Knitting Intentional Networks

Last night, I went to happy hour with a group of friends and colleagues who knit.  I don’t have much of a social life, so for me this was a Big Deal and a Lot of Fun.  For the most part, we knitted, talked about how we came to knitting (or not knitting), showed off our projects, snacked, sipped, and more-or-less avoided “shop talk.”  A little spurt about teaching online here, a little chat about connections between programs there, but mostly it was social time. Having just completed a compelling five-week online seminar (a cMOOC) on “Exploring Personal Learning Networks,” the back burner of my mind was sputtering away with questions: is this part of my PLN? If so, shouldn’t I be much more deliberate about our conversation?

My biggest takeaway from Exploring Personal Learning Networks is how much discipline and intentionality it takes to be a member of a community of thinkers/doers/makers.  In the face-to-face world, I rarely think about discipline and intentionality – in the hallways of my personal learning networks, I mentally bookmark ideas, offer help, brainstorm solutions, listen, comment, applaud, all without really thinking – utterly naturalized.  Move these practices online, and suddenly I am overwhelmed.  I feel inundated with new information, ideas, and resources.

For me, this seminar highlighted the pleasure and fun of learning, particularly learning with amazing deep thinkers, which made it all seem like play more than work (like knitting in a pub, maybe?). That must be why over 100 of us found moments here and there to listen to, read, and engage with weekly broadcasts, tweetchats, blogs, Google+ discussions, even becoming first-time bloggers.  We divided into smaller groups to work on how we might integrate PLNs more intentionally into our workplaces. While I didn’t get to contribute directly, I found the level of agreement I had with our group’s artifact to be compelling; in Janet Webster‘s and Rick Bartlett‘s leadership in creating this presentation, I found the richness of PLN.

The trick is commenting, responding, and curating — a new concept for me, and one that I will be grappling with intensively now. And yet there is a heaviness to all this intentionality. Curating is demanding work, and I’m still really not sure Evernote or Diigo or any number of other platforms are going to get me to where I actually have useable information. Stuff I can return to and use. Like my collection of knitting needles or my yarn stash, right?

During the seminar, we worked on definitions of personal learning networks.  When the class started, I’d only just begun to figure out what the term “PLN” might mean, and why it might be interesting to use. At the time, I thought it was a fancy way of talking about connections between people around ideas, methods, and professional goals. Tanya Lau’s tweet in one of our seminar’s chats (the question at that moment was about how one might explain PLN to our mums) changed my thinking: “Mum, a PLN is like when you visit a new friend’s place for dinner & ask for the recipe cos you really like what they cooked,” tweeted Tanya.

That definition came back to me last night, where I found a lot to think about among the knitters. We were almost all professional colleagues.  We had a lot to offer each other in terms of professional resources, connections, and ideas.  But we didn’t “network.” Instead, we discussed how to cast on, whether to use one long needle or four shorter ones, what kinds of yarn we like, taking turns petting one knitter’s beautiful bamboo/cotton skein. Today, I’m inspired to keep knitting, maybe even finish that project that’s spent more time at the bottom of the yarn basket than in my hands.  Tools, creativity, conviviality, inspiration – isn’t this exactly how a PLN works?!

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My Personal Learning Network is in the Hallway

Participation has always been easy for me.  I love to dive in, sense what the others are up to and what motivates each person, and magically create the glue that makes it all come together.  But not online.  Online, my greatest skill so far is lurking. I have lurked online for many a day, in many compelling contexts.  I have lurked on Facebook, hesitant to share my own updates, I’ve lurked on my favorite social media site for knitters (Ravelry), I have lurked in xMOOCs (traditional lecture-style classes on a massive online scale, (Coursera’s a great example.) and even in cMOOCs (production and connection oriented, though also massively open; my absolute favorite [and the one with the least fanfare] is DS106). Turns out you really have to participate in a connectivist MOOC or it makes no sense at all.  And so, now, here I am, signed up for an “open online seminar” on Exploring Personal Learning Networks.  No one is calling it a MOOC, which makes me sigh with relief – I don’t have to explain to my own network of family, friends, and colleagues, yet again, what a MOOC is. This one is not exactly massive (around 115 of us, I think), and it is very connectivist.  But the organizers (yay for Kimberely Scott & Jeff Merrell) have gone a long way to lay out a welcome for novices.  Every step of the way, how to connect in this connectivist realm is clearly marked, options offered, tools explained.

But, for me, the question remains: why engage online?

As a teaching professor, I believe in meeting students where they are.  And so my recent research has been about figuring out: where are our students these days? To what extent are online engagements naturalized for them.  It turns out (and I’m writing about this more formally these days), that like any of us, today’s college students engage online based on what they want to do, what they have to do, and what they get pulled into immersively.

But building a Personal Learning Network is not something I am compelled to do online.  For me, PLNs begin in person.  Even after decades of e-mail, I prefer to walk down the hall, up the stairs, around the corner, across buildings, travel to conferences, to other campuses of my university, etc in order to interact with my PLN.  These are the folks that inhabit the work spaces of my daily environment, friends and colleagues that I went to grad school with, share the microwave with, plan next year’s class schedules with. They are interdisciplinary professors who share my passion for pedagogical methods, and collaborators with whom, as often as not, plans are cooked up in the hallways as we run into each other.  Why turn from this PLN to a fully virtual one? How??

I’m getting more and more of a sense of the “how.”  Joe Moses’ comment to me during my first ever Tweet Chat meeting last week, “as I learn, I try to make something useful out of it, share it, get feedback, repeat” echoes Harold Jarche’s seek/sense/share paradigm, in which I especially like his emphasis on narration or “working out loud.”  You mean no one will be annoyed?  Well, Harold doesn’t promise that, exactly, but he does highlight the possibility of bringing “focus to the information sea we swim in.”

But why turn away from the hallway, the physical spaces I occupy with my co-workers and learning network? In a beautifully argued post on one of my favorite sites to get overwhelmed on, Alison Seaman says that learning “how to participate and share knowledge competently in online spaces has become a necessity” and later, “knowing how to engage in these virtual spaces has become crucial for full participation.”

So I am only a partial participant when I learn from those in my immediate environment?  Maybe not, but lurking is not participation either.  So here is my blog, there is my Tweeter feed.  Check me out on Google+.  Whew.  Participation is not as easy as it used to be.

how to participate and share knowledge competently in online spaces has become a necessity. – See more at: http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Personal_Learning_Networks.html#sthash.LySw2inr.dpuf
how to participate and share knowledge competently in online spaces has become a necessity. – See more at: http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Personal_Learning_Networks.html#sthash.LySw2inr.dpuf
how to participate and share knowledge competently in online spaces has become a necessity. – See more at: http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Personal_Learning_Networks.html#sthash.LySw2inr.dpuf