Stephen Downes: The MOOC of One: Personal Learning Technologies
Earlier today I scooped this video. If you want to learn about connectivism and MOOCs, who better to consult than one of the founding fathers. Stephen Downes gives us a sneak peek into what is next by first looking at where we have been with connected learning and then following the progression to where he sees it going next. Throughout he asks the philosophical questions that others may skim over like when does one become a thing, be it a doctor, a native of a particular city, or so forth. And what does it mean to be those things.
But what interested me most were some snippets, some ideas that grabbed me. So as Downes explains when describing MOOC participation, I am exhibiting the personal learning model. I am taking from this video that which I need or find of interest. I am not concerned about the entirety of the content, not because it isn’t valuable or important but because I am an individual learner and am learning for myself.
One clarification I found useful was in the definition of MOOC. I knew M stood for massive but not in the sense I had. It means massive in the design sense, in its ability to be scaled not massive in terms of size although the scalability affords the opportunity to participate to a massive population. Of course, determining the population that is really participating is something I have always questioned and Downes had a comment that I think was right on point with my idea, which is that many people are participating in unexpected ways. He said essentially about one MOOC that the participants were too busy taking the course to go the course website.
An acknowledgement that I appreciated was that MOOCs are confusing and overwhelming … at first. Just like many people aren’t prepared for the personal responsibilities of online learning in general until they have experienced it and adjusted their learning practices, MOOCs call on the learner to be independent in unexpected ways. Few of us have evolved past the expectations of a clear curriculum, clear pathway, and some linearity to coursework. Beginning a MOOC can feel like being dropped into the middle of the ocean without a ship or land in sight. But MOOCs have the support structures that self-organize in networks and once a participant gets that it is about them and not about gobbling up all of the content (which is an impossibility), they learn to float along.
Speaking of networks, his four principles of better networks provides a great framework for discussion. Autonomy, openness, diversity, and interactivity are the four principles. I especially think they will be useful to me as I work with others developing learning options. As he said a course is different from a community in that it has a finite time period of participation, but the same four principles are important since a course is a microcosm of the types of interactions that one needs to develop in today’s workforce. One of the key reasons I have heard people participating in MOOCs is to begin relationships that they will carry with them past the end of the course.
I had little idea when I started down this line of inquiry just how fascinating a journey it would turn into and how many questions I would seek to answer and how many more there are yet to consider. Fiedler and Väljataga queried whether PLEs are concept or technology. It is certainly a common trap in this age of gadgets gone wild to focus on the technology side of things to the detriment of seeing the human behavior component. On the side of concept, both Attwell and Downes address the way in which PLEs can compliment traditional learning by acknowledging the gaps that can occur from a “one size fits all” learning management structure that does not have a wholistic approach that includes informal means of learning and the value of looking at how technology and networks inform of our learning. Other researchers are taking a more technology-centered approach to their investigations and trying to determine how to personalize the learning technologies. Knowledge workers generally live in a constant state of technological change but it is the conceptual aspect of PLEs that I feel will be of most import. It is through intentional development of PLEs that knowledge workers can truly leverage the technologies. Knowledge bases upon which knowledge workers are often set up by well meaning managers have a static nature that mimicks the same error that some attempts to create e-learning by simply putting documentation online have fallen prey to.
Kop and Hill investigated whether connectivism should even be considered a theory. Some feel that it does not bring anything really new but is rather a continuation of the development of other theories but the paper does go on to concede that connectivism “continues to play an important role in the development and emergence of new pedagogies, where control is shifting from the tutor to an increasingly more autonomous learner.” A different, yet related line of inquiry was followed by Lisa Marie Blaschke in Heutagogy and Lifelong Learning which questions whether a new method or educational theory is necessary. Just as connectivism seeks to extend the pathway out over the chasm that is growing between current workplace training and development efforts and the learners’ needs to adapt and strive in the chaotic and ever-changing workplace, this approach “can be viewed as a progression from pedagogy to andragogy to heutagogy, with learners likewise progressing in maturity and autonomy.”
In terms of advancing the research queries a very ambitious paper comes from the team at the Netherlands Laboratory for Lifelong Learning (NeLLL) who set out to advance Towards an Integrated Approach for Research on Lifelong Learning and provide a copious collection of research questions that need to be answered. It begins with the premise that “There is little dispute that lifelong learning is essential to the further development of the knowledge society” and goes on to describe an framework that extends inquiry along two continuums: specific-generic and individual-collective. Key to this approach as well as that of connectivism or heutagogy or lifelong learning or any other variations of semantics is the recognition that there are progressions to learning and value in observing how learning is affected by changes to the contexts in which it takes place and the contexts in which the knowledge is used. The classroom of today’s learning is wherever the learner current is. Lifelong learning takes place inside a complex web of connections and interactions only a limited number of which are in a form that could be recognized as traditional instruction.
The long-term vitality and even sustainability of organizations also depend upon the workers collectively being able to learn and evolve the business in an ever-shifting economic landscape. Returning for a moment to the idea of PLEs, Attwell and Deitmer suggest that despite the successes observed in research of PLEs in academic institutions, it is perhaps the workplace where they could have the greatest impact as they “have the potential to link informal learning in the workplace to more formal training.”
Actually PLEs can also link to informal learning outside of the workplace. I found the results of the Futurelab survey of almost 2,000 adults’ views on informal learning encouraging and exciting. I think businesses, academic institutions and individuals alike should take notice. Informal learning is being embraced far more consciously and purposefully than I imagined, and it should be noted that this survey focused on learning during their own leisure time. One of the first golden nuggets in the report is that 94% of adults say they have engaged in some form of informal learning activity in the last three months. 94%! That’s a heck of a majority. Now the numbers do drop a bit when they focus on using technology with almost an even split saying they felt that there were or were not barriers to using technology to learn informally. Still 75% of those interviewed could provide at least one benefit to the use of the technology for informal learning, so there is an appreciation for the potential of it even if it is not yet a reality for all who might like to use it.
So before I conclude this last post of this phase of this blog I’d like to leave with two examples I found of people who have embodied the concepts I have been exploring, one purposefully used a PLE and the other demonstrates how it can work even if one doesn’t refer to it as such. The first is Thomas Jerome Baker who wrote Connectivism & Connected Knowledge: Participating in a MOOC. This book is a poetic and passionate endorsement of connected learning written as a learning journal as the professor participating in a MOOC led by connectivism proponents George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The reader is able to truly watch the knowledge be constructed as the professor ponders the various questions posed during the course, sometimes communicating through mock interviews and at others through letters that could almost be considered love letters with the subject of admiration being both his correspondents and learning. At one point he simply states: “I am able to draw one solid conclusion. Connectivism works” and he also shows the connectivism spirit in his comment “what I know, is not as important, as my ability to know more.” Baker truly demonstrates the process outlined by Downes that one should “Aggregate, Remix, Repurpose, and Feed Forward.”
I am going to leave you today with a video that I think is interesting for a number of reasons. First, this kid speaks almost two dozen languages which is amazing unto itself. But the reason I am including it here is that, in the process of demonstrating this remarkable feat, he gives a wonderful window into how her learned the languages. He clearly has a natural ability to pick up language but he has also worked at it. He has used traditional means such as classes and books, but he also increased his proficiency with German by watching WWII movies, and has developed a network of friends both locally and globally that he can practice with in person and via Skype. The video is both a testament to his abilities and accomplishments as well as to the concepts of connected learning and what can be achieved when one creates a successful personal learning environment.
It seems relatively accepted that autonomy is an important component of adult education and when narrowing the focus to PLEs, they too are focused on the individual having control of their learning. This leads to a number of challenges that employers face in terms of balancing the needs of the organization for privacy, security, and training being aligned with business needs with the employees’ desires and motivations about learning. This can be particularly challenging with knowledge workers since they are “often seen as having a stronger loyalty to their field of work or professional community than to their employing organisation” (Hirsch, 2006). Hirsch goes on to report that this is a group of employees who are less concerned about job security than about challenges and responsibility. This group is also very social and needs management to respect that they “learn continuously and often informally through their daily work.” This may be at odds with very formal, structured procedures of many human resources departments who try to rely heavily on LMS for tracking and administration of organizational learning.
While their research didn’t focus specifically on knowledge workers, Fournier and Kop also remarked on the social aspects that need to be addressed for learners. The survey which included participants from a symposium on PLEs generated a wealth of information about what these learners found most helpful to their construction of knowledge. They cited things like: when they could apply it, when they could write and/or reflect on it, when others shared links or access to other information, and when it was presented as a challenge. Some of the items had specific relevance to the earlier discussion of organizations’ need to maintain control over communication and distribution of proprietary information. Returning to the survey results:
"a majority of participants indicated a preference for sharing interesting information from someone with their social network (79%) and thinking about the information (78%). Sharing the information via email (71%) was also important, while commenting (61%) and writing (57%) of blog posts was also seen as a valuable activity related to received information."
Clearly these respondents are thinking outside the box and outside of the organization when they mention their social networks and possibly email and blogs. However, this is just an extension of an issue that organizations have faced since the outset of email usage in the workplace. Policies should be in place that lay out acceptable guidelines for Internet usage and awareness of the confidential nature of organizational data. Still it is useful to consider the possible downsides along with the advantages of PLEs. In their article entitled Weaving a personal web, McElvaney and Berge address five potential disadvantages of using PWTs (personal web technologies). In addition to the privacy and security concerns mentioned earlier they include connection addiction, work interrupted, popularity contests, and echo chambers.
Organizations with strong learning cultures probably have the least to worry about in regards to work being interrupted since these organizations are more likely to already embrace informal learning. And the growth of social learning is evidenced in part by the focus a number of LMS vendors are giving it. Companies like Topyx and Bloomfire, just to name two, describe themselves as social learning management systems. There are ever-growing options for capturing learning outside of formal events by organizations. In a recent webinar I attended David Wentworth of the Brandon Hall Group presented “Learning Goes Social” in which he suggested that we have actually entered a new learning era—the Relationship Centered era.
And when I saw that phrase I realized that it was really just another way of saying connectivism which is at the heart of the concept of PLEs. It was an article by George Siemens entitled Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age that had first captured my attention. In my own workplace I had repeatedly seen the gaps between the people and the learning, the ever shrinking shelf-life of learning, the infusion of digital technologies into our lives, and the ways that relationships were key to getting the right information to the right people at the right times. Louis Ross of the Ford Motor Company has perhaps the best quotes about the expiration date that comes with knowledge:
"In your career, knowledge is like milk. It has a shelf life stamped right on the carton. The shelf life of a degree in engineering is about three years. If you’re not replacing everything you know by then, your career is going to turn sour fast."
And so it was in reading Siemens article that two passages hit home for me. First, “Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements — not entirely under the control of the individual.” Truer words were never spoken as the technical and business landscape feels like quicksand to many. Change is the new normal. Static only comes in the form of shocks and frizzy hair. The other passage was: “The starting point of connectivism is the individual…. This cycle of knowledge development (personal to network to organization) allows learners to remain current in their field through the connections they have formed.” In the landslide of information available at our fingertips from the Internet it becomes increasingly important to have relationships with people who can help us filter and find not just an answer but the best one and to know who over what.
We end where we began with each of us at the center of our learning. That does not mean that all of the learning is controlled by us or exists in us (as we forgo learning things that Google can remember for us more readily, for example) but even within a network of people, from our perspective, we are at the center. So in that sense, from the place of learning, it is all about you.
This was a metaphor used in one of my annual performance reviews a couple of years ago. My manager and I laughed about the wording when she met with me but she was actually acknowledging something very powerful. Neither of us truly appreciated the comment at the time but in thinking about PLEs I have gone back to it and find it insightful. I am the glue. I do help create bonds between different employees and different departments. And this brings up some important questions such as “what is the value of glue?” “what happens when there is no more glue?” “how does the glue work?” and even “how much can the glue hold?”
As you build your PLE you will have to stop and ask yourself what is its value. We are all short on time and if you are going to use some of your most precious resource, it’s a valid question to wonder what’s in it for you. And each person will come to their own conclusion. For me, it is often a need to satisfy my curiosity or find a solution to a problem. Others will have their own reasons. As will businesses. After all businesses focus on what they can measure. And it is no wonder that informal learning in the workplace is sometimes overlooked because it simply is not always easy to measure. Likewise, as Steven Boyd discusses in How to value our social participation? it is something to think about and he even quotes Gia Lyons who speculates that this may be an obstacle to social networking in the workplace. A person’s ability to effectively collaborate and build relationships is important but hard to quantify in the same way that goodwill is an intangible on a balance sheet.
What happens when there is no more glue?
One of the ways in which glue is discovered is through social network analysis which Cross, Laseter, Parker, and Velasquezexamined in relation to communities of practice. One of the issues they brought up was that of overly connected people. Some people become the go to people for a large number of others because they have established themselves as knowledgeable and/or willing to help. This creates an important support structure that is often overlooked by businesses until it is too late and that hub person is gone. According to Jay Cross in Informal Learning knowledge workers spend 40 percent of their time looking for information. This means that finding a great resource in an organization is like striking oil. And having the well run dry can greatly impact a large group of employees’ productivity. While it’s great to find that one go to person, it is always good to keep checking to ensure you have a backup contact in your PLE. Remember that whether it is in person resources or virtual ones, your PLE is not static, but should expand and contract and adjust to your needs. To use an old adage, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
How does the glue work?
As Field points out in Social capital and lifelong learning: “What we still know very little about is the way that people’s networks affect their access to learning.” In some respects this is similar to the issue of measuring the effectiveness of any types of informal learning and one reason that it is not given as much attention and acceptance in the workplace. However, there are some who are coming up with ways to better describe and analyze the effects that relationships have on learning and business operations in general using tools like social network analysis. This method can be used to discover the possible impacts of losing key employees as mentioned above. One of the reminders I took away from the chapter by Chen, Choi, and Yu in Virtual Development and Informal Learning via Social Networks was the importance of a diverse and fluid network. Strong ties which are formed through frequent contact and mutual support can lead to a confluence of affinities and resources whereas the weak ties can provide bridges between groups and branch out the network allowing for greater flow of diverse and fresh ideas. It is important, therefore, both that businesses remain mindful of maintaining healthy and vibrant internal networks among employees, and that individuals continue to review and adjust their personal networks to ensure that they neither become echo chambers nor are they so disjointed that they lack a coherent structure and easily accessible resources.
How much can the glue hold?
When I work with people on developing presentations the question often arises about how many slides they should use. (Just FYI, the answers are “it depends” and “as many as necessary.”) I suspect that some will have the same sort of question regarding the number of people that should be in a PLE. Again, the answer is likely “it depends” and “as many as necessary.” When first starting out I would recommend keeping the number fairly small and focusing on quality rather than quantity. As you grow more comfortable with forging these social connections you can add more people. As Wilson points out in Patterns of Personal Learning Environments, there is a difference between communities of practice which have a “of gravity” and a common domain and learning networks which “support multiple domains with overlapping memberships.”
But there may be some practical limits to the number of contacts you can support. Expanding primatology research Robin Dunbar came up with a figure, referred to as Dunbar’s number, which Wikipedia defines as the “cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” This goes back to the earlier distinction between weak and strong ties. Obviously you can encounter and be “friends” (in the new social media vernacular) with more than 150 people, but in terms of strong ties which require more time and energy, there are some constraints on the number of relationships you can have. As Dunbar points out in this video there is a correlation between the amount of time you devote to a relationship and the quality of the relationship.
If you would like to read and hear more about Dunbar’s number I would suggest checking out the Exploring the Mind blog post Room for One More? Dunbar’s Number and Social Mediawhere I found this video and which also includes links to other video and resources on the topic.
For many years books have been one of the main tools in my PLE. I’ve always been an avid reader and have worked, for most of my career, in jobs that required continued and sustained learning, just to stay current in my fields. I have bookcases full of books, some of which sadly I have never ever opened. I can’t bear to get rid of them but haven’t, and likely never will, find the time to read them or as Italo Calvino refers to them in If on a winter’s night a traveler “Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.” They sit alongside his “Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment … Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified” and a host of other categories of Calvino’s making as well as my own.
And then came the Internet. Geez, more stuff to read. Kindle Reader and Sony Reader and Safari Online and so on. More ways to get and read books. I had to come to terms with the fact that I will never be able to read everything I want to read. But I made peace with that although I was still collecting volumes of text as new needs and desires for knowledge about specific topics arose. Now I had not only physical but virtual bookcases filling and spilling over with books. Some books I like to read online, some I want my hands on. The reading experience was changing.
Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about messing up the pages with a highlighter or scribbling notes in a notebook or walking around with books so full of sticky note tabs that they started to resemble little avian creatures. My bookmarks and notes were only a click away. I could easily copy and paste text for reference and usage later. I had tons of books at my fingertips. My aching shoulders thanked me. I could abandon the giant book bag for a smartphone or tablet. And then people started getting even more clever with books and realized that they didn’t have to be simply electronic reproductions of static paper tomes.
Suddenly there were links to other sources, not just a bibliography that gave me breadcrumbs to follow to the doorstep of the next author. And so the quiet little book that used to be a solitary companion with the reader was now able to directly link you to other books and websites and people. Books, like websites, let the user hopscotch between sources. With the use of social media, books have brought readers and authors closer together. Books have always been introductions of sorts; I once heard someone call books $25 business cards. Sure, people have gone to book signing or written letters to authors for years, but now it is much easier to have a dialog.
A few years ago I was surprised when I commented on a blog post about presentation skills that was written by a woman half way around the world. It was a book review and I replied that I was in the process of reading the book. Less than an hour later I received a direct message from the book’s author asking me to let him know what I thought when I finished the book. I was wowed. I wrote a review of the book on a blog and sent him a message to which he graciously replied after actually reading my review. It happened again with another book. The author asked me to let her know if I had any questions because I had mentioned in a tweet that I was using the book as research for a project.*
Of course, not all authors are using social media in these proactive ways. I was recently disappointed when I read a book that included information about using social media to form and transmit your message and learned when I was writing my book review that the author isn’t on Twitter and provided no email address in the book to contact him. My expectations have definitely changed. I’ve become spoiled by the authors who want to communicate with their readers. But given an inch some authors took a mile and found even more clever ways to use books as conduits.
I recently found two that are on point with our discussion of PLEs (although they are, as many sources mentioned before, written with a focus on professional development of educators). Each author has found ways to combine book reading with community building and interactivity. While both books have very useful information for educators and others trying to expand their learning networks (and I would be happy to discuss this more with anyone who is interested), the focus here will not be on the content of the books.
The first was Professional Learning in the Digital Age by Kristen Swanson. What intrigued me about this book was that the author had formed a virtual book club to discuss the book. I liked the idea and had tried something similar in a workplace environment with limited success because the organization didn’t have a very collaborative spirit at that time. Good idea. Wrong audience. But back to the book at hand. There was a website dedicated to the book club and the author had set up various ways for people to interact: Twitter hashtag, a Google Docs Q&A form, and a posting to Voicethread (an applications I hadn’t used before but will come back to in another post). At the end of each week she would then compile the responses from the various channels and give a summary. The discussions had a small number of participants, but again, for me, it was about exploring a new option, a new way of learning.
The second book was Cultivating Your Personal Learning Network by David Warlick. What intrigued me about his book was the use of QR codes, which I have started to see mentioned in various learning contexts. If you are not familiar with them, QR (quick response) codes are those 2D bar codes that you can use your smartphone or other digital device to scan and connect to additional content. They are used a lot in marketing; scan this code and see a video or play a game sponsored by some product. In this book the QR codes took you to discussion boards where various questions had been preset. If you were reading the book via electronic means you could alternatively click on links to the discussion boards but basically the QR codes turned paper into an interactive web event. I think it worked well in this instance but I have to admit I have some mixed feeling in general.
As with any new technology there is often a desire to use it because it’s new and cool. In looking around a bit to get the temperature of the QR code room my favorite article title was “Marmite and QR Codes. You Either Love em or Hate em.” I think this article also summed up my feelings when it likened QR codes current state with the teacher who tells parents that their child “has a lot of potential.” One issue I have found is that you have to make sure that the web content the QR code takes you to is optimized for mobile devices of all sizes. Maybe the content looks great on a tablet but on a phone I am squinting at text and will rapidly abandon ship. On the flip side, if I am reading a book online on my tablet which doesn’t have a front facing camera, using a QR reader to scan the code requires too many contortions to make it worth my while. Finally, I am seeing QR codes being added to paper handouts at learning events which makes me cringe a little since putting something on paper so a person can scan it to take them to a website seems like a poor design yet putting the QR codes directly on projected slides has some major design implications. And so I’m still on the fence a bit … they have potential but we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, if you like them, here’s one to this blog’s home page.
The bottom line is that you may find ways to expand your PLE in unexpected places. If you are reading a book, likely others are too, and you already have something in common. Reach out and discuss it in person or virtually. Become an active reader. Click those links and try out the QR codes. Try something new. If it’s not for you, that’s fine. But you’ll never know if you don’t try.
* It bears mentioning the two books I referred to in this post. Both are excellent reads and I highly recommend them, and would have even if the authors had not reached out. The first was Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker and the other was The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner.
You may not call yours a PLE (personal learning environment) but I guarantee you have one. If you want to prepare that meal that your mom used to make. What do you do? If you want to gain new skills in order to get a promotion. What do you do? If you want to learn to speak a foreign language. What do you do? Each person’s answers may vary but probably include things like, ask my mom for the recipe or take a class. And there you go, you have a network of family or friends or colleagues or classmates.
Whether you learning to cook mom’s recipe by being in the kitchen or reading the recipe online, and whether you take the class online or watch YouTube videos or discussion questions through social media, the learning takes place within an environment which may utilize any number of tools. The point is your PLE is whomever you turn to and whatever tools and resources you use when you want to know something, get advice and suggestions for resources, learn how to do something or get support to improve how you are doing something. The only real difference between just interacting with your network and a full-fledged PLE is that you are purposefully and consciously determining the scope and components of your network and looking for ways to grow and nurture it.
So here’s an activity that you can do to start to develop your PLE. It comes in two parts.
Activity Part 1
Sketch out your PLE as it currently exists. Here’s a copy of mine that I started. It is by no means complete but it gives you an idea. Think about all of the people and tools you use to learn things both at work and at home. Write them all down. Or make a sort of mind map like I did to help lump items together.
Don’t limit yourself. Put down people at work, your kids, Facebook, the television news, the local librarian, whatever and whomever. Think about formal learning you have access to and less formal means like learning on the job. In this digitally connected world, don’t forget about the old school analog methods. The point is to start realizing that learning can happen in many ways and is happening all the time, whether you have been realizing it or not.
Activity Part 2
Below there are ten suggestions for developing your PLE. Commit to doing at least one of the things on the list below each month, or bi-weekly or weekly if you are feeling really motivated. I suggest spacing them out because you want to give yourself time to see how these things integrate with your day-to-day activities. If you try to pile on too much at once, you won’t be able to fully appreciate which fit best into your PLE. Every resource and method isn’t right for everyone. And PLEs at their core are personal.
Pick 5 new blogs to follow. Blogs can be a great way to see what others in your field are thinking and doing and a quickly Google Search will no doubt find you a bunch to choose from. Look at them with a critical eye as some will be better than others and some better for you than others. But don’t pass up one with whom you don’t agree completely. You want to have a balance of opinions in your collection since those will help you challenge and rethink ideas. Some blogs can be signed up for and delivered right to your inbox. But you may want to collect them in an RSS reader where you can create categories and folders to organize them as you expand your collection. Sadly Google Reader will soon be discontinued but there are many other good news aggregators out there.
Sign up for Twitter. I know Twitter can be brain scrambling for many people at first. And some have notions of Twitter only through celebrity tweets that make the news, but Twitter may very well have a place in your PLE. Like blogs, it is a great way to find others in your field or with similar interests, many of whom are willing to share information with you and answer your questions. Twitter is also being using increasingly for backchannel at conferences and webinars. When you see those hashtags (that’s those words and phrases preceded by a hash mark #) you can use those to find tweets relating to a particular event or topic. For more about getting started with hashtags, check this out.
Connect with an industry association or attend a conference. What better way to network than to be right in the thick of things at a conference or at an association event. Even if you can’t travel to one, check out what might be available near you or online. More conferences are offering virtual experiences where you can at least sign up for selected keynotes or sessions online. There are also often resources available on association and conference websites such as white papers, discussion forums, job boards, etc.
Communicate with someone new, on the phone, in person, by email, social media. OK, maybe you can’t go to a conference but you can definitely interact with new people and they don’t have to be specifically related to your present job. Go talk to someone in another department. Email someone you met at a conference or online to share an interesting article you found or ask a question. The point here is to connect with people and nurture relationships. People will be much more likely to help those with whom they have a relationship, even if it is only virtual.
Join a LinkedIn group. Much like the association suggestion above, you will find there are groups forming around all sorts of industry focus and specific topics. Once you join (some require a moderator to accept your request to join) you can start viewing the discussion threads. After you get your bearings, start to comment or ask questions. Again this is about relationship building. You would appreciate if others answered your questions or posted additional information on your threads.
Read a book. Which book? Any book actually. In fact, it might be best if it isn’t about your current work. Maybe some fiction. You’d be amazed how many ideas come from unexpected sources. Reading gets the brain working and making new connections that could help you in unexpected ways. The brain doesn’t separate reading about something from actually experiencing it so fiction can act as a simulator of social constructs in a manner similar to computer simulators’ treatment of things like flying an airplane says Dr. Keith Oatley in a New York Times article on neuroscience of the brain. And if you want to read more about how your brain is working and learning, you may want to check out Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina. In between novels that is.
Comment on a blog. We’ve touched on this already in other items but lurking is fine at first but eventually, if you want to really swim you have to get in the water. Online forums are intended to be collaborative. Few people post blogs just for themselves. They want attention and interaction. So if someone writes something that helped you or made you think or got you curious about something or about which you have some useful information to add, do it. If you disagree, that’s OK too as long as you present your comments respectfully. One thing that we all have to be mindful of with any written electronic communications is that tone and humor don’t “read” the same way online as they do in person, when we can see body language and facial expressions.
Share your experiences. This could take many forms. Volunteer to mentor someone. There is no better way to really learn something than to teach it to someone else. Look for opportunities to share your expertise. Maybe your kid’s school has a career day or your local community center needs speakers for meetings. Or you want to start your own blog. Just as you receive information in dozens of ways, there are dozens of ways to give back. Find one that works for you, that meets your needs and level of experience.
Try a new tool. There are countless web applications out there. Or go low-tech. Based on your interests find a new tool. I happen to spend of a lot of my professional life online so I am always looking for new applications that will make my life and my colleagues’ lives more productive, easier, and fun. This year I am participating in Jane Hart’s 10 Tools Challenge. By the end of the year I will have tried 10 new tools and reported my experiences. Will I keep using them all? No. Will I learn a whole lot from both those I like and those I don’t. You bet I will.
Try something new. Finally, I would encourage everyone to do this one, even if you don’t go through this activity and do any of the other things. The brain loves and thrives on novelty. It makes new pathways and connections that can lead to all sorts of creative and innovative thoughts. Don’t believe me, well how about Steve Jobs. I bet you’ve heard of him and think he was pretty innovative. In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford he tells a story about taking a calligraphy class that seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with anything he was working on or would need. Well calligraphy studies affected his understanding of fonts, which of course we all use on our computers. As he pointed out: “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” So go out and try something new.
If you complete any of the activities suggested in this post, I’d love to hear about your experiences. You can use the Disqus area below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I started collecting resources to review I became instantly aware that a large portion of the academic literature and even much of the social media focus on PLEs was within the educational realm. Finding references that were specific to the workplace and even more specifically to knowledge workers was extremely difficult. Nonetheless, there is some literature on point and some that provided information that was generic enough that its content could be applied across contexts. The following are some of the resources I reviewed and my annotations about them, along with some additional thoughts that I have started compiling based on my research.
I started today’s reading with PLE’s versus LMS: Are PLEs ready for Prime time? by Terry Anderson. While this blog post is considering the question from an educational institution perspective, it does provide a useful list of advantages of PLEs and LMS, many of which are relevant to the discussion of PLEs in the workplace. First, it acknowledges that PLEs support both formal and informal learning events and integrate a learner’s personal and professional lives. PLEs also have a persistence beyond individual learning events that can help chart a learner’s progress and provide digital archiving of the learning process.
While technology may be ready for PLEs, I’m not sure that many workplaces are. Many businesses are heavily invested in their LMS and have a culture that is very course-centric whereas PLEs are by their very nature personal and learner-centric. There are also restrictions on accessing information outside of the corporate system as was addressed in Digital inclusion? Great idea. Can we have it in the workplace too? “Organisations that routinely block access to social media are therefore blocking access to learning networks and preventing their staff developing their own personal knowledge management skills.” It would be interesting to see if there has been any research on the correlation between more open social media policies and a firm’s collaborative nature internally. From my personal experience it seems that companies that heavily restrict the use of social media and the Internet also have less success in building internal collaboration strategies to capture employee institutional knowledge.
As the stack of articles I set aside to read today began to wind down I found a few references in the bibliographies of articles I tossed into the recycle pile more useful than the original articles I pulled. Actually one of the articles led me to elearningeuropa.info which houses a host of information on PLEs including the two papers referenced below.
Sandra Schaffert and Wolf Hilzensauer continue the conversation of Terry Anderson about the challenges of shifting from an LMS model to a PLE model in their 2008 eLearning Papers submission On the way towards Personal Learning Environments: Seven crucial aspects which they list as (1) the role of the learner; (2) personalization; (3) content; (4) social involvement; (5) ownership; (6) organizational culture; and (7) technology.
This got me thinking about the role of the LMS, which impacts a number of these aspects. Traditionally LMSs have been implemented by many organizations primarily as administrative tools. The offerings are course-centric rather than learner-centric and they may or may not be implemented with collaborative modules. This is yet another way in which educational and business institutions differ. The corporate world has not embraced constructivist learning in the way academia has and is struggling in some settings to find ways of balancing the need of employees to collaborate internally and externally with the need for a secure corporate network environment that frequently restricts Internet and file sharing access.
The issue of security also ties in with the aspect of ownership address in the Schaffert and Hilzensauer paper. Not only the course content, but also the learner’s data is frequently locked away in the LMS, keeping part of the employee’s learning process under the employer’s control. In the LMS model, the learner’s data may be stored securely but not be easily re-accessed by the learner and is not portable if they change employers. Conversely, in the PLE model the learner not maintains control of their own data but the burden of protecting that data shifts to the learner, which is something many do not consider. The learner will now be responsible for maintaining copies or back up files and for developing a framework for their PLE. As Peter Parker of Spiderman fame was reminded, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Finally, last but not least, on today’s reading list was Graham Attwell’s 2007 eLearning Paper contribution entitled Personal Learning Environments - the future of eLearning? Attwell spends a lot of the paper discussing various aspects and implications of informal learning and even reports on his research that shows that worker age does not cause a digital divide as some would likely expect. He also makes the case that PLEs are an evolution in learning, a stage in a process of change. He reminds us that most new technologies first mimic the old ways they are superseding. The first cars were called horseless carriages and the first virtual classrooms sought to recreate the classroom experience as it had always been known. Eventually it becomes clear that the new technology requires new approaches to be used to maximum effect.
While the motivations may be different from employees and their employers, there has been interest “from the corporate world, driven by the desire to capitalise on the intellectual assets of the workforce, to manage organisational knowledge and in recognition that informal learning may prove a cost effective way of developing competence.” Therefore some companies are helping their employees to develop more robust PLEs through policies that fuel their own self interests. Particularly when focusing on knowledge workers, technology is embedded into the workplace and social media and informal channels offer opportunities for integrating learning much more seamlessly than LMS platforms. Learning takes place in the context in which it will be used and “learning materials become the occupational tools with which the (work process) knowledge is carried out.”
Lots of food for thought in this batch of reading. More questions than answers at this point, but that’s all part of the process of learning.
Did you ask a good question today? I can’t recall right now where I first read this question but I know it is often quoted and originates from Nobel Laureate Isidore Isaac Rabi who explained that his mother made him into a scientist “without ever know it” because instead of asking each day after school, “What did you learn today?” his mother used to say, “‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference. Asking good questions made me into a scientist.” OK, so many you don’t want to be a scientist, that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t apply the same approach.
Encouraging the reader to ask questions both of themselves and others is but one of the excellent reminders that I picked out of Learn Your Way to Success by Daniel R. Tobin that I want to focus on today. The book’s subtitle How to Customize Your Professional Learning Plan to Accelerate Your Career let me know that I wasn’t the only one pondering the use of PLEs for the workplace and when I read quotes like “Too many people think of learning as an infrequent opportunity to attend a training program, take a college course, or go through an e-learning program. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you are learning every day at work.” and “Think of the training as part of your work responsibilities, not as something that is taking you away from your work,” I had high hopes that this book would provide an excellent resource for those looking to leverage learning for professional development and I was not disappointed. The book covers a full range of situations from learning how to navigate a workplace if you are a new employee to working with teams to suggestions for turning every situation, from meetings to trade shows into your own personal classroom. If you would like to read a synopsis of each chapter, you can do so here.
Returning to the question of questions, they are one of the best ways to learn. None of us can every know everything, especially since we are constantly confronted with new experiences and situations that we must make sense of. But many people are hesitant to ask questions for fear that they will embarrass themselves by appearing stupid. But what they are really doing is depriving themselves and others of a learning opportunity. Often it is the person who doesn’t know as much about something that asks the question that opens up a fresh perspective or uncovers a flaw because they aren’t so enmeshed in the subject or project. By asking a question that you may feel will be perceived as “dumb” you may actually be helping the person you ask help to clarify their understanding of the topic. There is no better way to learn something than to see if you can explain it to someone else. And no better way to assess the success or failure of a project, whether professional or personal, than to ask a series of questions. As Tobin points out, after-action reviews are used by many teams to determine what went right and wrong and what we can learn from the event that can help us in the future. I would encourage everyone to keep asking questions both of themselves and others. It’s a great idea to keep asking yourself what you have learned recently, what sorts of new insights or “Aha!” moments you have had, and what you’d like to learn next.
Learning to fail
Few people reading this haven’t used a sticky note of some type but if it hadn’t been for Spencer Silver’s failure none of us would have. Although the glue he was originally trying to develop never came to pass, one of the results found an unexpected use and became one of the most famous inventions of the 20th century. Tobin rightly pairs his story of Silver with a quote from Thomas Edison who said, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.” The point is to learn from what didn’t work and move forward. A similar sentiment was expressed by Denzel Washington in a commencement address he presented to the graduates of Penn State in 2011 in which he reminds us that Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments before inventing the light bulb. He pointed out that we will all fail, but we should strive to always “fall forward.”
But is finding what works the end or just the beginning of another round of exploration? Too often we get comfortable with what we know and don’t take the opportunity try something new. Obviously some work environments or situations are not conducive to risk-taking, but this also deprives us of the opportunity to learn something.
Recording, reflecting, and reciprocating
Despite the copious amount of time I spend with my fingers dashing along keyboards of various sizes and types, I still am rarely without a paper notebook of some sort and a pen. I make notes incessantly. A book I want to read. A new app I want to try. A quote that I really like. Notes about a piece I want to write. Shopping lists. To do lists. The list goes on an on. The point is I record things both digitally and in analog. Amidst the whirlwind of daily activities, the notebook is a parking lot for ideas. Tobin also recommends a lot of recording in his book and encourages people to have a learning journal.
But it can’t stop there. As Tobin points out: “One of the true faults with today’s connected world is that you can be so tied up with e-mails, text messages, tweets, phone calls, and other distractions that constantly interrupt your day that you don’t have time for reflection.” All the recording of things in the world isn’t going to help if you don’t have time, or I should say, make time to reflect on them.
And finally, Tobin reminds us that “a PLN is a two-way street.” If you want your PLN to work best for you, you have to give something back. Whether it is sharing an article you come across with a colleague or commenting on a blog you follow, you need to share with your network. Like any relationship, you must nurture and grow the bonds and connections you form.
This final section contains a theme we will revisit as we talk about developing your PLN and we look at tools that will help you to curate content, reflect on it, and ultimately become a contributor of content that will help others develop their own PLNs.
The first place I saw reference to personal learning networks (PLNs) or personal learning environments (PLEs) was in the context of higher education and/or educators themselves seeking ways to connect with one another and develop professionally. However, having spent many years in the workplace my first thought was, how would a purposeful use of PLEs work … at work. Or just in life.
I am proof positive that a self-directed approach to learning and lifelong follower of my own curiosity has opened many a door for me professionally and personally. I shifted from a career in the performing arts to one as a computer software support specialist to a classroom trainer to an e-learning developer and facilitator to a project manager just to name a few stops along the career path I have followed. I have also learned about photography and gardening and cooking and science and history and a host of other things by putting creating a network of people and technology that support my development. This project is just another piece of the puzzle, another component of my ever growing and changing PLE.
A quick Google search for “personal learning in the workplace,” a 2010 paper by Graham Attwell from the PLE Conference entitled “Supporting personal learning in the workplace" was at the top of the results. It yielded a few interesting insights to get my brain going. Driven in part likely by economic conditions both here in the U.S. and abroad there is an ever-growing need for workers to take more responsibility for the maintenance and expansion of their own skills even in organizations that have formal learning opportunities. There is likewise a tendency to ask workers to do more with less which can mean a blurring of responsibilities. Experienced workers become the subject matter expert instructors of others. Many companies attempt to build up knowledge bases of information for workers to use as self-service performance support. All of these trends increase the value and relevance of PLEs, which by their nature Attwell points out, are "owned by the user" and help to shift "the balance of power from the institution to the learner." He also goes on to say that:
"PLEs, unlike traditional educational technology are mobile, flexible and not context dependent. They can move from one domain to another and make connections between them…. PLEs support a greater range of learning discourses than traditional educational technology."
Just as no one person can fulfill all of our learning needs, neither can one application. Technology can aid us in connecting with others and with vital information but even the great Goog can’t do it all. Finding a mix of the right people, right apps and right methods for you is all part of the process. Among the possible functions that a PLE may serve include: not only the finding and accessing of information but helping in the questioning, challenging, defending and clarifying that happens along the way to knowledge construction as well as a way of building your network of relationships and leveraging the powers of collaboration. While networking has always been a business necessity, it has developed a new importance in a rapidly changing workplaces we now find ourselves. As we strive to keep our skills up-to-date and develop the ever-growing list of competencies the need to know how is often shifting to a need to know who can help you learn what you need to know.
This leads to another term of art coined by Vygotsky at the beginning of the 20th century that remains perfect in many ways for a modern day discussion of PLE: More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). The term was referenced in Attwell but digging into the original 2007 work by Dahms, et al. called The Educational Theory of Lev Vygotsky: an analysis, I found this description of the MKO as envisioned by Vygotsky:
"The MKO is anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, particularly in regards to a specific task, concept or process. Traditionally the MKO is thought of as a teacher or an older adult. However, this is not always the case. Other possibilities for the MKO could be a peer, sibling, a younger person, or even a computer. The key to MKO is that they must have more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does."
I would add, the willingness and ability to share that knowledge. It may be implied by the definition above but as we will see as we move along, there are some constraints and limitations to the use of PLEs in many workplace environments. There is also human nature to take into account. This too we will revisit in other posts.
"I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.” Rudyard Kipling from I Keep Six Honest …
Who: ValaryOleinik, aka @valarywithawhy and you. I welcome your thoughts, questions, and suggestions.
What: A portfolio of research, reflections, and more about the opportunities that personal learning networks (PLNs) and personal learning environments (PLEs) present for professional development and a lifetime of learning.* In particular I will be focusing on knowledge workers whose careers depend upon ongoing learning and working with ideas more than individual tasks.** It will be part theoretical and part practical. This is being created as a project for EDUC 605 at UMBC, but will live far beyond the end of the semester.
When: All the time; that’s the beauty of the Internet. You can stop by anytime. And we can all learn anytime.
Where: Here, there, and everywhere, but I am based in New York City.
Why: Why not? And because I’m curious and want to help others bring out their innate curiosity.
How: As much as possible I want to give the readers of this blog a peek into the process. I’ll share with you what I’m reading; let you watch the writing process happen; and give you suggestions on how to build your own PLE.
* For those unfamiliar with the terms PLN or PLE, I will be using, at least as a working definition the idea that a PLN is a subset of a PLE. The PLN represents the who you know and are connected to piece while the PLE encompasses not only your personal connections but the technologies you use to connect and the environmental factors that influence and inform the contexts and domains of your learning. A handy diagram from Steve Wheeler’s blog post on the Anatomy of a PLE may be useful.
** For an excellent introduction to the characteristics and needs of knowledge workers see the eNotes article entitled “Knowledge Workers" from the Encyclopedia of Management.