Sunday, February 13, 2011

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 my self to start a Facebook page, signup 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, an 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.