Ewan McIntosh strikes again. His post on "The importance of creating a network" resonates totally with me. It's one I wished I'd written, and I'll certainly refer to it during my Naace session on social networking and teacher CPD.
The future belongs to the network aware.
To me, to be network aware means understanding that I am a node in a network of learners, responsible for developing, maintaining and pruning my own connections to that network. It's through those connections that I am able to rapidly pick up on new developments in my particular field(s), to explore those new developments further and perhaps to change my thinking and my behaviour in the light of those developments.
My connections into this network take many forms. I'm now much less reliant on face-to-face conferences & events. Although, with Nancy White, I know that face-to-face, when used well, can be a highly effective medium. I have almost no need of the postal network (except when selling on ebay!) Most of my network activity now takes place online (the connections there are much easier to make, and to maintain). Some of it takes place through my Skype contacts list, some through email, most inbound connections are through my RSS subscriptions in Google Reader and most outbound connections through my blog.
A few months ago I listened to a podcast from Manager Tools about how to build your personal network. One of the things they highlighted in the show was the fact that maintaining a network requires activity... whether it's sending someone an occasional "keeping in touch" email, commenting on a blog, or linking to someone else in your own blog.
Most of us start by trying to maintain a network that is far beyond our capabilities to maintain. We end up with too much to read, and too much to write. There is always pruning to be done to find the nodes that add the most value to you.
So what does all this mean?
There are a number of perpectives to look at networks. The main one is the perspective of the individual node. Where do I fit into it? Who am I connected to? Are they the right people to be connected to? Who is connecting to me? How can I best help the people connected to me?
But we also need to look at the organisational perpective. Organisations must learn how networks work, and ensure that the conditions exist for the people within the organisation to make the best connections possible. That may mean providing software platforms, but more probably it means providing people resources to act as filters and editors. These people will also become nodes in the network, but, if they are doing a good job and are perceived to be useful nodes, they will rapidly become the hubs around which their people will see the rest of the network.
Of course, organisations might then choose to manipulate the hubs; to spin the messages hitting their people, but, in a networked world there are always other routes to information & ideas. Basic information literacy requires everyone to always go back to the source before acting on an idea, and always to look at alternative viewpoints.
This applies to every sort of organisation, whether it's a local authority with its employees, a newspaper with its readers, a company with its customers etc. But remembering, as Ewan so clearly describes, that these people may be members of multiple networks that cross companies, local authorities etc. (Which means that you may end up joining up organisations!)
So, my proposal, (and roughly the central idea of my Masters dissertation), is that organisations must feed and support the networks that their people belong to if they wish to retain their positions of power and influence.
How does that sound? How does your organisation help or hinder your personal learning network?
The discussion is moving into more practical/implementation issues. The theories are fine, but thinking about how we actually make use of them is most important to me at the moment.
[The following is a forum posting I made in the seminar - reproduced here for my benefit!]
There are three issues that I see coming to the fore at the moment:
1. How do we design centrally-driven learning experiences that incorporate connectivist principles?
2. How do we make the process of collecting together our personal learning conversations easier.
3. How do we encourage individuals to take responsibility for their place within their own learning network?
When I think about the first question I am considering the centre as any organisation (or even another person) that is setting assessment criteria or objectives. Perhaps the answer is that centrally-driven learning doesn't have a place within a learner-centred learning ecology? But that won't fit well with any organisation that I know... My feeling is that organisations need to treat learning experiences more as marketing opportunities. Marketeers try to change behaviour through a range of mechanisms, which include spreading messages & ideas through networks. I think we (as learning professionals) could learn a lot from that.
Regarding the second question, I think about my own experiences of writing responses to things on my blog, or as comments on other people's blogs, or in forums like this. I also have bookmarks kept in Diigo; three email clients where I keep archives of conversations; as well as various file storage mechanisms. Is the search engine really the only way we can try to keep track of things? What about content and conversations that are hidden behind a login? The concept of the Personal Learning Environment seems beguiling, but for the moment do we need to live with the fact that our online lives are not very easily connected? What happens then to those people who find working online difficult to start with?
Which leads on to the third question... which is the critical one. All the time individuals treat learning as something external; the responsibility of the organisation to which they belong, then it will be next to impossible to implement connectivist ideas. As someone said somewhere (I've a terrible memory for quotes!) you only realise the benefit of networked learning ideas when you experience it for yourself. So do we wait for the idea to spread organically, or is there a way of pump-priming networked learning. (I've a vested interest in the answer to this... as it's the subject of my Masters dissertation!)
There is a lot that we in England can learn from our colleagues across the border in Scotland... particularly when it comes to professional development structures for our teachers.
Ewan describes in this post the elements that he tries to include within any CPD event that he runs. It includes:
- Ensuring the the training backup materials are online;
- Ensuring that participants can edit and add to the materials with their anecodotes, and help each other out even though they work in different locations;
- Ensuring participants have his blog and mobile phone number as a safetynet;
- Ensuring that participants could see from the training notes what their next steps might be in terms of training.
Some people would describe this approach as "blended". I'm gradually turning more and more away from that term towards the word "connected". What Ewan is showing here is how to make sure that the CPD opportunity at the event connects with other CPD back at school, or at a later date. But also, using the technologies available it allows people to connect with each other, and, via people's blogs, with other ideas.
This is where the learning theory known as Connectivism hits the road and gets put into practice.
I'm working on a pilot project at the moment, with a group of people responsible for teacher CPD and school development from across England.
We've called it Working in a Blended Learning Environment (WinBLE). It partly involves understanding and applying what the research says about CPD, which seems to suggest that effective CPD:
- makes use of peer support
- makes explicit use of specialist expertise
- makes explicit mention of involving the teachers in applying and refining new knowledge and skills and experimenting with ways of integrating them in their day-to-day practice (six studies involved action research)
- involves consultation with the teachers about their own starting points, the focus of the CPD, the pace of the CPD or the scope of the CPD
- involves teachers observing one another as an integral part of the CPD
- involves specialists in observation and reflection (as part of the CPD rather than exclusively focused on data collection).
From the EPPI review: What do teacher impact data tell us about collaborative CPD?
Part of the project has also been about how to make best use of the available technologies to ensure the most effective use of time when we apply these approaches to CPD.
As my responsibility has been to facilitate the online components of the project, I've been collecting together ideas from around the world that will be relevant specifically to teacher CPD. You can see these at a Google Reader shared page called WinBLE-ideas,
As you'll see, there is a vast amount of thinking going about teaching & learning, and how to support that. The ideas collected so far include (among many others):
Jay Cross on John Udell's concept of Cognitive Apprenticeship where he highlights that the critical social factors to implementing cognitive apprenticeship are: Situated learning. Community of Practice. Intrinsic Motivation. Exploiting Cooperation.
There are many others, and the list is growing... However the collection does focus a lot on the classroom use of technologies. I'm looking for more examples that are specifically about teacher professional development - especially as they relate to the research above. Any thoughts?
Just to make it easier for people who prefer email to RSS readers (try using Google Reader - it's not perfect, but still very good), I've added a Feedblitz button on the blog. When you click on it you will be sent to a page where you can request to receive the postings by email.
You can use Feedblitz yourself, regardless of whether the blog has a Feedblitz button, just go to http://www.feedblitz.com/ and give them the URL of the blog you want to subscribe to.
I've been asked to run one of the parallel sessions at this year's Naace conference. The session outline is:
Online social networking tools have the potential to support reflective and collaborative CPD both within and across schools and local authorities. This session will examine whatâ€™s possible, raise a number of issues, and suggest ways in which using such tools can become an integrated part of your CPD approach.
I'm totally convinced that, to get the best out of a conference you a) need to know where people are coming from beforehand, and b) have some means of follow-up. Keeping in mind that social networks really only work when the conversation is two way, I intend to use this blog to pose a number of "sparks" before the session. This is so that a) I can find out who, in my network, will be there, and b) collect some more examples of where online networks have supported CPD.
I am hoping that the conversation will continue into the session in Torquay. Although I need to think how that will work with an audience of 150+ ?
Being part of a network is all about what you do as an individual. It's not really about organisations or the other people in the network. So the session will conclude with some very practical ideas to help people develop their own personal CPD network, and how to encourage that development in with teachers they work with.
So, with all that in mind, what questions and issues would you want to see addressed in this session? I know that many people who read this blog won't be at the session itself, but that's the beauty of online networks - there are no physical or temporal barriers to participation.
This 35 minute narrated presentation (originally done for a NAACE conference in 2006) provides a very good overview of how Buckinghamshire are implementing the idea of a Learning Platform based on a range of different but complementary open source and commercial products.
The presentation is strongly focussed on the pedagogical, management, and cultural reasons for the decisions that have been made in Bucks.
If you want to meet up with Ian Usher, who is the guy behind the presentation, he will be at the BETT show this week. More details.
The BBC have started putting online a number of their internal broadcast/media training courses.
Anyone who is contemplating using podcasts as part of the learning toolkit would find this one very useful.
It is "a guide to preparing for interviews for radio, including live studio interviews and vox pops."
Podcasts and radio are very close relatives - so there's a lot to gain from working through this resource.
Tom Haskins on why blogging is a good thing for learning organisations.
It's a well-structured argument. One of the key points for me is:
Organizations thrive on open systems design, permeable boundaries and functioning feedback loops. Organizations die when closed, self-congratulatory and oblivious to environmental changes.