Monday, January 13, 2014

Why PLN?

I thought it time for a post on the fundamentals of why PLN? (Yes, in the evolving language of the Internet I think I will use PLN as a verb.)

I have been fishing around trying to define Personal Learning Networks – both on my own and with others – primarily my #xplrpln colleagues. A bit of fun was had with thinking how to explain PLNs to Mom   – all within the confines of a Tweet. The one thing that seems evident is that the definition boundaries are fuzzy and that the ‘personal’ part leads to PLNs meaning different things to different people. However (drum roll here) I have just come across a very straightforward, dare I say obvious, definition in a MUST READ article for those interested in PLNs. People in Personal Learning Networks: Analysing their Characteristics and Identifying Suitable Tools. The study indicates that Twitter is definitely the dominant platform for PLNs. 

A Personal Learning Network refers to the network of people a self-directed learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning. Rajagopal et. al (2012). 

We are all self-directed learners to a greater or lesser degree (think about how you learned your mother tongue!) but this statement helps me to help others think about PLNs.

Why put in the effort? What do you gain from having a PLN?  - or to extend the use of PLN as a verb - What do you get from PLNning? You get a group of people who:
·      provide you with different perspectives
·      challenge you and help you grow both personally & professionally
·      you can consult to answer questions or expand your understanding
·      help guide your learning
·      help you develop your skills
·      share information with you
·      point you to learning opportunities
·      give you the benefit of their own knowledge, experience and sense-making
·      are interested in the same topic
·      connect through a variety of media
·      are an audience for your learning products & processes
·      extend your expertise
·      provide a reality check for you
·      you can interact with as you learn and formulate your understandings and creative ideas
This list is somewhat redundant (think overlapping circles in a VENN diagram) and I am sure it is missing components as well. I welcome suggestions for additional bullets in the comment section.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Some Musings on the Issue of Network Filters

A key function of a personal learning network is that of filtering information. Our PLNs push information to us and suppress the sort of information that we have indicated we do not need or want.

Tim Kastelle lists Five Forms of Filtering; 3 filters based on human judgement (na├»ve, expert & network) and 2 mechanical filters (heuristic & algorithmic). Kastelle's work provides a very interesting jumping off point for me. Considering filters has helped to trigger my re-examination of several lingering questions. 

To me filters imply convergence. Maybe, just as one needs filters for convergence, one also needs them for divergent thinking – something analogous to a ray of sunlight being filtered by a prism to refract into the colours of the rainbow. This could be akin to standing back and looking for the big picture, which makes me think about deBono’s six coloured hats – each hat is a type of filter. I tug a little more at the niggling thoughts at the periphery of my mind and I think I see that there are both process filters (such as deBono’s hats) and product filters. Too often we focus on product filters to the exclusion of process filters. For the most part we think about filters being convergent and we associate them with product or content but networks are particularly apt in dealing with context. So what is a divergent/process/context filter? Are Kastelle's five filters inclusive of divergent process filters? I think not. Maybe there is a sixth category of filter that is at work when collaboration is at play. The sixth type of filter which I will dub 'prism filter' has to do with purpose and big picture. Sometimes purpose is a consciously articulated part of our process but more often than not it is tacit. Purpose, whether overt or covert, motivates connection and collaboration. Tim Kastelle says, “we can’t connect without some filtering going on . . .” I think we cannot really connect without some ‘purpose’ or ‘big picture’ reason to connect, without our ‘prism filter’ being in play.

If ‘open’ is a critical part of Internet participation then perhaps there ought to be a form of open filter or prism filter available when we are gathering information, resources, ideas. A lens that encourages us to look out, to think big. 

The next step in my reflexive journey involves questioning my questions – maybe the open divergent big picture part is more appropriately dealt with in the sense-making that follows gathering. However, if we have limited our ingredients too much in seeking information we will have limited the boundaries of our sense-making – which brings me to the importance of diversity in networks (an attempt to counteract the effects of homophily and propinquity). I think a critical filter question is, “How do we ensure that our filters do not inappropriately or prematurely restrict our focus?” 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

5 of the many things I have learned this year

5 Things I’ve Learned This Year

Rhonda Jessen threw down the gauntlet. . .  post 5 things you have learned in 2013.

Only 5? 2013 was a year of massive learning for me. I took the plunge, and returned to university, enrolling in a Master of Arts in Communication Technology at the University of Alberta. So far . . .  it has been great! So it is a major challenge to winnow my list down to five things I have learned this year. Here are 5 of my key learnings from 2013.
  1.  The Internet is a new language
  2. Twitter is powerful as a professional platform
  3. Qualitative inquiry is a respected academic approach
  4.  cMOOCs fit my pedagogical values
  5.  The 3 Cs: comments, creativity and credit are critically important

1. The Internet is a new language
Under the guidance of Howard Rheingold, and with an international cohort of colleagues, I had the privilege of exploring the history, ideas and practicalities involved with intellectual augmentation and knowledge management. Howard introduced me to the work of Robert Logan, a physicist and communications scholar at the University of Toronto. Logan maintains that the Internet constitutes the sixth major human language in an evolutionary chain of languages. The language of the Internet has five characteristic features:
  •  two way communication [I claim this should be multi-way communication]
  •  ease of access of information
  • continuous learning
  • alignment and integration
  • community

The multi-directional nature of accessing information via the Internet leads to the corollary that accessing Internet information is very different from accessing print information. The language of the Internet is not bound by linear sequencing, either when it is being composed or when it is being consumed. Hyperlinks disrupt top to bottom, left to right, first this then that orientation. The way in which we understand, converse and communicate via the Internet is altering the way in which we know what we know (our epistemology). I have simply dipped my toes into this ocean but it continues to fascinate me as it unfolds. The implication and ramifications of all this are challenging, still unfolding, paradigm shifting and will have a major impact on education, business and pretty much all aspects of society. Whoah – who wouldn’t be fascinated to learn more! This little appetizer version of 1/5th of the things I’ve learned does not do justice to the whole field or in anyway represent how huge all of this is for me. I have continued to explore aspects of the Internet as Language within the three grad courses I took this fall. Fellow graduate student, Sean A. Jones and I wrote a paper, Zombie Lingo, that provides a further look at some of the aspects of the Internet as a mega-language. Thanks Sean. My thanks also go out to Mark Wolfe who created and taught a great course on using and managing communication technology and introduced me to the work of Michael Heim and Brian Winston.

2.     Twitter is powerful as a professional platform
If the Internet is a language characterized by the ease of accessing information, then how we access information is critical. Conservative estimates indicate that the sum total of information available to the world is doubling every eighteen months. Part of parleying Internet (as in coming to a truce with the challenges of the Internet) is figuring out how to effectively filter forward and how to flow. I mistakenly thought Twitter was primarily about broadcasting personal missives on one’s whereabouts, likes, dislikes and activities. What I discovered this year is that Twitter is an incredibly rich, flexible way of custom tailoring information inflow and having trusted colleagues and sources tag and share information points of interest! I learned that Twitter is a river and that I get to influence both the flow rate of information coming to me and the rate and frequency of my participation.
Flow is what happens when your content and your data becomes unmanageable. Flow is what happens when all you can do is watch it as it goes by - it is too massive to store, it is too detailed to comprehend. Flow is when we cease to think of things like contents and communications and even people and environments as things and start thinking of them as (for lack of a better word) media - like the water in a river, like the electricity in our pipes, like the air in the sky.                      –Stephen Downes
My self directed learning has been heavily influenced by Twitter, Twitter hashtags (best way to attend a conference on the budget of a grad student), and Twitter lists! Twitter has also assisted me in my efforts to share the information I curate. Twitter has been a key platform to assist me in creating, caring for and expanding my personal learning network (PLN).

3.     Qualitative inquiry is a respected academic approach
This is absolutely enormous for me. I am the daughter of a scientist. My professor father was chairman of a Chemistry Department, Chairman of Computing Science and Dean of Science at a various times in his career. I have an undergraduate degree in industrial design. My quantitative pedigree is full on. One of many reasons that I waited so long to attend graduate school was that I was unaware of the legitimate role qualitative inquiry plays in academia. Discovering qualitative inquiry has been like coming home to me. It reassures me that I could, can, and will be able to appropriately participate as a scholar without compromising my integrity. It allows me to look at environments and situations as ecologies not simply Petri dishes. My colleague, who works as an IBM analyst and was skeptical about even taking a qualitative inquiry course, voiced my own sentiments when she commented on the qualitative inquiry course we took together this fall by saying, “This course has changed my life!”.  I couldn’t agree more and much of the credit belongs to our skilled professor, Maria Mayan. I was so excited that I started a qualitative inquiry blog.

4.     cMOOCs fit my pedagogical values
I have to admit that this whole post is really tough to write because I think I have enough material for a full length book, or multi-media website associated with each one of my 5 items. It is hard to keep each point fairly short.
My career has centred around alternative educational programs that exemplify connectivism and rhizomatic learning. I just didn’t know the terms and had not connected with the scholars associated with theories of emergent learning. Finally, I have found colleagues, theories and a whole new lexicon which reflect, challenge and assist me in extending and expanding my view of education. cMOOCs are a practical application of much of the theory.
In 2013 I not only learned the difference between a cMOOC and an xMOOC but I participated in both varieties. MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course. cMOOC is the term used for a connectivist MOOC that is characterized by a network or decentralized structure where the participants both locate and provide the content. The initiators act as host/facilitators of the process, providing feedback and encouragement as well as a “mechanism for linking participants and resources to each other” (Downes, 2013) A cMOOC is designed as an outline rather than a package and is built by participants creating a network of links to material. Resources are developed through reflexive practices and/or interaction with each other. Reference material is identified and accessed via hyperlinks. cMOOCs use an immersion model of instruction. The work I did with Howard Rheingold was based on a connectivist/constructionist model, as was Northwestern’s University open online seminar: Exploring Personal Learning Networks, moderated by Kimberly Scott and Jeff Merrell. I blogged about my involvement and ideas associated with Exploring PLNs at Thanks Howard, Jeff and Kimberly!
For the record, the MOOCs that have tended to make the news lately are xMOOCs which are delivered by organizations such as Udacity and Coursera (eg. The University of Alberta’s Dino 101). They use a more traditional course format and are designed as a centralized, content heavy broadcast. I did participate and complete a Coursera, xMOOC hosted by Vanderbilt University called, Leading Strategic Change Innovation in Organizations.

5.     The 3 Cs: Comments, Creativity and Credit are critically important
Tanya Lau and Rhonda Jessen have both modeled and reinforced the 3C’s for me.
I consider Tanya to be an important member of my PLN. While she is in Australia and I am in Canada, we have nevertheless had numerous good exchanges and influenced each other’s thinking. Tanya does an absolutely amazing job of constructively and insightfully commenting on other people’s posts. Thanks to Tanya I am making a concerted effort to provide more and better feedback and encouragement to others. Tanya has shared resources and flagged a number of key articles that will likely be part of my thesis lit review. I responded to one of Tanya’s posts by sharing a poem I had written. She embraced the poem and her response was so positive that it has encouraged me to risk responding creatively more often. Thanks Tanya!
Rhonda, Terry Godwaldt (another amazing educator who is the co-odinator of the Centre for Global Education) and I meet early Tuesday mornings for tea and ed talk. Rhonda introduced me to cMOOCs, to Twitter vs. Zombies and to a host of other connected education ideas and educators. Rhonda is a facilitator at heart and she too has shown me the power of comments and creativity. Thanks Terry and Rhonda.
The final C is credit and it too has been an important part of my learning this year. Credit, credit, credit, cite, cite, cite. So thanks to Howard Rheingold and Jeff Merrell’s for responding to my emails and pushing my thinking and my scholarship along. Thanks to my thesis advisor, Thomas Barker who has been very supportive of all my social media explorations and my PLN forays that have provided me with global interactions. Thanks also to Gordon Gow. Thanks to my MACT13 cohort, to my family, friends, my CoP Ginger Group and work colleagues.

To give credit where credit is due and come full circle this list started off with Rhonda throwing down the gauntlet with her post, 5 Things I Learned This Year based on a post by Julie Balen, 5 Things I Learned in 2013. Julie in turn was inspired initially by Ewan McIntosh and the Pearson Foundation’s FIVE Things I’ve Learned. In addition to inspiring Rhonda, Julie seeded the idea with Donna Fry, who posted, Five Things I’ve learned: The Challenge.
In addition, two other member’s of my PLN inspired me with their year-end reviews; Helen Crump’s 2013, a year on the global learning commons and Helen Blunden’s, 2013 In Blogging an animated info graphic.

. . . and yes, by having 3 C’s I did, in the end, squeeze in more than 5 things.