Suddenly, a new signal is detected in the noise.  It’s still barely audible beneath the enthusiastic din of PLN hoopla, but a crankily skeptical note has been sounded. Too much harmony and joy can’t be healthy, can it? Time to break up the good vibrations with some  old-fashioned Schoenbergian dissonance. Let the fistfights erupt in the galleries.

TRUMPET THIS

But first, let’s trot out a tired metaphor that’s already yesterday’s news. Enter the vuvuzela, that horn-shaped stadium noisemaker traditionally used by South African soccer fans, source of the endless televised buzzing that became the soundtrack and symbol of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. O vuvuzela! We celebrate your monotony, your single-minded drone, your undifferentiated ever-presence. Your daddy was a kazoo, your mama was a bugle, and your uncle died of a profound lack of imagination. You buzzed our days and nights like a vengeful mosquito.

Cheap, plastic, disposable: I offer the mighty vuvuzela as handy symbol and signifier of  noise in the PLN movement.

Image: Vuvuzela-Loesje

THE FIRST RULE OF FIGHT CLUB

The PLN doesn’t really exist – we all learn from various and organically shifting sources, and contribute likewise. Defining a PLN is overly simplistic. —D’Arcy Norman

My excitement about networked, informal learning and its potential to change absolutely everything absolutely has been tempered lately, my torrid love affair with the PLN dogged by a  sense of semantic creep.  Seems like you can’t swing a lolcat these days without hitting somebody’s PLN, or somebody talking about their PLN. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But is there something wrong with that?

We well-meaning humans suffer from the irresistible urge to take complex,  idiosyncratic ideas like “personal learning” and boil them down into simple, spreadable packages. Idea-nuggets go down easy, but all the useful roughage is gone. The impulse to bottle it, to capture and replicate and share it, is understandable. Laudable, even. But off the mark. Like many others, I’ve played around with various bottling techniques. Jury’s still out, but I suspect they’re all doomed to some flavor of failure. Jennifer Dalby gets it, and especially gets what it is that’s worth getting:

And I do think it’s important to promote the formal recognition of informal learning.  I’d like to see tools developed where we can truly measure professional development and application of new knowledge through open personal PD plans and peer participation and evaluation.  I “get” the value of professional and personal networking in online spaces.

I’m concerned that the nascent PLN movement has unconsciously adopted the rhetoric of the self-help movement. I cringe at the thought of this powerful learning engine turned into little more than a glorified self-improvement regimen. The PLN Diet! Grow Your PLN in 10 Easy Steps! Before we know it, our sense of our own learning veers dangerously close to territory already staked out by rock hard abs, slimmer thighs, and a revitalized sex life. By giving it a snappy acronym and reducing it to lists of tips, tools, and steps, we strip informal learning of its mystery, of necessary effort, of personal discomfort, of friction. We gut it, pulling out the bones. We infantilize it. We standardize it, commodify it, package it, put it into a box. We bottle it. We’re only trying to be helpful. This is what educators do. But we have to be careful: the bottled notion/potion we so enthusiastically pass around could be mistaken for Kool-Aid.

Jennifer goes on:

I’ll define the Cult of the PLN as a group of people who’ve turned the PLN concept into a commodity and fetishized it through socialization around it…

That’s fearless and important and worth paying attention to. If personal learning is truly personal, ergo private, ergo mysterious, sacred, inviolable, and inexplicable, what’s a good social constructivist to do? What do we socialize about? The process. About the mystery itself. That’s a song that will always resist being sung by one voice.  In edu-discourses great and small, the echo chamber trope crops up like clockwork—usually in the context of a complaint about insularity.  Karl Fisch thinks the echo chamber is a myth. He’s a smart guy and probably right, but since we’re wholly committed now to this vuvuzela metaphor, we’ll soldier on. We conjure up the latest incarnation of the echo chamber, and we are surprised to find that it now more closely resembles a soccer stadium: crowded and noisy, vuvuzelas blaring in unanimity, all honking the same note.

Diversifying the echo chamber is a nice idea, but it’s just another recipe, another prescription. By interrogating the language and norms we’ve built up around PLNs, I think Karl and Jennifer have their sights set at bedrock level. What does it all come down to? There are no shortcuts, no easy answers, no skirting meaningful efforts. We learn individually, by doing the personal work of learning, but we can do that in community. We do it by seeking questions more than answers, by embracing the particular and resisting generalization.

Karl shows us the silver lining:

Communities of similarly-minded people, passionate people, working in concert, can accomplish amazing things. We shouldn’t denigrate that, we should celebrate it.

Right. Right. And here’s where my cranky house of cards falls gloriously to pieces and I reveal myself as a softie with a heart of gold.  Because here’s the deal: nobody, including me, really cares about my Deep and Serious Litmus Test of Personal Learning Authenticity. Those communities of passionate people working in concert may sound like vuvuzelas—but maybe the rest of us have tin ears. Maybe they’re making beautiful, creative, mysterious, idiosyncratic music. Only they know for sure.  Only you know for sure. Only I know for sure.

A PARTING WORD ABOUT BANDWAGONS

Jumping on bandwagons is great exercise. Jumping off again is even better. Steering them is impossible. I realize that this entire polemic about PLN-as-bandwagon is clattering along on wagon wheels of its own, a much smaller rhetorical vehicle going in the not-quite-opposite direction. Must be about time to jump off.

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The results of my impromptu survey on relational trust in PLNs vs. school settings are in. For those of you who like your information organized in slide-by-slide chunks, a no-frills summary is embedded below and posted on Slideshare. You may, without guilt and with my blessing, jump right in and skip the rambling analysis further below.

A QUICK REVIEW

The survey was sparked by the collision of a couple of ideas: Parker Palmer’s frequent mention of Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider’s ground-breaking research on trust in schools, and Alec Couros’ recent quest to figure out what we really mean when we talk about personal learning networks. Survey items were adapted from Hoy and Tschannen-Moran’s Omnibus Trust Scale. I used Hoy for a number of reasons: 1) their scale differentiated between aspects of trust and allowed me to pull out just the items addressing trust in colleagues, 2) items were easily adaptable to the PLN context, 3) Professor Hoy generously put it out there to be used for professional and personal development, and 4) the T-scale directions page offered much needed hand-holding for a fake psychometrician like me. It was distributed to the Twitterverse a month ago and has garnered 18 responses so far. Number 18 came in after I did my first round of number-crunching, though, so for the posted results, n=17. Quick thanks here to Alec for sending most of these my way.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS

I was wondering:

  • Is your level of trust with colleagues in your network higher or lower than with those in your school?
  • Is it a different kind of trust? Is it easier to trust a school colleague who’s also a member of your network?
  • What aspects of relational trust in PLNs (if any) could inform and improve relational trust-building in schools?

FINDINGS

Overall, relational trust in PLNs was rated significantly higher than in school settings. After running the numbers through the Hoy-o-Vac  (Note to self: remember to reverse values for the “suspicious of each other” item), the average score across all items for PLNs was  4.82. On the school-setting side, it was 3.41, almost a full point and a half  less. Converted to a standardized score where 500 is the mean, PLNs came in at 581 and schools at 283—over two standard deviations below the mean.

I anticipated that PLNs would rate higher for relational trust but was surprised that both sets of scores weren’t higher. Since our respondents were coming from a variety of school settings rather than from a single identified school, I expected scores on the school side to reflect a generalized average that was close to the 500 mean, with the PLN scores coming in somewhat higher. Instead, the school scores were almost rock bottom. What does it mean? You got me. It may lend support to Steve Dembo’s theory that participation in a PLN catalyzes some teachers’ decisions to leave a school, or even to leave the profession. If so, it’s not clear which is the chicken and which is the egg: Does the glimpse of greener pastures made possible by  a PLN sow seeds of discontent, or are the people who find their way into a PLN more likely  to be already frustrated with the status quo? Is a kind of selection bias at work? Cause and effect? For whatever reason, by whatever mechanism, survey respondents came through the door with a low sense of trust in their school settings.

The real learning for me came from reading through what respondents wrote in the comment section. Five distinct themes emerged from respondents’ reflections about relational trust and what they’ve found valuable in their PLN experiences: choice, equality, openness or transparency, diversity, and learning. This stuff is sheer gold, which is why  I’m quoting heavily—what they have to say is too eloquent and powerful to bury in a paraphrase.

CHOICE

The trust relationships in plns seem stronger to me because they are self selected. I can opt in or opt out of the relationship—something I can’t do in school.

You *choose* those that you invite into your PLN – and I assume you have chosen wisely. Those who are *assigned* to work in your same facility are not there by your choice. This parallels the difference between your circle of friends and your family, does it not?

EQUALITY

In a pln, everyone is equal and there is no leader.

That equality increases the trust between pln colleagues—and the inherent lack of equality in school based relationships inhibits the development of trust.

OPENNESS

The major difference I have found is related to the openness of sharing, exploring, learning/relearning and willingness to think out loud through blogs, tweets, podcasts and webcasts, sometimes at great risk professionally through my PLNs.

Funnily enough I think the people in my PLN know the ‘real me’. People in my school think they do,but in fact when it comes down to it – they don’t.  Am I more open with my PLN? Or is it because those in my PLN  are interested in/care about  the same things as I am – hence their membership in my PLN in the first place?

DIVERSITY

My PLN encompasses more diverse people/jobs/outlooks than contacts in my school district.

LEARNING

It is refreshing and energizing to be an active contributor in many professional social networks, and I learn something new every day! I couldn’t say the same about my experience in my own school/university. Over the years attitudes have become very status quo and a reluctance to by educators to consider themselves life-long learners beyond their “work hours” has been quite common. I love my PLNs!!

TO SUM UP

How did we do answering those essential questions? Pretty well with the first one, but after that it all goes haywire. The five strands of the PLN experience identified as valuable by our respondents strike me as a good place to start if you’re trying to build a high-trust organization. How readily might they transfer back into a traditional school setting? Harder to say. Another way to look at it might be to start with the people. Collect a group of people who value choice, openness, equality, diversity, and learning, and any organization they build will have a higher degree of relational trust. In other words, the question we should be asking isn’t “Can we take these lessons back to improve relational trust in schools?” but “What are the people who’ve already learned these lessons going to build?

What do you think?

Thanks again to all who responded. If you’re interested in taking a closer look at the data, or getting a copy of the survey form, contact me at sschwister at gmail dot com.

Mine eyes have been opened to the glories of disruptive innovation. I think I’m finally starting to get it, thanks to Scott McLeod.

I was lucky enough to have a seat in the room Thursday as Scott presented to a group of Minnesota administrators on the whole prickly, sticky ball of 21st century challenges facing school leaders. (One of the slides in Scott’s presentation shows a blindfolded CEO-type; the text reads, “The people in charge of leading school organizations into the 21st century often are the least knowledgeable about the 21st century.” Pretty blunt message to deliver to a group of school CEOs, but no discernable ripples or gasps in response. Guess they were too busy listening.) Later in the session, Scott reprised his K-12 Online Conference presentation on Clayton Christensen‘s notion of disruptive innovation and its implications for school leaders.

My understanding of disruptive innovation before yesterday was pretty pedestrian: new technologies or paradigms come along periodically, shake everything up, and displace the old. The cassette tape replaced the vinyl record, and was in turn replaced by the CD, which is now being replaced by the iPod. Everything new is old again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

THE CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT MODEL PROBLEM

What I’d missed all along is the part about how organizations manage, or are overtaken by, the changes. It ain’t pretty. Call it the Continuous Improvement Model Problem. Organizations are designed to serve their present circumstances, not an unknowable future, and will tend to continue along those lines, doggedly pursuing incremental improvement, striving to fit ever-more-snugly into their chosen niche, unless and until…disrupted. Most organizations are full of capable, well-intentioned, passionate people doing a bang-up job of serving constituents, clients, or students in fulfillment of their stated mission—which does not usually include trying to remake the organization into something it’s not. When the disruption occurs, it’s usually too late to turn the Titanic, and down we go, deck chairs, string quartets, and all. It’s tough for currently successful organizations to stay ahead of disruptive changes even if they see them coming; they’re tempted to try to keep both balls in the air, to try to serve the current mission while moving incrementally toward the new. Or, if the innovation has already arrived, to try retrofitting old systems to navigate new conditions. What’s really called for is a separatist approach. Establish autonomous colonies in unknown territories based on new, untried principles, let them compete directly with your current organization, and the ones that survive are the future of your organization. Correction: The ones that survive will become your organization. The “natural laws” of disruptive innovation suggest that retrofitting is a fool’s errand—all it does is prolong the agony. It’s a harsh, red-in-tooth-and-claw message, but an important one for school leaders to absorb.

THE END OF PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT AS WE KNOW IT

Scott says that the disruptive innovation facing traditional schools is personalized learning, as represented by the growth of charter schools, alternative schools, and online coursework. You could extend that assertion into the realm of teachers’ professional learning: personal learning networks are emerging as a disruption to professional development as we know it. Those of us who are part of a PLN understand the innovation happening here—the incredible value of informal, networked, collaborative learning—and many have tried to spread the word. PLNs haven’t hit the mainstream yet. They’re still below what Scott calls the good enough line for any number of reasons: the learning isn’t credentialed, the research is pending, the numbers haven’t reached a tipping point. Some, like Kevin Jarrett, have come up with great ideas for bringing the global lessons of PLNs home to a local face-to-face network of colleagues, bridging the two worlds, and put them into action, open-participation barcamp-style.

MOVE OVER, MILES STANDISH

Evangelizing about the value of PLNs strikes me, for the first time, as a brave attempt at retrofitting. In trying to spread the word, encourage integration of elements of PLN development into existing professional development models, and grow toward a critical mass, are we still trying to serve the current system? Are our attempts to persuade (and charm, seduce, coax, coerce, bribe, etc.) others to change their practice ultimately aimed at effecting systemic change? Maybe, maybe not. Change is good on an individual level. But it occurs to me that we need to ask hard questions about what we hope to accomplish at the macro level, what changes we want to see, where we want to put our energy—sustain the old world, or . The idea is forming in my head that, if PLNs are a disruptive innovation, there’s no looking back, no sense spending energy trying to retrofit into the old system. Deep participation in a PLN becomes a radical, subversive, separatist activity, like the Pilgrims setting sail for Virginia…er….Plymouth. With every blog post, with every tweet, each of us is writing and rewriting a kind of Mayflower Compact for a new world.

Steve Dembo was only half-joking when he suggested that participating in a PLN is like unplugging from the Matrix; once your eyes are opened, you can’t go back. Like it or not, you’re a separatist, a personal learning network Pilgrim. Where are new colonies being established, and what will they look like?

[I know, I know: This post leans way too heavily on a metaphor freighted with Euro-centric, colonial-imperialist baggage. Counterpoint: Remember what Malcolm X said about Plymouth Rock and where it landed.]

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Justice Potter Stewart on definining obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)

“While I am still having trouble defining exactly what this is, I know that what I observe to be my PLN has dramatically changed the way I view teaching, communities, and the negotiation and formation of knowledge.”

Alec Couros on defining personal learning networks

Alec Couros didn’t invoke the Potter Stewart clause in his recent attempt to discover a definition of personal learning networks, but he could have. Alec put the question “What is a PLN?” to his Twitter network in what, he noted, was an inherently existential exercise. But a useful and enlightening one. While a satisfactory definition is still lurking out there on the margins, Alec’s network kicked back some robust 140-character building blocks for starters, like these:

From @BlancheMaynard: “PLN is organic; PLE is mechanic. You can use ‘tools’ like Twitter within your PLE to access your network, but the tool isn’t the network.”

And from @jrichardson30: “To act as a source AND catalyst for this sort of thought-provoking conversation and authentic experience mentioned above that leads us to a point where are required to engage, to reflect, and ultimately to contribute instead of just consuming.”

We know a PLN when we see one. More importantly, we know when we’re in—and being changed by—one. And while we may struggle to find referents and research to support what we’ve learned through our experience,  we know what we know deeply and intuitively. As Alec says, the personal change can be dramatic. This business of not quite being able to put our empirical finger on a truth,  of knowing something through direct personal experience, strikes me as being essentially mystical.  In this light, Alec’s existential exercise  starts to look more like a koan: What is the sound a PLN defining itself?

Not that there’s anything wrong with having an inner life. Parker Palmer often talks about the importance of interiority in education, but with a decided slant toward reclaiming a more pragmatic mysticism.  He talks about Barbara McClintock, the eminent, Nobel-winning geneticist, as an example of a “wheels-down” mystic; her science was rock-solid but guided by an intuitive grasp of patterns and relationships in genetic material. Her decades of research focused on corn. Asked by her biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, to describe her leaps of insight into the complex genetic structure of corn, McClintock responded, “Somehow you have to have a feeling for the organism….To do great science, you have to learn, somehow, to lean into the kernel.”

Leaning into the kernel. That suggests intentionally knocking ourselves off-kilter and into a new stance, giving up our usual straight-up-and-down center of gravity in hopes  of discovering new slantwise perspectives. Getting closer, mingling spaces, listening beyond the noise. And, to me, the language of leaning also implies a degree of trust: trust that you’ll be caught as you begin to fall into a void. Arguably, Alec Couros was leaning into the kernel of his PLN, trusting it to buoy his understanding, and trusting that he’d recognize insights as they emerged.

Parker Palmer also frequently talks about trust as a defining factor  in the success of schools. He cites the study conducted in the 1990s by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider of the University of Chicago, Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement.

What factors, they wondered, made the difference between schools that got better at educating children over the course of that decade—as measured by improved test scores—and schools that did not? The answer was not money, models of governance, up-to-date curricula, the latest in teaching techniques, or any other external variable. The answer was ‘relational trust’ between teachers and administrators, teachers and parents, teachers and teachers. Schools with high relational trust, and/or leaders who cared about it, had a much better chance of serving students well than schools that ranked low on those variable.

He continues:

Well, who doesn’t know that a building full of people who don’t trust each other will not do much good with all the money in the world? And who doesn’t know that a building full of people who trust each other can do great work, even with a lack of material resources? Everyone knows that, right?

Like a PLN, relational trust can be a hard notion to pin down. Palmer argues above that we know it when we see it, even if we’re not sure how to go about making it happen.

All of this kernel-leaning makes me wonder how relational trust plays out in personal learning networks. Bryk and Schneider tell us relational trust is an important factor in how effectively schools function and how well they serve students. Does the idea transfer to PLNs? Does relational trust factor into how *effectively* your network functions, and by extension, how well it serves its participants, and by further extension, your students? Obviously, a school’s goals and structure are quite different than the fluid, organic, shifting, opt-in life of a PLN. But I wonder if our PLNs can teach us lessons about building relational trust back home in our schools. Is your level of trust with colleagues in your network higher or lower than with those in your school? Is it a different kind of trust? Is it easier to trust a school colleague who’s also a member of your network? What aspects of relational trust in PLNs (if any) could inform and improve relational trust-building in schools?

For fun and edification, and to try to spark some insights a la Couros, I’ve created a brief relational trust survey based on items from Hoy and Tschannen-Moran’s Omnibus Trust Scale . It has two parts: the first addressing relational trust in your PLN, and the second deals with trust in your school/work setting. I  tweeted the link last week, and a few hardy souls have already ventured forth to take the survey—thanks, Bill and all, especially for the illuminating comments. I promised to deliver a formal summary of results ’round about now, but it’d be nice to collect a few more responses. Let’s keep it open for another week or so. Informal snapshot: suffice it to say that the numbers for relational trust in PLNs are running unsurprisingly high, and the trust-in-schools numbers are lagging behind.

If you’re game, take the survey.