Will Richardson recently wrote
the real power of the Read/Write is not the ability to publish but the ability to connect.
This really resonated with me and I think provides a key to unlocking really powerful Professional Development opportunities. I’ll try and explain my thinking below.
I need to start with my own experiences. After a few years as a lurker, this year I have stared to participate more actively in the social web. I have started to blog, I have involved my students in a global collaborative project, I have participated in Ning discussions, and I have tried to comment and not just read blog posts. Recently I am starting to realise the power of Twitter. I knew about all these tools a year ago, but it wasn’t until I started to use them personally that I began to understand just how powerful networked learning is. My network is small, but through the process of sharing my thoughts and experiences (both good and bad) I have started to make contacts with like-minded teachers throughout the world. This fledgling network has not only taught me a lot, but it has also supported me as I struggle with ideas and different ways of teaching.
I have learned a lot from my network and been more inspired than I have ever been in more formal professional development situations. Not that face-to-face interactions aren’t important, but when the interactions at a face-to-face event are restricted to the faces in the room the potential is restricted. If instead each of the individuals involved is connected to a Personal Learning Network (PLN) and they all bring that network with them to the face-to-face meetings, the connections and potential increase exponentially.
In my opinion effective 21st century professional development needs to start with the Networked Learning piece. All participants in the event need to be supported as they learn how to build an effective PLN. The question is, what would this look like? Well, in my opinion there would be blogs; there would be commenting on blogs; there would be RSS and aggregators involved so that the power of pulling information can be realised; there would be social bookmarking and folksonomies; and maybe there would be VoIP? The key would be to set all of this up so that real connections are made and that the platform used is flexible enough that it can beused far into the future.
One obvious platform for supporting networked pro-d is Ning. I think that a Ning in principle is a great idea in that it combines a lot of the key ingredients in one central platform. Participants can blog and tag their posts, participate in forums and grab RSS feeds from differet kinds of content. The danger of creating a new Ning to support a particular event is that the Ningwill never gather enough momentum to sustain itself. There are a lot of Nings out there gathering dust because they never managed to get all the ingredients right. Blogging on a Ning is also a little problematic in that then then the Blog is always attached to the Ning and doesn’t necessarily become something individual that represents each particular teacher. As such the danger is that the blog will only remain active as long as the pro-d does.
So what are some alternative platforms? I like the Ning platform but I wonder whether there is a need to create a new Ning when there are so many good ones out there already. If a goal of the pro-d is to help teachers start to create a PLN then wouldn’t it be more effective to start a group within an already established network like the Classroom 2.0 Ning? I also think that the more you an customise the online space from which you share and network the more likey you are to stick with it. The Ning blogs are for the most part quite generic. I think that there would be a greater chance of participants continuing to blog if they atart with a platform like Edublogs or Blogger that allows for much more customisation.
What about the tools? I am a believer in just in time and inquiry learning, but in my own experience there is also a place for direct instruction to provide a baseon which further explorations can build. I believe that in order for teachers to start building a PLN they first need to understand the fundamentals of: how a blogging platform works; RSS and how to populate a feed reader with relevant and engaging information; tagging and folksonomies and how these have changed the way information is organised. I believe that these topics need to be taught directly because they are fundamental to creating and sustaining an effective PLN.
What about lesson plans, teaching and curriculum? In theory once participants at a pro-d session have started to build their PLNs they will have access to a wide range of lesson plans that iincorporate web 2.0 tools and will be able to read reflections on how those lessons went. They will be able to read reflections by teachers trying to implement the kind of curriculum that rally leverages the power of technology. They will be able to look for links between the experiences of other teachers and their own teaching practices. And they will be able to engage in deeper and more meaningful face-to-face interactions because they will be drawing on the experiences of their network.
What about the keynote speaker? I think that their role is to share inspiring examples and stories that illustrate the power of Networked Learning. They should also inspire good questions. participants should emerge from the keynote understanding the importance of life long learning and be excited to start tackling the hard questions with the help of their PLNs.
Am I crazy? Is this too hard to facilitate? I don’t know. But I do know that professional development that does not help teachers leverage the power of the internet by building robust Personal Learning Networks runs the risk of only having a short term impact, not a life long one.
Network Diagram by Sue Waters