Saturday, August 25, 2007

Creating Personal Learning Networks: Part 1

One of the things we really want to explore this year is the idea of both students and staff creating personal learning networks. (Note: Clarence Fisher has a much better handle on this than we do, we're just getting started here, so you may go want to read his blog to get a more advanced education). For this post, I want to focus on the students. I have at least one teacher (Anne Smith) that’s ready to do this with some of her freshmen in their Language Arts class. I’m sure this will evolve (in fact, partially why I’m writing this is to get more ideas), but at the moment here’s what we’re thinking.

She’s going to help them set up an aggregator (more on the tool question below) and we’re going to seed them with a few feeds to get them started (suggested feeds in the comments, please). Then, once they're comfortable with that, Anne’s going to ask them to find some feeds of their own, on any topic they are passionate about (school appropriate but not necessarily school-related, if that makes any sense). At this point I’m thinking that’s plenty to get started with. From my own experience, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed, so while we won’t limit them, I think we will highly recommend they don’t subscribe to too many feeds.

They will then be responsible for reading their feeds each week, thinking about them, and then reflecting on them in their personal blogs. They will get some class time to do this, but will also be expected to do this outside of class. They will also be responsible for presenting interesting articles/themes to the rest of the class, probably twice each semester. After each student presents, the class will then react to that presentation by commenting on that student’s personal blog.

Anne’s written a first draft (Word, PDF) of what she’s going to distribute to students in a week or two (including the seed feeds that we have so far for students to choose from). Please take a look and we’d love to hear your constructive comments.

Our goals are two-fold. First, these are students in a Language Arts class, and they will be reading, thinking, writing and presenting on information that they find personally interesting and relevant. Critical thinking skills, information literacy skills, reading, writing, presenting skills – all fit well in our Language Arts curriculum.

Second, we hope to help them to begin to build their own personal learning network. To help them find trusted sources (and how to evaluate them in the first place to figure out if they trust them). To help them find multiple sources on the same topic, to help them compare and contrast and try to get multiple viewpoints on issues. To help them construct their own knowledge, to learn not just because it’s an assignment for school, but because it’s just too darn interesting, meaningful, and fun not to.

And this is a two-way street. They should not only be constructing their own personal learning network, but they should be learning how to be part of someone else’s learning network. How to provide relevant and meaningful information and analysis to others. We have a sign in our cafeteria that says, “Add to the sum total of the world’s knowledge.” While I don’t particularly like the way it’s phrased (the idea that knowledge is this huge collection of stuff that can be counted and summed), I do agree with the intent: they should be contributors and producers, not just consumers and users. Or, as Kurt Hahn said, “We are crew, not passengers.”

I’ve really struggled writing this post for two reasons. One, I’m insanely overwhelmed at the moment and haven’t had any time to read or think myself, and I can’t seem to get the ideas in my head onto the screen in any way that resembles the original brilliant thoughts.

And two, I’ve been struck with “tool paralysis.” I kept hoping that I would have the time to really evaluate Bloglines and Google Reader, Pageflakes and Netvibes and iGoogle, all from the perspective of a student, not for myself. But I can’t find the time to do it. And while I know the tool is not the important thing, I did want to pick the “best” tool available to help them be successful at this. But since I don’t have the time I’m thinking we may just go with Google Reader and ultimately iGoogle. I think Pageflakes and Netvibes may actually be better, but iGoogle has the G.A. (Google Advantage – trademark pending). Our students use Blogger, so they already have a Google Account. Google Reader is a nice aggregator. We are beginning to use Google Docs a lot more. If I ever find time to play with it, I think we’ll use Google Notebook. If they don’t have web-based email, Gmail is a great choice. And on and on. This can all come together with one login and in one place on iGoogle and maybe, just maybe, might be simple enough that the technology doesn’t get in the way of the learning (which is a big fear of mine right now). Finally, I think I may pick it for the same reason we picked Blogger a couple of years ago – I don’t think Google is going away anytime soon. I hope Netvibes and Pageflakes don’t either, but I think Google is the safest bet. Now, I know there are a lot of Netvibes and Pageflakes fans out there (and probably fans of other tools as well), so feel free to chime in on the comments. But I’m betting we’ll stick with Google Reader/iGoogle for the G.A.

So, I feel like this post is somewhat half-baked, as I can’t completely get my head around this idea or get my ideas out, so that’s why it’s titled Part 1. I’m really, really, really hoping my personal learning network will chime in with some wonderful comments that I’ll then feel compelled to pull out into a separate – and much better – post in a week or two. Also, I would love it if folks would submit suggested feeds that are of general interest to high school students that we could include in our seed list that they’ll be choosing from.

So, help me out here. Submit your comments and help me write an amazing Creating Personal Learning Networks: Part 2 post in a few weeks.


  1. Karl, I think this is a fabulous idea! I took a look at the guidelines you and Amy created and they look great, too.

    One suggestion--I noticed that you are telling the students what feeds they must subscribe to and that they won't have the chance to subscribe to any feeds in their own areas of interest until 6 weeks into the semester. I think that this might be backwards.

    From what I can see, it appears that your goal with the project is to get students interested in creating their own PLEs and in the act of writing/reflecting on the development of a personal learning environment. But when the teacher decides what they will subscribe to and how they will respond, that sort of defeats the purpose.

    My suggestion would be to frame this in terms of showing them how to create a PLE to explore topics that interest them. So they would immediately be subscribing to feeds related to their areas of personal interest and they would be using their blogs to reflect/respond on the experience, what they're learning, etc. I think I'd also work with them to collaboratively decide on how to best share this information with each other--maybe presentations, maybe a wiki?

    My point here is that I think that if your goal is to get students excited about and using the tools of personal learning, you need to honor the "personal" part of that more by helping them use these tools and ideas to explore what interests them. I think that you'll kill it for them, otherwise--it will be just one more thing that you're "making them do" rather than learning how to use some cool tools to explore their own passions.

    My .02

  2. Your post could not have come at a better time for me. I've been struggling for four years to find a way to combine personal learning networks into my language arts and reading classes though I've had little success. There have been many roadblocks, but the biggest has been that so few of my students have access to the Internet at home.

    I'm currently participating in a new training being offered in our district that is designed to help teachers who motivated to use blogs, rss, wikis, and, podcasts with their students. To "protect" our students, we've been asked to us MicroSoft's SharePoint services, which is highly secure and completely unaccessible to nonmembers. My students audience will be seriously limited and the feedback they receive my not be as motivating as it needs to be. The services is also not user friendly and I can already foresee problems with teaching the students how to use it. There is nothing that will douse enthusiasm faster than a frustrated student.

    Though I am fortunate to have been accepted into this training, I'm concerned that there does not seem to be a common understanding of how students could benefit from applying what they know about social networking on a personal level to a more professional level. The discussions we've had in our group are focused on teacher directed activities and level little room for student choice. When we discuss blogs it's all about students responding to prompts from the teacher. When we discuss podcasts it's all about students completing a highly structured reading assignment and uploading it. I'd like to share your post and Anne Smith's draft with my team. I hope it will help inspire us to think about using these tools more creatively and effectively.

    Like you, I'm "insanely overwhelmed" and haven't had the time I'd like (I need) to pin down all the ideas that keep swirling around in my head. If it weren't for the information and inspiration I find on blogs like this I'd have given up on my attempt to use social networking with my students.

  3. Karl,

    I think the idea will be very powerful for her students. I do agree with Michele that students should have choice--maybe the best compromise is that they have one or two "have to" reads and can select the rest themselves? If the learning network is to be personal, then they need to have some choice in the matter?

    As far as the tools question, though I haven't used Google reader(I use bloglines just out of habit) I do think you're right it is the direction to go probably.
    We used Pageflakes in our business classes last year for a project like this, and it does have the cool "podcast" players and a great interface for students.

    I've tried Google Notebook, and honestly, I like delicious or furl much better. That's the only tool of Google's that I find very clunky and rather traditional in format. And delicious has the wonderful ability to add to the learning network so visibly as well with their tag clouds.

    I'm glad you shared this project, even out of a state of overwhelm. This transparency is what is helping all of us learn from your experiments ;)

  4. From the tool side...

    I think the mistake is trying to get your head around what the "best" tool is. The best tool is the one that they use -- and use within the context of what the teachers and students already do online. That's what the GA is actually so important -- because you don't want to set up the NALI dilemna. (Not Another Log-In -- patent pending)

    Everyone one of the tools you mentioned is good enough. Some folks will like Google Reader, some will like Pageflakes more. Me, I'm still using NetNewsWire, because I love the speed of an off-line reader, and I feel like firefox slows when I have a million windows open, but that's me.

    Sounds like to me that Google works with the rest of what you do, the GA is real, and that means it's one less system the kids have to learn. That's a good thing. I'm concerned because we've got the kids using:

    1) SLA-hosted Moodle
    2) SLA-hosted Drupal
    4) Probably iGoogle (Docs, Reader)
    and teachers may be adding
    5) Zoho or Freebase for database stuff.

    I'm actually asking teachers to hold off on wiki projects until October, only because then we'll be able to port all our Drupal stuff to DrupalEd which has a wiki built in... one less login.

    I worry that our Web 2.0 learning systems will require so many different accounts that it will hinder use.

    Anyway, I'm very excited to follow how you all do this!

  5. One thing here nails it for me. We do append blogging in many different ways, but the idea that the students write comments in their own blogs and using Google Reader as an aggregator gives me the finap piece of the puzzle.
    Only sad thing is that Google owns Blogger and not Wordpress, which to me is a superior blogging tool.

    About my own setup, which might be of interest to someone, I'll write a piece in my own blog soon. And why do I have to use my Google account to post comments? That is a little buggy...

  6. Thanks everyone for the comments so far. I look forward to hearing from even more folks.

    I did want to jump in briefly (usually I try to let the comments play out more before I respond) to address the idea that we've set this up backwards in terms of them not exploring their own personal interests until later in the semester. I've struggled a lot with this and, as a result of your comments, will revisit it again and struggle some more, but let me give a few of the reasons that – at least at this point – this is the way we've decided to go.

    1. This gives them a chance to get used to the idea, the tools and the process before really going after it on their own.

    2. These are incoming freshmen and they often need some more concrete direction to get started. If it's too open-ended, many of them will struggle mightily. While that’s not always a bad thing, we do have a limited amount of time in class to do this (and help them), so we wanted to provide some structure up front.

    3. Please note that they do have choice from the beginning. We have limited their choice to three categories (education, local news, world news), but they choose the feeds from within those categories. We'll give them a list of suggested feeds to choose from, but they can decide whether they want to read David Warlick or Will Richardson or somebody else they find that fits in the education category. And they will choose which feed to read from our local newspapers (or some other source), and so on.

    4. Finally, there's the practical/political aspect of all this. It's much easier to "sell" this to stakeholders if students are reading feeds about education, local news and world news. It's much tougher if we start with their personal interests and one student chooses skateboarding, another chooses 90's grunge rockers, and a third one chooses swimsuit fashions. Please note that I'm not saying that those aren't legitimate interests for those students to pursue, I'm just saying it's tougher to convince folks that we should be doing this in school if that's the case. Our hope is that by starting with more "traditional" or "school-worthy" categories and feeds, both the students and the community will begin to see the value and power of this. Then it will be much easier to make the case for pursuing personal interests alongside those more "school-worthy" topics, and the case for Personal Learning Networks in general.

    Again, I'll be thinking about this some more and would love to hear more thoughts on this.

  7. Master Phot - the reason for the Google Account is to prevent completely anonymous comments. While I realize that anyone can create a Google Account and then abandon it, it does add a level of accountability and connectedness that anonymous comments do not. Since we ask our teachers and students to do this on their blogs as well (for the same reasons), I'm just trying to model that.

    While it may not be ideal, I don't see it as a huge barrier to the conversation (and it helps me keep having unmoderated comments on this blog).

  8. Maybe they would like to connect with Anne Davis' group at:

    I am hoping to have my middle school students set up an iGoogle page with Google reader. I want to try having them use Google Documents.

  9. I used to have all my feeds in Bloglines but I transfered them to Google Reader for about a year ago. One reason was that it integrated to my Google account but more importantly, GR is superior in sharing the feeds.

    My feeds are sorted in folders that generate feeds of their own. I distribute those feeds as dynamic blogrolls and other feeds from fresh items in selected sources. I also have one feed covering my own posts in a number of blogs. These can be displayed at any blog or web site, including Wordpress, which makes Google Reader de facto a platform independent sharing tool. I guess this could be a usable instrument in integrating personal learning networks.

  10. I think you are exactly on the right track. I give kids a list of feeds to begin with, just 4 or 5 blogs that I get them to subscribe to in order to get them used to the tools (RSS and reader) because these will be new for many kids. I choose these feeds carefully, thinking about who is an absolutely essential voice or perspective for them to have. I will also change these during the year as I find the need to. We call this folder in our reader "required reading."

    I find the most success comes from going the other way when adding new sources. I tell the kids that they must have 10 - 12 total feeds in about 4 weeks and then conference with them about who they have found, get them to share their finds with the rest of the class, and talk with them about who is in their network, why they have made these choices, etc. I also completely tell the kids that their networks should be fluid, changing when required, adding and taking away voices as they feel the need to do it.

    Sounds like an awesome plan. Make sure you let us know about how it goes!

  11. Clarence - that is for high school kids? With middle school i tend to focus on the tool for subscribing to teacher pages and they all subscribe to personal interests too. I could see it for middle school at the end of the year, but not yet. All of mine have had zero exposure to any of these tools and i am the first - oh what a heavy burden that is! I hope I do it correctly...

  12. Larko - I would like to know how. I know nothing technical so in super easy terms how do I share feeds like if someone says what is in your Rss aggregator what do i do?

  13. Karl,

    This is an ambitious and meaningful undertaking, and one that I will keep a watchful eye on.

    All summer long, I have been working on creating a string of classes to put together to help teachers create their own learning networks, and your idea fits nicely into that plan. Getting the right teacher to then extend it into their classroom is the next step. One question: do you think it is possible to do in a school that is not 1:1?

  14. What an innovative idea. If I had this in school, it would have sparked my learning that much faster and connected me that much easier. I look forward to hearing great things about this effort.

  15. Durff, there is a description of the general idea in this post in my blog. Once you have sorted the feeds in folders, go to Settings/Tags in your Google Reader and make public the folders that you want to share. Then click to the "View public page" link. There you will find a link to the feed generated by the public page. That feed is subscribable and you can add it in your Wordpress template. At the Google Reader Settings/Tags page you also find a link to generate a script to add the feed to any web page.

  16. When they get to week 6, why not offer as one of the "optional" feeds and also allow somebody to review RSS aggregators/readers---if that is an area of personal interest. They'd do a better job than we would, anyway. I'd love to read the assessment done by a 14/15 year old!

  17. I use the iGoogle page due to many of the reasons stated above, but mostly due to its ability to sync to my Google docs, Google reader, Google groups, etc. iGoogle offers a wide range of RSS content available in individual containers disconnected from the RSS Reader, which helps me scan the page. Also, with its multiple tabs, I can connect like items per tab, say world news on one tab, educational issues on another.
    As these will be Language Arts students, I would suggest the following feeds outside of their Google Reader:
    Daily Literary Quote (Always thoughtful)
    Word of the Day (Vocabulary delivered to you)
    Biblical Art of the Day (for help in literary allusions)
    Interesting Thing of the Day (It’s, well, interesting)
    Wikipedia Bar (Fast, encourages students to use resources)
    Writer’s Unblock Tool (Never have to answer “What can I write about?” again)

    And maybe they could add a feed from that guy who did the “Did You Know?” video if there was any room left.

  18. Thanks for the leadership in throwing ideas like this out there Karl.

    In our school we're on a Moodle push (, to get the teachers and kids using a forum at first. Security is pretty tight, I think the only publicly available cours is our "Internet Safety" course.

    We think there's a lot to be said for having the students choose the tools they're going to use, but not necessarily the content. Having them establish an account on their own, following guidelines for privacy and appropriateness is one more level of learning and independence.

    In the future we aim to offer Gmail accounts at our domain (, using the Google Apps. We're big fans of Blogger, which has just about all of the tools we need. It will be really cool once Google integrates JotSpot wiki technology into their product line. That will make a Gmail account a one-stop-shop for so many things. (At NECC, the Google rep wouldn't give a date on that.)

    I agree on a previous post about too many logins, but seems like another opportunity to teach organization.

  19. I'm excited about this and would like to try it with one or two of my classes as well. I think it's smart to start them off with "freedom within structure"; this will hopefully keep them from being overwhelmed and giving up (as I did promptly after attempting to subscribe to feeds and explore the large and intimidating world of Google).

    I have one suggestion: For the education feeds, you might consider giving them the option also of subscribing to another teacher's blog. I'm not sure how other teachers feel about this, but I genuinely appreciate the feedback I get from students on my personal blog, and I think that it fascinates and impresses students to see their teachers grappling with new ideas in education.

    Thanks for the innovation!