Learning to Network & Networking to Learn

As part of my role as educational technology coordinator for the California League of High Schools I was asked to write an article for High School Educator, a magazine which goes out to every public high school in California. This is a chance to reach outside the echo-chamber of educational technology, so I was particularly excited about writing it. I’m also relatively happy about how it came out. I look forward to any comments or feedback you might leave.

When I was a high school English teacher, I was lucky enough to work in a relatively collaborative environment. The English department had a lounge where we met at break and lunch each day. We shared our questions, frustrations, and solutions… and plenty of funny or heartwarming stories. At the time, the people in that room were the core of my personal learning network.

As great as that was, our learning was restricted to the views of a few colleagues at one particular school. Many other teachers aren’t even so lucky. They may be the only person teaching their subject at the site – or they may feel isolated for a variety of other common reasons. You may be lucky enough to have a core group of people you learn from at your site, or you may be one of the many who feel more isolated than connected. In either case, there are now exciting new ways to take charge of your own professional development and build your own personal learning network using online tools.

Many educators are now exploring revolutionary new online tools with their students: blogs, wikis, podcasts, and more – including new social tools like Ning and Twitter. Some or all of these may be unfamiliar to you, and the unending cycle of new tools can be daunting to many teachers. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to master every specific tool. Instead, it is more important for educators to know how to build an online personal learning network, regardless of the tool. Whatever the medium, participation in a personal learning network requires four critical behaviors.

Chief among these is the need to make connections. This isn’t accomplished by asking others to read, listen to, or view the things you post. This is accomplished by reading, listening to, and viewing what others post. If you read an interesting blog post or listen to an enlightening podcast, leave a comment. If someone else makes a keen observation or asks an important question, respond. Others then have an opportunity to discover you as a like-minded person, whose own work might be interesting to them.

Your responses to others can also help you meet the need to make contributions. Any community is only as strong as the contributions made by its members. Just as you might benefit from posts made by others who teach the same subject or grade that you do, they might also benefit from your experience. If you’ve come across a challenge in your classroom or at your school, chances are many others are dealing with the same issue; if you have a solution, share it. If you have a great lesson, a great project, or a great rubric, post it for others. Your unique experience in the specific context in which you work is valuable – and on a global scale it’s potential valuable to a great many others.

Over time, these interactions will help you build relationships with fellow educators around the world, enabling you to make conversations. I’ve been lucky enough to discover like-minded educators in Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Shanghai, Qatar, and elsewhere around the world. I now consider many of these people colleagues and friends. Some of our connections are no longer work related, as we share things about our lives, our families, and our hobbies. Just as you can build friendships through conversations with those who happen to work on your campus, so you can build relationships with others (who may have much more in common with you) around the world.

As a contributing member of a community of colleagues and friends, you and your questions are likely to be well received when you make requests. The best way to learn something new is to ask others who might know more about it. I often find my network of fellow learners to be the quickest way to receive an answer I need – and the richest source of meaningful feedback on new ideas or projects I’m working on. I make every effort to share the materials I develop and the solutions I discover, and in return I find the community I share with fantastically receptive to my own calls for help.

You don’t need to be a tech guru or even a techie teacher to get started building your own online personal learning network. You might start by reading (and commenting) on others’ blogs. Then create your own blog when you feel you’re ready for a place to share your own thoughts. A blog is merely an easily created, easily updated website, so anyone can do it. If you can email, you can blog!

Or, you might join the Classroom 2.0 social network, which is 10,000 educators strong, meaning there is always great new content – and no pressure for any particular member to be responsible for it. It’s likeMySpace, Facebook, or LinkedIn, but for teachers who want to improve education in the 21st century. Teachers just like you.

Alternatively, you might try Twitter, a popular “social microblogging” service that allows users to post short messages and to “follow” the messages of others. Start by following someone you respect, and then explore the people they follow. If you see someone new posting links and questions that are relevant to you, considering following them as well. Twitter is an easy and efficient way to connect and share with others.

Of course, you may be more drawn to the collaborative nature of wikis, the auditory power of podcasts, or any number of newer tools, including video chat or streaming video – or older tools, like email listservs or online discussion boards. But whatever medium you choose, building a personal learning network will still require making connections, making contributions, making conversations, and making requests. Practicing these four things can be a rewarding part of controlling your own professional development.

Get Started:

More Ways to Network:

To learn more about “Learning to Network and Networking to Learn” in a high-energy face-to-face environment, come to the CLHS and CUE Technology Conference in Monterey, California on December 4, 5, and 6, 2008. http://clhs.net/conferences/tech.htm

To inquire about related professional development opportunities provided by CLHS for your staff at your site, contact CLHS staff or contact Dr. Wagner directly. mark@edtechlife.com