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Nothing is as new as it seems, yet new manifestations are often mystical. Take the phenomenon of the “personal learning network”, which isn’t simply a way to scrape useful materials and resources from the internet, but has come about through the ability of technology to connect an ever more diverse group of people though very simple tools such as Twitter. In many ways ‘personal’ relates to how we decode and interpret information in the network. To achieve that, we need to be able to learn. The phrase is culturally evocative among merchants and advocates of technology in learning, but really needs re-ordering and expanding in explanation.

Attempting to learn though a selective digital network of individual action, agenda, belief and interpretation emerging from variables in complex semiotic domains somehow seems less attractive.

What seems significant, is that this is happening in the outer-world, yet synonymous with ‘digital life’, and when and where it happens and if there is an optimal amount of time to do it.

My view is that most of this activity takes place outside of work, and less about skills, but social emotional satisfaction. We find joy in online networks, and is perhaps a way of de-stressing reality. It’s a voluntary action (unless you’re a scraper). We are Downtime Learners.

Personal learning networks are all about expansion, we are witnessing the evolution of activity at the collective and personal level though a myopic sense of our-selves and what matters in the world. What erks me about people who write books and espouse diagrams about what a personal learning network is that it’s not new at all, just that we can (and do) experience it though digital technologies – simply because they now exist. There are plenty of books on scholarly theories about this already. For example:

“the more we become conscious of ourselves through self-knowledge, and act accordingly, the more the layer of the personal unconscious that is superimposed on the collective unconscious will be diminished. In this way there arises a consciousness which is no longer imprisoned in the petty, oversensitive, personal world of the ego, but participates freely in the wider world of objective interests. This widened consciousness is no longer that touchy, egotistical bundle of personal wishes, fears, hopes, and ambitions which always has to be compensated or corrected by unconscious counter-tendencies; instead, it is a function of relationship to the world of objects, bringing the individual into absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large. The complications arising at this stage are no longer egotistic wish-conflicts, but difficulties that concern others as much as oneself.” (Jung 1966, 178).

Expansion activity isn’t sought by all people, yet has a history of innovation in human efforts to achieve it. I recommend you read John Connell’s post about the Penny University – which in many ways is a version of the personal learning network. All societies have a human desire to do this – though they play out in different ways. This cultural factor will see nations who are just beginning to expand into digital networks, do it in different ways. It’s rather shallow to assume that we’re all geese flying in digital formation to a better world. It’s just a changing world.

Fredrickson and Joiner (2002) emphasize the role of positive emotions in broadening people’s capacity to learn. They say that positive emotions enhance optimistic thinking, which leads to more creative problem-solving capacities. Generally speaking, Twitter for educators is the hub of a positive shared experience. Having said that Rogers (2000) discuss a sociological model of a normal distribution of technology adoption patterns linked to internal barriers of attitude and perception: innovators (about 3% of any population), early adopters (about 14%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%), and laggards (about 14%)

She suggests that “teacher anxieties” or attitudes contribute to a teacher’s position as an innovator or early adopter.

This puts the idea of a personal learning network in somewhat of a bubble. The innovators,  small in number, are interested in expansion of activity either because they want to see different/better/alternative classroom pedagogues for all sorts of reasons or that they see it as a commercial marketplace. Perhaps both.

To sustain the personal learning network, they must cultivate a value chain. The result is that we see repetitive messages and going over old ground – as the supply route has to be stocked along the road.

There is therefore a throttle on expansion in the domain of education itself, simply due to the small numbers of innovators and early adopters and the limited interest that they can rally, and often the inability of ‘leadership’ to look further down the road to see what is happening.

I did like the idea of the Penny University – not because I’m cheap, but because learning, back in the day – and today wasn’t bound to governmental views of what learning is, or the paperwork that is issued as a result of testing.

There is no test in the Australian Curriculum that goes anywhere near assessing what I’m currently see children do in our beta-Minecraft world and consequently, as a parent, I am less interested in much of what I see people get so excited about in terms of blogs and wikis.

How do you explain the cognitive and social skills of a 5 year old is systematically designing and creating complex structures from seemingly simple material combination or a railway to connect their house to other houses. Should they be learning to install texture packs to add personal meaning? Does it matter to the ‘quality framework’ that they are teaching other 5 year olds how to navigate vast game-worlds safely and along the way learn language to systematically solve problems that isn’t understood or used by their teacher in day to day school life.

I see these as things that should emerge from joyful, play activities – which are clearly in decline in the school day, gradually being strangled out by bureaucrats. Compare the day of Kindergarden today verses a decade ago – we are teaching kids that play isn’t valuable, simply because we don’t allow it to occur.

This brings me back to the PLN, which I see as play and a game, not a digital-library or some ad-hock information hot-line. It’s a game of expansion – with very complex rules and mechanics.

I must say, I don’t care about this discussion as much as I care about this nexus between the skills children might develop though game, and social influences, broadly explored by Gee (2003, 2004, 2005).

He argues that good games have common characteristics: identity, interaction, production, risk taking, customisation, agency, well-ordered problems, challenge and consolidation, “Just in Time” use of resources and skills, situated meanings, systematic thinking and rethinking of goals, distributed knowledge, cross functional teams and performance before competence.

These are not eLearning games or educational games – as they spawn from more important domains.

Of course I will highlight game in that nexus, and wonder why game’s are continually excluded by Doctor Obvious in the Penny Universities description of Personal Learning Networks. Is there no expansion in this domain – or just none that suits the innovation/early adopter agenda?

Refs:

Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. London: Routledge.

Gee, J. P. (2005). Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul: Pleasure and Learning. Melbourne: Common Ground

Jung, C. G. (1966). Two essays on analytical psychology. London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rodgers, P. (2000). “Barriers to Adopting Emerging Technologies in Education”. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 22(4), 455-472.

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