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

Educational Word of the Day (eduWOTD) on Twitter

Back in December I found myself regularly immersed in wikipedia articles late at night (ok, I am a nerd) which would prompt me to post the occassional word into my twitter stream in an effort to share some of the learning I was doing. I find many words can be powerful connectors, containing complex ideas, the exploration of which, especially in a hyperlinked environment like Wikipedia, can lead to an unfolding of a much deeper and broader topic.

But posting these into my personal twitter stream felt a little like a disruption, like they were even greater non sequitars than my regular ravings(!) So I decided to set up a new account, eduWOTD, through which to post a vaguely education-related word, definition, and link, each work day. I say “vaguely” because to me, it is difficult to think about education, learning or teaching without also thinking about psychology, philosophy of mind, theories of knowledge and all sorts of things that impact how we approach education. So while the words might seem a little random once in a while, I do think if you go down the rabbit hole you’ll discover some interesting connections.

When I first launched this, other than a few DMs to friends asking them tweet it if they found it useful, I didn’t really announce it. I simply created the account and followed about 180 people. I wanted to see if it would grow organically, through people finding it valueable and retweeting it, and keeping my own name out of it as much as I could. Today it broke 100 followers, which feels like a minor milestone, and I am breaking the semi-silence to announce it here. At the end of the day, this is as much a personal exercise in capturing words that have sparked my own learning, but doing it in a way that others can benefit if they chose. So I will keep doing it regardless of the number of followers, simply as part of my own practice. But if it is of interest, feel free to follow along, and if you are also passionate about learning and words, feel free to suggest new ones for inclusion too. – SWL

How to participate in the Open Ed conference even if you can’t get to Vancouver

So the Open Ed conference has begun and I am frankly overwhelmed to see the 200 or so amazing folks who have come together in Vancouver around “Open Education.” But this movement is far larger than that, it’s a global movement, and we are doing our best as organizers to help folks who couldn’t make the journey participate in various ways. In addition to streaming every session live via the conference uStream feeds, many folks are following along on the extensive twitter coverage via the #opened09 tag.

And that’s not all – I am SO chuffed as an organizer to see this community of network learners creating their own ways of interacting, without any help or coordination.

If you’ve found yourself accessing any of these, we’d love if you’d consider adding yourself to the list of “virtual attendees” – both as a way for people here to connect with you, and also to help demonstrate to our sponsors how the conference has had some impact outside of the immediate physical attendees. And please, let s know if there’s anything we can do to help improve your experience, you are an important part of this community and conference too. – SWL

The Open Educator as DJ / TTIX reflections

So I definitely slowed down posting here, committed to only posting when I had something significant to say, but then I don’t seem to be even able to do that? Anyways, I haven’t passed away or anything, indeed I am just back from the fantastic gathering in Utah that was the TTIX conference. Put on by good friends Jared Stein and John Krutsch (amongst other talented folks) this annual FREE conference has much to offer both K-12 and post-secondary educators, and this year included keynotes from myself, Chris Lott and Brian Lamb.

Well, Brian urged us to “Go hard or go home” and I think each of us did in our own ways. Brian delivered another of his great talks on the “Urgency of Open Education,”  a ‘must see.’ And Chris…well Chris nearly brought me to tears with his talk on “The Idea of the Idea.” Far from being the dry talk the title might imply, this was a romp through the history of ideas which ended in a heartfelt plea for a return to deep humanistic teaching, not as a luxury but as an imperative. I strongly urge you to spend the time and effort this talk demands.

And me? Well cowed as I was by these stellar co-speakers, I did my best not to throw up and gesticulated wildly through “The Open Educator as DJ.” I am reasonably happy how it came off, and pleased that I will get at least a second chance at it this fall at the ADL Academic Fest in Madison, Wisconsin. I really did try to show, not just tell (you can see a demo of each of the steps in the workflow here) but ultimately I do think there was too much telling, so I plan to rework that.

I was especially excited to do this talk not only because some good friends had asked me to do a keynote (which always brings up your game) but because for me this talk represents the synthesis of a number of different strands of my work from the past years, bringing together stuff from “Mashups for Non-Programmers,” (2007) “Augmenting OER with Client-Side Tools: A Demonstration” (2007) “The Pros and Cons of Loosely Coupled Teaching,” (2007) “How I learned to stop worrying and love Web 2.0,” (2007) “Weaving your own Personal Learning Network,” (2008) “Becoming a Network Learner – Towards a Practice of Freedom,” (2008) and finally “Pimp your Browser” (2009). I’m not citing all of these to show off, but instead because for me this last talk on “the Open Educator as DJ” represents the synthesis of thinking on how OER, PLEs and network learning/loosely-coupled-teaching are initimately related, a synthesis which I did not start with but which I have been groping towards in each new presentation. I keep telling you, I am a SLOW LEARNER!

There was a lot for people to take in; if you don’t want to spend the time going through the talk, you may at least find the resources useful. Ultimately, if there were only 3 things to take away from the talk, I would highlight:

  1. clipmarks (and as a critical new method to add to your arsenal which lets you sample and feed individual chunks of the web in a way that still preserves linkability and attribution
  2. As I tried to demonstrate with the example of the resources page, the myriad methods available to aggregate and syndicate content wherever you want it to appear
  3. the very idea of a network enabled workflow inspired by a metaphor from an existing discipline – as I tried to emphasize in the conclusion, even if the metaphor of “DJ” doesn’t resonate for you, find the one that does, because whether you know it or not, you are already using one, and hopefully by becoming conscious of it, it can become one that helps you to swim in the ever-deepening sea of information that surrounds us.

I think there are lots of holes in this talk, and I am always learning, so please, let me know what you think, what parts don’t resonate for you, and how I can make it better? – SWL

All Major Canadian ISPs Slow Down P2P Traffic (and why you should care)

You might have heard, but the CRTC (the regulatory body for all things broadcast and telephony here in Canada, very roughly equivalent to the FCC in the US) is holding hearings on claims that ISPs in Canada regularly ‘shape’ (a codeword for ‘limit’ or ‘slow down’) traffic on their networks, specifically P2P traffic. And as TorrentFreak reports (and seemingly backed up by a summary of filings that’s been collected) it’s not just the much publicized Bell who engages in this practice, but apparently ALL major ISPs (and trust me, if you are in Canada, this effects you, because even your ‘Mom and Pop’ ISP buys their connectivity from these guys; indeed, that’s who started these hearings).

So why should you care, especially if you are an educator? I mean, it’s just P2P traffic, right? Kids illegally downloading albums and movies, right? Well, wrong, first of all – the shaping is indiscriminate, restricting the flow of perfectly legal uses of bittorrent as a ways to share files, along with everything else (and don’t believe the hype about new technologies being rolled out on campus to examine the content inside the packets and filtering accordingly, it’s a crock). But beyond that, this is the very start of the very slippery slope to undermining net neutrality; first ‘shaping’ a particular protocol, but how long before whole subnets disappear. Bittorrent traffic as Sudetenland, as it were. (I know, I think I just fell prey to Godwin’s Law.)
But again, why should you as an educator care? Well, if, like me, you see education and your place within it outside the limiting frames of your particular institution or role, you may, like me, have come to the conclusion that, even if we do nothing else, if we at least preserve the conditions for access, the possibility for connection, then knowledge and learning will flourish (are already flourishing, look around you.) This is Charter stuff here folks. This is man-the-barricade-stuff. I know, “hyperbole” you think, “a hundred better causes” you can think of. Well, this is one I know to be true, know is worth fighting for. (The worst part is that University campuses are some of the biggest offenders for this, can’t wait to see the comments from network admins, whose networks are indeed often truly besiged, that this post brings out.)SWL

Creating a Distributed Network Learning FAQ

If you have presented (or heck, if you have even simply thought about) PLE/PLN/Network Learning, especially to existing educators within formal education, I am sure you have noticed the same sets of questions keep coming up. I know I get the same or similar ones over and over again; so much so that my answers sometimes feel a bit canned, and not always as subtle as they could be. Questions about the new role of the teacher, the changing conception of knowledge; questions on how to make PLEs less complex, whether Network Learning is as effective as ‘conventional’ methods.

On my recent trip to Colombia this seemed especially the case, but maybe I just noticed it because I delivered a similar talk on Network Learning 3 times in 3 days. But the same set of questions kept popping up. So much so that I thought “wouldn’t it be great if there was some sort of Network Learning FAQ where some of these common questions were addressed?

It didn’t take me long (5 minutes I think) to jump from this to realizing that the best answers to these questions (and indeed the best questions) weren’t to be found in any one place, but instead that most of them had already been asked and answered in a myriad places around the net, in the distributed and ongoing conversation about Network Learning. So the logical step (at least in my addled mind) seemed to be a wiki to collect all of the questions that advocates of Network Learning were repeatedly ask. But instead of short snappy answers, point to some of the best pieces in the blogosphere that have attempted to answer this question. When I put this out in twitter, at least one person also thought it a good idea (and you know what, sometimes one other person is all it takes!)

So, with that small encouragement, I set out to find a place to do this. Wikieducator seemed like a good bet; it’s not affiliated with any single person or institution and yet dedicated to OER, which this will hopefully be. Indeed, a quick search revealed that none other than the inimitable Leigh Blackall already had a page going on ‘Network Learning.’ After a quick check with Leigh that this might be a good place for such a project (and indeed another reality check from a trusted colleague that this wasn’t the worst idea they’d ever heard) I set up a page.

So, what do you think? Is this a dumb idea? Or would you like instead to add to it? Please feel free, that’s kind of the whole idea! It’s just a beginning, but I do hope it will grow. I know there are many, many questions, and well thought out answers (and even better, working code and executions!) out there. Even if you don’t have a link to an answer, please consider adding the question that always occurs to you (or is alwasy asked of you) when discussing Network Learning (or “Connected Learning,” “Connective Knowledge,” “Connectivism,” pick your trope – you’ll notice I rarely use “Connectivism.” I just can’t seem to bring myself to, must have some sort of “anti-ism” gene 😉

Am I re-inventing the wheel here? Please, point me to somewhere else that is doing this. I LOVE using existing materials! Is this not distributed enough? Comments on that and more also appreciated. For me, this is just a selfish exercise to gather together all the good answers I already know are out there, so the next time someone says “You know, this Network Learning sounds interesting, but how do you assess it?” I’ll be able to say, “Hmm, glad you asked, why don’t we take a look over here…” – SWL

Translating “Networked student” – dotSUB, OER Localization and Language Learning Opportunities

As part of my talks last week on “Becoming a Network Learner” I used the incredibly timely video from Wendy Drexler, “The Networked Student,” as a bridge to tease out some of the characteristics of network learning. Wendy’s video borrows the “Common Craft” style and is both a thorough AND fun explanation of what the learning experience might look like for a network learner.

But my talks were to mostly Spanish speakers, and even though there was simultaneous translation going on (you DON’T want to hear my Spanish!), I worried about using 5 minutes of an English-language video. I only had just over a week to get a translation done; my first instinct was to reach out to people in my network, in this case Brian, who I knew to be in Spain and surrounded by Spanish speakers also interested in Network learning. But the time proved simply too tight.

I mentioned the desire to translate the video to my host, Diego Leal. And unbeknowst to me, Diego promptly jumped into action. He uploaded a copy of the video (garned from Youtube) to dotSub and next day told me he had started transcribing it. Diego was surprised I hadn’t heard of dotSub, but it was news to me, hegemonic English-speaker that I am. He explained it was a very popular service where the translation of videos could be crowdsourced.

So the purpose of this post is two-fold. One is simply to point at the work Diego has already done to transcribe Wendy’s ‘Network Student’ video and put a call out to any other language speakers who might be interested in translating it into their own language. If it strikes a chord with you, then why not consider it, Diego has already done a good chunk of work, and dotSub makes it easy for you to then translate it into your own language.

But the second part of the post was simply to document some ‘Blue Sky’ thinking about how dotSub, OERs and language education could work together that Diego and I did while in coversation during the educamps. This is extremely immature thinking (and MUCH of the credit should go to Diego, and apologies if this is something that’s already being done – I am in no way a language teaching expert, FAR, FAR from it) but here it goes:

  • increasingly there are many, many OER resources in the form of videos
  • one of the things hampering the use of these videos more widely is language, that many of them are in English, but some of the learners who might benefit most from them are not English speakers
  • dotSub (or indeed translation in general) seems to have two different components; transcribing the original video, then translating it into the second language
  • these two activities would seem to offer an authentic learning experience for language learners at different phases in their development; and indeed the collaborative nature of a system like dotSub would seem to offer an opportunity for language learners at different phases in their development to assist each other, help each other learn more
  • so…learning task 1, listen and transcribe an OER video as best you can; learning task 2 (done by someone with more experience in the language or someone else in the community) help improve the accuracy of the original transcription, both improving the translation effort but also offering feedback to the original transcription effort. Both of these would seem to go towards ‘comprehension’ and ‘writing’ skills of a foreign language
  • learning task 3, take the transcription and translate into a new language, have same community process provide feedback on initial efforts. A way for English (or whatever the language of the initial video) speakers to improve their written abilities and comprehension abilities of other languages.

Like I said, I am NOT a language teaching expert, and I expect there are ALL sorts of problems with this idea. But this model, of connecting people with different needs around an actual task and producing a result of benefit not just to them but then potentially to millions of other learners seems to me to hint at the best kind of virtuous cycle. So I guess I’m just wondering out loud; is there any merit to this idea? Are people in the OER community, especially those interested in the ‘localization’ issue, looking at approaches like this, especially ones that partner with existing (and amazingly good) services like dotSub? Or is this just another example of someone who doesn’t understand the problem space well enough spouting off (that certainly won’t be the first time)?

Anyways, it really tickled my fancy when this idea came out, and like I tried to tell the participants at the educamps, following the Open Source mantra of “ship early and ship often” I am trying to practice “share early, share often” in the hopes that this barely formed idea might be of use. – SWL

educamp Colombia & Becoming a Network Learner

Last week it was my immense honor and privilege to speak with 3 groups of post-secondary educators in Colombia as part of their educamp sessions. Diego Leal invited me to come and do something on “personal learning environments” based on the workshop I had just co-lead a few weeks previously in Phoenix.

The result was this talk (I think there is video of the last version I gave which I will link to when I get it) in which I tried as best I could to capture some of my own struggle to accept that the future is no longer best understood by looking to the past, and my own take on how my relationships with people (and the context we share) informs how I learn with and from them in various tools that make up my PLE.

But, in the spirit of a ‘camp,’ this was not a one-way exchange (hindered though I was by my absolute lack of Spanish, something I very much regret.) I truly learned much from the experience, both about the amazing country of Colombia, but also about how we should be running professional development workshops. The educamps were very inspiring. Every attention to detail had been paid to create the enabling conditions for learner-supported and learner-directed learning to occur.

Each of the three sessions I attended were held in a Conference Centre, and as I understood it, this was both to provide a space with a reliable simulatenous internet connection for sometimes over 100 people, but also to find a space large enough for their camp model.

You see, in these educamps, space design was an integral part. The Ministry of Education (and Cintel, their partner in delivering these camps) had gone to the trouble of purchasing very comfortable (and stylish, I might add) furniture that was trucked

around to each event. This might seem like an indulgence until you experienced how this created an informal room setup, allowing learners to sit near each other, easily form small groups, and move around the room, leading to the kind of self-organizing behaviour one expects in a ‘camp’ session.

Similarly, throughout most of the day, there was a soundsystem playing music in the background. This was not simply ‘filler’ though the presence of background music certainly added to the sense of informality and helped people relax. Instead, the music actually became a ‘cue’ to help prompt people in not too directive a way to consider moving along; every so often the volume level of the music would go up, and over time people started to use this as the cue to perhaps look for a new conversation.

There were many other seemingly “small” details which I think had a profoundly positive impact on the experience for these learners. All learners received a white ‘camp’ shirt at the start, creating a bit of an equal playing field. One of the first acitivites was asking the participants to ‘tag’ themselves with which of the classes of tools (they did not focus on single specific tools but instead general classes, like ‘Readers’ or ‘social bookmarking tools’) with which they had experience. In doing this, partly they were making a promise to other learners that if someone came up and asked them about one of their tags, they would talk to them about it.

The morning was then given over to the learners exploring (along with some ‘expert’ help, students with some more experience with specific tools, all wearing red shirts) specific tools or groups of tools that they themselves identified as being of interest to them. The idea was not to master the entire array of technologies (there being at least 12 classes of tools that had been identified) nor master them in any prescribed way or order, but instead to explore ones own need in a hands on way, side-by-side with other learners. It is difficult to describe, but I have NEVER seen this kind of buzz or energy happen in ANY of the dozens of North American “pro D” workshops I have led or been subjected to. Indeed, as I told my hosts, I think the great testament to the success of these events is that, despite the fact that they were already scheduled to run from 8am until 5:30pm, we had to kick people out at 5:30!
You can see more photos from the workshop in this flickr collection. They are not great photos, and to some they might look simply like masses of people milling about. To me, they look like masses of people learning together, from each other and not simply mastering prescribed material but actually forming social networks at the same time as they are learning what they wanted and needed to learn. This was a model which truly understood that while studying may be boring, Learning can be fun (and always personal!) A model I hope I can learn to replicate in the years to come. So thank you, Diego, for letting me experience this, it truly was a great learning experience for me. – SWL

Planning to Share versus Just Sharing

(This is a long post, born out of years of frustration with ineffective institutional collaborations. If you only want the highlights, here they are: grow your network by sharing, not planning to share or deciding who to share with; the tech doesn’t determine the sharing – if you want to share, you will; weave your network by sharing what you can, and they will share what they can – people won’t share [without a lot of added incentives] stuff that’s not easy or compelling for them to share. Create virtuous cycles that amplify network effects. Given the right ‘set,’ simple tech is all they need to get started.)

I have been asked to participate in many projects over the years that start once a bunch of departments, institutions or organizations notice that they have a lot in common with others and decide that it would be a good idea to collaborate, to share “best practices” or “data” or whatever. It always ‘sounds’ like a good idea. I am big on sharing and have benefited much over the years from stuff I’ve shared and stuff shared with me by my peers.

But inevitably, with a very few exceptions, these projects spend an enormous amount of time defining what is to be shared, figuring out how to share it, setting up the mechanisms to share it, and then…not really sharing much. Or sharing once but costing so much time, effort or money that they do not get sustained. Does this sound familiar to anyone else? I don’t feel like this phenomenon is isolated to me or somehow occurs because of my own personal ineptitude, but you never know.

Now I contrast that with the learning networks which I inhabit, and in which every single day I share my learning and have knowledge and learning shared back with me. I know it works. I literally don’t think I could do my job any longer without it – the pace of change is too rapid, the number of developments I need to follow and master too great, and without my network I would drown. But I am not drowning, indeed I feel regularly that I am enjoying surfing these waves and glance over to see other surfers right there beside me, silly grins on all of our faces. So it feels to me like it’s working, like we ARE sharing, and thriving because of it.

So I began to wonder, why does one the (institutional-driven/focused) approach continually fail while my personal learning network continues to thrive. Here are some thoughts on why:

We grow our network by sharing, they start their network by setting up inital agreements

We just finished a workshop this week on “Weaving your own PLE.” While part of this was definitely an effort at straight tech training, that in my mind was actually the minor part – the whole reason many of us are so attracted to blogs, microblogs, social media, etc., in the first place is that they are SIMPLE to use and don’t require a lot of training.

No, in my mind, a lot of the message was helping newcomers to get over the hump of “well, I created a blog/joined this service/etc, but how come no one is reading it?” A lot of what we discussed were the practices by which you can grow your connections, and by and large these involve some form of sharing: writing interesting posts (sharing your insight and learning); writing comments (sharing feedback/conversation); publishing work in open spaces (and pointing to it). Your network will grow. It may take a little time, but it will grow. The other thing we emphasized was a line I think I stole from Dave Winer – “It doesn’t matter if there are only 2 people reading your blog as long as they are the right 2 people.” The notion that if you grow your network organically, don’t force it, it will settle, over time, on just what you need.

Contrast this with these formal initiatives to network “organizations.” In my experience, these start with meetings in which people first agree that sharing is a good idea, and then follow up meetings to decide what they might share, then, somewhere way down the line, some sharing might happen. The whole time, some of the parts of a network are already present and could have just started sharing what they have, heck they could have started before ever meeting, even WITHOUT ever meeting, but this never happens. (I say part, because if it’s a network it will grow to include many others not in any intial group.)

We share what we share, they want to share what they often don’t have (or even really want)

Much of the sharing that happens in my learning network happens through seredipity. People publish a blog post, bookmark a delicious link, etc, as a normal part of their own workflow,and whether through syndication or the “All seeing eye of Google,” it comes my way, as John Krutsch would say, “Right On Time.” Or I ask the network, through my blog or twitter, or sometimes directly, for help with a question or problem: sometimes the answer comes in seconds, because someone’s already worked it out; sometimes in minutes, maybe because a slight twist needs to be given to existing work; sometimes in days or weeks, when it tweaks someone else’s mind as much as mine and they do the work because it seems worhtwhile to them and they can do it; sometimes it comes in months or years, because it’s a big problem. But so far, it’s never not come, eventually. Our sharing is “good enough,” not perfect; optimal, not ideal. We don’t build our entire houses on this single foundation, but it sure helps get a lot of structure built quickly on many an occassion.

Contrast this with the formal approach. In my experience, a ton of time goes into defining ahead of time what is to be shared. Often with little thought to whether it’s actually something that is easy for them to share. And always, because its done ahead of time, with the assumption that it will be value, not because someone is asking for it, right then, with a burning need. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but my experience over a decade consulting and working on these kinds of projects is that I’m not. Someone always thinks that defining these terms ahead of time is a good idea. And my experience is that you then get people not sharing very much, because to do so takes extra effort, and that what does get shared doesn’t actually get used, because despite what they said while they were sitting in the requirements gathering sessions, they didn’t actually know what the compelling need was, it just sounded like a good idea at the time.

By the way, if my writing is making it seem that I haven’t done this myself, many times, that’s just wrong. For the longest time, it seemed like a good idea to me too.

We share with people, they share with “Institutions”

I have never spoken to “an institution.” I would be scared if one started to speak to me. But I’ve spoken and shared with many *people* in institutions. Many *people* use stuff I have shared. And usually, in my experience, its people who directly, not through some intermediary, have a need.

The institutional approach, in my experience, is driven by people who will end up not being the ones doing the actual sharing nor producing what is to be shared. They might have the need, but they are acting on behalf of some larger entity. The need ends up getting diffused over all the people involved ultimately in sharing, and the people who go to the meetings, form the relationships, have *the actual network* end up delegating the work to people who are excluded from the network, acting as proxies, instead of forming their *own* network. There is nothing stopping them from doing so except the need being defined at the top of the org but driven to the bottom, instead of the need being defined (differently) at each level of the organization and at each level personal networks being built (and if this were happening, the whole notion of “levels” would no doubt start to get a bit woobly.)

We develop multiple (informal) channels while they focus on a single official mechanism

I blog. I use twitter. I use delicious. I use flickr. I use facebook (when I have to.) I use I use slideshare. I use scribd. I use google docs. I use… the list goes on and on. Many of the ones above are ones that have persisted in my practice for some time now, while there are others that come and go. The point is, though, I have yet to come across a situation where someone in my network asked for help (through any of these channels, or indeed simply through email) and I (or someone in the network) did not find SOME way to share what they needed with them. More often than not, we’d shared it ahead of time and it’s Google finding it, and typically always things are shared in a way that allowed everyone else simply to benefit from that act of sharing. The technology is NOT the problem. Given a compelling need to connect, people will find a way, be it through smoke signals, Morse code or Usenet news groups.

Contrast this with these formal initiatives to network “organizations” – in my experience, much time goes into finding the right single “platform” to collaborate in (and somehow it always ends up to blame – too clunky, too this, too that.) And because typically the needs for the platform have been defined by the collective’s/collaboration’s needs, and not each of the individual users/institutions, what results is a central “bucket” that people are reluctant to contribute to, that is secondary to their ‘normal’ workflow, and that results in at least some of the motivation (of getting some credit, because even those of us who give things away still like to enjoy some recognition) being diminshed. And again, in my experience, in not a whole lot of sharing going on.

What to do if you are stuck having to facilitate sharing amongst a large group of institutions?

So hopefully it’s clear at this point that I am a big believer in everyone, no matter what their role in an organization, developing their own personal learning network/environment. But the reality is, you and I are going to get asked for years to come to help groups who say they want to share. So what do we do. Well, if you can, my advice is to provision as little tech as possible and urge an approach that focuses on the sharing and the network creation first. But if you must provide a single “platform,” my advice is to focus on providing one with these three simple pieces:

  • a simple way to find out who else is out there (profile, even just a directory)
  • some simple channels to communicate: email lists/addresses, threaded discussions
  • a simple way to publish content

That’s it. Maybe a synchronous tool. If the need and desire to share is real, these basic means (which really, they already have access to, but sometimes you need to build them a new one, after all we all like to feel special sometimes) are ALL THEY NEED TO SHARE. You see, at the end of the day, that’s all any of us, who started building our personal learning networks with, say, blogs, actually had. And it worked. It works every day. – SWL

The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

Via a post by Michael Roy at the Wesleyan Academic Commons site comes mention of this interesting project that I thought for sure would get a reaction in the edublogging crowd, both for the topic and for its format.

The topic – “How do institutions–social, civic, educational–transform in response to and in order to promote new kinds of learning in the information age?” Rather than take a straight-ahead run at more conventional notions of ‘institutions’ I think they helpfully start by modifying the usual definition towards asking the question “What would it mean to start with a definition that emphasized social networks and the processes of creating those networks?”

The format – apparently a new WordPress blogging plugin (code name Comment Press) which allows commenters to add feedback on a paragraph by paragraph-basis in a form that resembles a conversational thread. Well worth the read. – SWL