sponsoring the event that is so wonderfully described in an online video, evident through the online listings of events, and supported by the numerous online resources even though the sponsors themselves are at least temporarily disconnected as a result of the current shutdown of Federal Government operations. It’s also worth noting that the list of participating organizations is quite extensive.

What makes Connected Educator Month personal, furthermore, is the opportunity it provides to reflect on the connections that support and inspire us and those we serve, so here’s a challenge to colleagues near and far: post your own thoughts, in response to this article and Connected Educators Month in general, here on this blog as well as on your own blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and anywhere else that allows us to strengthen the connections that so effectively support us and make us so much better than we would be without them.

Looking at connections within my own learning environment makes me realize how fortunate and wealthy I am in terms of what connections and connectivity provide at every possible level. There is the joy of being part of a vibrant and vital community of learning that I experience each time I participate on one of the online weekly tweet chats organized by colleagues via #lrnchat, as I noted in an article I wrote and posted just days before learning about Connected Educator Month. There is the breadth and scope of resources I find every time I engage with colleagues in the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD) at the local, regional, and national levels, as I’ve so frequently noted on this blog. There are the numerous and invaluable conversations and exchanges with ALA Learning Round Table colleagues over dinners while we have attended conferences together. And there is the ongoing unparalleled learning experience that comes my way each year through participation in the New Media Consortium Horizon Project, which brings together a relatively small group of colleagues from a number of different countries to collaborate within a stimulating online environment and through face to face annual summits to explore developments and trends in technology, education, and creativity.

xplrpln_logoObservations about connectivity become even more circular and seamlessly interwoven when I think about how Connected Educator Month provides an opportunity to celebrate the connections fostered by connectivist MOOCs (massive open online courses)—including connections to others outside of those MOOCs. It’s far from hyperbole to say that participation in #etmooc—the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course developed by Alec Couros and colleagues earlier this year— substantially increased my connectedness to wonderful trainer-teacher-learners around the world. And the #etmooc community of learning that has grown in the months since the formal coursework ended has led to even more connections through an invitation to join the five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program. Not only does #xplrpln provide another venue in which #etmooc participants can work together, but it is, through its exploration of personal learning networks, helping all of us as participants enrich our own.

The multi-directional connectedness doesn’t even stop there; the more I look at each of these groups and opportunities, the more I realize how interconnected the various groups are. Participating in the #lrnchat session last night reminded me that #lrnchat includes members of the ASTD, #etmooc, and #xplrpln communities—and the frequent mention of the Personal Learning Networks course during the chat is leading more members of #lrnchat to join us in exploring what #xplrpln offers and is developing. Looking at the growing list of #xplrpln participants has introduced me to #etmooc participants I hadn’t met while #etmooc coursework was in progress. Looking at the list of colleagues in the Horizon Project in previous years brought the unexpectedly wonderful realization that it included a great colleague from the American Library Association. And diving into the current Horizon Project explorations of developments in personal learning networks obviously connects what I’m doing there and in the MOOC so that the learning opportunities flow both ways between those two communities.

There’s a distinct possibility that connectivism could become another of those buzz words that linger on the edge of our consciousness without ever developing into something tangible—at a human level—if we give it the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame/attention and then move on. Or it could become another element of an ever-increasing set of tools and resources that allow us to transcend geographic, occupational, and time-zone boundaries. In a world where we often bemoan the loss of community, we can just as easily celebrate its expansion. And that’s why Connected Educator Month seems, to me, to be a great opportunity to celebrate. Reflect. And grow.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of posts about Connected Educator Month and the first in a series of reflections inspired by #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).

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