I was invited by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach to contribute some thoughts to a session at the Texas Tech Forum today in Austin TX. It was very nice to be asked, especially when I found that I was in the company of such respected educators as Terry Freedman and Emily Kornblut. The topic for conversation was Virtual Communities for Professional Development and Growth, where all three of us had been invited to share a few minutes talking about how we use virtual networks to support our own learning.
Unfortunately, my audio stream was largely unusable and we had to abandon it before I really got started. Seems that the trans-Pacific bandwidth gods were not smiling this morning (or was it David Jakes using all the bandwidth in the next room playing with Google Earth? Hmm, we’ll never know)
Nevertheless, here’s the brief outline of what I would have said, or something very much like it…
If you accept that Learning is a Conversation, and that some of the most powerful learning can take place in the process of conversing and exchanging ideas with others, then setting up ways to have as many of these conversations as possible seems like an obvious thing to do.
How many would agree that some of the most powerful “take aways” from many conference events come from not just what you hear from the stage, but from the informal conversations you have over lunch, in the corridors, etc? There is great power in those conversations. It might be easy to think that the people on the stage at conferences have the knowledge and that if we simply listen to them we will get wisdom, but the truth is that sometimes it just doesn’t work like that, and even if it does, most of those ideas gather far more momentum once we start to internalise them through further conversation with others. Ideas beget ideas, one thing leads to another, and you often find some of the best, most useful ideas come to you not from what was said by a speaker, but from things that came to to you as a result of further conversation about what was said. (by the way, the same logic applies in classrooms too!)
So if we accept that conversations are powerful learning tools, then how can we encourage more of these conversations?
If we limit our notion of learning to the “official” channel – the teacher, the textbook, the syllabus – we miss so much. Yes, learning happens at school, but what about outside school? Yes, learning happens in the classroom, but what about outside the classroom? Yes, learning happens in the act of “being taught”, but what about when we are not “being taught”?
Our schools system implies that when we ring the bell to signal the start of a class, we are really saying that the learning starts… wait for it… now! And at the end of the lesson we ring it again to say the learning now stops. Ok, school’s over, you can all stop learning now. Until tomorrow.
Is creativity important in education? If you’re not sure, I suggest you watch the video by Sir Ken Robinson, or read the report “Are they really ready for work?” Yes, I think creativity is important. So, if we acknowledge that creativity in education is important, then how can we teach kids to be creative if we continue to focus on just regurgitating standard answers to standard questions, year after year. Because if it’s only about learning pre-defined content then you don’t need creativity, and you don’t need conversation. Learning in messy and there is no point extending our thinking into new and creative areas if we aren’t committed to that notion, because that just muddies up all those nice clean facts we have to remember.
Papert said that the one really valuable skill for a 21st century learner is that of being able to “learn to learn”… To be able not just to know the answers to what you were taught in school, but to know how to find the answers to those things you were not taught in school.
So how do virtual communities fit into this? They are an obvious and convenient way of extending conversations with other likeminded people, no matter where (or when) in the world they might be. Once you establish the right communities – ones that work well for you – you have an amazing brains-trust to tap into, to bounce ideas off, to share with, to give to, to take from, to argue with, to feel validated by, to learn from, to teach to… once established, you have a powerful 24/7/365 mechanism for generating creative thoughts.
Getting to the point, the tools I personally use to generate my own personal learning networks – my own virtual communities – consist of…
- Email lists – yep, you heard me… good old fashioned, asyncronous email lists. They still have a useful place and for many people are a great introduction to online communities.
- Web Forums – same thought as email lists. In fact forums are really just email lists without the email. Great for specific topics and threaded discussions that gets archived.
- Blogs – wonderful public and private thinking space. You really have to formulate your ideas in clearer ways in order to write them down, so blogs are great for really figuring out your stance on things. And the fact that blogs become so interlinked, with commenting and cross-reading between other blogs. They are like “idea pollination”, only without the allergic reaction.
- Wikis – great for collaboration, which is another way of saying conversation really. Great for group projects, great for post conference wrapups (extending the conversation). Just great.
- Podcasts – some of my most powerful learning takes place through listening to podcasts. And when I decided to start my own podcast and began to have real conversations with people… wow, that certainly turbocharges the learning experience.
- Twitter – so much has been written about Twitter recently. It’s live, it’s immediate, it’s awesome, but you won’t get it until you try it.
- Skype – My favourite tool for conversation. It encourages quality conversation like no other.
- Ning – Sometimes the fact that there are so many Ning communities makes it hard to focus my attention in the one place, but certainly a great tool for building communities around a central theme.
So there you have it. Some of my favourite virtual community tools and some of the rationale behind why I use them. At the end of it all, I think belonging to the right combination of communities has the potential to improve what you do… not by a small amount, but by an exponential factor. Tapping into communities increases the quality of your thinking – not by 5-10%, but rather by doubling or tripling your creative flow and understanding.
If you doubt it, just try it and see. Then leave a comment and we can have a conversation about it 😉