Personal Learning Networks

It's at the digital water cooler where I interact with and learn from other people. This is my PLN

It’s at the digital water cooler where I interact with and learn from other people. This is my PLN

“All of your knowledge won’t amount to much if you don’t have a network of people to share it with and enough compassion for the people in that network to understand that your success is a direct result of their success.”

Tim Sanders, Chief Solutions Officer at Yahoo

I’m in education because I want children/young adults/students/professionals to be able to think for themselves. I believe that I’m working to a point where the locus of control should rest within them. Yet, when it comes to my professional development needs, this locus usually resides with an obscure subcommittee that arranges meetings, invites a speakers, a lecturer or guru and assumes that the co-hort of attendees will learn, grow and return to our classroom inspired and “professionally developed”. What a silly notion.

A person that loves learning, is looking for guidance, wants wisdom, requires answers to questions and has experience to share does not need sit through presentation after presentation, discussion after discussion in order to become a better educator. Training programmes are not going to improve their teaching. A network of educated people that are willing to talk with other educated people is required, not a panel of presenters.

Managements’ obscure faith in officially sanctioned lectures, in-service training courses or educational conferences is being shaken by free-form, dialogic user centred learning concept called a Personal Learning Network (PLN). Skeptics of top down training programmes are using the Social Networking and Web 2.0 Technologies to create an alternative platform to communicate, accept and dole out advice, coach and be coached and interact with a huge range of interesting people. Sharing and social applications on the ‘net have facilitated user-centered learning opportunities, where the training agenda is made up by the attendees, not the speaker.

So if you are tired of being told what meetings, conferences, INSET days you should attend, but are interested in engaging with similarly minded professionals (in a mediated public space), if you are comfortable with being part of a community and are looking for some form of mentoring or coaching, then maybe you’ll be interested in developing your own Personal Learning Network. Search Twitter for the term “My PLN”, and you’ll find thousands of people using electronic tools to connect with and share their knowledge. Or join me, and my AV / Ed Tech class and create a digital identity where we can explore new ways of learning in an unplace, where control rests with the teacher, not the talker. Expect peer to peer learning, some social engagement and reflective thinking. Who knows where this conversation will take us.

Twitter from Higher down to Primary Education

Some thoroughly confused PGCE students of mine have admitted that they just “don’t get Twitter“. That’s fine. Your confusion over Twitter is shared by many. Media literacies are determined by our social identities. We start reading books because we see others reading. We get an e-mail address because other people want to contact us. We work out predictive text because we’d like to respond quickly to others SMS. If your connections are limited to email and texting, and you don’t want another “web-borne intrusion“, you’ll have a lot more time for marking, lesson planning and other important teacher activities.

If your reason for not understanding Twitter is that you can’t understand how a teacher might find Twitter useful, then the slide share below looks at examples of how some education institutions are using Twitter.

Although some South African Universities are on Twitter, fewer teachers or schools that have gone the Twitter route. Innovation fatigue, “digital dongas” or principled opposition to social media (i.e. this is a teenage fad) have been cited as reasons for non participation. I however think that the real reason is simply that other South African teachers are not using it. I’m the Twit that’s in the minority. But stick with me (and Twitter). I’m hoping to introduce you to a concept called a Personal Learning Network. Soon you’ll see that Twitter is part of a bigger picture, and its usefulness is better experienced than explained.

Modelling Technology

Motivational speakers usually don’t impress me. Brought in by a well meaning leader, the “You can make a difference” inspirational monologue, usually leaves me more dispirited than before. “Do what I’m doing, stand in my shoes for a week, and then make this speech”, has always been my internal mantra to their 20 minute routine.

Computer experts with “solutions”, in the same way, also often leave me cold. Listening to another well practiced pitch that explains how this new technology “…will revolutionize your classroom…” leaves me equally skeptical. “Experts”, I think, need to install the package on the school network, model the technology to teachers and students, make it available for staff to play and experiment. Then, if it works, you will inspire.

My best learning has been when I’ve had time to explore, play and interact with an expert that takes the time to go beyond teaching and models (and expects) best practices. Wesley Fryer is such an expert. Instead of opting for the the motivational approach, and delivering great lectures on technology use, the “expert” has set out explicitly how he intends to model appropriate uses of the technology to the class.

This approach inspires me. It allow me to see how the others are playing, experimenting and designing teaching and learning activities for other classes. I know that as I start climbing another steep learning curve, my inexperience with new programs, my confused explorations with new websites can be mediated by another , who has stood in my shoes, and is able to empathize with my position, and offer me examples and assistance.

My class this year are also going to be learning about ICT and how they can integrate it into their teaching. I’m “the expert” this time, and it’s likely that I’ll sound like the motivational speaker. To ameliorate any dispirited feelings, I intend to model good technology use to the class. I’m going to focus on

  • Collaborative learning
  • Acting as a networked sherpa
  • Engaging in reflective thinking about my teaching practice
  • Having fun

with them.
I know that the route to computer competency is littered with well intended courses, certificates and experts. I’m hoping that a bit of explicit modeling might create some engaged learning. Subscribe to this blog and I’ll keep you posted.

Pecha Kucha Pietermaritzburg?

Pecha Kucha, Japanese for “chit-chat”, is a presentation format that combines business meeting and slam poetry and turns endless Power Point presentations into an art form and a competitive sport.

Initially introduced by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, two Architects from Tokyo’s Klein-Dytham Architecture that were hosting an event for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public, this simple presentation format has become a world wide phenomena.

A Pecha Kucha presentation consists of 20 images, each displayed for 20 seconds, and then transitioned automatically to the next. At the the cut off point, the presentation is complete and the presenter stands down. This is a short, focused presentation that should, if rules are observed, take no longer than 6 min 40 secs.

In South Africa the idea has grown in popularity and regular evening are held and planned for Durban and Cape Town. A typical Pecha Kucha Night hosts 8 to 14 presenters. Presenters (and much of the audience) are usually from a range of academic and creative fields. Here, an audience can look forward to a tightly focused collection of images and words on subjects as diverse as tea towel design to teaching, cartooning to cartography.

Pietermaritzburg, sadly, still hasn’t heard of the phenomena. If you think that you can match words and images in a six minutes and 40 seconds  elevator pitch, or are interested in assisting creating a platform to watch others “transform corporate cliché into surprisingly compelling beat-the-clock performance art” – then please get in touch and let’s make such an event happen in our small city.

Information and Confusion

I love the rough and ready index cards that Jessica Hagy uses with her “Venn Dadagrams” at Indexed. Her Needles and Haystacks graph (slide 3)perfectly captures the befuddled brain after a long morning of course introductions.

To finish off their befuddlement, I hauled out the data projector and subjected the class to their first (but certainly not last)  “death by powerpoint”. My collection of icons and “pictures” illustrated what they could expect this year, and (I hope) allowed them to take in a bit of visual data. While the slideshow was not as articulate as Jessica’s visual vocabulary, it must have stuck, because Carmia took up my slide 25 challenge, and tracked me down on Twitter an hour later. I’m impressed. I wonder if anyone else can find me?

QR in class

I’ve usually teach ICT on Networks where the students out number the desktops quite dramatically. Last years class was over 70 students in size, and I had 12 computers to share amongst them.

While some might think that one person one computer is a democratic right, the poor ratio of computers to users does have perks. Students that don’t normally have computer access, learn from each other while sitting next to their peers. Those that are digitally privileged usually duck out and complete their work on a home PC. Their absence is not missed as they dominate the learning, when the laggards really need attention.

This year, I’m going to level the playing field and include a new screen in my class. I’ve read and experimented a bit with the cell phone, and feel that its time to attempt to incorporate Mobile learning in my classes.

All readings will be filed on the Social Bookmarking service Delicious and catalogued with the tag UKZNAV. For those that want to access their readings without a computer, they can also do it via the camera built into their phone. Point the camera to the QR code, and the selected readings should appear.

My second attempt to include mobile in my teaching is to insist that all register on Twitter and then attempt to  incorporate the back channel into the class. Compulsive note writers will have the opportunity to share their secret scribblings using  with one man and his data projector. Again, the user will point their camera to the QR code, and the link to the backchannel should appear.

Stay tuned (or subscribe to the RSS feed)  for feedback

Linking spaces to information


I’ve accessed my blog via my phone’s camera using this QR code. And while this sounds impossibly complicated, I’ve just learned how this works in the last half an hour.

QR codes combine simple creation with easy access to QR code readers. Create the code using a QR-Code Generator and then point your mobile phone code reader (you will probably need to download an appropriate one) and voila – with a cashier like scan the QR reader will beep and a message should appear that points you to the encoded destination. Much like any other scanner, a QR reader recognizes the QR image, and responds appropriately.

There’s a buzz about Augmented Reality applications on Android and iPhones. But for those of us with dinosaurs, we can also participate (to a limited degree) in this spaces to information hype. Apart from better echos, I’d like to see QR codes being used alongside a sign in a museum, garden or gallery to give more information about the item. A QR code could be included by a teacher at the end of a presentation, set of notes or round the classroom, that would lead into a class activity.

QR codes “support experiential learning, bringing scholarship out of the classroom and into physical experience” ( things you should know about QR Codes ). While the Desktop brought multi media into the classroom, mobile phones (and other smart devices) are taking the classroom into the world and reconfiguring the way that we can incorporate media into our teaching. Start looking for QR codes on shoe adverts, scooter posters , buildings, out in the wild or even on your bookshelf.

Re-arranging the deckchairs

distractionsMy “multi-tasking”, “threaded”, “distributed”, “distracted” world tends to make concentrated work and thought rare. This year, I’d like to see if I can look up, look inside, take time to breathe, talk to myself, be still and mindful before I jump straight into the vast connected chamber that I work in.

Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience describes this Zone as a place where focus is complete and involvement (and success) in the activity at hand keeps you concentrated.

So I’m trying something new. I’ve re-arranged the garden furniture outside my office door. Before I sit down at the computer, check  my email / Twitter stream or feeds, I haul out my analogue blog (my journal), disconnect from the world and attempt to connect my centre, with another reality (call it God if you like) before I jump into the set of distractions that constitute my work.

Yes, it could be that I’m merely re-arranging the deck chairs. I hope that I’m redrawing boundaries to protect and preserve the mental and emotional space required be connected to me, and then to enter that totally immersed, passionate and timeless space where I can creatively engage with the tasks at hand. We’ll see how it goes

Web Wednesday Chit Chat and Workshops

I’d like to experiment with hosting and running a set of alternate bi-monthly chit chats and workshops for people that want to share their digital stories and extend their use of the net. These events will take place on the first Wednesday of the month and will collectively be known as WebWed.

Chit Chat

At these brief presentations we’ll discover how people are adapting / adopting / innovating with the net in their professional, social and educational lives. Join me for a bi-monthly Web Wednesday presentations (using the Pecha Kucha format) at 21 Milborrow Road.
Suggested Chit Chats
Please select the Chit Chats you would be interested in watching (multiple selections allowed)


Some people might be want to make better use of the net and learn how to design and develop web stuff. Sign up for a practical session behind a computer every second month where I’ll facilitate a workshop on a local computer network. Only 10 places are available

Suggested Workshops Topics
Please select the workshop topics that you might participate in (multiple selections allowed)

If you are in education, development or training and interested in learning about, using and producing resources on the web, then look out for #WebWed on Twitter. If you are around Pietermaritzburg, consider sharing your experiences or sign up for a workshop where together, we’ll work on the web.