Imagine a learning community for educators, a place where teachers can connect to the world. Teachers can pose questions and receive just in time help and advice from virtual colleagues. Links to interesting web sites are exchanged. Practitioners connect with researchers at universities. Up to the minute news is disseminated and absorbed. Multimedia is viewed and critiqued by audiences beyond the walls of a single school.
Such a community isn't that far fetched. In fact, many do exist on the Internet today, thanks to the powerful digital technologies of the information age. Educators are also creating their own customized personalized learning networks using a variety of tools. To the detriment of their students, millions of educators worldwide are missing out because they don't embrace new media, haven't realized its potential, or are simply denied access to the Internet's riches for various reasons. How can we help teachers foster breakthrough learning? How do we guide teachers through a process that empowers them to take ownership of their own professional development and deepen their impact on their classrooms? Encouraging teachers to develop their own personal learning networks can be one part of the solution.I can pinpoint two pivotal experiences that mark the start of my own personal learning network journey. The first came in 2005 when a fellow Apple Distinguished Educator introduced a term completely foreign to me: RSS or Real Simple Syndication. Because of RSS, I started following news sources and weblogs of experts, even venturing into blogging myself as a method of recording my professional ideas and resources. Information efficiently arrived in my newsreader; no longer did I have to chase it down by visiting individual sites.
A second defining moment happened a year later while on vacation. I was sitting in a Paris hotel room, uploading photos from my laptop computer to Flickr, a photo sharing site. I unexpectedly received an instant message from Portland, Oregon principal Tim Lauer. I had met Tim two years prior at a workshop he led at the National Educational Computing Conference . Tim indicated in his IM that he had noticed that I was in Paris as he saw my very recently uploaded photos on Flickr. In fact, he had just visited Paris himself and had wanted to visit a historic paint store, but had missed the opportunity. He sent me a link to an NPR piece on the Sennelier shop, and asked me to find it and take pictures if I had the chance. Fortuitously, the shop was only two blocks away from my hotel. I trotted over took a few pictures and emailed them to Tim. Thus, began our collegial friendship which continues on. Not only did I glean a bit about the rich history of this paint shop that day, but perhaps more importantly, I realized that communication, resource sharing and collegiality could extend way beyond my classroom walls in Chicago. I was no longer limited by traditional means.
Since then, I've continued to explore both informal and formal networked professional development opportunities. I've always been curious about getting ideas from those with different experiences and perspectives. My arsenal of learning tools has grown to include Web 2.0 applications such as Delicious and Diigo for sharing bookmarks, Google Docs for sharing and storing documents online, and Twitter for connecting to people from many education related fields.
Social networks also have supported my professional development. Facebook keeps me current with the work of organizations such as Edutopia, PBS Teachers, and Curriki . I often refer to Classroom 2.0, a web site developed using the Ning platform, when looking for concrete examples of technology infused projects, and for when I have questions related to educational technology. Inspired by the success of this site, I even created my own Ning on the topic of global education, bringing together educators interested in global projects.
Online meeting spaces are currently intriguing me. One network that has proven to be invaluable is EdTechTalk, a collaborative web casting community. Educators volunteer to host weekly live online interviews with a wide variety of guests. Listeners participate via a back channel chat room, asking questions, suggesting resources, and sharing experiences. All sessions are recorded and archived in a podcast format for those unable to attend. I am also interested in the delivery of online professional development and have recently started using a meeting tool called Elluminate while participating in webinars run by Steve Hargadon and sponsored by several entities at the Future of Education.
Note that none of the tools I've mentioned thus far costs me a cent. More importantly, I can engage with tools and content when my schedule allows. I choose to develop professionally using the tools that matter to me because I believe that educators must continue to evolve and refine their work. I must practice what I preach.
To demonstrate the power of a personal learning network, I recently used Twitter to pose a link to a survey for my online colleagues on the potential of digital technologies to transform teaching and learning. If you're not quite convinced on these potential transformational effects, take a look at the stories submitted from over 60 educators around the world. Change is indeed happening; we just need to get more educators on board. Our next step in this area should be to contemplate how to effectively help educators to customize their own professional development on a large scale.
Here is the survey I created using a form in Google Docs and here are the results. (Also, check out this word cloud based on survey responses.) One comment in particular sums this up for me. In an excerpt of a survey comment, Keith Hamon of Macon, Georgia writes:
"Technology has enabled global networks which have put me at the center of my learning. This is one of the neat tricks of the shift from hierarchical structures to network structures. As a student in an old-school hierarchy, I was at the bottom of the food chain with all the other students, with teachers a bit higher up, and then department chairs, deans, and so on...but in a personal learning network, I am at the center...This gives me great power to pursue the learning that is important to me, to create my own educational program. I am my own universe - ity. But here's the real magic: so is everyone else. In a network, we are all in the center, all empowered to work the network—adding value and taking value—to meet our goals."
Now, if we can do this for ourselves, imagine how we can do this for our students.