Home Renovations and Plugging In: Reflections on Developing a Personal Learning Network

“So how are your renovations going? You must be nearly finished.”

I hang my head and reply, “No, not yet – it is still a work in progress.” Accompanied by some self-effacing laughter and a knowing smile from the owner of my favourite hardware store as he helps me locate the missing piece of the puzzle that constitutes my home.

This conversation unfolds more often, at times, than I would like; as it serves to painfully remind me that I still have much to do on our home renovations. There is still the window casements around the living room windows, dry walling to finish around the same, painting to be done, trim to install and that is just the living room. It does not start to touch the upstairs bedrooms, the ripping out of carpet, the laying of hardwood floors the touch ups to the dry wall and the painting, doors and trim that need to be completed. Then there is the basement rec. room. Well, you get the idea. This process has been unfolding for the last 8 years and has seen a significant amount of improvement but at this point can still be viewed as a work in progress.

Curiously enough it is not the only aspect of my life that I consider a work in progress. I am still learning how to play the bodhran, how to take great photographs, how to be a better parent, husband, teacher and how to improve my game at darts. This quest for improvement also applies to my development of my Personal Learning Network (PLN). Up until November of last year I had not even heard of, let alone considered, creating a PLN. This new adventure got started when I began to explore the search features of Twitter and came across Tom Whitby whom I quickly discovered was one of the most passionate education technology advocates to be found; as I searched for information on the integration of technology into my educational practice and classroom.

It was through posts by Tom that I discovered the Educator’s PLN a website devoted to the connecting of educators around the world who have a common interest in increasing their knowledge of the craft of education through sharing of ideas, resources and tips on a veritable cornucopia of topics. Up until this point I had participated in Professional Learning Communities that are part of our school’s on-going pursuit of excellence in education. My limited expertise with the blogging process was increased about this time as well as I began to locate fascinating articles on a variety of education topics from numerous fellow educators.

These experiences got me thinking about how I learn, what I learn and when I learn and where I learn. Topics that occupy teachers as we consider our students preferences when we approach a lesson with the desire to really engage the student; often times not giving a second thought to our own processes as we are caught up in the whirlwind of the classroom environment with deadlines, marking, conferencing, supervision, IPP’s and the plethora of things that take up our day. To say that a light bulb went off or that there was a paradigm shift in my thinking on this matter would be akin to referring to Mt. St. Helens as tremor.

The next revelation was that a PLN is as individual, comprehensive and tailored as the teacher creating it. In a nutshell it is a lot like Web 2.0 – which for a long time I thought was some program that I was systematically missing out on. That is until I started reading Steven W. Anderson’s Blogging About the Web 2.0 Connected Classroom. In reading his work I realized that the 2.0 classroom was a compilation of useful technological resources adapted by teachers to facilitate enquiry based learning specific to their own styles and classrooms. In the same way this is true of an individual’s PLN.

The creation of my PLN is, to say the least, a work in progress; and is currently not nearly as far along as the renovations to my house. It does consist though of some basic elements: several solid sharing sites including the Educator’s PLN and Edutopia, as well as a compilation of blogs that I follow and my twitter feed that keeps me posted on the latest offerings from a variety of sources.

Too complicated, too much time wasted? I think not. While there is a learning curve, as there is with most things in this world the old adage that you get out of something exactly what you put into it is as timeless as it is true.  While there is a certain commitment in the form of time to learn the technologies or applications to create this sort of network, once you have it up and running it is available to you when, where and how you want it to be. This allows for everything from planned reading of a blog article before bed to a spontaneous discussion that occurs over twitter as you respond to a brief thought or post that is made by other like minded individuals.

So what does this replace? In a profession where we are always being, it seems, asked to do more and more I am sad to report that nothing comes off the plate. What does happen is that you get to start selecting from a much wider menu than you had before and as you streamline your PLN to meet your distinct tastes you are no longer casting around for articles, videos or resources nearly as much. Indeed, once set up much of the desired materials find you!

Now off to the hardware store for some plumbing items. I would be very interested in your story about the creation of your PLN – I look forward to hearing from you.

Adventures in 21st Century Learning: Exploring Collaborative Learning On-line Remix

Note: This is a rewrite of a post made earlier; as, due to a single click of an update button on my IPad app I managed to erase over half the content of the post.

This video conference helped me to understand the views of ALL involved rather than only what is considered important or acceptable by the media. In the news we almost never hear the whole story and it is impossible to see every point of view. Broadcasting shows one opinion and one opinion only, the one the government wants us to see. These conferences are important to younger generations, perhaps this will give children the understanding that not everything they see on TV is real.~R.W. Gr. 12 Student St. Andrew’s School~

This comment is reflective of some interesting work that my students, my colleague, Miss Bronwyn Kierstead and I have been engaged in over the course of this year. After several years of experimenting with the use of a virtual classroom I began to cast around for other ways that I could leverage technology to enhance learning opportunities of my students.

Through our use and participation in the Taking IT Global Virtual classroom experience I stumbled upon The Center for Global Education (CGE) and its program of connecting classrooms to each other and the larger world as a whole. In the fall of 2011 we participated in our first virtual international conference entitled: The Middle East in Transition; with students from across Canada and the US, who, through CGE were provided with an opportunity to speak to people who participated in the revolution in Egypt, and peaceful protests in the Palestinian territories in Israel. These two hour and a half sessions allowed our Grade 11 students to speak to those where actually on the ground during the revolution and who were able to provide firsthand accounts of what it had been like to topple the government of Hosni Mubarak.

Photo courtesy of J. Jorquera

“I got to understand a new point of view [from] someone who was going through the content that we were learning about in the textbook. Also gave me a greater understanding of the world and the countries inside of it.” ~J.B. Gr. 11 Student St. Andrew’s School~

” I found that the group work that lead up to the conference (with the videos, articles, etc..) was extremely helpful in getting to know the situation that was going on in the Middle East.” ~B.S. Gr. 12 Student St. Andrew’s School

To ensure that students had a background in non-violent protest movements, prior to the conferences, each participating classroom had a series of readings and posts that needed to be completed prior to the actual conference. This was achieved through CGE’s partnership with Taking IT Global. Each student from each school was given an account in a Global Encounters classroom where they were provided with a series of videos and articles that they had to digest prior to the conferences in order to make the most effective use of the sessions. The articles and questions were complimented with a series of discussion board posts that students were required to respond to; their responses were in turn responded to – creating a discussion between the students both before and after the actual event.

“I enjoyed the discussion, the clash of conflicting opinions coupled with heated debates.” ~M.J. Gr. 11 Student St. Andrew’s School~

The first conference was so well received that Miss. Kierstead and I began planning for one during the second semester and the minute that the offering list was posted by CGE we jumped at the opportunity to participate in a second two part session on Voice, Agency and Democratic Values in the Middle East. This session exposed our Grade 12 classes to an examination of the rights of women in the wake of the Arab Spring movements that have swept North Africa, and the Middle East.

“… you learn a lot better, seeing something and you are not likely to forget it afterwards – like somethings you do sitting in a desk at school.” ~unknown Gr. 11 Student St. Andrew’s School.”

The sessions that we prepared for were a learning curve for all parties concerned. While, as the lead learners in the classroom, we were familiar with the background to the situation in the Middle East we were faced with a variety of challenges when it came to the actual set up of the conference. There was a steep learning curve with respect to the setup of the physical space as well as the integration of social media into the classroom. Much of the leg work for the conferences was completed after buses had left for the day. In the set up and incorporation of technology and the integration of social media we encouraged our students to acquire a twitter account so that they would be able to participate in a real time discussion with students from the other schools participating in the conferences.

“The Twitter feed allowed students to discuss with each other what it [was] they were hearing without interrupting the speakers.” ~J.S. Gr. 11 Student St. Andrew’s School~

To this end we had to tackle the on-going battle that faces educators in a classroom; to what extent should one permit the use of social media and electronic devices? Here again we had to be the risk takers initially. After getting students to sign up to twitter accounts we reminded them to have their devices present in the classroom on the days of the conference; like the would attend without them. Once in the classroom, with the conference up and running, students were asked to post to either the hashtag for the event #globalencounters, or to post to a live discussion board that was hosted through the Global Encounters Classroom provided by Taking IT Global. Students  involved in both sessions, perfectly comfortable in posting their status updates to Facebook, were a bit hesitant initially to post to a site where their comments were up for scrutiny by their peers; though on the second days of each conference students increased their participation as their comfort levels increased.

The days of each conference were veritable whirlwinds for me as an educator; truly removed as the repository of all knowledge instructing from the front of the room. Having to relinquish control of most aspects of the teaching for the period and turning over to the students the decisions as to what to learn, how to learn and how to prioritize what it was that was important to them was a sizable risk. They rose to the challenge and performed brilliantly. We observed that by and large most of our students maintained a high level of engagement in the entire project; from the lead up activities to the actual conferences. In one instance a presenter referred to the Muslim Brotherhood. One student, using the technology available to him, searched out the information on the brotherhood and during one of our breakout sessions gave a quick report to the rest of the class on the organization.

“At some points the audio was terrible. but its understandable, we are video chatting with people around the world.” ~J.J. Gr. 12 Student St. Andrew’s School

As with all things technology driven there were a few glitches to the system. Some of the video feeds were a bit choppy and not all enjoyed the same level of connectivity. While this may be viewed as a detriment by many it also served as an excellent teachable moment. It led to discussion about the differences that exist between us and the rest of the world – it was a real life case study in the Digital Divide. Conversation turned to the issues that this highlighted like sporadic internet access, lack of advanced technological equipment, absence of a stable electrical system etc. This allowed us to turn what was indeed the down side of the sessions into a positive discussion on the realities that the global, interconnected world faces.

So, where to from here? Well I am continuing to work on the integration of technology and social media into my daily instruction. That will have to be the subject of another post as it is time to reduce our family’s environmental footprint with a trip to the recycling depot.

Back to the Basics: Needs of Today’s 21st. Century Learners

Today the education profession is rife with buzz terms to describe what it is we are attempting to do with respect to engaging students in a modern, meaningful way. As an educator I have been inundated with terms like: the 21st Century Classroom, Web Tools 2.0, On-line publishing, Twitter feeds, blogging, the Virtual Classroom, networking, best practices, Sky Drives and the list goes on. It is a lot to take in for anyone; especially teachers who due to classroom workload and commitments outside of the classroom even when motivated in this regard. As an educator I am fascinated by the opportunities that much of this modern technology potentially offers to both my colleagues, myself as well as my students.

In planning for and making use of many of these modern technological advances in the classroom one of the greatest obstacles, next to my own learning curve and planning, is the fact that many students do not seem to have a command of the basic skill sets to make the most use of these programs. In many smaller school settings computer classes may be limited or non-existent, or teaching technological practices that are fast moving out of vogue. I well remember when PowerPoint was a skill that was considered to be fairly advanced in the realm of presenting of students findings. While this is still an important skill that assists students in assembling and processing information it is by no means the end all and be all. Today I find that many students, while they have heard of many of the above items, have had very little exposure to actually using or manipulating these new technologies. In many cases the most sophisticated programming some use is Facebook – not that it is not a hallmark tool in the realm of social networking – it does leave a lot to be desired in teaching the skills that students need in order leverage maximum return on the use of technology in the classroom.

I continue to ponder how best to deal with this situation in my own classroom as some of my students struggle to utilize these new technologies in their studies. There are several conclusions that I have reached in this regard. First and foremost be selective, as an educator, about which new technologies you are going to use in the classroom – too much too fast will leave everyone scrambling and feeling frustrated. You, as the teacher, because your student are not getting it fast enough and what should have been a 40 minute assignment has turned into a 80 or more minute nightmare for all concerned. Second, make sure that you as the teacher have a fairly solid command of the technologies that you are using in the classroom. Often I spend several months working with a program or feature before introducing it into the classroom – when I first started there were somethings like my virtual classroom through Taking IT Global where I spent almost a year experimenting before I rolled it out to the students.  There are still days when my students hear, “stupid computer!” As I attempt to get some program to work; that was working fine for me when there was no audience. Third, and this may be the most important – allow time in your planning to teach the specific skills necessary to utilize the technology that you are implementing in your classroom. Do not make the assumption that because students are using a variety of digital devices that they have any idea about the specifics of using the specific technology that you are getting ready to use in your classroom. Finally as the teacher we have to accept that, as with many things that we try in our classrooms, to expect that some things are just not a good fit and need to be scrapped.

When it comes to implementation of a new technology in the classroom I plan, after pondering this dilemma, to ensure sufficient time so that students have the time to be instructed in the specific technology as well as getting a chance to engage in a guided  exploration of  the technology prior to using. While this will cut into curriculum instruction time – I believe that done properly the technology will pay larger dividends in the long run. This, to many may seem like only good teaching practice but for many of us trying to make sense of technology ourselves, its implementation in the classroom in a meaningful manner and giving our students an optimal opportunity to utilize this technology these ideas may be worth thinking about.

How do you leverage the use of technology in your classroom?

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