Non-Teaching, Research, Social Media, Technology

Prepping for a PLN Presentation

This Tuesday morning I’ll be presenting to my colleagues during a day of professional development. I was given total freedom and flexibility to present on whatever topic I wanted, and I ultimately chose to talk about strategies and tools that foster professional development beyond conferences or specific professional development days — essentially, developing a “Personal Learning Network.”

"Stages of PLN Adoption" - Courtesy of Jeff Utrecht -

While I’m not wholly enamored of the phrase “Personal Learning Network,” or its attendant acronym, PLN, that terminology seems to have become dominant and so I’ll go with it until something else gains precedence in the lexicon. In spite of my non-plussed attitude toward the PLN title, I do think that the presence of a PLN has been hugely influential in shaping my own teaching practice over the past three-plus years, and I hope to share with others how I’ve gone about building this an why I’ve found it so useful.

A cursory Google search for “PLN” or “PLN presentation” yields oodles of hits on these topics, and I’ve seen a number of similar presentation titles at ISTE over the past two years, all of which indicates that this is well-trod ground, so I’m not anticipating making any earth-shattering contributions. Nevertheless, reflecting on my own PLN and my approach to using it has helped me consolidate a sense of which tools are the most valuable in facilitating this form of professional development.

My primary goal in the presentation is to make the construction and use of a PLN, and the tools that are most essential for a PLN (and interesting question of priorities in and of itself), as accessible and pragmatic as possible. Therefore, focusing on the theory and value isn’t going to be something I stress as heavily, which instead will allow me to focus on specific resources, how I use them, and how they prove themselves helpful.

However, I do think that it’s important to establish how this type of networking and information acquisition is different from a simple Google search — a distinction I find most evident in the ability to get specifically tailored types of information from sources that have been pre-vetted. The most obvious difference, perhaps, is also the ability to interact with the sources of one’s information rather than simply having to be the receiver of the information.

So, here’s where the request for feedback and input comes in:

Which of these is vital? Which of them should I omit? What have I missed that would be important to include? Where can I change my emphases?

Without further ado, let me get to my quick recap of resources and emphases for each one.

  1. Twitter
    • Twitter is vital in building connections to other educators and getting an up-to-date look at the resources that people are using, generating, and finding most helpful. I’ll provide a brief overview of some of the intricacies of the service and specific features (e.g. @replies, hashtags).
    • Twitter provides powerful community building features by searching specific hashtags, e.g. #sschat, #engchat, #edchat, and others.
    • The real power and value of Twitter comes particularly when one begins to use a third-party Twitter client like Echofon, Seesmic Desktop, Tweetdeck, or others.
    • Once one has a network built up, Twitter can be incredibly helpful in getting feedback on ideas, lessons, classroom techniques, or research questions.

      Example of @ Reply to question on Twitter.

  2. Google Reader
    • Once you start finding resources and other educators, some of whom have blogs, finding a way to constantly track that information and have it accessible in one condensed location is important to make it manageable.
    • Using an RSS Reader, like Google’s, makes this process very simple. Adding the RSS feeds from education blogs (or blogs related to other personal interests) helps one get a specifically tailored look at the topics in which one is interested.

      Sidebar on Google Reader

    • The search feature within Google Reader allows one to scour through sources that you’ve already selected as valuable. Moreover, the ability to “Star” and “Share” posts in Google Reader make it easier to track and remember ideas and resources that one found particularly helpful.
    • Reading blogs and webpages within Google Reader is a pretty passive experience, but by clicking on the title of a post, one can go to the page of the post itself and then write a comment, thereby interacting in a more in-depth way with the authors of these posts.
    • Google Reader also allows you to create “Bundles” of blogs that you’ve grouped thematically, making it easy to share with your colleagues a set of resources that you’ve found helpful. For instance, here’s the “Bundle” of all the Education blogs in my Google Reader.
  3. Google+
    • While relatively new, Google+ has some interesting features that make it a good venue for PLN interactions. The most notable of these is the ability to create “Circles” and group people according to the ways in which you want to interact with them.
    • This “Circles” feature allows posts to specific constituencies, so that the message intended for your “Educator” friends doesn’t have to show up in the feed of your “Knitting Group” friends or “Kayak Enthusiast” friends.
    • Interaction with and posting to others’ walls is intuitive and very similar to Facebook. However, Google+ has the added benefit of allowing you to edit your own posts in the event you misspell something or include the wrong link.

      "Educators" Circle on Google+

    • Google+ also makes it very easy to find people who have common interests or expertise as you through their “Search” feature. Because it is very intuitive to add anyone to your circles, creating connections with these people and sharing your materials with them is quite simple.

      Search for "Social Studies" on Google+

  4. Longer-form venues — Educators PLN and Classroom 2.0

    • Honestly, I know less about these resources than the others I’ve mentioned in this post, but they were recommended by Richard Byrne, so I think they’re worth checking out. Richard stressed that PLNs shouldn’t be limited to Twitter or other micro-blogging resources, (a point he made here), so I hope this presentation effectively conveys that.
    • Rather than the shorter-form interactions facilitated by Google+ and especially by Twitter, these websites include forums and pages dedicated to specific topics that remain static and more easily navigable than the ever-rushing stream of Twitter.

For the time being, I’m going to cut it off there. I think this set of resources is a good one, and I don’t want to create a presentation so chock-full of info that it’s overwhelming and therefore intimidating to experiment with. So, what feedback do people have? How’ve I met (or not met) the goals I set out to achieve? For the sake of reference, here are those questions again:

Which of these is vital? Which of them should I omit? What have I missed that would be important to include? Where can I change my emphases?

Links to other PLN Blog Posts and Resources:

PLN Videos:

Social Media, Technology, Uncategorized

THATCamp Austin Thoughts and Wrap-Up

Yesterday I returned from Austin and my whirlwind trip down to UT for the first regional THATCamp meeting. Schedule-wise, the THATCamp meeting coincided with the Society for American Archivists annual conference, which meant that the unconference drew a fair number of archivists interested in digital preservation, harnessing technology to increase accessibility to archival information, and a whole host of other, techier subjects that I really didn’t understand (which goes to say that I’ll omit an extensive recap of the Dork Shorts segment of the evening.)

My interest in attending stemmed from learning about the THATCamp meeting at George Mason University that took place earlier this summer. I had initially thought that I’d have to wait until Summer 2010 to attend this event, but once I learned that they’d start holding regional meet-ups, I jumped at the chance to attend and talk about a number of the issues I’ve been writing about here on this blog. Particularly in these last few weeks leading up to the start of school, I was excited to have the chance to float some of my thoughts about a social media-structured class by others and cull both their ideas and feedback.

After dinner and an informal chatting session, (where it became strikingly obvious that most people knew one another better by their Twitter handles than by their real names) we convened in the extremely well air conditioned main room to decide on session topics and locations. The predominance of archivists meant that the bulk of the sessions dealt with archival issues, but nevertheless, my proposal for a session idea was given the thumbs-up by 13 attendees and became a session in and of itself. Most of the attendees to the session (perhaps five of the ~11) were associated with the University of Texas’ Computer Writing and Research Lab, whose website and Learning Record page I’ve found really compelling.*

I was glad to have the chance to meet with the graduate students who work at the CWRL and instruct the freshman writing and rhetoric courses. Although my subject matter as a teacher is ostensibly “history,” I nevertheless think critical writing and argumentation is a much more vital skill than fact memorization and is hopefully one of the key skills students will leave high school possessing. Therefore, being able to talk with teachers who work with college freshman and have a clear sense of what they struggle with was helpful for me in terms of seeing overlapping challenges and areas for improvement.

Some of our discussion centered on strategies for incorporating social media into writing, although I must admit I didn’t take copious notes, didn’t Tweet too extensively, and haven’t yet perused the archive of others’ tweets from that session. However, John Jones at UT-Austin and the CWRL recorded the whole thing with his Mino HD Flip camera and will hopefully post it somewhere for posterity’s sake. (John, when you get the link up on Vimeo or wherever else, send out a tweet and let us know where to find it. Thanks!) I do remember though that we talked about the challenges of incorporating technology into writing and research and collaboration (or the lack thereof) in the humanities.

The session ended, however, on a semi-ominous tone when talking about student blogging and what legal hurdles might stand in the way of teachers wanting to incorporate blogs–particularly those that are publicly visible–into the classroom. One of the attendees brought up the issue of FERPA and whether it provides students with a legal shield that would enable them to avoid having to participate in a class blog or write their own blog given their privacy concerns. Dave Parry, (a fellow Metroplexer who I’ve followed on Twitter for a long time, was really glad to meet in person and chat with, and to whom I owe a special debt of gratitude for driving to Austin and back. Thanks, Dave!) a professor at UT-Dallas, argued that for his classes and for those students majoring in Emerging Media and Communications at UTD, it’d be impossible to pursue the necessary coursework, complete it satisfactorily, and avoid participating publicly on the internet. This issue was of interest to me given my hopes to structure student writing assignments around blogs and RSS feeds. However, my brief research about FERPA seemed to indicate that the law deals mainly with student grades. In any event, I think that the issue of technological and media literacy is a really vital one that students and parents are justifiably concerned about. However, it seems that a class where students are encouraged to pro-actively define themselves in a positive manner online through participation in social media — and the learn about the implications and dangers of those tools in the process — is providing a valuable learning experience. Certainly, it is far more effective to have students actively experience these social media tools in a learning context than have a sensationalist speaker come in and didactically talk at students about stranger danger online and the glut of sexual predators on MySpace.

After our first session we listened to the Dork Shorts presentations, but for my purposes I found the most applicability in Matt King’s presentation on the CWRL’s “Rhetorical Peaks” video game. I won’t try to explain it too in-depth as it’s worth checking out, but will say that I think its structure and manner of presentation is really clever and I’m hoping to integrate the game into my classes this year. The second session was on digital inequalities and the archive, which raised some interesting issues, but none which I had much knowledge of or investment in, making it thought-provoking, but not professionally useful.

Perhaps the best thing about the entire unconference, however, involved the networking and connections I forged with other scholars interested in issues of effective pedagogy through technology. In this regard, the post-conference hang-out at the Dog and Duck Pub proved a really valuable wrap-up to the evening. Our group from the first session reconvened and we chatted about various ideas for structuring assignments around social media to encourage more collaboration and student-to-student feedback.

Ben Brumfield, one of the organizers of the event, has already posted on some of the challenges that surfaced in the planning and execution of this initial foray into regional THATCamps. Nevertheless, I’m extremely glad to have gone, netted my free t-shirt, eaten delicious pizza (all of which was gratis thanks to the savvy budgeting of the organizers!), and connected with really impressive, smart, people whose thoughts and ideas about the digital humanities and incorporating technology into the classroom have been and will continue to be influential. I look forward to continuing the discussion and innovation!

*The CWRL’s concept and procedure for “minimal marking” is brilliant! If only I could rein myself in enough to not nitpick the whole thing I might begin to actually move through grading writing expeditiously. However, I’m determined to make a good faith effort this year to employ that strategy, which will no doubt save my more time than Don LaPre’s tips from “The Road to Self-Improvement.” Moreover, though this is a topic for a separate post on grading, I’m also quite compelled by the CWRL’s “small multiples” grading system; however, I’d need to find a way to make this system easily quantifiable given the frequency of assignments and grades that characterize the secondary versus the university classroom. However, if anyone has ideas about how to convert dots on a Cartesian coordinate system into fractions for the purpose of grading [or has already done so] please let me know.


Navel gazing! Now new and improved with blogs!

Actually, this isn’t a snarky post, but my previous title was so banal that I had to do something to kick it up a notch. So, without further ado, (optional insertion of Emeril-esque “BAM” here)

My first teaching job (well, the one that actually paid something–never mind the fact that the wage was roughly half the amount of what most students withdrew from the school’s ersatz bank each weekend for exciting shopping excursions to outlet malls in New Hampshire or to Copley Place in Boston where they bought bizarre, now hopelessly dated items like MiniDisc players…but I digress) was at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA, a boarding school roughly 75 minutes west of Boston.

During that summer I worked as a “teaching intern,” an august title which indicated that I would have the chance to work with an experienced teacher in planning and leading a five-week American History course, get to lead my own elective (videography), and that I would also get to live in a student dorm room and share bathroom facilities with teenage boys (which my wife would argue she essentially has to do presently…sorry, Anna.) Moreover, for those of us who made up this intrepid group of “interns” we also found our titles amusing given that we had them in the relatively recent post-Lewinsky era. However, as far as I know, the titles were the only thing we really had in common with those who worked on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In spite of the really appealing way in which I cast the job in the preceding paragraph, I really did enjoy and learn an immense amount from the experience. Not only did I have a great mentor teacher who allowed me to jump in immediately and start leading the class–something that was hugely valuable in confirming for me that I wanted to pursue teaching as a profession–but I also had good teaching intern colleagues and a good intern coordinator who, at least from my perspective, (I had many colleagues from that summer who feel quite differently) really pushed me to engage in valuable reflection and critical self-assessment.

Though initially cumbersome, our required weekly reflections proved vital for me in thinking about effective versus ineffective clasroom management and presentation techniques. I tended to treat them seriously and (I’m sure this will be hard for any readers out there to believe) write a fair amount about the previous week. These reflections proved valuable as launching pads for the debriefing discussions that I had with both my mentor teacher and the intern coordinator. Moreover, they helped me establish the habit of critical reflection and feel comfortable seeking input and pedagogical advice from my colleagues–both those around my age and those who had many years of experience.

While my full-time teaching career has not been characterized by quite the same volume of codified (read: formally written) reflections (though, I’d venture to guess my amount of informal and discussion-based reflection has increased exponentially), it has just dawned on me that in many ways this blog is now serving as that medium for formal reflection. However, instead of that reflection taking place on a small scale (e.g. read by one mentor teacher or shared with a few colleagues) this medium, and my development and engagment with my personal learning network (is there a less nausea-inducing phrase we could come up with for PLNs? Suggestions? Anyone? Bueller?) via Twitter has become my new method of sparking critical self-reflection.

In these past few months my engagement with my PLN has helped foster my enthusiasm for and deepen my respect for the challenge, complexity, and enjoyment of the teaching profession–something for which I’m extremely grateful.

So, thanks to those of you whose ideas have been thought-provoking and pushed me to constantly rethink what I do and how I can make it more engaging and beneficial for both ny students and myself. I guess this post could also be seen as an endorsement of blogging as a way to constantly keep oneself engaged and also contributing to the ever-expanding corpus of ideas, suggestions, and resources that social media allows us to access and employ in our own classes.

Well, I’d better call this post quits before it devolves any further into what one might consider something resembling the omphalocentric musings of a teenager. Well, not a teenager in this case, just someone who teaches them. (Uh oh, are teenage characteristics contagious? We did have a Swine Flu — er, pardon me, my un-kosher friends, “H1N1” — scare this spring. Should I be worried?)

Here’s to being stuck in an airplane! Two posts in one day!