The idea of a professional learning network has existed for quite some time, built on some of the foundational work related to “situated learning” and “communities of practice” developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in the 1990s.
With the emergence of Web 2.0, Stephen Downes described “learning networks in practice” in a 2007 paper, arguing that “The idea behind the personal learning environment is that the management of learning migrates from the institution to the learner.”
Combined with the 2006 emergence of Twitter, a new idea had taken form, and educators began using hashtags to start a variety of ed chats, including our own #MichEd which was inaugurated Nov 7, 2012.
This week, we reflect on our own experiences being a part of the #MichEd network and, more broadly, what it means for each of us to develop our own PLN. We will be joined by students from CMU’s Doctorate in Educational Technology, and the chat will be hosted by Troy Hicks. During the chat we will consider:
What motivates you, personally, to create and maintain a PLN?
How do PLNs change with time, for you personally and across the network? Think about #michED and who was there at the start, who has joined, who has left (or is less active) and WHY?
How do we keep our networks diverse in thought? We don’t want them to be echo chambers for our ideas, but to be constructive spaces for dialogue. How can we achieve that goal?
Besides sharing great resources, what can a PLN teach us about how to be an educator? How does participating in a PLN become part of your professional persona?
OK, let’s get specific. What, exactly, can we learn from PLNs? Along with soft skills of collaboration and sharing resources, what other digital or pedagogical skills can we learn?
Finally, what’s next for PLNs? How can we nurture and sustain them? How can we invite new voices? What should a group of doctoral students studying educational technology be thinking about?
A recent conversation with a colleague about this topic reminded me of the many reasons why I, personally, dislike Bb:
The interface is almost entirely teacher-centric, and even the features that allow students to contribute (discussion forums, and “innovations” to the LMS like blogs and wikis) are still very didactic in nature requiring that the teacher set them up in a manner to “allow” students to contribute. For instance, look at the many options available in just the “discussion board” settings in the screenshot below from Bb and consider the levels of autonomy that the teacher can decide upon for students, leaving them with fewer and fewer decisions to make for themselves. This is not really a discussion, but an assignment.
Similarly, the interface is designed on a “delivery” model of content. Yes, a creative instructor could build some self-guided learning, inquiry, and even “gamification” into the system (which Bb has conveniently added as “achievements,” but it is centered again on content consumption, assignments submission, and the gradebook. Again, the premise with the LMS is that students are logging in to view content that the teacher has created (or curated), and that this content (and this content alone) is what is important. Even if students create content (and could, theoretically, do so by embedding images, videos, or other types of digital artifacts). Still, for the most part, when directed to engage with the content (and I haven’t even mentioned online quizzes/exams), students are encouraged to do so most often to earn points.
Even in the best possible case, where a teacher is open to multiple revisions of an assignment that allows students to engage in an iterative process of learning, the interface for responding to assignments is, again, didactic, with the student submitting a paper, the teacher using commenting tools and rubrics to reply and, perhaps, opening up another “attempt” for submission. In contrast to a more open and flexible system of collaboration (as enabled by, say Google Docs or even the most current version of Word with synchronous and cloud-based editing), this workflow in Bb still relies on discrete assignments, deadlines, and grades.
There are more critiques that I could levy, but these are the main concerns that I have with Bb. So, from my earliest experiences teaching at the university, then, I have been trying to upend the expectation that I must use an LMS to organize my courses… as well as my thinking and my teaching. It is a struggle, and I have succumbed to the convenience (and mundane normality) of Bb in my past few semesters when teaching masters and doctoral courses all online. (I’ll have to describe my (compromised) rationale for all that in another post, but suffice it to say that I have, at least in recent times).
For the moment, I want to reflect on my journey with wikis as an alternative to the traditional LMS, in particular, with Wikispaces. Eagerly heralded as one of the revolutionary Web 2.0 tools that would democratize knowledge, especially for digital teaching and learning, wikis have been a staple of my teaching and professional development work for over a decade. So, like many others in the ed tech community who were both saddened and shocked when Wikispaces announced its imminent demise (some more shocked and outraged than others), I knew that this was more than just a moment to rethink where I store my data and how I organize my teaching.
First, a quick note of thanks to Wikispaces. Yes, I know that I have lots of data to recover, and that will be a pain. But, I can’t complain. I’ve used, enjoyed, and promoted Wikispaces for over a decade, and I appreciate what they have done with and for educators. Alas, like anything that has been offered for free, I am well aware that it too could go by the wayside (and soon will be). Wikispaces, alas, is no different. People are figuring out ways to save and repurpose their Wikispaces data, and I will, too (before the end of July!).
So, instead, I look at this as an opportunity to rethink my presence on the web as a teacher, teacher educator, and scholar. I will do that in the weeks and months to come. What I want to reflect on for a moment, however, is different. I want to think about why I really used Wikispaces, and whether I was being as open-minded, collaborative, and innovative as I thought I was.
That is, even as a progressive-minded educator, opting to use Wikispaces as a substitute for the LMS, as a tool for students to collaborate and contribute to our classroom community (as well as during workshops in which I lead professional development for teachers), I don’t know that I have fully enacted or lived up to my egalitarian ideas. If I were to do an honest accounting of all the Wikispaces that I manage, and see what I have contributed versus others, I would guess that I am, at best, close to a 50/50 balance. More likely, I am the one doing most of the adding and revising, especially in my course and workshop wikis.
In other words, at a deeper, more substantive level, have any of the wikis that I have created — and the pedagogy that I have enacted surrounding those wikis — really been about the participants, or has it been about me?
For all the class websites that I have created with Wikispaces, including ones for undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students, and for all the pages that I have created for workshops and longer PD institutes, I have to wonder… was I creating things on Wikispaces because it was convenient for me?
Was this a technical choice, perhaps, because giving a wiki address was an easy to find a domain (back before shortened URLs and QR codes made it easier to get to a Google Doc?)?
Was it because I wanted the public facing interface and immediate editing as a way to fit my own style of teaching, and not so much as a tool for really encouraging substantive contributions and communication amongst students?
I’ve been wondering all of this because – as I prepare to download the data from dozens of wikis and figure out where and how to archive it – I’ve noticed that I am the main contributor to most of the wikis I’ve begun. There are exceptions, of course, including our writing project’s wiki which has existed for nearly 10 years and contains the contributions of dozens of teachers. There is also a smattering of wikis that I’ve created in a one time workshop, inviting teachers to create their own page, for a day, that then linger in cyberspace. And, of course, there are the class wikis, where I have had varying degrees of success with students creating and curating their own profile pages and contributing to other sections of the class wiki site.
Still, the challenge is taking a deep, thoughtful look at all of these wikis again and thinking about who it is that has done most of the contribution. There is the old adage that “school is the place where young people go to watch old people work.” Bb, certainly, seems to be virtual manifestation of that physical truth about schools.
My question, at least at this moment, is whether or not I have been simply recreating that truth under the guise of collaboration, creativity, and inquiry by using wikis…
… or, have I really done anything different in the space of hybrid/online learning over the past 10 to 12 years? And, to circle back to the dilemma of the LMS, this has given me pause to seriously reconsider my use of Bb, too.
I’ve started to become complacent, and that is a dangerous place to be when it comes to digital writing and digital teaching. Like most teaching dilemmas, this is a wicked problem, and one that I will need to wrestle with more and more as the July 31 deadline for Wikispaces’ imminent demise comes closer and closer. In a way, I am thankful for the the opportunity to rethink why and how I create and curate materials for the web, for students, and for other teachers. I don’t know that I will ever have the answer, but I hope to soon have some thoughts on how to approach it from a new perspective.
When they are engaged in the writing process, students need timely, specific and goal-oriented feedback. During this workshop, we will briefly discuss research-based elements of successful writing instruction that focus on feedback. We will then explore how to make textual feedback more efficient with a comment bank and voice-to-text dictation, audio recordings and screencasts to efficiently provide feedback to our writers.
In what ways does feedback help keep students engaged in their relationship to the content, the instructor, and one another?
The past week has found me presenting to both pre-service teachers (three times!) and to fellow faculty (just once), and with each audience I shared the same activity: the 4Cs for Collaborative Comprehension.
Adapted from Ritchhart, Church,, and Morrison’s Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners, my spin on this particular lesson invites students to collaborate using a Google doc as a space to engage in shared reading of a particular text. As they note in their book, “[T]he 4C’s routine allows for a rich and fairly complete discussion of a text nonetheless, each step can be used as a standalone discussion,” and “[a]s students become familiar with the routine and expectations, it can act as a protocol to structure student-directed discussions of the text” (144).
There are a number of reasons for why this particular reading, writing, and thinking strategy is well-suited for an adaptation using Google Docs:
We know that reading is a social experience and, unfortunately, we also know that students are not likely to read – at least with a deep level of comprehension – their homework. While this activity does not solve all the reading problems that students may have – and they most certainly should still be reading outside of class – this does emulate the types of thinking that good readers will use while engaged with the text.
We know that writing, too, is also a social experience and can have many purposes. With this activity, writing is a tool for thinking, and asking students to write both individually and collaboratively allows them to see one another’s thinking unfold, in real time, and in a low-stakes environment.
We know that thinking – and, in this sense, I mean thinking like a disciplinary expert – is a skill that must be modeled, rehearsed, and assessed. In order to help students understand the ways in which we might approach the text, we need to make the actions that we undertake explicit and clear.
Finally, as a way to incorporate technology in a purposeful manner, I taught this as a lesson that was designed for a collaborative group work session that students would engage in during class time. That said, once students become familiar with the routine, they could likely engage in some aspect of this protocol outside of class time and come prepared with their writing done in the Google Doc.
Thus, the idea behind the activity is to have students engage in a shared reading, document their initial thinking – in this case, by connecting to the text, challenging the text, identifying key concepts from the text, and recognizing how the text is asking you, as a reader, to change – and develop a consensus about the most important takeaways from their shared reading. And, they do so using the collaborative technology of Google Docs.
As you’ll see in the instructions embedded in the document, each group will make a copy of this initial template. What’s important to note is that you – as the instructor – could make any modifications to the thinking that you want students to do. Though I like “the 4Cs” as a nice, alliterative phrase to describe what students are doing, you could certainly invite them to do any number of other learning tasks such as interpret, examine, or evaluate.
I begin the activity by ensuring that each student in the group, typically groups of four, has a role. I talk through the different tasks with them, give them a moment as a group to decide who wants to do what during the reading, and then I ask, “Who’s my connector in each group? Who’s the challenger?” Who’s identifying key concepts?” and, finally, “Who’s thinking about changes?” Depending on the particular class, as well as the reading that I am asking them to do, I may do a little bit more of a discussion about the text in order to prime the pump. However, the main goal here is that students jump in to the reading activity with their particular lens (connect, challenge, key concept, change) in mind.
Additionally, before sending them into the reading task, I ensure that at least one person in the group is comfortable making a new version of the Google Doc template and then sharing that new version with their group mates. Thus, each group has their own copy of the 4Cs activity and are then able to write ideas in their squares while they are reading. If it is a group that I feel would benefit from the task, I may also suggest to them that they find relevant sentences or phrases from the article and copy/paste them in to the Google Doc, with appropriate quotation marks. They can then use these segments of the text to make further connections, invite other challenges, identify key concepts, or indicate where the author is encouraging the reader to change.
Then, it is time to have everyone begin reading. As they read, I set a timer for a modest amount of time (usually about 5 to 7 minutes with an article such as the one linked here: “A Month Without Sugar“). As they read, I encourage them individually to take notes in their group’s Google Doc. Then, after they have had sufficient time to read, I invite them to continue the “silent” conversation in the Google Doc. Once it appears that most students are done with the reading as well as with their writing in Google Docs, I invite them to engage in a face-to-face conversation with one another around the table.
Depending on my goals for the particular reading and how this activity fits into the scope of our overall course of study, I may have students offer comments upon one another’s documents, I may have the groups write a summary, or I may have individuals summarize the main ideas from both their reading and the small group discussion. There are many possibilities for formative assessment, depending on whether the article is being used mainly for getting their thinking started, or inviting them to delve much deeper into a topic we have been studying for a long time.
In talking with the pre-service teachers as well as with my fellow faculty members, a number of interesting extensions and adaptations came to light:
The activity could be redesigned with different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy or cognitive tasks in mind for the 4Cs, it could be used for different genres of reading material, or it could be reconfigured around entirely different articles for each group that they could then bring to a larger, whole class discussion.
The activity could also be done out of class, inviting students to thoughtfully read and annotate the article as well as to write their brief response, then coming prepared to class and ready for discussion.
The activity could also be done with entirely different kinds of texts including images, paintings, charts, videos, or other forms of media as the basis for response.
Again, the main purpose of this activity is to invite all students to read actively – with a particular perspective in mind – and to bring that perspective to their shared conversation about the text.
Yes, this is an activity that could work perfectly fine with pencil and paper. Still, as many of the pre-service teachers and faculty with whom I worked this week have noted, engaging in this activity with the use of Google Docs allows them to see one another’s thinking unfold in process.
It is a very visual reminder of the fact that we all come to a text with a slightly different perspective and yet can still glean meaning from the text when engaged in substantive conversation.
During our workgroup meeting this morning, Maria Ranieri has asked us to engage in an analysis of our own social profile(s), and to reflect on our decision to engage in social scholarship.
For me, the choice to engage in social media began over a decade ago, while still in graduate school at MSU. The first entry for my blog was in 2006, at the NWP-sponsored Tech Matters advanced institute, and my first tweet was in May 2007 (also at an NWP-related event). In a sense, the growth of social scholarship in the past decade has mirrored my own journey. I’ve always lived in the world that leaned toward open-access, collaboration, and public engagement, and I have grown my network exponentially over my past 10 years at CMU.
Today, it was interesting for me to “Google” myself. I actually started with DuckDuckGo in order to get a (relatively) objective look at what “Troy Hicks” yields. Here is what I found, with my annotations. Interestingly enough, I am not in the “top 10” of Facebook profiles for “Troy Hicks,” and I actually think that is a good thing. I did click on the LinkedIn search, too, and I showed up second, FWIW.
Then, I did hop over to Google. Here is what the automated complete function showed with just “troy hicks” and the with a “troy hicks d” (because I wanted to see what would happen with digital writing).
Interestingly, the “brookings sd” is for a man, Troy Doyle Hicks, 52, of Brookings, SD, who died last November. As soon as the “d” was added after my name, however, it is interesting to see that the connections to “digital writing” as well as my books showed up. Not sure that I need to buy another domain name right now, but that was an option, too.
She concluded by having us ask one another about affordances and opportunities as well as constraints and challenges. There were many, many points made, but I will focus on one: my profile on Rate My Professor. I haven’t been on the site in years (I had only seen the 2008 post) and was interested to read the 2015 post about my ENG 514 class. I can reflect more on my experience of teaching that class, how I established timelines/provided feedback, and what I have changed since, but that is for another post.
The other point I want to make now was captured best by Jillian Belanger in a tweet:
Onward! Looking forward to my next steps as a social scholar.
Last year, when I first taught EDU 807, “Learning Tools in Education Technology,” one of my goals was to employ a wiki as a learning management system (LMS) so the doctoral students involved in the course could participate in a more open, collaborative form of social scholarship. I have long been an advocate of using wikis as an organizational space for my face-to-face classes and in professional development workshops, and it made sense to me that students involved in a doctoral program about educational technology tools would be able to adapt the wiki for their own uses as individuals and in small groups, and to collaborate in innovative ways.
One of the other elements of this course was that I asked students – both individually and in small groups – to regularly move across a variety of educational technology tools. For instance, we used at least a dozen different technologies including the wiki, Google Docs, VoiceThread, Vialogues, and (the now defunct) Zaption. There was also an attempt to integrate Twitter as a back channel conversation throughout the semester.
The ideal, however, met the reality of teaching an online course to busy professionals, and the struggle to move between spaces began to cause confusion and frustration. For all of us, the management of so many different tools was a challenge: Where are we discussing the readings this week? What is due next? Where is the link for that article?
My end-of-semester course evaluations reflected the types of concerns that students felt as they moved across so many tools in such quick succession. While they generally enjoyed and appreciated the course, it was clear that using the wiki in the way that I envisioned was one step too many, even for students in a doctoral program exploring ed tech. Sadly, our attempts to make use of the wiki on a regular basis quickly fell to the wayside. Also, as an instructor, I struggled to keep a balance with students turning in their work, providing feedback, updating the online gradebook in our normal LMS, Blackboard, and – on top of that – managing revisions and late assignments.
In short, my best efforts at using the wiki as an open, collaborative space for students to generate their own shared understandings of the course material and to create social scholarship became an unnecessary burden. In rethinking the course for this spring, then, I struggled to figure out how I would push back against the practices and discourses of the standard course management system while, at the same time, updating my course for this spring so as to avoid massive confusion on behalf of my students.
Hence, I am returning to our university’s LMS as the “hub” of our course activities. I struggle with this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I’m trying to teach doctoral students how to employ a variety of educational technology tools – building on collaborative, open source ethos – and yet I must return to an LMS that has a decidedly centered to the tool. I also struggle because I want students to know that social scholarship (openness, collaboration, messiness) does not always work on distinct the context of “taking” a course (modules, assignments, grades).
However, I will keep the idea of being “open” moving forward by asking students to blog on a regular basis, as well as to post additional course assignments as artifacts on their own digital portfolios. Also, we will use Twitter as a way to comment upon one another’s work, as well as to share ideas from other scholars.
I am not particularly pleased about having to give up on using a wiki, and yet at the same time I think by centralizing and streamlining many of the more mundane class activities in the LMS, I will be better able to help my students focus on broader goals of social scholarship and critically evaluating educational technologies. So, wish me luck as I reboot EDU 807 this semester!
One of my relaxing and still intellectually engaging tasks for this holiday break is to write a proposal for an honors course at CMU. Designed as a first-year seminar for freshman honors students to get them engaged in critical thinking, inquiry, and sustained writing practices, each seminar must tackle a major issue relevant to students’ lives. I am proposing a class entitled “Our Digital Selves: Building and Blending Our Personal, Professional, and Practical Digital Identities.” Here are the details, and I would definitely be interested in getting feedback from other educators about what topics, terminology, and technology I might explore with my students. If the proposal is accepted, I would teach the course in the fall of 2017.
Our Digital Selves: Building and Blending Our Personal, Professional, and Practical Digital Identities
Without question, we live, work, and play in a digital world. Though a divide still exists in terms of skills and access across demographics, it is reasonable to argue that the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices connected to the Internet as well as broadband in our homes, schools, libraries, and workplaces means that all of us – especially young people coming of age in the present moment – are now blending our personal, professional, and practical digital identities across multiple networks and with a variety of tools. However, the ability to upload a picture or post on one’s timeline does not, in and of itself, assure us each a place in digital segments of academia, the workplace, or civic life. In fact, a recent Rasmussen College survey showed that 37% of millennial students see the internet as “scary” and are not confident in their digital literacy skills. This first year seminar will challenge students to critically examine what it means to lead a digital life – personally and academically – and to rethink our understanding of what it means to be mindful, productive, and responsible users of technology.
This seminar would be designed with both face-to-face and hybrid components.
In the face-to-face sections of class, we would be engaged in small- and whole-group conversations about articles, chapters, books, videos, and other pieces of scholarship related to digital identity; we would also be examining case studies of digital literacy practices considering current professional standards (such as the ACRL Information Literacy Framework); and, ultimately, we would be producing students’ initial online portfolio using a social networking tool such as About.me or LinkedIn.
In the hybrid/online sections of class, we would be exploring a variety of digital tools to help students develop personal, professional, and academic skills including, for instance: shared document collaboration (Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365), bibliographic management (Zotero, Mendely, Endnote), presentation and publication (Infogr.am, Atavist, Adobe Creative Suite), and workplace communication (Slack, Yammer). We might also involve students from outside of CMU as part of our inquiry.
Across both the face-to-face and hybrid meetings, we would also be using our time to reflect upon the experience of being engaged in these various exercises with specific tools. In short, we would be metacognitive, critically thinking about our use of digital devices and social practices.
I welcome thoughts, comments, and questions… as well as knowing if anyone else with students from upper elementary school through graduate school would be interested in collaborating on this course to make it an open, immersive experience for everyone involved. If it gets accepted, I will put the call out there again in the spring, but I would be happy to hear from interested educators at any point.