Becoming a Network Learner Redux – Cultivating Attention and Other Network Literacies

The folks at SIAST kindly asked me to do the opening keynote for this year’s Tlt ’10 conference. Whenever someone asks me to keynote I really want to give them something new, partly out of a sense that they deserve it but also because for me, doing talks is one of my main forms of intellectual expression, where I get to work out new ideas and try to figure out new ways to communicate old ones. But as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t this time; I am just too zoo’d with stuff at work etc.

So I dusted off my “Becoming a Network Learner: Towards a Practice of Freedom” talk that I originally delivered in December 2008 during my trip to Colombia.

Still, I did try to introduce some new material, which you can see in slides 53-59. The first two new slides simply tried to explain my “Open Educator as DJ” as another form of PLE workflow, but one which sees teaching others as one of the goals of learning on the network.

The other new stuff, which is more important, but MUCH more raw, has been prompted by concerns that have been niggling me for years. I am not sure if these are “essential” effects of using the net, but I have experienced, and others have noted, that the net can lead us to pay possibly too much attention to the immediate, and not enough reflecting on what has happened or where we want to go. I take the emergence of the GTD movement to be very much an early reaction to this by people deeply immersed in learning/working with technology. I also worry about the phenomenon of the “echo chamber,” that diversity in our networks doesn’t just magically “happen.”

So I tried to suggest that “on top” or “alongside” or “as part of” our PLE we need to incorporate techniques, practices (and tools) to help counterbalance the tyranny of “now” and “me”, to help learners realize that part of learning is looking at where you’ve been which helps with pattern recognition, reflection, and building an awareness of how we learn (meta-cognition.) And similarly, that we need to adopt practices to help us focus, build attention, stay on track amidst the the myriad distractions whose existence is part of the value of the network! (I think this is similar, though maybe not identical, to what Pat Parslow is getting at in this post on “Navigating your personal learning seascape.”) The solutions I seek aren’t about closing your laptops or turning off your cellphones, but instead are ways of inserting some meta- activities or tools into your regular activities in the hope of improving attention, reflection, pattern recognition, diversity.

So, “examining where we’ve already been” might take the form of a plug-in like Wikipedia Diver that records and visualizes your wikipedia sessions, to simple suggestions like one Mike Caulfield made a few weeks back to make reviewing your browser history a regular activity. Using your blog as a constrained search engine, or even just searching your “outboard brain” are other examples of  simple practices we can insert into our existing network flows that I think will increase reflection, help us learn what we know, know what we’ve learned.

And what about moving forward – how to do this in a way that doesn’t fall prey to either the tyranny of the now (helps us know and follow through on our intent) but also isn’t just an echo chamber. I have few answers here – I DO think the whole GTD-type movements, Inbox Zero, etc, are speaking to this and skills we can help network learners adopt. Similarly the idea that people need to become personal project managers. Counter-balancing the “echo chamber”? I am leery to suggest that this is solely a network problem – we see this in many aspects of life. And just like there, I think there is no substitute for choosing to engage The Other, to listen to those you don’t agree with or identify with, in order to build understanding and empathy. Can we technologize such a thing. I don’t know.

As I said, very raw, but I put them out here, raw as they are, in case they resonate with others and they can start to build on them. So what do you think – are their techniques, practices or technologies that you can suggest to insert into a network learner’s workflow that will help counterbalance these effects and help cultivate attention, meta-cognition, reflection, intent? Is this even a problem, or if so, is it perhaps not specific to network learning but just learning in general? Please help me clarify my own thoughts on this. I am a slow learner, and am intuiting more than I can effectively communicate or prove here. – SWL

8 thoughts on “Becoming a Network Learner Redux – Cultivating Attention and Other Network Literacies”

  1. I made a handful of Diigo notes here, but in short I think that the recent Gordon & Bogen article on Digital Choreographies ( at least broaches the idea of implementing focal points in technologically-rich environments. They also make a good, too often overlooked point in that what we call distractions are in fact very effective attention-focusing events.

    But Gordon & Bogen just skim the surface, and I believe this is a deep body of water. I personally am interested in the balance between connectedness and solitude, between isolated thinking/reflection and network participation, and how social pressure prevents or inhibits sharing and reinforces the walls of echo chambers. So I, too, have a number of questions, but neither answers nor good ideas forward. Yet.

  2. Hi Scott,
    you wrote: “I tried to suggest that “on top” or “alongside” or “as part of” our PLE we need to incorporate techniques, practices (and tools) to help counterbalance the tyranny of “now” and “me”, to help learners realize that part of learning is looking at where you’ve been…”

    I think this is really important and often overlooked. I would add “imagining where you want to be” to this vision and I’d suggest that the process of reflecting on now, future and past are important underpinnings in the development of a PLE. More and more I am thinking about a PLE as the connector and technology as the enabler. The important pieces (from my perspective) are to open up spaces for learners to reflect and imagine in identifying their own goals and charting their learning path – inviting the enablers along where they make the journey better.

    I’ve also been contemplating the balance between connectedness and solitude in my own life. What’s wrong with inviting yourself (and others) to disconnect the digital for a bit and reconnect the internal? I’m not saying that you can’t have your own thoughts when tweeting or texting (or commenting o blog posts), I’m just feeling that the compulsion to stay digitally connected may sometimes get in the way of making connections with ourselves.

    See ya,


  3. The most interesting part of this discussion is also the most unclear– and perhaps the most common refrain I find myself singing when it comes to technology and culture: how is this different?

    And while I get what you are saying about this “not being about turning off cell phones” and the idea of GTD as reflecting being tied too closely to the immediate, I wonder if it isn’t just as true– and maybe more so– that the skills and practices we need to develop *do* involve turning off the cell phone and if perhaps the limited horizon, “focus on the next action and the next action” alone isn’t just the wrong way to go.

    Like Jared, I am deeply interested in the connection between the hard, often solitary work of creativity and the connectedness we find ourselves in. And while I am deeply, profoundly skeptical of answers that point to a position of technological determinism, more and more often I find myself thinking that perhaps some of those answers are true…

  4. Chris, I agree, and would say just as it’s important to be skeptical of /any/ kind of determinism, we must also be open enough to see the truth when it’s apparent. I’m not saying this or that is true, but when something looks like a duck, walks like a duck…

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