Larry Kahn

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Conversation

My background, to condense many years into one sentence, is in music and information technology. When I transitioned in 1999 from working in the corporate IT world to working as a technology director for an independent school, schools at that time primarily saw technology as a tool to support their infrastructure (email, grading, school store, library, cafeteria, business office, etc). To enhance learning, the school where I worked employed computer labs, used a few laptops in carts, and became an extremely early adapter of wireless technology.

In 1999, both within the school and outside the school, professional networking took place primarily in the form of emails. These one-way or two-way conversations may have been read by groups of people, sent to grouped email folders, or shared on listserves, but email was the primary means of communicating. For the most part, both adults and students worked on computers in isolation from one another. Collaboration took the form of emailing a document to a colleague for feedback.

I first learned about the revolution in social networking by being instructed to stop it. We learned that students were using a new form of technology as the means to converse with strangers. This new form of technology involved the establishment of virtual communities of young people. These communities were growing exponentially and attracting young people to them like moths to the flame. The perception at that time was that no good could possibly come from these communities.

A word about school technology directors. Like most teachers, we tend to be quite conservative about what we do. By nature we are quite protective and cautious. We wish to protect our networks, protect the kids on our networks, etc.

Frankly, the first student pages I visited on MySpace (remember MySpace?) were quite unnerving. In addition to being off-putting simply because this type of media was so new, most of the pages I visited at that time had a horrid sense of design, their authors were revealing far too much information about themselves, and students were seemingly connecting with anyone and everyone. It was about that time that my first thoughts relating to teaching students about “media literacy” came into being, although at that time those words would have never entered my head. I began thinking that we needed to teach students how to navigate these spaces safely. Unfortunately, at the time, I had no clue about how to do this, nor did most of my colleagues.

So, in order to better guide our seemingly reckless students, I set about the task of learning about these new social networking media. Four years ago, I brought Alan November to my school, and we learned that young people networking didn’t have to be all bad -- some students were doing amazing things at school by connecting. Three years ago, I enrolled a team of 5 teachers into the Powerful Learning Practice program. While I was enrolled in that program, a shift took place in my thinking. Two of the top educational technology leaders in the country, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson, were extolling the virtues of leveraging these new social tools in schools. Still skeptical, I decided to lean into my discomfort. I forced myself to start a Facebook page, sign up for Twitter, enroll in and take part in Ning communities, and create a Second Life avatar. In no time at all, I started making connections and having meaningful conversations online about educational technology. And, via a contact I made in Second Life, I had my first experience connecting students at my school with an expert from another country. This led to experiences and conversations that enhanced both their learning and mine.

Now, via my personal learning network, I connect with hundreds of people around the world who share my interest in learning and technology. I started a music blog that I now co-author with a friend, and it has attracted close to 1,000 readers from around the world. I’m currently enrolled in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at the University of Manitoba where I’m learning about Connectivism as a learning theory. The course’s leaders, George Siemens and Stephen Downes, brilliant as they are, are not my only teachers. In addition to participating in the synchronous semi-weekly online sessions, I’m learning from the community we have created, a community comprised of the universe of people who are extending this course to our Facebook group, on Twitter, and in Diigo. And they are learning from me, which is, in fact, the point. We are all learning from each other 24x7x365.
Learning together -- that is the shift. I encourage you to join the conversation.

Susan Davis

PLNs: How Did I Get Here?

I used to be a perfectly ordinary English teacher, someone who highlighted her books, typed up tests on mimeos, and left her classroom now and then to get coffee in the faculty room. So, how did I get here?

One day in the late 1990s, I asked my students to submit their homework on Jane Eyre to me via email. I was overwhelmed by the response. First, I had twenty-some emails to process – how was I going to manage all that? Next, I couldn’t believe how good their thinking had become overnight.
Sometime around Y2K, my friend and colleague Renee Hawkins gave me a “Website-a-Day” calendar for Christmas. I had to admit some of the websites that were popping up were really cool.

I took an online course on teaching critical thinking at Goucher College. Amazed, I had to figure out how to be a different kind of student. I took another course about creating basic web pages for my courses. Before I knew what was what, I was participating in discussion forums and designing online courses and had a certificate in “Educational Technology Leadership.”

One spring day, one of my former students, Emily Brecht, came back to visit from college. She said she had been spending all of her time commenting on other people’s “status” on this new thing online called Friendster. “Why would anyone want to do that?” I asked her.

Spoiled from having used online course platforms for my own learning, I looked for a way to bring the excitement of learning online to my classes. My school had blocked my website, so I needed some way around their obsessive controls. We couldn’t afford something like Blackboard, and there was no way I could convince them to include this free new tool called Moodle on our school server, so I began to look for another way. I found something called Internet Classroom Assistant (ICA) and began using it for my 10th grade English class: the discussions that spilled over into class after discussing online made my earlier email revelation look like small talk.

One summer, I had a conversation with my step-daughter, who was interested in pursuing writing professionally. I suggested a writing workshop like the MFA program I had attended, so she could have readers who could provide feedback. “I have lots of readers online,” she said, “what do I need to take a workshop for?”

I transferred to a new school and tried out the ICA there. Then I had to shut down the class because my freshmen were getting carried away with political trash talk during the Bush-Kerry campaign. My students responded by creating their own ICA class so they could talk all they wanted to without any teachers or other adults breathing down their necks.

I moved and started teaching at a school in the middle-of-nowhere Texas. I also became an administrator, so the other teachers didn’t want to talk to me about teaching any more. I missed my friends and former colleagues terribly. I started blogging to the void, pretending that I was modeling ways of thinking about teaching for the teachers who wouldn’t talk to me. I joined networks of teachers on Classroom 2.0 and Independent School Educators Network. When someone I didn’t know responded to an idea I shared in a discussion forum, I got really excited. I really did have someone to talk to about teaching, and especially how my teaching was changing radically as I was influenced by all these new ways of communicating. I couldn’t believe my luck – my colleagues were now – could this really be? – from all over the world.

I started a new blog, “The Flying Trapeze,” with my friend, Renee Hawkins. This was a lot better than blogging to the void – at least we had each other. I overcame my jitters and tried Twitter, though it still seemed a little silly. I created a Facebook group for my students; I posted pictures to flickr and had one chosen for an online travel guide; I kicked around with blonde hair and a guitar in Second Life. I got brave enough to lead a discussion at EduBloggerCon at the ISTE conference in Denver (2010), and suddenly I was being followed by smart people like WhatEdSaid on Twitter. Renee and I started accumulating dots on our blog’s Clustrmap. I began having the richest conversations of my professional life by participating in a year-long investigation of best teaching practices with a band of amazing, inquisitive teachers through a group called Powerful Learning Practice.

I found myself in the midst of an acronym, what people were now referring to as a personal/professional learning network, a PLN, and my life as a teacher and learner has been utterly transformed.