Monday, March 16, 2009

Stephen Downes on Personal Learning Networks

I found this video by following Stephen Downes on Facebook. It is a 20 minute talk to educators about how to think about Web 2.0, and how to make it work for our own personal learning, and that of our students. He is a teacher and researcher from Canada who has a job that lets him focus on technology and education issues full time. Pretty cool! You can subscribe to his newsletter, or read his blog, to get an idea of where he's coming from.

This video (which will only be online until March 30, because Google Video is going away, it says) talks about how to collect and organize information for your own personal learning. He talks about using a blog to take notes on a class, or take notes on the things you are learning from everywhere. That struck a chord with me because this blog is really my notes on ed tech sites/developments/information that I want to remember and to share with others. He also mentions his view that content management systems are bound to be dysfunctional because they aren't built for networking, they are built on a broadcast format - one person broadcasts information to many passive recipients. Yes, there are blogs and chats and discussion boards, but they don't really solve the problem. That framed for me the frustration I feel with the CMSs we have now, they are too static.

Then he goes on to talk about the power of networking, the wisdom of crowds, and how important it is to participate, not just be a lurker, to put your ideas out there, and to respond to the ideas of other people, because that is really how we learn and how ideas develop. Information is not a static thing, it's a conversation. Today I read (in Steve Hargadon's slides) this quote, "Information has always been a conversation, it's just that most of us weren't part of it, until the Internet." Now we can all participate in the conversation, and Downes's view is that it's important to participate.

One of the first rules of participating, Downes adds, is to be authentic. Be yourself, put your real self out there. It's true, that's one of the really nice things about all this participatory media online. I feel like I've gotten to know people whose ideas I'm interested in because I listen to their podcasts, watch their videos, read their posts, and it feels like I'm in a conversation with them. I can't say that I participate back with many of them, but they are still part of my personal learning network. But the personal connection is an important part of the learning, I believe. On the other hand, as he points out, it's hard to do. For example, sitting in front of your webcam and giving a presentation when no one is present, it's hard to just be yourself. Hopefully it gets easier with practice. For example, Loic Lemeur is very used to being himself with a camera pointed at him, since his whole business, Seesmic, is based on people making short conversational videos of themselves and posting them. In the interest of authenticity I will say that personally I'm still struggling with this.

It seems like not long ago (it was last April, almost a year ago) that I first came across and blogged about the PLN concept, and now these ideas are getting much more developed. So what constitutes your personal learning network? I recommend watching Stephen's video and seeing where it takes you.

One issue that I have not resolved, though is that all of this only works for the very motivated learner. That's us teachers - we like to learn, we loved school, we enjoyed the pursuit of new fields of knowledge. But what about that learner who isn't so motivated, who has some learning challenges, for whom school was more of a misery than a joy? Those people, and there are many in adult education, may not experience the personal learning network concept the same way. But, people are motivated to learn many different things, and I can't think of a topic for which there isn't a great quantity of information and networking opportunities online. Maybe the task of the teacher is to help that student find information about the thing they are the most passionate about, and go on from there.
Photo Credit: Luc Legay