"It's as if there's a layer of conversation lying on top of the regular web," shared David Warlick at the TechForum Texas that took place on November 10, 2005. At the same time, he introduced the concept of a Personal Learning Network, or PLN. Facilitated by blogs and RSS Feeds, the purpose of the PLN is professional development within an area of interest.
This idea of building your own professional development network – where you find the people from whom you can learn, ask questions of them, comment on their thoughts and links, and have them do the same for you – is one of the major benefits of blogging and podcasting. It is the art of conversation captured in digital format. This article shares how blogs enable both adult learners and students to create their own Personal Learning Networks, sometimes with unintended consequences – both positive and negative. It also examines possible solutions to address unintended consequences among student blog use.
Blogs as Digital Conversations
Digital conversations are taking place in the blogosphere...but are you a participant? I recently asked technology directors on the Technology Education Coordinators' Special Interest Group Email list (TEC-SIG) if they were having the types of conversations that others were having. I was struggling with the use of blogs in education, and I wanted other Texas Ed-Tech directors to discuss it with me. That is when I discovered that Email lists are no longer part of the “inner circle” where the best conversations take place.
Instead, those conversations are taking place in spaces like Blogger.com, MySpace.com, and the millions of blogs available on the Web, especially the comments people leave on them. The concept is becoming international, as the masses of India and China find their own voices online and begin to build their own PLNs, drawing upon many more people than we have access to in the United States. This means that isolationism just will not work, neither for you, for your own children, nor for your students.
If you're not a part of the conversations, you aren't aware of the issues until they hit home, such as the problems with MySpace.com and the use of this online space by students at a high school in a San Antonio, Texas school district. By now, the inappropriate use of MySpace.com has been discussed across the Blogosphere, but if you aren't a blogger, and you did not “catch the news,” then you missed the opportunity to learn. However, if you are a part of the conversation, you can learn, contribute and perhaps, learn as others learn. Learning with others makes the difference, since learning is a social process...and has now gone online with blogs. Learning with others means you take control of the flood of information and data coming into your life.
There are three aspects to using blogs, podcasts and the RSS feeds that tap into this digital conversation, and consequently three incentives for building virtual personal learning networks. These are explored briefly below.
1) Blogs Enable Professional Development Networks
Anne, a teacher, describes the benefits of a blog-based personal learning network. This type of network – taking advantage of blogs and RSS feeds – allows us to tap into people with whom we would not otherwise have contact. On “EduBlog Insights.” Anne writes about how a librarian's blog—“The Shifted Librarian”—allows her to learn about a conference she could not attend. She writes, “Those learnings led me to even more learning on the blogs of those who had presented. Talk about professional development.”
As Dr. David Tobin, Ph.D., notes in “Building Your Personal Learning Network,” PLNs give us access to varied information sources, and, more importantly, to people of whom we can ask questions, who can provide us with coaching and mentoring, and who can challenge or extend our thinking. In the connected world in which we now live(note that I did not write “will live”), NOT creating your own personal learning network cuts you off from what you need to survive and thrive in the “flattened world” that Thomas Friedman describes in The World is Flat). Using RSS feeds, we are able to process a greater amount of information than was previously possible by surfing to different Web pages. In a moment, we can get the pulse of conversations, then dig as deep as we need so as to discover what is of merit.
2) Blogs Enable Digital Conversations
At David Warlick's TechForum presentation, one of his slides showed how he was making connections between blogs, building his own PLN. For example, he started reading Steve Dembo's “Teach42.com”, and something mentioned in that blog made him explore another.
Like David, I started out in the same way. I began simply with one or two education-related blogs such as “Bud the Teacher” and “Moving at the Speed of Creativity” (http://www.speedofcreativity.org/) and then added blogs as I went. But adding blog feeds my RSS Aggregator is not what digital conversations are about. It's not enough to read, it's also important to write.
To accomplish that, I started leaving comments relevant to the blog entries posted on others’ blogs. As I posted each comment, I included a link back to my own blog “Around the Corner”. On my blog, I would expand on the conversation in a way that I only hinted at in the comment. In this way, I invited other bloggers to visit my blog and, in turn, leave comments on my site. And the nature of the comments left on my site has been very helpful, primarily because they give me information and advice that I wouldn't have had if I had depended on my “traditional” PLN, comprised of the people with whom I interact every day at work and in my personal life. Thus, in a way that Email lists could never accomplish — because not everyone can be subscribed to every Email list on which I work — blogs enable me to learn from strangers.
3) Blogs Foster Transparency
Blogs enable us to see others’ thinking — or lack of thinking — as they build a web of connected learning. Most adults automatically protect themselves — although there are ample examples of those who have not — when using virtual spaces like Blogger.com and MySpace.com. It is fine for them to encounter adult content that is considered inappropriate for use in K-12 settings. However, school policy dictates that participating in these adult sites — adult, not because they have XXX content perhaps but because they deal with adult content including pictures — requires approval. Most teachers and administrators who blog are aware of the lines they must not cross. Blogs and podcasts add a level of transparency with which only a few are comfortable. To be honest, some people don't want to make their thinking known to others. Or, sadly, they do not believe their thinking is worth being shared.
Unfortunately, most students are not sophisticated enough to allow only some of their thinking, and feelings, to be transparent. For some, the inappropriateness of being transparent in certain areas adds a titillating effect that is difficult for them to overcome. This inappropriate use...this misappropriation of adult spaces by children…has resulted in a whole new conversation.
This conversation has profound implications for blogging in classrooms and school districts. Blogging teachers are advocating that commercial blogging sites not be filtered out of the school's network. However, virtual spaces like MySpaces.com, as wonderful as they are in connecting people, can be places where cyber-predators abide. As such, they are blocked by default through various content filtering systems. Before we discuss the alternatives, we need to ask ourselves some questions.
Questions We Must Ask as Educators About Virtual Spaces
Sitting in a meeting with campus administrators in mid-November, 2005, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions. Unfortunately, most had not heard of virtual spaces like MySpace.com. But after we discussed the benefits, the question they had was, “Can we guarantee that all teachers will supervise students appropriately? Can we prevent teachers from letting students use these resources inappropriately?” The answer, evident to all present, was “No.”
With that conversation in mind, and as a result of a podcast posted by Bud the Teacher where he challenges the idea of filtering out commercial blogging sites, I have a few questions to ask as well:
- Do the benefits of access outweigh the dangers to our children?
- What right do we have to expose children to danger,even for educational purposes, without parental consent?
- Do parents — who themselves may be technology illiterate — truly understand the dangers their children face when they are turned loose on home computers?
- Even if these benefits outweigh the dangers, and parents are complicit, can school district administrators and teachers really choose to endanger children simply to teach them the art of digital conversation and create personal learning networks?
As a parent, I want to sign-off on any use of virtual spaces in which my sixth grader engages. She is a budding flower, and like any dad, I'm worried and want to protect her. The fact is that she has a naivety and innocence to her interactions with others. It is difficult to impress upon her the real dangers of people as sexual predators, much less virtual predators whom she might not see coming until too late.
After viewing the MySpace.com environment myself—seeing it with my eyes wide open as a grown man, rather than a child making connections because it's something everyone else is doing—I have the same thoughts as did Jennifer Bergland, who posted in the comment section of my “Mousing Around” blog:
It was after I viewed several MySpaces of teens in our community that our district started a partnership with our police department to begin an Internet Safety program with our parents and students. Most parents have no idea their kids have a MySpace. I have begun asking them, and they don't know what I'm talking about. I think the most disturbing thing I found was how much personal information kids are posting on their MySpace. I saw some with their school schedules listed so anyone viewing the website knows exactly where this child is on any given school day.
I also was surprised with the suggestive poses. Many might have been fully clothed but they had this "come hither" look.
What's the Alternative to Commercial Sites?
Like the people who organized the Sixth Grade Social at the school that my daughter will attend, I am eager to create virtual environments that enable students to connect with each other, to build personal learning environments. To thrive in the global economy, children must be connected and learn to coordinate their work via the Internet. Blogs and podcasts are some of the first tools of the Read/Write Web that will enable them to accomplish this. I recommend that school districts take the following steps to ensure that students won't have to misappropriate adult spaces for their digital conversations and personal learning network construction. Those steps are as follows:
- Take immediate steps to block or filter out commercial sites that allow children to blog and connect to others at school. Such sites would include Blogger and MySpace.com, as well as a few others.
- Set up our own blogging sites for use by students and their teachers after they sign an addendum to the standard Acceptable Use Policy. Or, as an alternative to setting up your own blogging system, use David Warlick's “Blogmeister” service, which provides password-ed class blogs as well as RSS feeds for each student and teacher blog.
- Finally, set up meetings with parents offering suggestions as to how they can monitor their child's use of virtual spaces. Encourage them to find out where there child blogs and visit the site regularly to check on it. Even better, show them how to use free open source RSS aggregators so that they can quickly see what content is posted.
To set up our own blogosphere, thereby severing the connections to the "real blogosphere", may be the ONLY way to ensure that districts are doing all they can to protect students. Failure to do so means we willfully expose our children to dangers we very well knew existed and against which we neglected to shield our children.
The art of digital conversation, of building personal learning networks, is more about knowing when we need information, as well as knowing how to identify, locate and evaluate it. And, then, as if that weren't enough, real life forces us to effectively use that information to solve real life problems. In short, as the National Forum on Information Literacy says, blogging can help us—as well as our students—develop information literacy.
Acknowledgements to some in my Personal Learning Network:
This article could not have been written without the contributions of various bloggers and ideas expressed. I would especially like to acknowledge...
- David Warlick for introducing me to the idea of personal learning networks, and ClassBlogmeister.
- Wes Fryer for the idea of transparency that blogs provide.
- George Siemens for his revolutionary "learning theory" of connectivism.
- Micha Villarreal for her initial question regarding MySpace.com
- Bud the Teacher for sharing his questions and thoughts regarding content filtering.
- Dean Shareski and Jennifer Bergland for their thoughtful comments on the use of MySpace.
- Administrators from an anonymous district who took a few moments to share their perspective.
- Two great blogs: AnneTeachesMe, and The Shifted Librarian.