Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nurturing your PLN for everyone’s ongoing professional development

This is the blog post I intended to fire off after the last TESOL Arabia conference March 11-13 at Zayed University in Dubai.  I made a presentation there that I did not complete.  The part I gave was recorded here: http://tinyurl.com/100312vance-dubai.  The slides of all I had intended to say are here: http://www.slideshare.net/vances/nurturing-your-pln-for-everyones-ongoing-professional-development. Since they were posted online they have been favorited by a number of people :-)
http://twitter.com/VanceS/status/10410955223 shows the above Twitpic of Gavin Dudeney presenting at TESOL Arabia, Dubai, March 13, 2010.  I took the pic on my iPhone during his presentation, Twitpic'd it, and Gavin showed it to his audience when he checked his Twitter feed 5 minutes later in his presentation.

TESOL Arabia conferences in the UAE have not historically been well connected.  Often they are held in hotels where there may be wireless only in the lobby, or perhaps even in some of the presentation rooms, but in all venues presenters could expect connectivity to be patchy to non-existent.  Certainly you wouldn't plan to rely on an internet connection under such conditions, and so I arrived at TESOL Arabia this year with a PowerPoint presentation safely stored on my laptop and backed up to a flash drive, having made no preparation for delivering it to anyone beyond the brick and mortar campus at ZU apart from a mere mention on my PLN that I might try to webcast from there.

The part of the presentation that I didn't give because I ran out of time was to be a complaint against conferences which forced participants to remove themselves from their networks (fortunately, not an issue at this happily interconnected conference in Dubai - the only issue was that hardly anyone was using the connectivity; but that's the next step beyond the scope of this post, and something I hope to address in a TESOL Arabia chapter presentation from Abu Dhabi April 10, 2010; preliminary info at: http://bit.ly/Apr10_prez_TA_Auh).

As I ran out of time, I was leading to the question of what TESOL Arabia, or any viable configuration of practitioners interested in futhering their professional development, is or should be.  To arrive at what I was leading up to I had presented a distinction between groups, communities, and networks, and was showing how knowledge resides in networks and is passed around the network through modeling and demonstrating practical applications of knowledge applied to practice. In this model of how knowledge is disseminated in the 21st century, I suggest that it is never appropriate to cut anyone, at any time, students in class, participants at a conference, or knowledge workers attending meetings, off from their networks.

As a result of this trend, professional development less and less happens mainly at conferences. For many professionals, development happens every day in the course of using Skype, Twitter, or Facebook, reading blogs and wikis, or viewing and sharing tutorials and presentations on YouTube, TeacherTube, Drop.io, uStream, TED Talks, etc. etc.  This means that for many professionals, face-to-face conferences are of decreasing importance.

As most of us agree that learning is mainly social, such conferences seem most appreciated for their networking potentials rather than for the papers presented there, which more and more often can be read or their recordings viewed online, as archives of such materials become more and more widely distributed. Travel to distant cities to participate on site in conferences has become inefficient and less necessary than before, and is less crucial for gaining knowledge than opportunities available in cyberspaces dedicated to education.  Accordingly, one can argue that face-to-face meetings (in the workplace) risk a similar obsolescence, or that the notion of forcing students to attend classes is becoming archaic when podcasts of lectures are available, and indeed interaction around their subject matter can be made more rewarding using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online resources.

In other words, to face-to-face gatherings, add a networked dimension.  Hold the meeting, or conference, or class in a brick and mortar edifice as usual, but configure the space so that it lets in the network. Now you have the best of all worlds that blended learning has to offer.  Participants in the physical spaces are able to look each other in the eye and benefit from each other's company, but they can share what they are doing with the wider world, or draw in people and resources from their PLNs or personal learning networks. In this way consumers of content at a face-to-face gathering can generate content online, and as this content is reflected on, remixed, and recycled, and filtered back to participants either physically at or virtually enjoying the live event, everyone involved would be learning more than they possibly could if the event were cut off from the networks of those who participated.

There is opposition to this notion. Wide Web of diversions gets laptops evicted from lecture halls is an interesting article, recently discussed on the Webheads list, about how PLN's can be distracting, but I think this will continue to be a problem only in the short term.  This article calls attention to how inappropriate use of PLNs in contexts where greater focus is called for can be detrimental to the individuals who engage in such behaviors.  With greater experience and sophistication, such behavior is likely to dissipate, as people come to distinguish the affordances of network enhancements to how they learn in face-to-face situations from uses of networks that are decidedly unprofessional in such contexts.

I had meant to suggest in my presentation (as I did in the slides) that in future, successful conferences and professional organizations will have to combine opportunities for face-to-face interpersonal connection with the connectivity to allow seamless interaction with distributed personal learning networks. Those that do not will become decreasingly relevant I am aware that not all agree that this should be the case. As the article indicates, not everyone sees networks intrusion as a positive force in the dynamics of face-to-face interaction.  So I was hoping to raise the question, if conferences are networked, who benefits? who loses?

I argued this point February 20, 2009 at the AACE's Spaces of Interaction online conversation on improving traditional conferences, http://aace.org/globalu/. The last slide posted at http://www.slideshare.net/vances/success-in-modeling-blended-learning-in-theory-and-practice-at-f2f-and-online-conferences has the dinosaur image, and the talk itself was recorded and is available here: http://aace.na4.acrobat.com/p92907860/

At that event, George Siemens agreed that conferences that do not provide and encourage networking are "unacceptable" but this is what one expects at annual TESOL conferences, for example, which are always held in corporate convention centers, and where getting computers inside and setting them up and networking them is done by unionized labor, and any bandwidth provided is done at a surcharge that prices it beyond the range of most individual educators.  Even to get a data show to make a presentation there, the presenter has to pay an inflated fee to the convention center to cover the costs of union wages and to line the pockets of the shareholders investing in the convention center, a mindset quite at odds with that of most educators who pay so much of their limited resources to attend those conferences.

The CALL-IS (interest section) in TESOL has done a remarkable job of gaming this system so that a room full of Internet ready computers has been available for presentations at all TESOL conferences since the mid-80's, and I've made a number of presentations at TESOL-sponsored events where thanks to TESOL subsidy for its own sponsored events, Internet was provided.  

One of the most memorable of these was at an academic session CALL-IS put on in Salt Lake City in 2002 http://www.vancestevens.com/papers/evonline2002/academic.htm.  Each interest section has the right to place its academic session in the program and as the event is TESOL-sponsored it is possible to request an Internet connection.  Thus the panelists at this event were asked if they NEEDED an internet connection. Bearing in mind that this would be expensive, and even when Internet is expected, experienced presenters always prepare a backup slideshow that can be delivered unplugged if needed, and so as not to waste precious resources, every panelist but me said, no, they didn't need it.

What would I need it for?  I wasn't exactly sure, but I had the notion to stream the session live. The year before I had been asked to give a plenary address at an IATEFL conference in Nicosia, and we had streamed that along with several other of the talks at that event http://www.vancestevens.com/papers/cyprus2001/index.html.  This had come about because on a mailing list, Neteach or TESLCAL, someone had mentioned they wanted to do a voice hookup for educational purposes and Eric Baber had replied that he had an underutilized streaming server which he was using to deliver live voice and video language courses from NetLearn Languages that he would be willing to offer as a solution to what the lady wanted to do.  

I twigged immediately to the potential of what Eric was offering the community.  I wrote him and asked if I could use it to stream from Cyprus.  I don't remember how it came about, but Sophie Ioannou-Georgiou, who was in charge of the conference, was so keen on the idea that eventually all conference presenters were asked if they would consent to be streamed, and for all those who replied affirmative, Eric set up web pages where each presentation could be accessed live, and where the recording could later be replayed.  He did this all for free, and the conference was a great success especially due to this remarkable commitment and innovation.

Curious footnotes:

  • I was the first presenter at the conference, the first to be streamed, and the first to be recorded.  When the second plenary was streamed and recorded, the person managing the stream at our end, unfamiliar with the process, over-wrote my file with the recording of the second presentation, and my talk was forever lost to posterity.
  • Michael Coghlan, another visionary as ahead of his time as I, was the only presenter at the conference who had offered to be streamed IN.  That is, whereas a dozen presentations were streamed worldwide FROM the conference, only Michael had realized he could take advantage of the option of making a talk at the conference from a remote location, in his case Adelaide, Australia.  Michael's session was a concurrent one.  All the presentations took place in good sized auditoriums, in which Michael's talk only had a few attendees.  I was managing the stream in from the podium, Michael asked me more than once how many people were in the audience, and more than once I evaded the question, not having the heart to tell him only three or four people.  Not only that but one lady in the audience was a fan of Michael's and had come to the presentation specifically to meet him.  When it became obvious that he wasn't actually there, she complained loudly how cheated she felt when in fact she was witnessing a pioneering event illustrating how we were on the verge of realizing grand potentials for global collaboration in independent learning and ongoing professional development.

This audience reaction to our early online adventures was nothing unusual.  Later in our collaborations together, Michael and Buthaina Alothman both flew in to Abu Dhabi to present with me live and in person from the main auditorium at the Petroleum Institute as a part of a virtual event: one of John Hibbs's last epic 24-hour Global Learn Days
http://bfranklin.edu/gld/.  I had announced the event to my colleagues at the PI but unbeknownst to me there was an important rugby match on at the time and I was later told that that event was well attended.  Michael and Buth and I presented from the stage of a 100 seat auditorium, which was packed during our presentation with three or at the most maybe 4 people, but, get this, we counted at least 60 in the synchronous online chat.  Buthaina archived the event here:  http://alothman-b.tripod.com/wia-buth-gld.htm.

Although the concept has been slow to take off, it's getting these days more common for there to be strong online components at on-site conferences.  I can think of numerous examples: Shanghai 2.0, NECC, Educon 2.0 etc etc.  IATEFL has been expanding its online events; for example at Harrogate this year: http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2010/, and CALL-IS has made a major effort to announce a series of streamed events from the Eletronic Village, Boston TESOL 2010, http://academics.smcvt.edu/cbauer-ramazani/TESOL/2010/Webcasts/Sessions-Schedule.htm.

But getting back to the UAE, the TESOL Arabia conference this year was at Zayed University in Dubai, a remarkably beautiful campus with ubiquitous Internet. I got to the conference in time for the plenary at 9:00 on Thursday. I saw Gavin Dudeney with a spare seat beside him, sat down and said hello, and he remarked that the wireless was working quite well there.  I pulled out my iPhone and sure enough it was.  I tweeted to my network that this was a good sign.  I might be able to present live at 11:00, as I had "mentioned" earlier on the Webheads list.

After the plenary session, I went to the room where my own session would be and half listened to the presenter at 10:00 there while firing up my laptop and connecting flawlessly to the wireless.  Elluminate came up perfectly.  I uploaded my presentation to the whiteboard in Elluminate. Elluminate is available to Webheads thanks to a grant from Learning Times, whom I can never thank enough for this remarkable service, one of many pieces loosely joined in a network of globally connected educators.  Speaking of networks, I then tweeted to my PLN that I was preparing to go live online, and I sent an email to the webheads list with the same information. When it was my turn to set up at the front of the room I had already been joined by one or two people in Elluminate.

I was easily able to record my presentation, both voice and webcam.  I turned the cam occasionally to give a sense of the surroundings, not just present a talking head.  Cristina Costa joined in and although circumstances compelled me to present somewhat didactically, I managed to engage her for a moment in reminiscence of a chat we had had the summer before with Etienne Wenger, where she had remarked that she knew she was a member of a community of practice when her practice changed. The audience, sometimes sceptical at such events, warmed to the occasion and became noticably relaxed and engaged as we went along.  Their satisfaction plus that of the online audience, plus getting everything to work and connect, all presented more than one ball to juggle.  The last ball to pull out of the air is closing the Elluminate session, then retrieving the URL of the recording minutes later, then posting the URL onto various spaces including Twitter, the webheads list, and blogs.  Later someone asked me to put it on Facebook, they could get it there.  The Twitter posting makes a particularly good link for the slides and session recording.

The point I'm making here is that this is the way conferences should be.  We shouldn't all have to leave our networks at the door, or at home, or wherever the last hotspot was.  Face-to-face conferences are augmented by connectivity and backchanneling among participants, as are our classrooms.

This is another important point: how we connect at conferences is how we connect in real life.  And that should carry over to how we connect with students and they with us and how we all connect with peers both face-to-face and online.  Conferences are places we go to network and to learn.  As I pointed out in my presentation, echoing Stephen Downes, teaching is modeling and demonstrating.  This is what we should be doing at our conferences, modeling the tools we can use with each other and YES with students.  None of this connectivity should be blocked or suppressed.  The Washington Post article referenced earlier may indicate an attention deficite disorder inherent in multitasking but it also reveals a phase through which we all must pass.

As a teenager I used to show off to peers by driving fast and irresponsibly, in an era where seatbelts were not the norm.  Now in the UAE I see much evidence of this same lack of sophistication. But we all grow out of it.  We educate one another how to maximize the potentials of the technologies we harness while avoiding the pitfalls that many of us toy with when the technlogy is new to us.  In other words, if people are checking cell phone messages in class or meetings, diverting attention from the meeting itself, they are hopefully going through a temporary phase.  In time it will become understood that there is a time and place for that.

It used to be that in my classes students would sneak onto MSN messenger.  Now they almost never do that. These days they might switch in and out of Facebook, but Facebook is less intrusive.  Use of mobiles is more of a problem now, but in time we will have learned how to use them appropriately to effectively leverage our learning by widening our networks and accessing data needed for class or workplace intelligence. (Actually I found today two of my students on MSN, but it turned out they were in communication with each other, back-channeling in the classroom. I thought that this was an appropriate use of the tool).

I remember one time Gavin mentioned in a recorded presentation his discomfort with people interacting with their media while he was presenting, but now I'm glad to see that he has his iPhone and laptop with him and happily uses them in enjoyment of always-on connectivity. The back channel at the conference was all aTwitter.  At one point Gavin asked his Twitter network for advice on what to do evenings in Dubai, and I rose to the occasion with the definitive 140-character travel guide for Dubai: "@dudeneyge in Dubai, go to the creek, cross it in an abra, walk through the souks at either end of the abra ride, Deira & Bur Dubai, & dhows" <http://twitter.com/VanceS/status/10368130620>.  I don't know if Gavin ever got the chance to actually follow my itinerary, but at least he and hundreds of my followers were 140 characters wiser for what Gavin was missing.

That's how knowledge spreads throughout a network, and what we should see a lot more of at face-to-face conferences, wherever they are held, although where they are actually held is getting to be increasingly irrelevant in our increasingly networked world.

PS: I just stumbled on Terry Freedman's compilation of resources at http://www.ictineducation.org/free-stuff/ and found there an article on "What I look for in a conference". On the wish list is "#7 I wanna be connected: The best conference will have wi-fi throughout the venue, including the hotel. There must also be a conference Twitter feed, and Flickr and Technorati tags."  Indeed.

TinyURL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/230310advanced