Learning in a community

We all seek community–it’s human nature. We form communities within our departments at school, or with other like-minded staff, while students form them around clubs, activities, or even Facebook, MySpace, gaming, etc.

networkbene.jpg When we talk to teachers about the power of virtual communities or networking, I’m not sure it’s one of those things that really resonates with them because they haven’t experienced it in a more virtual way.

This is one area where I think the landscape of our students is really different. A large percentage of them are accustomed to interacting with others they have never met, via instant messaging, Facebook, YouTube, gaming sites, etc. Students that do that “get” the power of networking online, and in fact, to them, it may even become routine to communicate with other people around the world.

Teachers who have used Classroom Ning and gotten an answer, or emailed a school overseas and gotten a response, or posted on a blog, and the blog author emailed them–those teachers have a sense of the thrill that it brings when someone outside your circle of influence responds.

But it poses difficulty when we talk with teachers about the power of the network and they haven’t experienced it–because for one thing, teachers do have their own “in building” networks that they rely on, and also, there’s the logistical issue. What if you want a network? How do you get one? You can’t just sign up for it (except maybe in Ning?). It is something you have to build.

netowrk2bene.jpg And why do you build it? Because you have a need, or an interest to share, or you want to discuss something, or you really enjoy the thrill of learning something totally new and outside your comfort zone?

While attending Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s session on Virtual Learning Communities at TechForum, that hit home. Over the last year and a half, I realized I have built a learning community, and at TechForum, I got to meet some of them in person for the first time(David Jakes, Wes Fryer, Sheryl Nussbaum Beach and Miguel Guhlin), and that was a thrill. I also met people who have my blog in their learning network(hi Randy Rogers), much to my surprise, or people who were following my blog (hi Wendy Jones!) who I knew once but had lost touch with for awhile, and some whose blogs I read, but didn’t know what they looked like(hi 2TechChicks!)


So, how do you build a learning community?

That seems like a very practical question we have to explore with teachers or with students if we are talking about learning networks.

So, here are some ways to build a learning network if you want one:

1. Read a few blogs. Pick four blogs. Read them, and make a comment fairly often. Part of the idea here is conversation with others.

2. Create your own site that people can visit. A blog, a wiki, a website–so when you post on their blog, they can see who you are, and what your work or interests are.

3. Join a network, like Classroom 2.0 Ning, or Global Education Ning or Teacher Librarian Ning or Librarian 2.0 Ning. It’s a great way to find out projects other people are starting and join them. Those are also great places to post a question or to ask someone to join a project you want to do.

4. Join a network that has to do with your outside interests–visit a knitting blog or a football blog or a travel blog and post comments there.

5. Join a site like Twitter. The thing about twitter is–you can’t just join it and sit there if you want to get the power of it. Join Twitter, search for 4 twittees that are educators, librarians, biology teachers–whatever your area of interest is. Or pick names you recognize from blogs. (There is a search box in the twitter page.) Click on the “find and and invite” button. It may feel strange at first to invite people you don’t know at all to network with you, but it’s a first step. And if you don’t like it, you can always uninvite someone.

6. If you join twitter, you have to post to it once in awhile. You can post links to a good website, briefly describe a library project you are doing, etc.

7. Attend small conferences. Smaller conferences are a good way to meet and network with people that share your interests. After the conference, make it a point to contact one person you met and exchange an idea.

8. Join a site like Facebook–if you are a librarian, look for libraries on Facebook. Great way to see what students use and also meet people.

Notice the common thread here in all of these is that you have to “put something out there” to get something back of value. But that’s how all of our relationships are–they are two way.

Why do any of this in the first place? Because as Wes Fryer pointed out in his keynote address at TechForum, increasingly this is how our students are learning. He shared his recent trip to Shanghai, and the growth of business there, and how for some corporations like HP, over half their workforce is now overseas. His children are growing up in a world where international digital tools are NOT an option; if they’re going to need to collaborate on a daily basis they need the tools.

The recent National School Board Association report, as Randy Rodgers shares, and as Wes shared in his session, points out that a staggering 71% of our students use social networking weekly. (Alan Levine has been following college student use of Facebook , which is higher than 88%, and has an interesting white paper tracing his findings.)

The point is–we don’t have to “become” our students, which I think sometimes people think we are asking them to do. But we do need to understand how they are learning 24/7, and we do need to understand the idea of a network, and the best way to realize that is to discover its power for ourselves.

Other ideas for helping teachers/students build a learning network?  Please share!

image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benedikte/1541939938/

9 thoughts on “Learning in a community

  1. Carolyn,
    You have captured my feelings to a “tee.” Thanks for the steps for teachers to get started. I need to share these with some teachers at school who are willing to take that step into cyberspace. Most that I work with give me blank looks when I talk about social networking.

  2. Your post did a great job of helping me to centre my thinking around how to move my staff forward into more 2.0 style projects. I am part of a group of colleagues, all in different locations, who had regular face to face meetings. We moved our discussions online several years ago and were amazed at how we were able to support and empower each other. I would recommend this to any group of teachers who know each other already. Start your own small online group, play with it for a while to gain confidence and then expand into the larger world.

  3. Carolyn,

    As a blogger and networkee (?) of less than a year’s standing, I read all of your suggestions with interest.

    I’ve tried some of these ideas already and find them to be sound, particularly the advice to read and respond to people with similar professional or personal interests. This helps to put a “face” on what might otherwise be a vast and anonymous virtual world.

    I would add that not every tool will work for every learner. RSS feeds are my joy and PD pipeline; flickr and del.icio.us are invaluable; I’m just starting to see the potential in Twitter. I didn’t do so well with Skype (as you well know!) but will try again. Online sessions featuring live chat and video, like some at the K-12 Online Conference are too much for me to cope with.

    So my advice would be: interact, keep an open mind, and constantly try new things to see what works for you. I love this new dimension to my life!

  4. Carolyn,

    Great advice! Thanks for sharing it. I think sometimes the biggest issue for people new to it is the patience side of it. I have blogged as part of a National Writing Project group for the last couple of years. Recently I decided to start my own personal blog. Not much in the way of comments yet, but those will come with time. I struggle with getting new teachers to start a blog as PD because they feel no one is reading it. Oddly enough, these are mostly English teachers who promote writing for self-reflection. Maybe it will all come together for them soon enough.

    It was good to meet you in Austin, even if it was an over the shoulder virtual stalker kind of way. 😉 Maybe next time we will have more time to talk and really introduce ourselves. If I don’t see you at the TCEA conference in Austin in February, maybe I will catch up with you at NECC in San Antonio.

    I hope you had a great trip.

  5. Thanks, Carolyn, for the great blog. You quoted Wes Fryer as saying that the reason we should network is because “increasingly this is how our students are learning.” For me, the more important reason is because this is how I can learn. My fifth graders are not yet learning through an online network. I’m working on changing that but online networks are still pretty new to them. But I network because of the power out there. I spent many years being the “go to” person in the school, not having anyone for me to go to. Now I have “go to” people and have grown drastically because of it. I love my network and, like you, loved meeting some of them f2f. Look forward to getting to meet you one day, f2f. 🙂

  6. Diane,

    I completely agree that different tools work for different people, and people need different entryways, and have different needs.

    I love Lisa’s comment about being the “go to” person but not having a “go to ” person for herself, and how powerful the network has been in that regard. I think that is why it is so appealing to me also. I also think that is why it can be so powerful for administrators, who are also often singletons in their building(like librarians).

    Teachers do network within their departments on many campuses, and so perhaps the “need” isn’t as great for them initially, if they have a strong F2F network of support. But I think just like students, there are teachers who feel that they don’t fit in at their campus, or they are pushing the envelope on something and would like to find someone to support that, or they are curious about what’s happening elsewhere. Each person has their own needs, as Diane mentioned.

    And Lisa, I do think that some of our students have learning networks we don’t really conceive of in that way–whether its through club penguin, or webkinz, or facebook, or deviant art or gaming sites. They may not think of them as learning networks, but they are.

    WoScholar–I agree that it’s puzzling why teachers who teach writing don’t always immediately see the benefits of blogging, even if blogging without much of an audience, since we ask students to do that when we ask them to journal, constantly. But I do try to put myself in the shoes of people, not be judgmental, and just try and sort through the issues. Is it too time-consuming? Are the guidelines unclear? Is the software too frustrating or difficult? What examples can we share of the richness that can happen? (Clay Burell’s projects or Brian Crosby’s spring to mind here).

    Sometimes I think part of the struggle in all of this, is we as teachers are becoming the learners, in pretty dramatic ways, and that’s a paradigm change at a fundamental level and not really something some of us were prepared for.

    Thanks for all the interesting discussion! Looking forward to meeting all of you F2F as well!

  7. Carolyn,
    Thank you for your blog. I just started blogging myself and I am looking for ways to be more connected with other educators. This year I am subbing and while I have learned a lot. I do not have the luxury of a typical school community. I think this will be a great start for me. I do belong to Shelfari, which I have thouroughly enjoyed. I have found though that many teachers do not make the time for it because the groups are not very active.

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