How do networks change the way we view professional development, and how do you see that working for teachers in the future?
                                         —Patrick Higgins, VoiceThread: "Your PLE, or what have you"                                                                                                   

While there’s no shortage of edubloggers out there ready to testify about the transformational power of a PLN, I don’t think the answer to
Patrick’s question is a slam dunk. Yet. It”s not self-evident that PLNs are
the wave of the future. There’s plenty of uncertainty to go around, at least for now. As
Patrick commented:

It’s the hinterlands of PD at the moment. However, my focus this
year is to "be the change," so I cannot accept that it’s not happening.

My first crack at Patrick’s question included this response to his VoiceThread:

But I worry about how the organic fluidity of a PLN translates
into a teacher’s professional development plan. . . .
I wonder about the practical challenges of taking this notion into mainstream
channels without bastardizing, or what Clay Burell calls rubricizing, a process
that is by nature unique to each individual. Do we kill it by
institutionalizing it? Can we integrate it into current PD practices and models
without killing it?

It’s possible to envision a scenario where PLNs are more or less
integrated into current professional development models. It’s equally
possible to imagine PLNs sweeping away the familiar professional development world in a transformational tsunami—or being completely ignored. I have to agree with Patrick’s reading of the present moment: PLNs are in the hinterlands. Bright nodes and brilliant examples of networked learning are scattered across the e-blogosphere, but for now they remain islands in the professional development mainstream.

So: if many outcomes are possible, which is the most likely? Which is the best for teachers and students and schools? When you’re standing on the shoulders of giants, it’s a lot easier to see promising pathways. With a little altitudinal help from my friends, I’ll take a speculative crack at outlining a PLN-integrated professional development model. Consider it a rough sketch of underlying principles. Critique, comment, and help fill in the (sure to be many) gaps.

Grassroots action alone is not enough. Carolyn talks about the informal networks that naturally emerge in a school—what she calls "the teacher down the hall"—as colleagues share ideas and resources, commiserate, brainstorm, and support each other. These relationships are a kind of personal learning network, of course, and they’re incredibly important as a familiar starting point. Many of us have launched ourselves into the wider virtual world to find teachers down the street, across the state, over the seven seas, across 15 time zones, and often into the next day. We’re building new networks through blogging, twittering, and the whole polyglot of Web 2.0 applications. But, for most of us, our networks  are informal, self-constructed, and semi-legitimate, flying under the orthodoxy radar. We’re in the thick of an unprecedented, ecstatic groundswell of learning and collaboration. Still, it’ll need help to escape the echo chamber.

Support from committed administrators alone is not enough. Kelly Christopherson gives seasoned advice for effecting educational change—moving the mountain of "not enough time, not enough resources, not enough internet access, poor
hardware, not enough PD, don’t know enough, too many other initiatives,
too many other social demands in the classroom." His not-so-flashy advice? Small steps.

Small steps are important. Bringing people along so they can see the
benefit and having it save them time really heps. Providing that
one-to-one help is so important.

And having school leaders who, like Kelly, can provide the help and show the benefits because they’re doing it themselves? That goes a long way. But there’s so much further to go. As Kelly says, "We need to help teachers overcome their fears, addressing them not
dismissing them and giving them the time that they need to adopt."

Persuasion alone is not enough. Evangelism too often ends up as preaching to an already-networked choir, eloquence falling on deaf ears, dismissable rah-rah-ism, unthirsty horses milling around the watercooler. For those whose doors remain closed, Diane says "we have to beguile, persuade, convert them."  And cajole, cheer, and invite. The motivation is intrinsic, not extrinsic. Carolyn: "But how do you "explain" how invigorating something is?  It takes time (and interest) to build an online network."

Persuasion by policy mandate can steamroll over a certain amount of resistance, but it’s never the be-all-end-all. Scott McLeod has written about the "right of refusal" that slows technology integration like molasses: "But in education, we plead and implore and incentivize but we never seem to require." Unthirsty horses again.   

Incentives alone are not enough. Besides the joy of learning, I mean. 

Modeling alone is not enough. But it’s a darn good start. Showing, not just telling. Sharing your network, inviting others to join. Being inclusive, not exclusive. Being generous with your commenting, linking, and teaching. Being transparent about your learning.

The learning must be scaffolded. The PLN experience must be accessible, manageable, and intelligible to teachers, making sense to them like "the teacher down the hall." The technology should be in the background—this is about relationships, not applications.   Carolyn has a wealth of valuable insights in the vein in her post "Keeping it real." I’m tempted to copy it here in its entirety, but I’ll limit myself to her concluding thoughts:

I think we need to keep it real.  I think we need to keep it specific.
I think we need to keep it personal.   I think we have to tie it into
what teachers already know.  I think we have to tap into the need.  I
think we have to help teachers identify what is in it for their
students.  And I think we have to model being a connected, global
teacher and invite them into that experience.

The best scaffolding I can imagine is to embed the PLN experience in an existing model of (local) networked learning: the professional learning community. Jumpstart the PLN-building process with a  face-to-face experience where the context is visible, relationships are immediately personal, interests are shared, and the benefits of learning together are obvious and ongoing. Then, when the concept of networked learning has taken root, open the windows and let in the world. Let the PLC serve as a rich home base, a crucial node on its members’ many individual networks. Carolyn suggests other great PLN starter-kit ideas, other ways to scaffold: PLN mentors to guide new teachers in developing their own networks; college/school collaborations that merge, overlay, and extend both partners’ existing networks. Clay Burell is on to something, too, with his "quick in, quick out" experiments that both distill and expand the PLN idea; instant-meeting guests show his students a freeze-framed slice of his own globally-reaching PLN.

Some assembly is required. However well scaffolded and supported, building a PLN is still a leap of faith and an individual labor of love. Indirection rules the day. Not quite knowing where we’re going, we proceed by detours and tangents, by happy collisions, and grope our way to unexpected destinations. We change course as we discover new information that causes us to pose new questions. There’s no dependable roadmap other than the one we make in transit, no vehicle except the one we assemble while in motion.

The perceived need and its path to fulfillment must be in plain sight. The learning has to be real, authentic, related and relevant to teachers’ prior knowledge and experience, beneficial to teaching practice and to helping students learn, all that good stuff. But, even more importantly, it has to seem urgent and inevitable, like the only possible next step. The only sensible choice, the only way to move forward, the only way to survive. Compelling not because it outshines other pretty good choices, but because choosing anything else would be a kind of dying.

Patrick has come closer than anyone lately to capturing this notion of creating an urgent case:

I am feeling the need to break the mold, to present a shift so sudden
yet so necessary that teachers would look at it with both fear and
longing–saying “I want to do this for my own development!” or “This has
to happen!” But what it looks like is escaping me. How do you make
someone feel like they need something?

New models of networked professional development should/will/must emerge from networks. The most authentic and viable PLN-integrated professional development models will come about through the collaborative work of PLN-involved teachers, administrators, and staff developers. Like this.

Now, having reached the end of the list, I’m still pondering the pragmatic questions of moving from vision to practice. If a new professional development model is possible, how do we leverage our networks to make it happen? And put it in the mainstream? And help it make its case with a sense of manifest urgency?

One idea for a starting point, cribbed directly from Christian Long’s Future of Learning Manifesto: Create a Future of Professional Development Manifesto. A statement of guiding principles for the new professional development landscape. A toolkit implementing new professional development models. A repository of testimonials about the power of PLNs and why they are needed.

Another idea: Participate in Will’s EduCon session on Saturday, which will include

a conversation about how best to leverage our own understanding and practice of personal learning networks in ways that can influence others’ professional practice and, ultimately, create change in schools and classrooms.

I share Patrick’s sense of urgency, but with it comes a sense of possibility. Now is a meta-moment of truth for personal learning networks. 

 

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