Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Creating Personal Learning Networks: Part 2

Earlier I posted about our nascent efforts to help our students create Personal Learning Networks. I thought I’d take a few minutes and update everyone on our progress so far.

But first I wanted to address some things that came up in the comments on that earlier post. As usual, the comments were excellent and helped us refine our thinking. First, Michele suggested and others agreed that perhaps we had it backwards. Instead of starting with some “seeded” feeds from us and then moving into personal feeds, we should do it the other way around (more of a “personal” learning network). While on the one hand I don’t disagree, I responded with:
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.
Patrick Higgins then asked if it’s possible to do this in a school that’s not 1:1. We are not 1:1, although Anne Smith does have laptops in her classroom so is sort of 1:1 (since the laptops stay in the room and the kids don’t have them 24/7, I don’t think it’s truly 1:1). Certainly a 1:1 situation makes this much easier, but I think it can be done without it, as long as there is a decent amount of access at both school and home. I have at least two other teachers exploring this, and neither one has laptops in all their classes. We are lucky enough to have very few kids without access at home (and most of those with broadband access) – and a large number of computers at school for kids to use. For me, this is another argument for figuring out a way to provide access to all kids 24/7/365.

So, what have we done so far? I have at least three teachers (Anne Smith, Jessie Comp and Michele Davis) that have begun exploring how to do this. (These are all Language Arts teachers, but Barbara Stahlhut – a math teacher – is beginning to look into this as well). I will briefly link to some of what Anne has done, but Michele and Jessie feel free to jump in with some additional description/links.

Anne describes her initial thinking in this post, and then shares some sample entries from students in this one. (Interesting, one on a post by David Warlick, one by Will Richardson, and two by me – home field advantage, I guess). Also, if you take a look at the right side of Learning and Laptops, you’ll see a blogroll of the student’s blogs (Smith 9th PLN). You might take a few minutes and look through some of their posts and offer constructive comments if you wish. On the technical side, one thing we did was create an OPML file of the feeds for the student blogs so that students could easily import all those in without having to add them one by one. They did/will learn how to add feeds as well, but this helped get them started so that they could easily track/access each other’s blogs.

One other thing that I forgot to mention in the previous post was my attempts to make this more visible to our larger community. Starting last January I switched to Google Reader mainly for one feature – the Shared Items feature. That allowed me to easily share items I read and then – using Javascript that Google provides – display the titles (and links) of the last ten things I’ve shared (you can change the number of items you want). In January I just put those items on the initial page that our web browsers start up on when staff are logged in (we have one local page that browsers start up on for staff, a different local page that browsers start up on for students). This was to try to help spread the conversation to staff members not in my staff development (and, frankly, to many of those in my staff development that weren’t actively participating). I titled it “Join the conversation . . .” and hoped the increased visibility would help. Then, in early May I added that to the student start page as well, to try to bring them into the conversations more. Finally, this summer our district began migrating to a new web page platform (DotNetNuke – open source software) so I had to move our website over. So I took that opportunity to create a Learning Network tab on our website to try to bring our entire community into the conversations.

The majority of the items I share are from the blogs of my teachers in staff development, but I also share other items that come through my aggregator. (Right now it’s almost exclusively from our school blogs because I just haven’t had time to read anything else – my Google Reader is embarrassingly full.) I don’t know whether any of this has been tremendously successful or not - I haven’t seen an upsurge in comments from new folks - but I thought it was worth sharing.

So, how are we doing? I think it’s a good start. The feedback I’ve heard from Anne, Jessie and Michele is positive and promising. The key will be, however, if it lasts and then if the students really take charge of finding their own feeds, build and maintain their own PLN’s, contribute to the conversations themselves, and – of course – learn and grow.

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