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.
Do a personal 24- to 48-hour news audit in which you record all the news you get now, where it comes from, and how well it meets your needs and interests.
This short course reminded me of the power of experiential, inquiry-based learning. As I am redesigning a media literacy course for teacher candidates, I am thinking that one of these types of brief activities each week could be incredibly useful, so I will return to them again in the future.
As I mentioned earlier in the week, I had an opportunity to collaborate and learn with about 130 other teachers, librarians, and higher ed faculty at the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. Given that this was my second go-round, I had some idea of what would happen day-to-day, and over the arc of the entire week, and again the institute met and exceeded my expectations.
First, I appreciate having had the chance to collaborate with Jill Castek on our Thursday keynote, “Deepening Assessment, Digitally.” Here are the slides, as well as many additional links.
The other key takeaway for me — which is really just a reiteration of what I have learned from my colleagues in the National Writing Project — is that relevance, relationships, and reflection are at the heart of learning, for both kids and adults. No secret here; just a gentle reminder that great learning takes all three of these elements, and those elements are fostered through sustained immersion in an intensive, sometimes disruptive, yet ultimately supportive and growth-oriented environment.
Both summers at URI have provided this for me, and in a slightly different manner than what I experience in NWP work. One protocol that we use at the end of the day, both with participants and faculty, is a group discussion of “highlights and lowlights.” Not meant to be a space for problem-solving, it is a structure that allows us all to share the best and worst part of each day in a setting where our colleagues listen empathically. While I was quite tired at the end of each day, those conversations were rich, and I am still thinking through what everyone brought to them.
So, the reminder that these elements all matter is a good one, and knowing that there are multiple paths to pursue as we lead our colleagues in professional growth is a good reminder, too. I’m heading back to Michigan with a renewed appreciation for what it takes to immerse one’s self in a digitally-rich learning experience, and that we need to take time to build those three R’s of a true twenty-first century education: relevance, relationships, and reflection.
I was honored that they asked me to write the foreword from the book, which is available as a free download from IGI.
Check out the foreword, and take a peek at the table of contents. I will be curious to hear what other educators, especially English/Language Arts educators, have to say about the current state of “the flip” in our classrooms.
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.
The Marginal Syllabus team is part of the larger Hypothes.is Syllabi Project, which “leverages web annotation to collect primary source documents by theme and organize communal conversation of those documents.”
Here is a bit more from the Marginal Syllabus’s “About” page:
The Marginal Syllabus seeks to advance educator professional development about education in/equity through the use of participatory learning technologies. We are a dynamic, multi-stakeholder collaboration among:
Hypothesis, a non-profit organization building an open platform for discussion on the web
Aurora Public Schools in Aurora, CO, and in particular educators and administrators associated with the LEADing Techquity research-practice partnership
While this group will work together for one hour tomorrow night, I am looking forward to seeing how the conversations Dawn and I had while writing will come alive with the Hypothes.is annotations of other educators.