The Power of Open

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to ask students to reflect on and share some of their learning in the open. I endeavor to do this myself in some of the writing I do about teaching because it pushes and refines my thinking.  I try to be there with my students as a fellow learner in the process…to model what I’m asking them to do. Sometimes I think it works.

I know I’m not alone in this endeavor; there are other folks who’ve been doing this for a while and trying new things that I find to be wonderful examples of teaching and learning in the open. So I wanted to share a few examples that illustrate what I think is particularly cool and powerful about the process.

One of the gurus for me is Gardner Campbell, who seems to constantly be pulling off amazing learning wherever he goes. He recently described his experience at the OpenEdTech 2010 conference, and shared a story about how he tapped into conversations unfolding in Barcelona and connected them to students at Baylor who in turn amplified and added to the ideas and sent them back around again. His post – The global nervous system worked like a champis thick with meaning for understanding learning that is open, connected and social.

In another example, a colleague of mine here at VCU, Jon Becker, has encouraged his students and his network at large to engage in the learning of the course by sharing the living syllabus on the web, inviting tagging of resources, and reading / commenting on the blogs of students. The opportunity for learning here is amplified and extended by being in the open. Educational leaders not  “officially” in the course can contribute and learn with those aspiring to be school leaders…it becomes a community of practice.

My current favorite is by another VCU colleague, Scott Sherman, who has cooked up a great blog that is his reflective space for sharing ideas about teaching advertising.  Scott has embarked on a very cool project with his students this semester where over 100 students are curating content on the web related to advertisements for Life Savers. They are doing this in the open through individual student blogs aggregated on a Netvibes page as Project54. When the course comes to a close this project will not only be one of the largest collections of curated material about a brand on the web, it will be a learning resource for exploration, dialogue and critique.

Open amplifies learning.


Learning is the Conversation in the Community


The idea that learning within a community is – at its core – the conversation among members of that community, is not necessarily a new idea. Combine this with the fact that I’m a big fan of the notion of communities of practice, and you might be surprised that I’m even choosing to write about what is for many a commonly accepted idea. So I’m going to try to briefly describe a recent experience that really drove the idea home for me in a new way.

In the past few years I’ve been fascinated, and at times confounded, by the ways the web has transformed opportunities for communication and exchange among people, as well as the ways in which virtual communities can be formed and sustained. In fact, I’m still trying to come to terms with the ways in which my own understanding of “conversation” and “community” have been, and continue to be, altered by my participation in web-based communities. Like many folks, I read and comment on blogs, use delicious to share resources with my network, connect with people on twitter, collaborate with people on ning sites, and even begrudgingly let Facebook vacuum up my data in order to stay in touch with friends. All these forms of participation can be seen, on some level, as “conversations” that take place in various communities that are networked and distributed…a part of my personal learning network. I have come to value these opportunities to connect and learn a great deal, and at times some of the exchanges do seem to be conversations. I am also learning more about how my practices are shifting as I attempt to teach in this networked environment. Lately however, I find myself asking more and more – What constitutes a conversation? Are my activities on blogs and twitter really conversations? When does a distributed network of networks on the web constitute a community? How do you recognize the shared “ah-ha” moment among learners in a web-based environment? These are slippery questions for me…

Which brings me to a recent conversation in a class I was teaching. We happened to be discussing how digital media has changed the landscape of learning, and the potential value of the ideas of the PLE and PLN for adult learners. We had read a piece from Stephen Downes, Learning Networks in Practice, and it generated some interesting perspectives. One perspective was that Downes’ view was old news, pretty much business as usual, while others suggested that his ideas represented a fundamental paradigm shift for education. The tension between these two perspectives made for some valuable in-class discussion. I recognized a quality about this exchange that was missing from the distributed and often fragmented conversations that take place in my PLN.

It was a shared event where people in the conversation could all recognize learning that was the result of collective conversation in the moment. It was a meaningful experience for me. It seemed to be a collective “ah-ha” moment; a moment where the learning is the conversation in the community. It was beautiful. I do not routinely have that experience in conversations that are distributed and networked, that is, where those in the conversation have a shared recognition of the learning. The networked learning seems more individual and parsed to me. I’m having a hard time seeing the community learning in the cloud. Maybe it is my over-reliance and need for physical cues…the head nodding & the non-verbals…the follow-up questions and the comments of affirmation…where the learning seems to get named. I like that. I’m looking for similar cues in the networked environment, where members of a community can experience the collective acknowledgment of learning. Perhaps this happens for folks, and I am just a novice network learner not yet able to see the markers. Maybe I am not dialed in to the subtle ways that distributed learning networks come to shared understanding. Or, it may be that my view here is simply a lament for the vestiges of my thinking, which suggest that learning in community, somehow needs a face-to-face component. Ultimately, I’m not sure the “place-based” experience is necessary, but my sense is that the realization of collective learning and shared understanding among members of a web-based community is more challenging to nail down. So I guess my question at this point is whether its even necessary to identify collective learning that results from the – conversation[s] – in a networked community…is it? If not, I need to figure out how to better navigate without those markers. If it is, I need to get much better at understanding how multiple entry points, fragments of perspective, and varied learning trajectories coalesce to represent learning in a distributed network on the web.


Twitterpated…well, maybe.

I guess I’ll throw my hat into the already overfull ring of people who scratched their heads for months wondering about the value and function of Twitter, and then somehow took the leap to engage in the Twitterverse. Seems like a rite of passage, or perhaps a rite of absolution.

What is Twitter? Do you get it? Why would anyone want to use it? How do you use it? What are the applications in the classroom? These questions ran through my head for nearly a full year, until recently, I – like many others have recounted – took the Twitterplunge. I’ll try to provide a little insight into what finally kicked to put me over the edge.

The first time I encountered Twitter was nearly a year ago at the University of Mary Washington’s 2007 Faculty Academy – a wonderful event put on by the UMW folks at DoIT. At this conference I had the pleasure of seeing Alan Levine talk about Twitter and share some uses as well as his own head scratching journey to take the Twitterplunge…it seems everyone has that story. There was also a TwitterCamp set up for folks attending the UMW event where participants could tweet at each other and engage in some exchange…I watched in confusion. I continued to lurk – inconsistently – at the fringe of Twitter for several months…uncertain and already overwhelmed with more information streams than I could manage. Why did I need this…? I couldn’t answer the question…it continued to stew on the wayback burner.

The second significant encounter I had with Twitter was at the recent 2008 ELI Annual Conference, where Twitter was again featured prominently. The ELI folk had set up a TwitterCamp that could be “followed” by any participants, as well as others not attending the conference. Twitter became a medium of exchange – in the moment – that allowed people to comment and share thoughts on what they were experiencing and thinking about in sessions during the conference. This got my attention. There was an entire stream of ideas flowing among participants that was visible, informative and most importantly…generative. It was a valuable back channel of information and it was here I think I turned the corner on Twitter. I began to “follow” people on Twitter who I saw at the conference, and slowly over time began and continue to build a network.

So what makes it worthwhile for me? Right now there are a few things:

1) I have come to see Twitter as a piece of a much larger conversation. Blogs, YouTube, podcasts…these are all part of a conversation I am attempting to participate in, and Twitter is an interesting complement.

2) Twitter somehow seems to let me learn and get to know a little bit more about the folks I follow. It builds a sense of connection, and for me represents a bit of community building.

3) The network you build on Twitter becomes a resource to support learning and exchange.

4) It allows me to stay loosely connected to folks that I have a relationship with that I might not get to talk or communicate with as much as I’d like.

Yet Twitter still represents a very real challenge for me.

I am valuing the participation as a learning support and a process for connection. However, I’m still thinking that the adoption curve on this one is pretty wacky. Every faculty member I have introduced to Twitter, albeit casually and with hesitation, has rolled their eyes. “Twitter, cute! What do I need that time sucker for?” Perhaps they sense my own uncertainty. No matter how you slice it though, arrival at valuing participation in a networked community is something that takes time and belief that it will be a resource that can pay learning dividends in the future. Part of the challenge – seems to me – lies in creating a context or need where participation in the network becomes a necessity. Are we there yet?