PLENK, Network Literacy and the Future of Education

This week I came across a few interesting links that served to gel some ideas, or at least confirm the importance of engaging in and understanding networked learning. The first was an open course being taught by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier called PLENK 2010. This 8-week open course covers some pretty interesting topics and provides links to additional readings and resources. Spending some time on this site provided me with some insights about how learning is increasingly more open, connected (networked), and social.

The other piece was an interview that Will Richardson did for EdWeek. In the interview, Richardson touches on the idea of “network literacy” – an idea that really resonates with me – and shared some views about why the teaching of this new literacy is important. While his focus tends to be on the K-12 context his ideas are equally important in higher education. The PLENK 2010 course is a meaningful response to what Richardson is calling for, but I’m wondering where else this is happening? The concept of networked learning remains a bit of a fringe idea when I talk with other faculty about it…and as such it often gets easily dismissed. At the same time, I can’t help but sense that there is a profound transformation taking place right in front of our eyes, and too few people in education seem to be taking notice and considering the implications for education. I just don’t see this as a pervasive conversation in broader education circles… Should it be?

It seems to me there is a gulf of understanding between what many in higher ed. are seeing and thinking and what is happening around them. I liken it to what has happened to traditional news media in the wake of web publishing…none of them (editors, periodicals, newspapers, etc.) saw their own demise coming. Some were nimble and have adjusted…others are still scratching their heads.

A current example of the kind of change that is underfoot is the Drumbeat Learning, Freedom and the Web Festival. This “festival” (read conference) is one of the most interesting I have seen to date in terms of pushing the conversation about the Open Education and networked learning. Combine this with the the announcement this week that OpenStudy is partnering with MIT OpenCourseware and you begin to get a real glimpse of how traditional notions of course-based learning are morphing here. Some very interesting stuff in my opinion.

It seems to me that these examples of changes taking place….(Peer2Peer U., badges for recognizing informal online learning, open courses, open source learning content, etc.) represent a whole different ballgame. Perhaps a bit radical for those with a conservative lens…but I think any position / view of the future of education needs to take into account the changes taking place here.

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Learning is the Conversation in the Community

conversation

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.

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Continuous Partial Attention – Redux

I recently had the opportunity to take some long overdue vacation, telling myself I had to disconnect in order to [re]connect. I went camping in the mountains of Virginia with my dog, and chased trout with an expensive graphite fly rod and flies. I didn’t see or talk with any people for three days. It was amazing!

One of the things that struck me about this experience however was the amount of time it took me to actually stop thinking about reading blogs, reading / answering email, what was happening on Twitter…what cool ideas was I missing on the Network?! It was a little unsettling at first, and I was almost embarrassed that I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about all this stuff. It took me the better part of three days to really disconnect. As my digital life blurred, I became consumed by hiking mountain trails, scouting the creeks, being quiet streamside and watching bugs hatch off the water…observing feeding trout, gathering firewood and staying warm and dry. In these moments I really appreciated the simple slowness of a day of hiking, fishing and camping out under the stars.

All of this helped me realize how much time is actually required to manage a modern life along with the desire to be a live node on the network. The latter is in itself a full-time job! I remain a little unsettled with the realization.

In any event, I have since been thinking about a concept I heard a few years back – Continuous Partial Attention. To the best of my knowledge this was initially coined by Linda Stone, a social computing researcher at Microsoft. She writes:

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.”

Whoa! That set me back a bit. Forgive the rhetorical question, but…what are the implications of maintaining a sense of high alert and constant crisis for extended periods of time?

I began to think about these ideas in the context of some of the work I am engaged in at the Center for Teaching Excellence at VCU. Over the past year, my colleagues Britt Watwood, Bud Deihl and I have been engaged in a collective journey to explore social networking and the development of our own web-based personal learning networks (PLNs). For each of us this journey has involved significant amounts of time and energy to connect and stay connected; to really be part of the networked conversation about teaching, learning and technology…writing blog posts, reading countless blog postings in our RSS readers, tagging resources in del.icio.us, making / listening to podcasts and Twittering. Along with engagement in this conversation there seems to be the added expectation for even more engagement. Based on observations of colleagues and friends, and what I imagine about my network “heroes,” I think it seems safe to say that continuous partial attention, as described by Stone, is a necessary precondition for reaping the benefits of developing and maintaining a PLN. If we accept that, I think a whole host of questions arise…Who can really afford to develop and maintain a PLN? Who can afford not to develop a PLN? How does the maintenance of a vibrant PLN impact the attention we have to devote to other aspects of life and work? Are PLNs primarily for the early adopter set?

To me a PLN seems to be a bit of luxury, and at times an extravagant one.

That said, I turn to considering the faculty members with whom I work at VCU, and teachers in general, and wonder how many of them would even remotely consider taking the time required to overcome learning curves, fear, doubting, and network building to begin reaping benefits of a robust PLN. I suspect very few.

Perhaps it is simply my emerging notion of a PLN, ill-formed as it is and full of my own personal trappings, that makes it difficult for me to see how many teachers could really devote the amount of time and energy that appears to be required here. I’m not discounting the possibility, but I do however think we need to be realistic in terms of our expectations about how many teachers (K-12 & higher education) can devote the time required to engage and participate in the development of a robust PLN.

If we value the role PLNs can play in education, we need to find ways of introducing them that don’t confuse or overwhelm by being fully formed, offer meaningful starting point experiences that can lead to further development, and at the same time be part of a balanced practice and life. That is a tall order…and I’m not sure how to do that just yet, but I’m inspired by another comment from Linda Stone:

“We have focused on managing our time. Our opportunity is to focus on how we manage our attention. We are evolving beyond an always-on lifestyle. As we make choices to turn the technology OFF, to give full attention to others in interactions, to block out interruption-free time, and to use the full range of communication tools more appropriately, we will re-orient our trek toward a path of more engaged attention, more fulfulling relationships, and opportunities for the type of reflection that fuels innovation.”

Right on! I’m going fishing…

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