Digital Tools Enable Human Connections

Note: I wrote this blog entry in 2005, or maybe, 2006 for Technology & Learning. It’s amazing how many different ways we can have conversations in digital spaces, but the idea of a conversation remains…because we are human beings. My ideas have certainly evolved since then! You’ll want to read the original and compare it to the article below, from which I’ve removed some of the pieces I disagree with!

“It’s as if there’s a layer of conversation lying on top of the regular web,” shared David Warlick at a conference. At the same time, he introduced the concept of a Personal Learning Network, or PLN. Facilitated by blogs and RSS Feeds, the purpose of the PLN is professional development within an area of interest.

This idea of building your own professional development network – where you find the people from whom you can learn, ask questions of them, comment on their thoughts and links, and have them do the same for you – is one of the major benefits of blogging and podcasting. It is the art of conversation captured in digital format. This article shares how blogs enable both adult learners and students to create their own Personal Learning Networks, sometimes with unintended consequences – both positive and negative. It also examines possible solutions to address unintended consequences among student blog use.

Blogs as Digital Conversations

Digital conversations are taking place in the blogosphere…but are you a participant? I recently asked a group of technology directors via their email list if they were having the types of conversations that others were having. I was struggling with the use of blogs in education, and I wanted other directors to discuss it with me. That is when I discovered that email lists are no longer part of the “inner circle” where the best conversations take place.

Instead, those conversations are taking place in spaces like Twitter, Blab.im, Voxer, Blogger.com, and the millions of virtual spaces available on the Web. The concept is becoming international, as the masses of India and China find their own voices online and begin to build their own PLNs, drawing upon many more people than we have access to in the United States. This means that isolationism just will not work, neither for you, for your own children, nor for your students.

If you’re not a part of the conversations, you aren’t aware of the issues until they hit home, such as the problems with YikYak, Kik, etc. and the use of adult online spaces by students at schools across the country. By now, the inappropriate use of digital spaces has been discussed across blogs and social media, but if you aren’t connected, and you did not “catch the news,” then you missed the opportunity to learn. However, if you are a part of the conversation, you can learn, contribute and perhaps, learn as others learn.

Learning with others makes the difference, since learning is a social process…and has now gone online with social media. Learning with others means you take control of the flood of information and data coming into your life.

There are three aspects to using modern digital tools that tap into this conversation, and consequently three incentives for building virtual personal learning networks. These are explored briefly below.

1) New Digital Tools Enable Professional Development Networks

Anne, a teacher, describes the benefits of a blog-based personal learning network. This type of network allows us to tap into people with whom we would not otherwise have contact. On “EduBlog Insights.” Anne writes about how a librarian’s blog—“The Shifted Librarian”—allows her to learn about a conference she could not attend. She writes, “Those learnings led me to even more learning on the blogs of those who had presented. Talk about professional development.” And, many of us now follow hashtags on Twitter to learn more about a particular subject (e.g. #tcea16 for the most recent TCEA State Conference, #digcit for Digital Citizenship).

As Dr. David Tobin, Ph.D., notes in “Building Your Personal Learning Network,” PLNs give us access to varied information sources, and, more importantly, to people of whom we can ask questions, who can provide us with coaching and mentoring, and who can challenge or extend our thinking. I

n the connected world in which we now live, NOT creating your own personal learning network cuts you off from what you need to survive and thrive in the “flattened world” that Thomas Friedman describes in The World is Flat). With content curation tools, we are able to process a greater amount of information than was previously possible by surfing to different Web pages. In a moment, we can get the pulse of conversations, then dig as deep as we need so as to discover what is of merit.

2) Digital Tools Enable Human Connections

At David Warlick’s TechForum presentation, one of his slides showed how he was making connections between blogs, building his own PLN. For example, he started reading Steve Dembo’s “Teach42.com”, and something mentioned in that blog made him explore another.

Like David, I started out in the same way. I began simply with one or two education-related blogs such as “Bud the Teacher” and “Moving at the Speed of Creativity” (http://www.speedofcreativity.org/) and then added blogs as I went. But adding blog feeds my RSS Aggregator is not what digital conversations are about. It’s not enough to read, it’s also important to write, speak, share video, as Wes Fryer points out:

To accomplish that, I started leaving comments relevant to the blog entries posted on others’ blogs. As I posted each comment, I included a link back to my own blog “Around the Corner”. On my blog, I would expand on the conversation in a way that I only hinted at in the comment. In this way, I invited other bloggers to visit my blog and, in turn, leave comments on my site. And the nature of the comments left on my site has been very helpful, primarily because they give me information and advice that I wouldn’t have had if I had depended on my “traditional” PLN, comprised of the people with whom I interact every day at work and in my personal life. Thus, in a way that Email lists could never accomplish — because not everyone can be subscribed to every Email list on which I work — blogs enable me to learn from strangers.

3) Digital Tools Foster Transparency

Digital tools enable us to see others’ thinking — or lack of thinking — as they build a web of connected learning.

The art of digital conversation, of building personal learning networks, is more about knowing when we need information, as well as knowing how to identify, locate and evaluate it. And, then, as if that weren’t enough, real life forces us to effectively use that information to solve real life problems.


Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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