Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ugh. Classic Politics Now Extends to Social Networking in Education.

The United States Department of Education is sponsoring a program called Connected Online Communities of Practice, a three-year initiative.

1.  I run what is arguably the largest social network for educators, Classroom 2.0 with 54,000 members.  Can anyone tell me why nobody from the Department of Education called to ask my advice on this project?

2.  If someone had called, I would have said that this is project has at it's core a mistaken idea:  that social media and personal learning networks can be directed from the top down.  There is a reason that so many acronyms in this arena start with P for "personal:"  PLN (Personal Learning Network), (PLC) Personal Learning Communities, and PLE (Personal Learning Environments).  It's because these are individual connections created by the individual, and that is their value:  they are personal.  Traditional institutions (and most professional development initiatives) operate from the top down, where someone believes that they have the best idea and pushes it down to others.  Social media works the opposite direction, as individuals build their own Web experiences, aggregate together based on their own ideas and preferences, and then ultimately build civic projects that come out of their authentic and personal passions.  Government or institutional attempts to harness (or co-opt) the social networking in education movement are still operating on the false assumption that this is about the brains at the top.

I give a talk at conferences on the lessons I've learned over four years of running social networks for educators, and someone always comes up to me afterwards and says, "now I understand why our initiatives in this area haven't ever really worked."

3.  Not unique to government or institutions is an understandable, but also mistaken, idea:  that someone from the top needs to choose the best resources.  This is closely related to, and maybe an inherent part, of seeing education as a set of outcomes rather than a process.  We see the process idea in Democracy--we believe that participation is often more important than the particular outcome, and that being involved and able to voice our personal opinions is at the core of what self-governance is, even as we disagree about particular laws or policies that are enacted.  But in education we forget, or don't believe, this.  I see this same thread when I hear discussions about recording the "best" lectures out there on subjects and having these available for teachers to show students.  Yes, there are great and compelling teachers or lecturers out there, and it's valuable to identify those resources.  But when we do so we often forget that the act of creation is often as or more important in education than the consumption of material.  So when upper level language students prepare learning material for lower-level students, even though the material isn't "the best available," both the upper level and the lower level students benefit--the upper level by teaching, the lower level by seeing their close peers actually speaking a foreign language and communicating with it.

When we believe that somebody at the top needs to make sure the "best" is available, that tells me they aren't thinking about the process of education, but that they are focused on and believe they can control the outcomes.  I hesitate to use this word, but can you hear the hubris in this quote from the Department of Education announcement?
"There are already many online communities through which educators can connect with people and resources, but these communities tend to be isolated from each other, leading to redundancy of effort, missed opportunities for collaboration, and difficulty in finding appropriate support and resources. Through more efficient and coordinated online participation, education professionals will be better able to share practices, access experts, and solve problems that require systemic solutions in order to improve the opportunity to learn."
 This seems to indicate that the hundreds to thousands of teacher-initiated social networks that are out there will be made better by "more efficient and coordinated" efforts.  Honestly, I don't think so.  I think a great part of their value is because they are not "efficient and coordinated," that they are autonomous places for conversation, where educators can pick and choose on their own who they want to talk to and what they want to talk about.  The problems identified in this statement aren't really the problems of social networks for educators, they are the problems that fit the narrative of centralized solutions.  The great efficiency trap is the same one that locks students and teachers into a education system that touts its efficiency but forgets the cost of those efficiencies:  personal control and agency.

This feels very human to me--an institution that feels the sea-change taking place in power all over the world naturally trying to tell a story that protects its role.  "We're the Department of Education, so we should be the ones to make this better."  This is being played out in so many ways, from the commercial to the political to education:  institutions are still believing that they should be the ones to control the ideas and narratives.

If the Department of Education had called me, I would have recommended building an infrastructure that made it easy for educators to build their own networks--take the ideas of Ning, but add the pieces that would allow for resource sharing and better searching for colleagues with similar curricular interests.  However, keep the brilliant Ning concept of letting people build their own networks.

This isn't about efficiency, it's about agency, experimentation, and conversation.


  1. Hi Steve, bravo!

    Those of us who understand that communities blossom through individuals with similar passions who contribute self-lessly to help one another, have learned this through our own participatory experiences. I think, in the coming months and years, we'll see the "experts" learn this too.

    I think a lot about community and much of my deepest learning moments have come from my experience as a mother of two young boys. About two years ago, we gave our son (then 8) his first digital video camera for his birthday. About an hour after opening it, he walked up to me, excitedly, and said, "Mom, can you put this on YouTube?" I said, "Why and what is it?"

    What I found on his camera was a close up recording of the screen his DS, while playing Pokemon. He wanted me to share that video so he could give back to the community that had contributed their own "screencasts" which enabled his own learning. In a community, all members are teachers and students -- you're right, there is no rigid "expert" vs. "beginner" hierarchy. And when one is truly learning in community, contributions are made because members have an intrinsic commitment to support one another, not because it's a mandated goal by a higher order.

    Not only do I agree that the Dept of Ed missed the boat by not asking for your advice, I am assuming our students haven't been included either (?). If so, this further illuminates how invested our leadership is in the traditional hierarchies that have been displaced by social media.


  2. Coming completely from the social media side (I'm not an educator) I applaud your approach. Businesses are learning, albeit slowly, that exchanging control for community can have great rewards.

    I think the good news is that attempts to tightly control social networks typically fail. The bad news is our tax dollars are being spent on what will likely be folly. But nothing new there.

    Thanks for telling it like it is!

  3. Yes, Yes and Yes! Also: bravo!

  4. Steve!!!! Thank you so much for bringing this to everybody's attention. It's easy to leave comments at the draft report and I am leaving LOTS of them - including comments in praise of you (!!!!) - for example - I consider you the catalyst who totally changed my online life with Classroom2.0. I just wish all teachers in this country could have such a great way to get started in social learning as you have provided at Classroom2.0.

  5. Mahalo Steve-
    For those who have been in touch with building PLNs understand the incredible value and richness of 2.0 wildness.
    I can understand that it may seem inefficient to travel the online connectivity like a herd of shooting stars and yet the reality is counter-intuitive. An important piece that is missing with a pre-determined framework like this, is the professional learning that happens in the process of creating our individual and dynamic learning references, and the relationships that are built.
    I have more educator heroes (like you) than ever before because of the times I have a been led back to certain people in the field over and over through varied journeys, searches, compelling leads, and restarts. Efficiency assumes that we know who we are as professionals and what exactly we need. It is the stumbling and exploring that illuminates that which makes us better educators.

    Thank you for blogging!

  6. a great post i just read yesterday on inefficiency:

  7. I share your pain. Over the past 18 years I've been aggregating information about volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs in the Chicago region, and leading efforts to connect those programs to each other, and to draw volunteers and donor to programs.

    We created a map based tutor/mentor program locator in 2004 by scratching together help from volunteers and donors. The city got a huge grant from the Wallace Foundation and built their own program locator a couple of years ago. They never asked me once for any advise on what to build, what to do with it once they built it, or God forbid, if they could help me make mine better rather than reinventing the wheel.

    I keep reminding myself of the fable of the "tortoise and the hare". I'm the "tortoise" and every new group that comes in with their own version of what we've been trying to do, but without the 30 year commitment I've put into it, is the hare.

    Keep doing what you're doing. You'll still be there when the next president and next Dept. of Ed replaces what they are doing now with something they feel is better a few years from now.

  8. You sir, are throwing sheep in the board room. For those who aren't familiar with the book. That is a compliment. Well put, and I agree.

  9. Hi Steve,

    Out of no disrespect to you or for your work I wanted to push back just a little.

    1. You said, " Can anyone tell me why nobody from the Department of Education called to ask my advice on this project?" Well actually they did. They put out an RFP for anyone to submit their work to and win the bid. I was going to submit Powerful Learning Practice and the work we do with communities of practice, but the paper work just got the best of me. I ran out of time. But it was there and you should have submitted your bid if you were interested.

    2. You said, "If someone had called, I would have said that this is project has at it's core a mistaken idea: that social media and personal learning networks can be directed from the top down."

    The project (research) isn't about social networks. The research isn't about PLNs. It is about communities of practice. They are very different from organically developed social networks. In fact, communities and networks are very different in both make-up and purpose, even though often the names are used interchangeably.

    You said, "It's because these are individual connections created by the individual, and that is their value: they are personal."

    You are absolutely right. Networks are about the individual and the nodes to which the individual connects to learn.

    Communities on the other hand are about groups. They focus on co-creation and collaboration and collective identity.

    Like you, I also have been studying these ideas for sometime. Knowledge construction in communities of practice is the focus of my dissertation. I also did a 3 year empirical study with Chris Gareis on using communities of practice as an electronic induction model

    The 4 year grant I helped lead in Alabama (funded by Microsoft's Partners in Learning Grant- one of 10 funded that year) was also about communities of practice as a means of supporting passion driven collaboration and collective action tied to 21st Century learners (both adults and kids).

    I served on the steering board that put the Teacher Leaders Network together (a very successful community of practice supporting teachers whose voices influence policy). As you know I worked with Intel on thinking about what platforms that support community should look like and also worked with School Net on thinking through their community work.

    Most recently, I was part of a global research team that developed a content analysis methodology that looked at connected knowledge construction for a pilot called PLPNetbooks in Australia.

    And then of course I have five years of experience leading over 4000 educators from around the world in communities of practice through Powerful Learning Practice, a company I co-founded with Will Richardson.

    I say all that to establish credibility around what I am going to say next. In my opinion, the reason we haven't seen more shift is because what is needed is a 3-pronged approach. We need Social networks (like you lead) and personal learning networks (that individuals develop). But we also need PLCs that happen F2F in local contexts and CoPs where deep inquiry and hard conversations can happen with people to whom we have made long term commitments with which to improve and innoivate.

    If USDOE had called you Steve- you would have had a piece of the pie but we still need others, we need collective wisdom around this topic. We all need to bring what we know and are learning about the professional conversations and collective action that occur in these spaces and we need to share transparently what we know.

    I had a conversation with Darren Cambridge of the American Institutes for Research who is leading the effort at CoSN and personally I am impressed with the openness, willingness, and interest he had in what others were doing and learning around this issue.

    Call him- rather than waiting to be called. I think you might be pleasantly surprised.

  10. Sheryl, your comment was very interesting to read. In reading the draft report, I did not see that it made the distinction you are making between a social network and a community of practice, and I'm still not quite sure what the difference between social networks and communities of practice would be. Here is what the report says about online communities of practice; they make it possible for us to:

    Access knowledge.
    Share knowledge.
    Create knowledge.
    Build professional identity, relationships, and collaboration

    I do all of those things at Connie Weber's Fireside Ning (a spinoff of Classroom2.0), and I got started doing that at Classroom2.0. So, doesn't that make them communities of practice?

  11. Steve - Can you post your presentation from CUE? I looked for you at the Exhibit Hall with hopes to shake your hand and thank you for being such an inspiration, resource and voice of reason. As a new teacher I have found your blog and Classroom 2.0 site incredibly helpful as I try to change the educational environment of my school and inspire my students to question the world around them.


  12. I'm really not surprised - nor do I think most posting here truly are. Gov'ts by their nature want control and by default that means, "an outcome". Reminds me of the "sit up straight" remark from a teacher.

    Good luck is all I can say. I shake my head about America sometimes and like De Tocqueville despite so much to admire, I'm clueless about this morality streak that runs through America as strong as a lot of the fundamentalism it abhors.

    Good stuff Steve - we should always be calling out the emperor for having no clothes.


  13. One more comment to Sheryl.

    All that you say is fine and dandy. However I reject it all outright.

    I don't think government in whatever form needs any say, needs to produce any report or to provide direction/control (and might I say spend untold $ while ..... )

    Let it be, let it be....

    David here on the ground.


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