Personal Learning Networks

Elephants at watering hole
Elephants by travfotos

Originally only open to university students, Facebook has quickly expanded (in North America, at least) to become the most ubiquitous online platform for people of all ages to stay connected with friends and family. More than just a social networking environment, people use Facebook to promote causes, create fan pages, play games and yes, even to learn with each other.

Later this week we will be joining Kevin Gaugler in Elluminate via LearnCentral to discuss the ways in which these online environments might expand our concept of when, where and with whom we learn. Be sure to view the two MAALLT keynotes prior to our Friday session as they will form the basis of our discussion.

Might social networking environments like Twitter, Facebook, Diigo, Zotero, wikis and blogs provide learners and educators previously unimaginable possibilities to create on-demand, personalized learning networks that can enrich face-to-face exchanges and extend learning beyond the classroom and semester or academic year? If so, how? If not, why not? In what way do this week’s materials inform your perspective?

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12 Responses to “Personal Learning Networks”

  1. inasayyoub Says:

    The readings for this week are kind of addressing the whole issue of social networking and touch upon almost all of the topics discussed over the semester.
    As a language teacher and learner at the same time I totally agree with the idea of globalizing the curriculum ,as Alan November suggests and that can only possible through social networking!To make this more specific, we spend a long time learning a language at school or at the university and then we travel to the country of that language and we try using that language till we feel that what we learned really makes sense. With social networking I believe, this can be done earlier using applications like facebook , twitter and diigo. Here I would mention my humble project of using Diigo me and my class. The students are now sharing many things they discover about the Arabic culture including songs and other videos they find. Maybe, sometimes they feel it is frustrating to use diigo and have some technical problems, but a website that a student bookmarked is used the following day for a whole discussion with the class that is started by them.
    I can now imagine how such tools can be used now in shifting the control as November suggests and how students are not only receiving what I have to tell them about the culture. This serves greatly the skills of higher order thinking that every professor crave in his students. Because students take the responsibility of searching, filtering , evaluating and judging the materials they find.They also learn to work in a team and how to edit and build on what others provide.
    Back to the point of how social networking help students in making sense of the language they learn much earlier before using it in real situations when they travel abroad is so evident through the situation provided at the beginning of the Educause article, and how students will always figure out a way to use these things in a new way that doesn’t only include creating fan pages and groups.

    • Blanca Says:

      I strongly agree with Inas about how using social networks can help make students feel that what they are learning makes sense. Sometimes I feel that most of the students are not really aware that they are learning a language that can help them communicate with millions of people. Many of them have language requirements for their majors so it is just a course they just want to pass and that is all. Maybe using the social networks they use with their friends they would finally realize that a foreign language is something useful, real, not something you only use in room 237 in Arjona Building four hours a week; maybe they would realize that it can help them meet new people and learn about other cultures and customs that would enrich their lives in countless ways.

      • chenwenh Says:

        Exactly, Blanca. This is where we instructors can make a difference. In other words, our job is to help students understand that learning a foreign language or a different culture is more than a course. It is relevant to the real world, and we need to show them how. The way we teach our subject definitely has a significant impact on their understanding of the connections between their learning of this subject and their own life. And social networks are one of the tools we could use to promote the connections.

    • Lay Says:

      One of the tools that is constantly being asked for teachers to use is realia. Social networks are that realia. As Inas says, students get in touch with things that are beyond the classroom walls and they can bring them to class to enrich the discussion.
      I must say, I was amazed with Inas’ Diigo group and how students were compromised with the project. It was impressive the amount of material the students had worked with. They did it, of course, because they felt that whatever Inas was teaching them was useful in the outside world. Also, they could better grasp the language because they could use it in real space, with native speakers or with their classmates outside of that three hours they are required to attend to every week.
      I must also talk about Kemen’s Twitter project. I was impressed by the great response of the students to Kemen’s idea. Also, the tool made them feel in a safe and fun environment.
      We, as educators, should take advantage of those tools the students are already accustomed to. Facebook is a networking site that our students not only know, but they enjoy. With a simple survey, we would find that most of our students are already using facebook daily. Then why not use this to our purposes of learning?
      Now, these tools are not only good for our students but for us as well. I have learned a lot by connecting with educators and grad students in facebook. For my thesis, this tool has been invaluable to keep in touch with experts in my field.
      If used correctly (and safely), social networks could promote a better communication and progress the learning on both student and teacher.

      • sarahmelvine Says:

        I think that as Inas stated, social networking is most effective because it encourages interaction and then asks students to take personal responsibility for the direction of the class. I think that sharing materials with others and knowing that your work might be viewed by your peers, helps to reinforce that there is a purpose to the classroom assignments outside of the teacher’s evaluation. I also think that teaching people how to use social networking tools in an engaged and interactive manner is an important way to improve their reading, writing and literacy skills.
        I also agree with the point that using these tools for the purpose of education will show students more ways to become an active learner even beyond language acquisition. Although this surely will not stick with every student, I think that these sites will improve the chances of students continuing to learn once the course is through.

    • christopherlaine Says:

      I agree with everything said, and the chance to write in the language will keep the student learning after the class is over. But I don’t know if it can replace actual spoken conversation. I know from my own experience, that having kept reading and writing in German since I stopped taking classes has helped my written ability, but that my ability to understand spoken German drops significantly if I take even a semester away from German class. Also, online/virtual networks can’t simulate the behavioral aspects of language that come across when in the presence of another speaker.

      • sarahmelvine Says:

        Very good points, Chris. I agree that there is something unique about spoken interactions in the target language. Personally, my level of French has also reduced since it has been 5 years since I lived in Europe and I am not forced to speak French in the presence of others now. Even though I think that these face-to-face interactions cannot be reproduced online, realistically it is not possible for most people to engage with native speakers on a regular basis. I know that my level of French was improved by chatting in French language chat rooms when I was learning the language and it does teach you some of the colloquialisms and makes you think on your feet. If not a substitute, it is a good supplement to classroom interactions and I think it can enhance the classroom experience.

    • chenwenh Says:

      I really like Inas’s Diigo project, which definitely proves Alan November’s idea of “a global curriculum.” The world has been a flat one as Thomas Friedman suggested, and Clive Thompson reminded us of the effect of “ambient awareness.” We are so digitally intimate with others–whether we intended to get close or it just occurred without us noticing it–and we can turn this digital intimacy into something useful and educational. As we can see in Ina’s Diigo project, her students participated, researched on their own, communicated by commenting one another, and shared their learning with one another. They put what they have learned in Inas’s class into practice and formed a learning community within themselves. Isn’t it a perfect example of how to achieve the ACTFL National Standard, “The Five C’s” for foreign language education? These students’ role as a learner does change into one of a researcher, then of a creator–a contributor, so to speak–and finally of a collaborator.

      Also Inas made a good point about November’s idea of “comfort with shifting control.” Instructors might feel insecure with losing the “control” while teaching, but I think Inas’s project proves that the discomfort she felt is compensated by the progress she saw her students making. While we release our control in teaching, our students not just gain more freedom, but they also take more responsibility for themselves. We guide them through the learning process by showing them how and telling them why, and then they can assume a more independent role of solving problems on their own. This should be the happy ending of our teaching; in other words, students have become independent life-long learners who can research and create on their own. Therefore, social networks may have their own downsides, but like what Lay said in the end of her comment, if we use them “correctly(and safely),” they are certainly beneficial to both teaching and learning.

  2. Blanca Says:

    Networking environments can definitely provide opportunities for learning, especially because they open two doors: one to work beyond time and space constrictions established in formal education, and another to the rest of the world. Although the first door can be really useful, it may sometimes be difficult to make students go through it. We all have been students and know that sometimes you want the class to finish when the bell rings, and it may be annoying to spend some of the time you consider your free time working on class assignments. However, the second door may be really appealing for students and instructors. The example in the first EDUCASE article shows how social networks help you reach people with your same interests all over the world. This gives the opportunity to practice language in a meaningful way: you would not be covering a chapter in your book, but practicing language in context, with (presumably) native speakers, talking about something that may interest you more than, for example, “Pressures of the student life” (one of the chapters in our Spanish book).
    I see these social networks as good platforms for language practice with native speakers in a more relaxed way: I think it’s a good way to get meaningful input and learn from it, while producing language in a “safer” environment (in the sense that students have time to think what they are going to write and feel safe, because they are not facing the other person). Thinking about the program “Linkage Through Language”, it may be a good idea to work with an overseas university. For example, let us think in a group of Agriculture students here that learn Spanish in a LTL course. The instructor, with the help of the professor, could contact the Agriculture Department of a Spanish or South American university. They could create a Facebook group on something they are studying so they interact in Spanish while learning specific vocabulary and getting useful resources from future colleagues. This would be meaningful and useful, not only for the Spanish course, but for the rest of their courses.

  3. sondrus Says:

    I was captivated by Inas’ project on getting students to use Diigo in Arabic. First what came to mind is how our goal is to move students to be doing and performing in the field, not just spewing information. With active research they are using the language in a way we graduate students do. Part of our graduate student requirement is to be able to research in foreign languages, so as to find things relating specifically to our specialities. Well, Inas’ students are likewise able look for things relevant to them in Arabic. Think what a good position they will be in for writing further papers at UConn. Can you imagine how impressed an instructor would be with research done in Arabic! Plus, when on the job market these students can not only put down that they know Arabic, but that they can go into the real world with it- meaning not only talking to people, but going through the internet.

  4. sarahmelvine Says:

    Unlike some technologies, I am pretty optimistic about the pedagogical potential of social networking, wikis and blogs in higher and K-12 education. This class opened my eyes to the many creative and engaging possibilities for classroom implementation, and I definitely think that it has transformed the ways in which I will organize my courses in the future. Firstly, I can see how building online communities can help to build the classroom culture in face-to-face instruction. I was especially impressed by Lay’s use of wikis in her class; although I teach mostly literature courses, I can see how collaborative projects enable students to feel like they are personally responsible for the learning that takes place in the class and the quality of its outcomes.
    I think that another reason that these resources are so effective is that these are familiar tools which many students already use on a daily basis. I think that on an affective level this helps many people feel comfortable in a subject area with which they are not necessarily familiar. I have to wonder, however, how to negotiate with students who perhaps are less than enthusiastic about using social networking tools due to personal exposure, and so on. I still am not sure how to approach using Facebook if students are not willing to share their personal accounts with the class. I suppose that as Kemen did with her class, it would be possible to have anonymous accounts set up for the sake of the course, but this seems like it might be problematic and would take a lot of troubleshooting before success. I am wondering whether it would be most effective to use sites that are fairly neutral, such as Ning, for the sake of the course, to overcome these prejudices and hang-ups regarding social networking sites. In the future, I think that I will probably stick with wikis and tools that seem to be primarily for pedagogical use, to avoid these problems.

    • chenwenh Says:

      Of course, Sarah’s worry about the issue of students’ comfort with social networks makes a lot of sense. Some students do have privacy concerns over their personal life. They may not be interested in sharing personal information with classmates or teachers. Some students hesitate to participate in online communities and feel unsafe in them. Sarah’s point of students’ familiarity with social networking tools also needs to be taken into consideration when implementing social networking tools. Usually students are used to course management tools and may feel troubled by additional social networks because they may mean more course work to do. They also need to spend time practicing using new tools. If they are familiar with the tool, they may frown on the project we ask them to do. However, this does not mean that we should only use what students like or what they feel familiar with. We need to consider students’ likes and dislikes, their levels of familiarity and their opinions, but we have to evaluate different tools in view of our teaching goals and decide on the most appropriate one. I believe we ought to constantly re-evaluate the tools we have already used to make sure they function properly to suit our pedagogical purpose. Once we have determined what to use, we must try our best to ease their discomfort with the tools or increase their confidence in using them. That takes time, and we have to be patient with them. What we observe from students about their likes and dislikes can be our “research results” and helps us find the most appropriate realia.


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