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).


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).


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