creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by courosa: http://flickr.com/photos/courosa/2922421696
 
So far I have discussed connecting with others both off and online. In addition to this, I explored taking owner of our identity online, as well as elaborating on and engaging with the ideas of others. The fifth step in being a connected educator is learning.
 
Ideas and inspiration can come from many places and like connections, are not always digital or online. Sometimes learning can be as simple as a chat around the photocopier or walking between classes. I have discussed this elsewhere as the incidental ‘hidden’ professional learning. The reality is, everything in life can offer a point of learning if we are willing to see it that way. For example, an activity that I have done with my students in the past is to reflect upon their classroom and what it says. I have done this in history when considering artefacts, as well as in music when thinking about performance and space.
 
I would argue though that the digital realm only extends the potential of this learning. One of the best things about learning online is that you can do it anywhere, any time. Whether it be reading a blog, watching a video, listening to a podcast or participating in an online chat, there are so many opportunities and options that the biggest challenge that we are faced with is what to engage with.
 
At the recent Teachmeet event at the Immigration Museum+Richard Olsen posed the question about whether there are any negatives about being connected. This has really prayed on my mind. I think there is so much written about the positives, that the flip side is often left silent. One of the initial negatives that I found is having so many different options and ideas out there, it can often leave you in a state of disarray. The challenge then is what we do about this disruption to the way things are. The biggest lesson I have learnt in being a connected educator is that nothing has to be the way that it is, rather we choose for it to be that way.
 
My solution to this feeling of perpetual confusion is to engage with others online in the effort to identify different perspectives. By engaging I don’t mean lambasting those whose views are different, but rather, as +Peter DeWitt puts it, “finding common ground with people I do not always agree with, and building consensus with those that I do.” 
 
In a recent interview with +Ed Tech Crew, +Dan Donahoo provides the suggestion of finding five people that you disagree with and following them. His argument was that we often learn more from those who we oppose, than those that we agree with. In another take on this, +David Truss, refuting the echo chamber argument, states that, “a good PLN will pull in learning from places I don’t normally go, and this means that even when good ideas bounce around, perspectives on those ideas don’t stay static… they don’t echo, and they morph into new insights.” 
 
As I stated in my post on blogging, learning online is about connecting with others in a reciprocal manner, both taking and giving. At its heart, it is about keeping the conversation going. Often though, it is the walls that are often built around us that kill this conversation. 
 
The easiest way to breakdown walls that so often hold us back, inhibit us and prevent us from reaching our potential is to realise that such ‘walls’ are merely a construct. Having been built, they can often just as easily be torn down. To me the Rhizomatic Learning MOOC epitomised (or epitomises, depending on how you think of things) everything that is meaningful about being a connected educator both in content and construct. 
 
Although I connected with some really great people, such as +Simon Ensor, +Keith Hamon, +Luis López-Cano, +maureen maher, +Ronald L and +dave cormier, it was a connection formed around ideas rather than personalities. I made no pretence to assume that I knew many or any of these people. To me though, this is what is so significant about connectivism. Although we may connect with people, a specific identity, to me it is the thoughts and ideas that they may offer that makes them truly meaningful. It may be important to nurture and maintain connections, but it is our capacity to know more that is more critical than what is currently known which stands out the most.
 
Although online learning, whether it be responding to a tweet or participating in a MOOC, may not necessarily provide the same depth and rigor of a more formalised learning, it does provide an opportunity to connect with others who we otherwise would not normally associate with and develop new knowledge in the process. As +George Siemens pointed out in his seminal piece, “our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today.” To me, being a connected educator is the first and most important step to a life of learning. For if as David Weinberger puts it that ‘the smartest person in the room is the room”, my learning is more meaningful when it is not restricted to those people who I work with or know through past experiences.

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As I have written about elsewhere, a small amount of furore erupted on Twitter last Saturday in response to Johanna O’Farrell’s tirade against 21st century learning habits in The Age titled ‘Splashing Cash won’t Fix Australia’s Broken Education System‘. One of the things that I really notice whilst following the conversations through a medium like Twitter is that moments like this really draw a line in the sand and bring the tribe together. Three questions that arose out of the ashes was: 
  1. Do moments like this further the wider conversation in anyway? 
  2. What is the role of the connected tribe in regards to continuing this wider conversation? 
  3. What does it take to move an idea from a point of change to evolution?

Connected Learning

At the heart of all our connections, whether online or not, is our PLN. There are many different definitions for PLN’s including: personal learning network, professional learning network or personalised learning network. Kate Klingensmith summarises the term ‘PLN’ by suggesting that it is basically “the entire collection of people with whom you engage and exchange information, usually online.” This collection includes both friends, family, colleagues, professionals, both in and out of work, really anyone who has something to add. +Tom Whitby points out importantly that “PLN’s accept people for their ideas, not the titles”. The idea is closely associated with the connectivist learning theory, where the focus of learning is not necessarily what you know, instead it is about what networks you are a part of and what possible solutions you are able to gain from these different perspectives.
Whether we realise or recognise it, we are all already a part of a personal learning network just waiting to be activated. What I find confusing is that often when people talk about PLN’s they use phrases like ‘develop a’, ‘build your’ or ‘create your own’. Whitby himself talks about an ‘acceptance’ as if their is some sort of membership or control. However, I personally think that this confuses things. I would argue that PLN’s often form themselves organically. PLN’s are rhizomic. There is no central root system. There is only one connection leading to another. Whitby best sums it up by calling it a ‘mindset’, a way of being. The question then is how this is different to a tribe and how can each be used to evolve the discussion in regards to educational reform?
 

The Tribes We Lead

In a Ted Talk from 2009, +Seth Godin spoke about the ‘Tribes We Lead‘. What tribes are about is ‘heretics’ changing the status quo by connecting people with ideas. The real challenge is to find something worth changing and then lead a disconnected group that also has a yearning to change the status quo. As Godin states:
Heretics look at the status quo and say, “This will not stand. I can’t abide this status quo. I am willing to stand up and be counted and move things forward. I see what the status quo is; I don’t like it.” That instead of looking at all the little rules and following each one of them, that instead of being what I call a sheepwalker — somebody who’s half asleep, following instructions,keeping their head down, fitting in — every once in a while someone stands up and says, “Not me.” Someone stands up and says, “This one is important. We need to organize around it.” And not everyone will. But you don’t need everyone. You just need a few who will look at the rules, realize they make no sense, and realize how much they want to be connected.
Although coming from a marketing background, Godin’s notion of tribes reaches out to a range of callings, across all society. My question though is whether it is enough to start a tribe to bring about the change that is required moving into the 21st century?
Although tribes are a powerful mechanism for change, the big question is whether they actually evolve the discussion in the wider community? Fine the tribe plants the seed, spreads the word, the big question though is how we get the conversation to evolve outside of the bubble of the echo-chamber. Beyond the notion, that is ‘them’, not ‘us’. The problem, I feel, with Godin’s call to the tribe is that although it works to ignore certain groups when it comes to art, music and marketing, the same cannot be said about education. Is it enough to lead a particular group towards change in education and simply leave a certain sector behind?

This is where PLN’s come in. Unlike the exclusive nature of the tribe, united by an idea, a PLN is more inclusive, open to different thoughts and ideas. As +David Truss explained in a fantastic response to the oft made criticism that mediums like Twitter are an online echo chamber:

  • People in my PLN challenge my thinking and push me to see perspectives that I would not see on my own.
  • A good PLN will pull in learning from places I don’t normally go, and this means that even when good ideas bounce around, perspectives on those ideas don’t stay static… they don’t echo, and they morph into new insights.

 

The biggest difference I can see between a PLN and a tribe is that a PLN by its nature is open, it connects with a wide breadth of ideas, both agreeable and disagreeable, ideas that continue to challenge and break our moulds, ideas that keep the conversations going. The bigger question that we need to consider is whether we are willing to recognise some of these other voices. Sometimes in the desperate clamour for change it is easier to squash these voices, deny them, smother them, but is this really productive? 

It Takes a Village

In a recent post, +Tom Whitby suggests that, “In the garden of ideas we must weed out the bad and fertilize the good, but we can never ignore the ideas that are popping up at a rate never before imagined.” I was really taken by this statement as it sums up what we do naturally, the sorting between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’, useful and useless. Clicking on one link, ignoring another. The problem with this though is with the amount of ideas out there, sometimes the important thing is the actual interactions, the dialogue, the constant point reflection, why rather than what we deem as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
 
From this point of view, it is therefore so important to engage with everyone. In his keynote for ICTEV13 Conference, +Dan Donahoo spoke about the importance of recognising the place of everyone in the village when integrating new technology and ideas. Whether it be the blocker who provides an insight to the hurdles or the outlier who is always looking for new and innovative ideas or the learner (student and teacher) at the heart of the change. The reality is everyone has something to contribute. The difficulty is authentically incorporating all the different voices. The problem is that we often enter discussions with an outcome in mind. However, something would be wrong if there were no modifications to this desired outcome, because we all take things up in our own way and this needs to be recognised. The process, +Dan Donahoo suggests, is far more important that actual outcome.
 
The lesson learnt from +Dan Donahoo‘s presentation is that it takes more than one teacher with a good idea to bring about change. It takes a whole community to bring about change. It may be the job of the tribe to identify the need for change and start the fire, but it is the job of the wider learning network to evolve the conversation, bring about this change in their own way. Addressing this problem in his own way, +Peter Skillen suggests that rather than overload teachers with initiatives, those in administration need to help teachers to understand the ‘essence’ residing in all the different practises that we often associate with 21st century learning and out of the distilled essence, teachers can then ‘construct their own knowledge and practice’. In the end, our challenge is how to help each other make the most appropriate decisions for each of our own situations.

People Will Fix Education

What then is needed to bring about an evolution in education? To me, to go beyond mere change, to actually bring about about evolution, will only happen when everyone is activated and connected to the conversation. This includes parents, students, politicians, businesses, anyone really, because we all have a vested interest in education. The big problem seems to be how to engage everyone in the conversation. With the rise of social media and use of technology as a way of communicating and disseminating information, it offers a great medium. However, not everyone is online and maybe they don’t have to be, but if not, how then do we carry the conversation to them and make sure that they also have an empowered voice within the whole conversation? This is an ongoing challenge how to best keep the conversation going. It is so often easier to squash those ideas that are other to our own, but does that carry the wider conversation or simply fuel the tribe?

Coming back to the original saga, Johanna O’Farrell is right when she says that money and technology will not fix education. They may help, but they certainly are not the ‘silver bullet’ as she states. The real change agent in regards to education are people. People trying to find solutions to today’s problems to build a brighter tomorrow. Personally, I think that it is too simplistic to say that something worked in the past, therefore it will continue to work today. This denies that the world changes in so many ways, whether it be culturally or technologically. However, what O’Farrell’s article does do is get people talking about education and in some way that is a good thing. The challenge is to talk about such issues and ideas in a way that involves everyone in the conversation, incorporating a wide range of perspectives, maybe that is the truly 21st century problem?


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Wrong All The Time

In a post, by +Seth Godin, he spoke about how he dismissed the Internet as, “slower, harder to use and without a business model.” The lesson that he learnt out of this was that there are, “two elements of successful leadership: a willingness to be wrong and an eagerness to admit it.”
 
Godin’s discussion of being wrong got me thinking. What does it mean to be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? And how does this fit with education? Does it actually achieve anything to constantly come back to idea of their being a correct answer?
 
It is not that I disagree with Godin’s reflection, but I feel that notions of right or wrong are often left for historians reflecting on the past and even that is questionable. The terms almost feel empty and slightly trivial at times. A spoil often left to the victor. What is achieved in being right or wrong? Often being wrong does not change a thing as it is only after the moment has past that we realise this. At its heart, it is not very useful when discussing lifelong learning. At the very least, it carries with it a negative connotation. What is important, is the way you respond to being ‘wrong’. What aspects that you would change for the future. In some ways the challenge is to be wrong all the time for what do we really learn in being right?
 
I feel that a better solution to supporting lifelong learning is to focus on choice and consequence, considering how we respond to each situation. This includes unpacking how you came to your particular choice, were there any other options and why did your choice work for your situation? One of the difficulties with being right and wrong is that it is often past tense. Being conscious of some of the choices we make every day allows for reflection in the present tense.

Right? Wrong? Different?

We make choices on a daily basis, whether it be what to eat for tea or an opinion on a matter. Sometimes the difficulty lies not so much in making a choice, but in recognising that there was a choice at all. Take the following as some examples of such situations:
 
  • Search Engines: In a recent Guardian Tech Weekly podcast, Bing’s director of search, Dave Coplin, put forward the argument that we only use Google, because it is habit and that Bing offers a better experience.
  • Technology: With the rise of BYOD, the question that often gets asked by students is which device should they buy? I recently had a discussion with some of my senior students who are moving into a BYOD environment next year. Their quandary was which device would be the most ideal for learning. In the end, the discussion came down to a question of taste, personal preferences and what particular students wanted to achieve.
  • Voting: A cornerstone to democracy is the ability to vote for the person and party who we think would best represent us. Often people get lost in arguments about who is right or wrong, when all we ever get is a difference on opinions and even that is questionable at times.
  • Control over Curriculum: In a recent blog, +Jason Markey spoke about moving away from teacher directed learning to providing students with passion the opportunities to design of learning and curriculum 
  • Being Connected: There has been a lot of conjecture as a part of Connected Educator Month about whether we need to be connected or not. +George Couros suggested that being isolated or sharing with the world is a choice that only we can make.
  • Cloud Storage: You just need to put ‘Google Drive’ and ‘Dropbox’ into any search engine for a long list of discussions about which application is better. However, in the end, each application is different and like the discussions about ‘Bing’ and ‘Google’, often comes down to who you wish to use it.
  • Appropriation of Knowledge and Content: Associated with sharing and being connected, is the challenge to properly acknowledge content. +Tony Richards explored this notion in his blog where he focused on the issues with republishing without recognising where things originate.
I could keep on going on and on. However, I think that these examples demonstrate how we can easily get caught up in arguments about what is right and wrong, supposed ‘best practices’, when in fact they are simply choices made by groups and individuals based on what works best for their particular situation. Although we often may have opinions about these matters, such as Google Drive is better than Dropbox as it allows for collaboration. In the end though, that is all they are, neither right nor wrong, just opinions, opinions with associated consequences.

New Ideas, New Beginnings

Choice comes down to one key ingredient, what works best in a particular situation. Often within this process we are faced with options. I often remind my students that they are in fact free to choose whether to work or not, they even have a choice about whether to be in class. However, what they need to realise is that there are consequences if they do not do their work or if they leave the class, consequences that they need to be willing to accept, because they are their consequences and theirs alone. The biggest challenge is being aware that there is a choice in the first place and accepting the associated consequences attached with such decisions.
 
In approaching things from a perspective of choice I feel that we are more open and able to learn and be inspired by others. In recognising why we chose what we chose, it often means that we have considered what we did not choose and why. Sometimes this consideration means that in a future situation we may make a different choice. There are times when being right and wrong gets us locked into a particular position, a position that many around us refuse to release us from.
 
For example, I once used Dropbox as my primary point of sharing. However, I moved over to Google Drive, as I felt that it offered an easier method of sharing and collaborating. It would be stupid to look back on this situation and say I was ‘wrong’, because at the time I may have been ‘right’. Not only does this point out the historical nature of choices, but it also fails to recognise how and why we change.
 
Being open to choice often means that we are more willing to moulding and adapting our ideas, rather than going through a constant state of revolution, where we throw out the old in order to replace with the new. If we approach everything from being right and wrong, we risk living in an echo chamber. Being open to choice is being open to different voices, to different ideas, to new dialogues and new beginnings. +David Truss spoke about the power of PLN’s in a recent blog. He suggested that instead of simply echoing our own thoughts and ideas, being connected offers us a way of breaking out of the echo chamber, finding out new ideas and points of change.

Postscript

One of the things that needs to be noted with any discussion of choice is that there is a hidden element in all of this. For there are some people in the world who do not have the opportunity to make choices, such as which search engine to use or who to vote for. This maybe the only thing that can be considered as being ‘wrong’ in all of this discussion. Often economics is described as the study of choice. Maybe pertinent approach to economics would be better considered as study of those who don’t have a choice at all.

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