Nodes, Networks and Learning (Beyond Sharing)

What is the value of a professional learning network?  And how can we make the most of these networks to actually learn in deep and profound ways? 

These are questions that I have been grappling with, particularly since the way that many educators (myself included) have been engaging with our networks lately.  From my perspective, it has shifted quite a bit, and not always for the better.   

In Stephen Valentine and Dr. Reshan Richards' book Blending Leadership, they reference a study that poses a "leader not just as an individual but as a node on many different networks." I see this increasingly the case in education as leaders (especially teachers on the front lines) are leveraging technology to connect, expand and communicate with their networks, in some cases with educators from across the world!

But what are we saying and sharing in our networks? More importantly, what are we not saying? What questions are we not asking?  What ideas are we not challenging?

Frankly, I have changed my use of these networks over the years in ways that I must recalibrate. I think of how I began using technology to learn with colleagues years ago as a high school social studies teacher.  In early 2011, following a lunchroom conversation with a science teacher who heard of this new "flipped classroom" idea, I began some initial research of the concept.  As I looked through all of the materials in the grad class I was taking at the time, I realized that little to no research existed on the model.  

I turned to a platform new to me at the time, created a Twitter account, and connected with Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, pioneers of this emerging flipped classroom concept.  I quickly connected with other social studies teachers around the nation (via Twitter) and began to conduct Google Hangouts (GHOs) so that we could discuss ways to effectively "flip" our history classes.  We asked each other questions regularly via Twitter chats, GHOs, and sometimes in the comment sections on our blog posts. 

When I launched my flipped-history blog in the Spring of 2012, it was simply a space for me to reflect on my practice.  I soon found it a valuable platform to ask questions and receive feedback from educators around the globe.  (Apparently flipped classrooms is big in Australia!) As I attended conferences, I began strengthening relationships with many of these amazing educators as we had a chance to interact in both digital and face-to-face settings. 

Now, in 2017, I feel like the educator professional learning network (PLN) landscape has shifted. A lot.  This is not so say there is no value in what many educators say/post/share digitally, it is just that there is a lot less asking, less dialogue, less real, meaningful debate about how to reimagine teaching and learning.  

I am making two shifts in how I leverage my PLN.  First, I will renew my focus on using digital platforms (ex. Twitter, MOOCs) to do more than share ideas, but also to ask questions, engage in (sometimes uncomfortable) discussions, establish meaningful connections, and focus on learning.   Second, I will begin writing regularly via this blog as a platform to not just share my thoughts, but to ask questions, challenge existing viewpoints, and learn with others who share my passion for teaching and learning.

As nodes in ever expanding PLNs, we all need to think hard about how we can makes the most of these powerful networks of educators in the pursuit of improving teaching and learning for our students.  

I mentioned above two ways that I am attempting to break through the echo chamber / filter bubbles of the edtech space, what are your thoughts on this?  Please leave them in the comments below or connect @mr_driscoll.