Sunday, February 15, 2009

Personal Learning Networks--School vs. Home

“We are no longer driving technology. Technology is driving our race.” --George Siemens

Personal learning networks (PLNs)—are these in my students’ future? They probably already are to some extent, but not much in our schools yet. My PLN door opened in December. I became a facebook user; I set up an iGoogle page with bookmarks, RSS feeds with up-to-date news, class blogs, political blogs, educational blogs, technology blogs, as well as blogs on other topics of interest such as scrapbooking, music, and television. It was information overload! I started the page over and made it more manageable by reducing the number of blogs I would follow and the number of news feeds I would receive. Fortunately, it’s working for me now.

Lots of folks have shared their thoughts on PLNs. The diagram here is David Warlick's concept of a PLN. According to Dan Tobin, there are 4 stages of learning in a PLN: data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Karl Fischer blogs that our students need to “find, evaluate, organize, synthesize, remix, and repurpose information in order to understand and solve complex problems.” Vicki Davis writes that a PLN becomes "a student's virtual locker, and its content changes based on the student's current course work." To me, it sounds like somewhat of a glorified Webquest of sorts. Will Richardson notes that PLNs give students the opportunity to extend their knowledge by connecting with other learners around the world, giving them access to leaders and experts beyond their classrooms.

The thought of having students set up and use iGoogle pages in school is scary. How are we as teachers able to monitor these? As much as we’d like to believe that students are ultimately responsible for their cyber behavior, this is not reality. Teachers must assume the responsibility if we assign the task, we are told. After all, we are the adults and they are the children. Of course, we have so many filters that it would be virtually impossible for them to create an effective personal learning network anyway. This leads me to believe that maybe what we can do in school is teach students how to set up a PLN and then they go home and set it and expect the parents to ultimately assume the responsibility.

Am I too old school? It’s difficult for me to embrace Siemens premise that “our schools are still teaching basics for an era that no longer exists.” While I clearly see the need for technology in our schools and the need for connections beyond the classroom, surely students need to know the basics—the 3 Rs—in this era. Phonics, spelling, and math facts still have a prominent place in our current educational system. Yes, we need to change with the times (e.g., getting rid of Zaner Bloser penmanship instruction makes sense), but we can’t lose sight of the basics, particularly in the early years; they are the foundation of learning. Period. I am not ready to give up on that notion.

I do agree with Siemens that technology is driving our race. Our schools need to continue to teach the basics and support learning with technology. Personal learning networks in our schools? It might take a while, but we are beginning the process by having the students blog and podcast. RSS feeds, wikis, podcasts, etc. make sense for our students, but I think allowing social networking in our schools is inappropriate; students (as well as teachers) should do this on their own clock. Teachers are held accountable for DIBELS,NECAP, NWEA, SAT, and AP scores, whether we like it or not. Time is of the essence. And yes, PLNs do save time if set up appropriately. Why search for information when it can come to you? We must use technology in our schools to our greatest advantage and give our students the necessary tools for the 21st century, while not losing sight of the need for students to have the basics of education and the responsibility not always be placed on the teacher.

Will Richardson's video paints a clearer picture of PLNs for me. As teachers, it makes sense that we must build our own PLN to understand its potential and how it could impact student learning. We then must teach students how to build their own PLNs and how to use them 'safely', 'ethically', and 'effectively'. I believe that as individuals get older, they gain more power to 'find their own teachers.' With so much focus on differentiated instruction, PLNs make sense. We are not always the experts. I totally agree with Will Richardson that many students already have PLNs. I get that we need to teach students how to find trusted sources within the nework, but I'm still wrestling with the notion that our young children can design their own curriculum according to their personal needs. The line between home and school is blurring. It might be time for me to get new glasses!

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