“a crowd of decision-makers” – my PLN

Map of Shannoninottawa\'s Twitter friends

The image to the right is a visualization of those people in my Twitter network with whom I have the most exchanges.  I like the image because it shows the interconnectedness of my personal learning network (PLN) – there are lots of conversations taking place all the time.  My network is diverse and includes people with whom I work regularly, people with whom I have shared interests (education, technology, literacies), people I have met at conferences, and people I have met through others in my network.  My network is both local and global, including people with whom I live (my hubby) and work, people throughout Canada and the United States, and people across the globe in Asia and Australia.  Although we are connected by our shared interests, there are enough diverse views on those interests to make the network productive and challenging, as well as supportive and efficient.

why network?

In 2004, James Surowiecki wrote The Wisdom of Crowds, an examination of the idea that a large group of people is collectively smarter than a small group or an individual.  Surowiecki talks about how a large and diverse group provides you with information you might not have anticipated:

In other words, experts don’t know when they don’t know something.  That’s why it’s worthwhile to cast a wider net, and why relying on a crowd of decision makers improves (though it doesn’t guarantee) your chances of reaching a good decision.  Relying on a crowd rather than an individual improves your chances of finding information that you didn’t know was out there. (278)

One of the greatest challenges facing Principals and Vice Principals who must assume the role of instructional leader is staying at the leading edge in terms of instructional practices, curriculum revisions and new tools and materials for the classroom.  It isn’t reasonable to expect to fit time in to delve deeply into all of the ‘new’.  Having a strong network both within your school, within your board, and even beyond gives you the advantage of having a large group of people to provide insight, information and feedback in all of these areas.  I think it is the collective wisdom that we gain by being part of a learning network that makes it not only worthwhile, but crucial.

getting things done

If you believe that we still have a long way to go before we can say that we are providing the very best education for every single student in our system, then being part of a connected, challenging and supportive network becomes an imperative.  In Tribes author Seth Godin discusses the powerful potential of a connected group of people to effect change:

A movement is thrilling.  It’s the work of many people, all connected, all seeking something better.  The new highly leveraged tools of the Net make it easier than ever to create a movement, to make things happen, to get things done. (5)

Connecting with those whose passion and purpose resonate well with your own provides the opportunity to bring about changes, regardless of how seemingly small, that draw us closer to the realization of something bigger and better – in our case a system wherein all students can attain high levels of achievement.  

Godin explains what occurs as the conversational net is cast wider:

The movement happens when people talk to one another, when ideas spread within the community, and most of all, when peer support leads people to do what they always knew was the right thing. (23)

Doing the right thing.  That is at the heart of it, but it is often difficult and draining.  Having the courage, as well as the know-how, and bolstered by a strong PLN of passionately committed people, to do the right thing by each and every student might be the very raison d’etre for networking.



map of shannoninottawa’s friends 

Education’n’Technology’n’Change – Oh My!

In the March 2009 issue of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Journal Educational Leadership, Douglas Reeves writes about 3 challenges of Web 2.0.  Reeves is the author of several books on assessment and educational leadership, and could be considered an authority on school leadership for change and school improvement.  Unfortunately, this time around, Reeves exposes the type of anxiety that I feel stagnates real change in education.  Reeves’ article projects a cautionary tenor and neglects teasing out the optimistic possibilities within a shift to education 2.0.  I worry that, armed with this type of article, leaders in education will more easily say ‘no’ to the innovators within their buildings who want to embrace the learning possibilities within activities such as social networking, online collaboration and mobile and connective devices.  I want to offer here a brief challenge  to Reeves’ 3 challenges (meta challenge?) and offer a more optimistic view of the potential of learning 2.0:

Partners vs Promotion

Reeves begins by comparing advocates for technology in education to the narrow-minded advocate for plastics in the film The Graduate.  There is no deep inferring required to know right off that Reeves feels threatened and responds by painting all of us who are interested in exploring the potential offered by increased use of technology to facilitate learning as both fanatical and short-sighted.  It is important to be wary of those who come to education looking to push their particular technologies into the classroom.  As always, we need to be vigilant and critical when making decisions around what we will introduce and model in our learning environments.  But this isn’t a web 2.0 challenge.  Dubious partnerships between education and industry predate the connected world.  Enough said.

High Touch vs High Tech

In this challenge, Reeves endorses and implicitly frames online connectivity as a threat to face to face communication, rather than as simply another mode of communication.   Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we witness backlash everytime there is a change in communication (from oral to written, for instance)?  Imposing a false hierarchy on modes of communication has no basis in any research with which I am familiar.  In fact, I would argue that when it comes to learning, online can be a more powerful mode under certain circumstances.  As Will Richardson said during his keynote at Expanding Our Boundaries (#expbound) this morning, “If you have an internet connection in your classroom, you are not the smartest person in the room”.  And maybe this is the real threat.

Filters vs Fountains

For my challenge of Reeves here, I will simply focus on one quote:

Oppressed as they are by a teacher who finds WIkipedia an insufficiently credible source without supplementary documentation, my students sometimes work longer and less efficiently with a search engine than they would have by consulting a carefully chosen reference book.

Woops!  I think that Reeves has pulled back his own curtain here.  Clearly, Reeves has a bad case of “techno-agoraphobia” – that is, a fear of the participatory online crowd.  To dismiss Wikipedia, and paint those who teach it and use as “Wikivangelists” (loaded language?), Reeves takes himself out of the game.  Ignorance is not ok.  The reference book, no matter how carefully chosen, likely contains as many – perhaps even more – errors as the Wikipedia article.  But, the Wikipedia article trumps the reference book in that it is a dynamic text that can be added to and improved as new understandings and developments surface.

 A More Compelling and Optimistic Perspective

Alec Couros, Associate Professor of ICT at the University of Regina, created the following visualization to articulate a vision of the connected and open learning environment:

Alec Couros - Open Teaching Thinning the Walls

– Alec Couros “Open Teaching – Thinning the Walls” cc licensecc some rights reserved

I think that this is a compelling visualization of the productive and powerful potential of connectivity in learning.  Notice how the left side of the visualization highlights a very structured learning environment that excludes some learners (the learner on the outside looking in).  As the walls thin, in other words, as students and teachers become connected with the world outside the brick and mortar of the classroom, students are able to benefit from the ‘gifts’ of those outside the traditional learning environment.  The walls (read: constraints) of the traditional classroom become thinner and, I believe that the learning is enriched, when we reach out into our learning networks.  I would argue that Couros’ visualization demonstrates the ‘high touch’ potential of ‘high tech’.

I’m eager for my print copy to arrive, so that I can check out other articles, such as Becoming Network Wise by Will Richardson.  I’m hopeful that this article, not available in full online version (is that another blog post – decision-making around who gets a full voice?) might offer the more optimistic glimpse of the power of embracing the connectivity in which our students are already swimming.


facebook is as facebook does

In his online article on Newsweek.com, Steve Tuttle journals his decision to quit facebook, after finding that he had wasted countless hours on the social network site:

When I think about all the hours I wasted this past year on Facebook, and imagine the good I could have done instead, it depresses me. Instead of scouring my friends’ friends’ photos for other possible friends, I could have been raising money for Darfur relief, helping out at the local animal shelter or delivering food to the homeless. It depresses me even more to know that I would never have done any of those things, even with all those extra hours.

Of course, the cynic in me wants to check in with Steve in a month or so to learn how much of his newly liberated time he now devotes to saving the world, since he admits his own lack of engagement in that last sentence.  Steve just doesn’t sound like a participant.  In other words, his use of fb was non-participatory – He didn’t wield the tool to make his life (or anyone else’s from the sounds of things) better.  Among other things, he missed the opportunity to become more involved in social change movements on Facebook, if that is something that he was interested in pursuing. 

Exactly a year ago today, Josh Catone blogged about fb’s ability to mobilize the masses on ReadWriteWeb:  

Another example of someone successfully using Facebook to enact change is the “For Every 1,000 that join this group I will donate $1 for Darfur,” which was started by NYU student Marek Grodzicki. The group has 424,000 members — or $424 — and Grodzicki is renewing his pledge for next year. That may not be a lot of money, but it’s almost half a million people who may now be more aware of an issue because a single person was able to reach them simply by announcing an altruistic act on Facebook and letting viral nature of social networking take over.

See, the thing that I think Steve (and his ilk) is missing is that fb, like any other tool out there, is what you make of it.  The danger exists in allowing fb to consume your time and energy in non-productive ways.  Seen as time-wasting and meaningless, fb becomes the next repository of what Clay Shirky calls “cognitive surplus” – the collective intellectual power absorbed by empty leisure time activities.  From this perspective, fb and the sitcom don’t differ in terms of their ability to suck the time out of us.  However, fb and other networking sites also offer the potential to turn that surplus into powerful, engaged and innovative participation in the world.

Confessions of a Skeptic

Ok, I have to admit something here.  I am a social network newbie (see “2 Resolutions and 3 Moments”).  Prior to taking the leap into facebook and twitter, I felt that they offered nothing to make my life more productive.  What changed?  I started to hear about people using social networking to expand the realm of their professional learning.  Tired of taking rigid professional development courses that aren’t nearly personalized enough, I took the leap. 

And what have I found?  A month in and I’m starting to connect with people who are knowledgeable in areas in which I am interested.  Through fb and twitter, I engage with folks from whom I want to learn.  I put out questions and participate in conversations that provide me with tools I can use to make my instructional practice better.  I connect with colleagues across the globe in Australia and New Zealand, as well as down the 401 in London and Toronto.  I share out my ideas and get feedback, as well as receiving great information and resources.  In other words, I get back what I put in.  My learning is personalized – I select the content, as well as the pace.  And yes, I do take some time to check out the adorable baby pictures posted by my colleagues and friends.

The Experience of Crowds

I came across this insightful little video created by Will Richardson to illustrate how social networking and web 2.0 tools have changed the way that current events stories break , become aggregated and refined using tools such as, in this case, twitter and flickr:

The News According to Twitter

“Playing around with Prezi.com here but also trying to capture what I think is an interesting shift in the way we learn about, gather and share news these days.”

The shift that Richardson identifies here has interesting and immediate implications for education, as well. We have already witnessed the emerging impact of The Wisdom of Crowds philosophy and its insistence on the development of sophisticated collaborative and critical thinking aptitudes. The shift here has more to do with the “experience of crowds”, if you will – multiple perspectives dialoging in real time to create a shared narrative of an event that is swiftly disseminated, even as the event itself continues to unfold and updates or revisions are being made to the emerging narrative.

The Experience of Crowds

The “Experience of Crowds” demands a further shift towards the increasingly imperative development of highly refined and rigorous skills in the area of synthesis.  Wrapped up in the unfolding events as narrated across a multitude of 1st person perspectives – eye witness accounts captured digitally – consumers must be open to accepting and digesting revision in real-time.

The skills and aptitudes required are, in my estimation, not novel to my students, for whom this shift might be, at best, unsurprising, considering their immersion within a world where their experiences have always been mediated and captured digitally.  It is, however, an important shift within myself as an educator, in order to ensure that I provide a learning environment that challenges my students to refine their synthesizing and critical thinking talents.  The old media literacy question “what is this text really saying to me?” proliferates and includes questions such as “What perspectives are emerging as this text unfolds?”, “How does the emergent nature of this text manipulate my understanding?”  and, to be sure, “What part of this text am I creating?”

2 Resolutions and 3 Moments

2 Resolutions:  Only 1 Counts

Despite my skepticism, I made 2 resolutions for 2009.  Maintaining this blog and learning more about digital literacies is one.  The other is more typical and therefore doomed to failure, allowing my treadmill to return to its previous function as drying rack sooner than later.

3 moments that made me say “Woah!”:

Three separate, though related, moments in late 2008 prompted my commitment to think more deeply about how our students have changed and how we, as educators must change to meet their needs.   These moments held up the mirror in which I saw reflected what Marc Prensky calls “The Digital Immigrant”.  In all three moments, I was struck with the slightly uncomfortable feeling that I was indeed foreign to the digital world.  I felt old and, despite my best efforts, my ‘accent’ was showing.

The first moment was when I was counseling a student who was having difficulty being at school.  He said to me, “My online life is better than my real life.”  After I got over my initial reaction of “Woah!”, I started to ask what made his online life better and his answers revealed that he felt empowered and in charge of his online identity.  This led me to want to learn more about social networking, online identity, engagement and authority.  I wanted to know how to use his online experiences to help make things better for him at school.

The second moment occurred when a student looked at me earnestly and said, “I don’t typically read text in .doc format.  I use .doc only to edit.”  This same student, along with two of his peers, used the collaborative Google Docs to work on a group project – without any instruction from me.  Woah!  I realized that I needed to know more about how students interact with and produce digital text.

The third moment, and closer to home, was when my 6 year old son told me that he had “skyped Santa.”  Woah!  I couldn’t help but wonder how different his way of processing his environment is compared to my own.

So, here I am, a mom and an educator, with my plan to deepen my thinking about learning and learning about thinking …