Archive for December, 2010

Shelly Terrell and Ken Royal are two friends who encouraged me to blog. Both are bloggers and saw something in me and my ability to communicate that I didn’t recognize. Through their encouragement, coaxing and hand holding, I did guest blogs for each of them. I was the Reluctant Blogger. This was one of my early posts explaining how I became involved in Social Media and the idea of a Personal Learning Network.It seems to be a topic that needs to be continually explained because of the growing number of educators who continue to enter the world of social media for educators.

Part 1

One of today’s educational buzzwords, or fad terms is the PLN.  For my purposes it stands for Personal Learning Network. Others call it a Professional Learning Network or Community or even Environment. That would be PLN, PLN, PLC, or PLE. Many educators today are involved understanding and developing their own PLN’s. Everyone has one, and each is different and as unique as a fingerprint. Some employ technology, and others dwell in faculty rooms across the country and around the world.

The history of my PLN began back in the late 70’s. It was formed not through the technology of the computer, but rather about the technology of a 27 foot sailing vessel. It was merely a sailboat, but in my mind, being my first boat, it was truly a vessel.

I live on Long Island in New York. It is a place where boating thrives for about five to six months a year, beginning in June and ending in October. As I grew up, I always went on others’ boats, but never owned my own. Working in a school district of a community on the shore of an island, I found many of my faculty friends were avid boaters. More specifically they were sail boaters , or more accurately, sailors. It was at this time of my life that I made a big decision to become a boat owner. I purchased a brand new 27 foot O’Day sailboat. There was only one small drawback to this major purchase and commitment, I had no idea how to sail.

I took a Coast Guard Course and read a bunch of books. I ordered several catalogues and every sailing Magazine subscription I could get delivered. As my purchase was being readied for delivery, I determined that my preparation might be lacking. That is when I developed a plan out of desperation. This was to be my first organized development of a Personal Learning Network.

The plan was simple and bordered on genius. It was based on knowing that sailors are a breed of boaters who love to sail at every opportunity. I informed the Yacht dealer that I wanted to take delivery of my vessel in the water and ready to sail in April. This was unheard of, since boating season did not really get going until June. That, however, was the genius part. I had two months before all of the sailors that I knew would have their own boats in the water. I on the other hand had a spanking-new Sailing vessel at their “Beck and call”. They only needed to take the owner along for the sail. I had about ten experienced sailors teaching me all that they knew in my Personal Learning Network. I was golden.

I also recognized that I stumbled upon a real plan for personal learning. I did not want to make any other major purchases to test my assumptions, but I did pay close attention to what I had accomplished and how I did it. I took note of what I needed to know and how I gather those who knew it around me. With the advent of the Internet I have expanded my reach for those who know what I need to know. I have developed a PLN beyond the faculty room and to Educational experts literally around the world.

Part 2

My early entry into the digital Personal Learning Network world came through necessity and dumb luck. This may have started out as a whim, but now it takes up serious time during the day. It is a challenge. This is the history of the development for the first level of my PLN and it provides a depth in discussion and collaboration that is often needed to accomplish success.

I am a retired secondary English teacher. I started working as an Adjunct Education professor at St. Joseph’s College in New York. Going from secondary to higher education was a little intimidating and very different. After 34 years of teaching English, I thought I could walk on in and teach students everything they needed to be successful teachers. In fact I was the one who needed the education.

I have an MS in Educational Technology from 1991 and I did not know what I did not know. I was emailing and Googling and I had mastered PowerPoint. I was even able to get by in Blackboard, but beyond that, I had a million questions as to what to do and how to do it.

Faculty members are usually tech savvy, or tech shy. Since I was new to the staff, I was still learning names with little regard as to who knew what about technology. It was at that time that I was getting involved with Linkedin. Before I knew it, I had a number of Education Connections. Since these people were on a social network, they had at least a modicum of tech savvy, so I began asking questions of them. I had more questions than sources, so I determined that I needed more sources, but I had a limited network.

I thought that if I started a group of technology-using professors, I would have a virtual cornucopia of sources. Not only would I have my own posse, but, if I was selective, they would be really smart sources. My goal was to involve only Higher Ed professors at any level. After all, I was only a lowly adjunct and I did not want to create a group that would exclude me. I was only interested in the opinions of those who are really teaching people. Vendors and consultants serve a different audience, so I limited the membership to educators only. It was totally self-serving, my group, my rules.

The restrictions took up more time than I imagined. Profiles vary so much in job descriptions and institutions that it is sometimes hard to tell what someone does or for whom they work. Another consideration was that Email on Linkedin costs money, so I needed a cheaper way to contact people. Messages from member to member of groups are free. Learning that, I started joining groups. I recruited twenty-five members on my first sweep through the groups. At that time I only belonged to about five groups, so after soliciting membership from those groups twice, I needed to join more groups to hit other people. Any group where one could find professors was a group I targeted. It did not take long to belong to 30 groups.

As people joined I sent them a welcoming message. I had become a “group-joining expert” by this time and determined that most groups sent nothing. Others sent me a do’s and don’ts do list. I wanted to be more welcoming. After all, these people were to be my personal group of technology advisers, my Personal Learning Network. It was easy to develop personal relationships.

As a child, when I sent away for free stuff, I checked for the mailman every day until the stuff arrived. As an adult, I found myself checking my computer constantly for new arrivals to the group. The best part about my group was that the people involved are already intellectually curious and damned smart. Since they are educators, most have a sharing quality built into their personality It always helps to personally thank those members who continually add to thoughtful and provocative discussions.

Taking toll of my Linkedin connections or the Linkedin segment of my PLN I find that I have 230 direct connections. I founded seven groups and one subgroup. I have joined over 60 other groups and I have maintained membership in 46 of them. The Technology-Using Professors Group now numbers over 1,500 members. I have direct messaging capability to thousands of educators.

The discussion within the groups started to be sprinkled with funny looking links which lead to additional sources. My curiosity got the best of me and I began inquiring as to what these were and where they were coming from. TWITTER was the answer. That led me to a digital journey which took me to the second tier of my Personal Learning Network and the subject of my next post.

Part 3

Like many people my entry into Twitter was at the invitation of a friend. Like many people I was connected to a few folks who were recommended upon my registration. Like many people I tweeted out nonsense, got no response, and left the application not to return for several weeks. Unlike many People I returned determined to figure out what Twitter was. I knew from my Linkedin connections that folks were getting funny looking abbreviated links to very helpful blogs, posts, wikis, Videos, audio files, PowerPoint presentations, and websites. Twitter by appearances held a virtual Treasure Trove of educational information and I needed the map to get to it.

I used my Linkedin connections to find out who was Twitter connected. I quickly followed those who I knew and trusted as serious educators. After that source was exhausted the process became simple. I looked at who each of those folks were following and I ripped them off. I followed everyone who even looked like an educator. However, the call of celebrity was a little too much, as I began to follow Regis Philbin. I was sorely disappointed in Regis’s tweets. They were non-existent.  Regis does not get computers. With this devastating discovery Regis taught me that someone who has nothing to offer in education was not part of the goal that I had in mind. I refocused on Educators. If there was nothing educational in someone’s Twitter bio I did not follow. Since I needed information provided to me I realized that, who I followed was more important than, who followed me. The people I followed were the information providers. It is not possible to even see what followers tweet. Thanks Reg.

With my focus clear following became second nature. Now I moved on to the next thing. What do I tweet? I learned very quickly that RT meant Retweet. This was a key discovery. All I needed to do was recognize a tweet with value to an educator and I could pass it along to others. This is the neat part. Not only does the original Tweeter get credit, but so did I. I couldn’t believe it. Other very smart people could make me look smart on twitter and I did not have to go back to school to accomplish this. I could be an expert on the backs of others. It was imperative to RT the right stuff if I was to pull this off. I started looking at every tweet with promise before I RTed it (that is Twitter talk). I built a whole reputation as a great educational tweeter based on other’s tweets. This was my kinda media.

Now came the challenge, what do I do if someone asks a question? This is considered an original tweet. As I looked at my followers list I discover that I had over 500 followers. I could not believe it. I put a few thoughts together and carefully worded them heeding the 140 character limit. It is very much like writing fortunes for cookies or facts for Snapple caps.

I sent out a few things about technology in education and much to my surprise, I received many tweets of agreement with my opinions. My educational philosophy was being taken seriously by other educators. After 34 years of teaching and saying this stuff, I now find people who agree. This was fun. What I came to realize over time was that I developed this PLN and many of its members are forward thinking educators who are all seeking the same sources that I am seeking. That fact makes them different from many educators in the system today. It is like preaching to the choir. That doesn’t mean that what I had to say was not accurate and noteworthy, but it is important to keep a perspective. The same arguments would be lost on educators who do not even understand the discussion.

Now I have all of this information flowing. I have educators listening to me and even hanging on my words. Questions are coming over the Twitter Timeline for me to answer every day. I have 1,500 followers. In addition I have my Linkedin connections discussing and collaborating. It is time to develop a plan to use and coordinate all that is the digital social network for my Personal Learning Network. The plan begins its formation in PLN Blueprint PT 3.

Part 4

One thing that I never considered in all of this was the personal relationships that are developed along the way. One very cool thing occurred as I attended an Educational Technology Conference, something I had done for so many years previous. This time, however, it was different. I was different.  At the conclusion of a panel discussion containing some educational luminaries, I approached the stage and, as I mentioned my name to one member, my name and I were instantly recognized by other panel members. I was talking and joking with the President ofISTE on a first name basis. I felt great and, much to my surprise; the panelists felt great for meeting me. After being together virtually on the PLN, we were now all connected in the real world. One needs to experience this to understand it.

The personal connections come from all directions and take many forms: questions, answers, requests for advice, or requests for help. Collaboration starts with inquiries and progresses to full discussions using LinkedinSkype, or a dozen other methods of connection. With each connection there is a new lesson learned. It is the need to collaborate and communicate that prompts the learning.  I had no idea what most of this stuff was when I started out on this journey.

I am an educator and definitely not a Techie. My guiding question was where does this fit in the classroom? My dilemma was that I could no longer live with my definition of classroom. Most of my learning through this entire process was done when my school was on summer break. My classroom was the couch in the den. It was just me, my laptop, and my dog, who always wanted to play. He is not a techie either. If an old guy like me can get as much as I have gotten on my own, what could brighter, younger students with proper guidance accomplish?

The constraints of time and space that once defined our process were no longer relevant. In an ideal world, a classroom might one day become a place for guidance, reflection, and redirection from the teacher. Learning could be going on elsewhere at a more individualized rate and time-shifted for convenience. That is Flash Gordon stuff for some, Star Trek stuff for others, a real stretch of reality. It is technologically possible but the mindset for support is far from even being close. Many need to hold on to that sense of history for comfort.  I digress and must refocus.

The Power of what I had created in my Personal Learning Network came upon me in the form of a tweet that I sent out. There had been a buzz on the timeline (twitter talk). Many people tweeting about the lack of educational technology support from administrators. Much of this was prompted and spurred on from discussions that I started. Feeling a responsibility for starting this little brush fire, I proposed a simple solution, a gift idea.

I knew how long it took to develop a working PLN. I also knew its value and its ability to support advancement of technology in education. I also have a firsthand knowledge of how many education administrators are so time-pressed with administrative duties that they could not have time to develop a proper PLN. My tweet was a gift idea for Administrators. Give an administrator a twitter account with an established PLN on it and show them how to use it. The value would be soon recognized by forward-thinking administrators.

The next day the internet was atwitter with RT’s and reactions. Everyone had something to say. It was mentioned in a dozen educational blogs. I was interviewed by a national magazine. I wrote guest Blogs. I arrived as a member of the group that is looked up to for educational reform. I was a player. I was silently laughing to myself as my family looked on and questioned why anyone would listen to me. I had the same concerns as my family. A retired teacher who is now an adjunct professor of Education being listened to by thousands of educators. How do I keep my feet on the ground with my head in the clouds? It was at this point that I was reminded of a cartoon of two dogs at a computer. The one dog at the keyboard turned to the other dog and said, “They don’t know you are a dog on the internet”.

This called for serious reflection. What the heck could I be saying that all these people find of value. I began to go over much of what I had tweeted. I looked over the blogs. I gathered as much of what I had put out as possible. I examined my digital footprint. I realized that my thoughts did have value. They did not come from any one thing that I had read. Much of what I talk about is using technology for learning. I also talk about sharing and collaboration in the form of a Personal Learning Network. On those topics I am an authority of sorts. I have been pitching the same arguments for Technology in education and also collegial collaboration since 1971. It is funny how the same discussions continue today. Reform is not that new a concept in the world of education.

With the advent of the internet and the melding with social media the PLN is powerful. People will connect and ideas will be exchanged. Learning will go beyond the limitations of a single teacher. Learning will be an ongoing collaboration. My thoughts on how to organize all of this in the next Part.

Part 5

My final reflection for the purpose of this series takes stock in what I have learned from the Personal Learning Network and what should I do with it as an educator. Through the use of social media and several internet tools, I was transformed from an educational technology advocate, to an educational technology power user. Educators who use their age as an excuse not to use technology should take note that my involvement at this level came four years after my retirement from a 34-year career. I am an old dog learning new tricks. That would be a very old dog and very new tricks.

I am not holding myself up as the model educator by which all should rule and guide their lives. Most of my former colleagues would have a great laugh if that were the case. I am, however an educator who sees the value of technology and has a vision for its use as an educational tool. This belief or a similar one should be something that all educators have.

The relevancy of all education lies in the education system’s ability to stay relevant. To exclude access to information in an educational environment goes a long way in insuring irrelevancy. Our efforts should be focusing on the proper way to access real information and passing it on to other learners. We need not fan the fires of fear with phrases like “safety from the internet” as an excuse for banning and filtering not only student learners, but also their adult educators. This is a practice that occurs in too many districts around the country. We cannot expect innovation to help our society dig its way out of economic disaster if we block our best hope for that innovation from that which has already been innovated. We cannot expect learning to grow with our youth if we practice blocking and filtering the best tool to promote that learning.

The power of the PLN needs to be supported by educators. If students were encouraged by educators to develop their own PLN’s many educators would have to do the same to keep up with the learning. This is a double-edged sword. It is a challenge to some and a threat to others. Those who would be threatened need to be gently brought into the fold. Students should not be bound by their teachers’ limitations.

I recognize a trait in my personality that forces me to immerse myself in projects that I am drawn to. I realize that everyone is not like this and that I cannot expect everyone to jump onboard my train. I do however have a belief that when people are presented with a strategy that will improve their ability to accomplish their goals, they will support it. Of course I also recognize that educators being who they are will find a need to pick apart and analyze every aspect of this simple proposal before anyone but me will support it. Is the Personal Learning Network using social media and other internet tools a worthwhile endeavor for educators.  This is a discussion that educators need to have. Let the debate begin.

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I recently read how Bill Gates is pushing for video-taping teachers as part of an assessment process during the observation of lessons. His goal is to include videotaping of all teachers in the process of their evaluations. On the surface this sounds workable and even helpful; after all it does work for athletes. For many years now, coaches and recruiters alike all said, ”Let’s go to the Video Tape” it will show us the way.  Of course the media has changed and gone digital, so actual video tape is being replaced by other technologies, nevertheless we call it videotaping.

I have had myself videotaped at times during my career to objectively view what I looked like, and how I delivered a specific lesson to my students. It was my choice of class, my choice of lesson, and my choice to view and use. I knew what I was looking for in my lesson.  I did find it to be helpful, but it was my choice to use it as a tool, and I chose how to do it. I have used videotaping with students doing oral presentations. It enabled them to see what the audience saw as the presentation unfolded. I think under the right conditions videotaping can be a useful tool to improve presentation skills.

I have also seen videotaping used to record the lessons of perspective teachers as they applied for positions. The video tape was then played back before the hiring committee. This was far better than the alternative of having the entire hiring committee sitting in the back of the class during the lesson. All in all I am not averse to using videotaping as a tool for assessment.

One problem with videotaping all teachers for assessment is that all lessons do not lend themselves to the videotaping process. Direct instruction or a lecture may be the best forms of lessons to be videotaped. We all love TED Talks. However, there are other types of lessons that may be considered “controlled chaos” that would not play well on the big screen, but they do promote learning. The teacher is not always the focal point of the lesson. Talking is not necessarily teaching. Some lessons like simulations, group work, or projects extend several days before yielding results.  A single period videotape would not capture the results of the efforts of the teacher.

Another consideration is the introduction of the camera to the class. Once the discovery of the camera runs through the classroom, some students may exhibit different behavior. It also must be said, that not all teachers will be themselves when the camera starts rolling for the big production. With a room of thirty individuals in a classroom the introduction of a video camera must have an impact on behavior and performance of some. It has the potential of changing the dynamic of a class.

The idea to use this method for assessing all teachers may be well-intentioned, but that intention only works if it is to benefit the teacher. It is a great tool under the right conditions for specific lessons to assist the teacher in honing communication skills. However, here is the rub: some may see this video-taped observation not as an assessment tool to help the teacher, but a tool to remove the teacher from the class.  Even if that is not the case, it will be the view of many teachers. With that view, teachers will begin to give to the camera what the camera views best. Lessons will be tailored for the camera, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. Administrators will fill their video libraries with direct instruction lessons.

Teachers are not athletes who can adjust their physical skills to enhance performance. This is not to say that some things may not be improved by a videotaped intervention, as long as the teacher is open to it and the conditions are right. Their relationship with their classes is difficult to capture on a 40 minute video. How does the camera capture learning as it happens? It will certainly not be viewed on the face of the teacher.  The focus of the camera might be more telling, if it was trained on the faces of the students. Video-taping as a tool for improvement with everyone’s cooperation and willingness to use it for that goal can work. Using it as a tool to bludgeon a teacher in a year-end review should not be the intent.

My real problem in this is that it would seem that education is being guided by the vision of the likes of Bill Gates. His view of education is to have all teachers lecturing like TED-Talk lecturers in five years. I do not agree with his vision, but what do I know? I am but a lowly educator.

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This past weekend I attended an unconference in New York City called EdcampNYC.  For those unfamiliar with the term, an unconference is a very informal conference of volunteer speakers talking in small groups about areas in which that they may have some expertise. It enables the classroom teacher to be exposed to other educators who may be doing things differently or employing different tools to help kids learn. These unconferences are beginning to spring up all over the country. Participants in each group have the ability to leave any session at any time and join another. The speakers are volunteers and the conference is Free.

I attended this unconference to volunteer what I have learned about developing and maintaining a Personal Learning Network, a PLN. I was a bit hesitant at first thinking to myself that this is a subject which has been beaten to death on Twitter and in Blogs, so why would anyone have an interest. I have come to realize however, that it is my very involvement in Twitter, Linkedin, Delicious, Diigo, Ning, Skype, Webinars, and all of the other components of my PLN that set me apart from a majority of educators, who are not involved with learning through technology. My connection with like-minded educators has insulated me from the fact that most educators are not so involved. I think it is safe to say that when it comes to 21st century skills, many educators don’t know what they don’t know. If technology skills for media literacy require more than just awareness, many of our educators would probably be considered illiterate.

Education, as an institution, seems, to me, to be quite conservative and not quickly accepting of change. The problem with that is that change today is profoundly affected by technology. Whereas, the institution of education limits change, technology turns it loose or even speeds it up exponentially. As a result, technology is creating tools for Information gathering, communication, collaboration, and creation at a much faster rate than the educators can absorb. The very skills educators strive to teach are not being utilized in ways that they were originally intended. Publishing is no longer a process of trying for acceptance from a publisher; it is instantaneous. Access to information is instantaneous and always at hand. Because of this fast paced media-frenzied society, we now have a greater need for reflection and critical thinking.

In this technologically based, information-driven society, how do educators keep pace with what they need to know? How do educators remain relevant? Do they even understand the need to do so? Is the professional development offered in schools meeting the need? Is it acceptable to teach using 19th Century methods with 20th Century tools to prepare kids for their 21st Century even after we have gobbled up that Century’s first decade?

I earned a Master’s degree in Educational Technology back in the late 80’s. Back then, I was a state-of-the-art educator. I did not however, work in a state-of-the-art-School. I did not have access to state-of-the-art tools. I did not have state-of-the-art colleagues. I did however have a belief in the concept of teaching with technology, and I searched for ways to do it. Back then it was all a matter of money and training, both difficult to come by. Today WEB2.0 tools are readily available and most are free or inexpensive. Training now comes in the form of free tutorials, webinars, or conferences delivered to a computer in an environment of choice. Usually, I choose my Den.

In a society that now goes to the internet to search for products, restaurants, celebrity news, weather, news, companionship, or any of the other hundreds of things we use it for; why not use it for information about our profession? What is holding Educators back? It is not a generational thing. Many educators that I connect with every day are in their 60’s as am I. It is not an intellectual thing many people, as clueless as I, have learned from technology. It is not an access thing. Libraries offer tech access to anyone. It’s not a device thing. More and more smart phones, Ipods or Ipads are available each day. They are connected computers. As a matter of fact mobile devices are the primary source for accessing the internet, surpassing desktop computers.

Educators need to get over their fears and give up on this resistance to technology. We need to support more unconferences and the movement that drives them. We need to teach Educators how to know what they don’t know, and learn it. We need them to buy into the concepts and adapt to the tools, for the tools will continually change and develop. We need to connect teachers through their own Personal Learning Networks using social media for professional Development. Collaboration outside of our classrooms will take us beyond our personal limitations and allow us to learn continually and globally. As an added advantage, we will also be able to take our students with us.


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