Using Technology and Personal Learning Networks to Grow a Community of Learners

 

As an aspiring pedagogue, I think it is important to make knowledge accessible in as many ways as possible with as few restrictions as possible. As an example, I met a brilliant physics student early in my academic career who was unfortunate enough to be sentenced to a few years in prison. I, and others, worried that academia was to become a dream for him because of his misfortune. Thankfully, he was able to continue his studies by way of distance learning. After serving his time, he was able to be physically present in the classroom. I also met a student who was sometimes unable to physically be in class because she was serving her country. So, at any given moment she had to be outside of the United States while she was pursuing her BA. For another student, a single mom, childcare is sometimes an issue, especially when it comes to accessing tutoring. Some students want to make use of tutoring and professor’s office hours but for various reasons cannot. However, with the broadening of the information highway come more opportunities for learning. More students are able to get the education they need, engage with learning environments, and continue their learning process despite whatever circumstances they face. By extending a student’s access to learning material, educators allow students to expand their personal learning networks (PLNs). Limited access and extended access platforms that are made available by way of the web allow students and educators to move academia beyond the classroom.

When the call came for a tool that would allow educators and students to communicate, share documents, and perform a number of other academic tasks, Blackboard won the bid. It’s motto: “At Blackboard, we’re shaping the future of education with big ideas that are transforming the face of education” (blackboard.com). The system maintains user privacy by assigning each user an unique user name and secure password so no-one can access grades, files, or any other personal information. School, department, and classroom announcements are posted on the student’s dashboard so that they can be seen upon logging into the system. Students are able to contact other students in the class and education professionals associated with the course they are enrolled in. Canvas, also a limited access system, is a similar platform that provides students with a few more tools to make managing their courses a bit easier. For example, in Blackboard the calendar and discussions almost function as stand alone tools. However, in Canvas the calendar function functions cohesively with calendar applications such as iCal and Google calendar. Discussions and announcements in Canvas are linked by the system and courses can be switched to read-only for the students rather than having access end according to the school’s license agreement. However, in both cases the systems’ securities place restrictions on its users. These limitations, sometimes depending on the permissions set by the instructor’s preferences, decrease a student’s ability to think publicly and collaborate.

The systems do not allow students to reach out to other classmates who may have taken the class or friends and family who have knowledge of the topic. While some believe this is a way for students to cheat, I argue that this is a basic lesson in building social capital. Students meet other students regardless of grade level while interacting with them on and off campus. If, for example, a freshman is struggling to understand concepts in a statistics course, then Blackboard prompts the struggling freshman to reach out to other students in the class or his/her instructor. But what if the instructor’s response is still a little confusing, or what if the classmates are also confused? The freshman will be caught in a bubble with limited resources. This shows that Blackboard and Canvas’s security places unintended limitations on the student’s learning process.

Blackboard and Canvas have teamed up with NetTutor to provide students with a online tutoring which began to extend its user’s access beyond the classroom. NetTutor is a tutoring module that allows students to connect with tutoring services provided by either their institution or an offsite tutoring company. The Math Center and the English Center at San Diego City College, for example, provides a tutoring service for the students enrolled in their institution using NetTutor’s World Wide Whiteboard. Students needing help with essay writing are able to upload their essays and receive feedback from fellow students who are employed by the English Center. They are able to participate in peer to peer virtual tutoring sessions where they have the ability to have a conversation with a tutor via webcam while also sharing a screen that allows them both to see the student’s essay at the same time. The tutor and the student can mark up the student’s essay in real time according to the rules of the tutoring department guidelines. Or the tutor can provide feedback based on the student’s areas of concern to be retrieved later.

An additional benefit of the Whiteboard is the ability to host group tutoring sessions in the same way. Blackboard also allows students to participate in many-to-many tutoring sessions where they share a virtual room with other students who are having similar problems with their essays. In this session, a tutor has the ability to have breakout peer to peer sessions and then bring the students back together to continue to their collaborative efforts. After the tutoring sessions are done, they are archived so that participants may revisit them as long as they have access to the school’s system. These sessions are private, so only the people participating in the virtual room may see the sessions. This has proven to be a wonderful resource for students, especially because it is already set up for them. They do not have to arrange the session. Instead, they simply request one through a link in Blackboard, show up in the virtual room at the agreed upon time, and the center handles it from there. While this is a useful tool, it is only a piece of the student’s PLN, which is not limited to one’s online presence but the online presence is a key component.

Although building a personal learning network takes time and energy to build, the result is a rewarding collaborative network that continues to grow throughout a student’s academic career. PLNs connect students with current and past students with whom they can work collaboratively with on homework, research papers, and projects. At the nucleus of PLNs are social connections made via social media because sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn depend on social connections to be successful. For students who are already a member of some social media organization, it is easier to begin a PLN because those connections have already been made. This network begins with family and friends but is quickly increased by new connections created in the academic world. According to Marc-André Lalande, “It is a network because these people are intern connected to other people and organizations that influence and enrich the interactions of your group through various collaboration tools usually referred to as Web 2.0.” In other words, the connections that students make do not simply add one additional person to their network; it adds a multitude of connections thus making their ability to collaborate much greater.

Once the nucleus of the network has been created, the student will need to grow it and begin to interact with people within the network in a way that makes them active participants. One way that students can do this, for example is by communicating with their network what they are thinking about a particular subject, posting questions related to a particular assignment, or by announcing that they are working on a project publicly. On Facebook, this will begin as a simple post: “My current assignment is a rhetorical analysis of a scene from Beyonce’s Lemonade music video. This is going to be fun!” This post is not directed at anyone particular but can easily start a conversation about the topic that will lead to collaboration. The conversation is already saved in a string. The student only needs to save the conversation for later retrieval. Conversations can also be made private through Facebook’s inbox option or messenger application. In both places, participants of the conversation have the ability to share articles, links, and other source material. Furthermore, they can have productive conversations about the topic that could prompt students to reconsider or delve deeper into a topic. In a similar fashion, students can make use of hash tags to catalogue tweets regarding conversations that could possibly lead to further research.

Blackboard, on the other hand, does not allow students to reach out beyond the classroom in this manner; consequently, it is a limited access educational tool. Social media, on the other hand, is an extended access tool. Limited access tools place restrictions on the user and the user’s PLN. Blackboard restricts the PLN to instructors and classmates who are enrolled in the class. Conversations about the course material and projects are either limited to email or controlled by the instructor. While students and instructors in the classroom are able to share links and materials with one another, it must be done while the discussion is open, for once it is closed that ability is lost. Extended access tools such as social media allows students to have some agency. They are able to begin conversation threads, keep the threads open, and revisit them at will. Furthermore, the conversation is open to anyone with some knowledge of the subject to add to the conversation or for others to simply agree or ask questions that could help to move the project along.

Some believe that using social media is simply a distraction and should be avoided while studying. Irrelevant conversations, games, and breaking news can be a distraction, but there is also a great deal of writing happening on social media. According to Clive Thompson in Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, the act of moving thoughts about homework to social media changes cognitive behavior (51). Sharing one’s ideas publicly causes the thinker to consider his/her audience. Thompson explains, “By putting half-formed thoughts on the page, we externalize them and are able to evaluate them much more objectively” (51). Moreover, it allows others in the PLN to have some idea of what the student is thinking, add ideas, or ask questions like what do you mean. This clarification process does not happen when students are thinking in a bubble. Instead, the student faces a cognitive brick wall that provides no answers and progress stops. However, since educators are aware of this cycle, they can help to expand the students PLN by providing them with tools that will foster public thinking and reduce instances of facing the cognitive brick wall. It is important to note that I am not arguing that social media become a primary tool for instruction, but instead, it is a supplemental tool for expanding one’s PLN. Associate professor Chris Werry at San Diego State University comments: “I see social media being adapted in key areas of academic life—publishing, teaching, disciplinary organization and action—and I think it has a lot of potential, but it’s all still very uneven and fragmented, and particularly in the humanities, there needs to be far more coordination, and institutional/ disciplinary support” (SDSUblog). Werry’s sentiments are echoed by other educational professionals. This is a valid concern, and so far, I’ve not been able to find research that demonstrates how social media could be used in this way. The search continues, but in the mean time educators find that Wikis are fulfilling that need.

Because wikis are a hybridization of an extended and limited access platform, it allows students some agency while allowing the instructor to maintain control over the curriculum. According to Vanderbilt University, “A wiki is “a collaborative tool that allows students to contribute and modify one or more pages of course related materials.” Wikis are collaborative in nature and facilitate community-building within a course” (cft.vanderbilt.edu). While this is true, the student participating in the course could share the link with others in his/her PLN because the pages are on the web and limits permission to publish to students enrolled in the course. Therefore, students may continue a conversation about the course material that began in the classroom with others in their PLN. Furthermore, other professionals and educators could possibly stumble upon the site and want to contribute resources to the professor’s site, with permission of course. This adds to the professor’s professional network as well. Another possibility, an educators dream, is that a past student who has joined the professional world will want to add to the resources or continue to use those resources later, hence the extended access.

Some professors find that using wiki pages and blogs in the classroom have been helpful. These tools fall into the extended access category because the student has access to them for the life of the site, (both wikis and blogs have been around for quite some time) and they both allow the student to share ideas posted on both sites with others in their PLN. Wikipedia had a bad reputation for a long time after the site began. But like any new tool, it needed time to be developed into a useful and user-friendly tool. My professor used a wiki to post all documents related to the class, announcements, assigned reading, and the class schedule. Communications between the class and the professor were handled via editable pages located on the wiki. Changes to the editable pages and changes made by the professor prompted an email to everyone in the class. While this could be done it Blackboard, it was easier from a student’s perspective to use the wiki than to use Blackboard. If users needed to find a document used referred to in class, then users only needed to type key words into the wiki’s search bar. Blackboard, however, requires users to recall the instructor’s system. For the most part, instructors are aware of how hard it can be for students to find documents on Blackboard and some of them take the time to make it as easy as possible.

The same is true for using blogs in the classroom. I personally had never blogged ever in my life because it seemed to me that anyone who blogs has something of particular interest to one or more groups of people in cyberspace, and I did not think I fit that bill. But after participating in a digital rhetoric class, I realized the tool could be the answer to problems faced by educators and students alike. Christopher Pappas tells us that using blogs such as edublog.com, kidblog.com, or wordpress.org can help in the following ways:

  • publish assignments, resources, and keep students and even parents up to date on class events, due dates, and content being covered.
  • help students master content and improve their writing skills.
  • publish their writing and educate others on a particular topic. (Pappas)

These advantages are also ways that blogs can extend the students’ PLNs. In my digital rhetoric class, for example, we were asked to respond to assigned reading and publish the response to our individual blogs on wordpress.org. Both wikis and blogs encourage public thinking and allow students some agency. Both are also tools that help extend students’ PLNs.

David Warlick tells us that building a personal learning network is much easier with the advent of the Internet and social media and that we should begin by picking the type. He describes the first as a personally maintained synchronous connection, which is traditional network that allows the user to with people and resources (13). Warlick argues, “Today, however, you can enhance this PLN with new tools such as chat, instant and text messaging, teleconferencing (using iChat, Skype, uStream), Twitter, and virtual worlds such as Second Life” (13). It seems that Blackboard’s online tutoring can also fit into this category, for it allows the student to video conference with tutors and other students and the geographical barriers are bypassed. The second type of network Warlick describes is the personally and socially maintained semisynchronous connections, which looks a lot like “children with a string of chat windows open on a screen as they do their homework, adding the occasional comment to the chat” (13). This is where Facebook fits in; it provides opportunities for “collaboration that doesn’t have to happen in real time” (13). This type of PLN is easier to maintain because it works well with a student’s busy schedule. The student posts an idea or question but is able to walk away from the conversation. Another plus is that others are able to join the conversation as long as the string of conversation, the post, stays on the news feed. It also defies geographical boundaries, so an uncle in Alaska who teaches history can join the conversation with a niece in Georgia. The third and final type is the dramatically maintained asynchronous connections. “The first two types of PLN,” Warlick explains, “connect us with each other, but this type more often connects us with content sources that we have identified as valuable” (14). Warlick describes the tools necessary for this type as “aggregators such as Google Reader, Netvibes, and Pageflakes” (14). Included in this category are tools such as Podcasts, Tedtalks, YouTube, journal articles, news articles, and more. To further enhance this type, it is wise to make use of “social bookmarking services such as Delicious” (14). Figure 1 below is an image provided in Warlicks essay that shows how the technology, the Rich Site Summary (RSS) accumulates information for the student. These services allow users to bookmark and categorize or tag sites they find as they do their research. Note taking services such as Hypothes.is and Diigo allow students to not only markup sites and documents found on the sites, but they also allow the users to see public notes. This helps to keep notes and bookmarks in one place. These tools all have one thing in common; they encourage public thinking and collaboration.

screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-1-17-16-pm            The conversation about the usefulness of technology in the classroom has shifted to how to use technology to best serve the students as well as the educators. One would be hard pressed to find a classroom without a smart podium or a Promethean board. Now, the debate is whether social media is a useful tool in the classroom or not. Purdue University claims, “Social media is now being recognized as an accepted form of instruction in some instances, and groups such as Scholastic Teachers provide excellent support and tips for instructors.” This is to say, teachers are teaching students how to use technology to their advantage since they cannot escape its presence. For example, when a teacher asks students to tweet about a response to a documentary they have finished in class with a particular hash tag, it provides an opportunity for every student to be heard and for every student to hear from his/her peers. It also catalogues notes about the documentary for later reference by using an application called Pocket. As another example, if a teacher requires students to write a blog post about a reading before class, then other students will be able to markup their classmates’ posts using Hypothes.is or Diigo. This conversation begins before the students enter the classroom, so a lot less time is spent on urging the students to speak. They can simply pick up where they left off or use the class time to further clarify statements made in their reading responses.

An added benefit of using technology in the classroom is the way it supports various learning styles. It would be a disservice to students to ignore the fact that each brings to the table unique experiences and abilities that could enrich the classroom. According to Rebecca Whittenburger, “One major benefit of using technology both inside and outside the classroom is being able to meet the needs of students’ individual learning styles, particularly for those students with unique needs, such as non-English speaking students and those with physical/learning disabilities.” Technology directly supports ““blended learning,” which is the practice of combining traditional teaching with computers.” This teaching method allows educators to deliver information to students in a way that best suits their learning style.The “one-size-fits-all” teaching model perpetuates the still apparent systematic marginalization in the education system and the elitist attitude that if a student does not understand the curriculum maybe it is because they are not cut out for university level education. The use of technology in the classroom as a tool to present information in various ways disrupts that fallacy and gives educators the power to educate and students the power to learn. It supports the variation in learning styles and breaks the barriers to the exchange of information in the classroom. Whittenburger shares a list of ways in which technology supports individualized learning styles:

  • Students can interact with the technology at their own pace and review material when necessary to aid understanding or memory.
  • Computer-based tools help students develop their visual kinesthetic, aural, and oral skills.
  • Students with physical disabilities can use computers with adaptive devices so that they can participate fully with their classmates.
  • Computers help students transform data from numbers to graphs or translate words from one language to another. (Whittenberger)

Helping students realize their full potential is an important piece of the educational paradigm. Educators are doing students a great service by helping them learn how to use technology in a way that enhances their education and by helping them build their own personal learning network. Warlick says, “Learners become amplifiers as they engage in knowledge-building activities, connect what they learn, add value to existing knowledge and ideas, and re-issue them back into the network to be captured by others through their PLNs” (15). Figure 2 is a map of the flow with the focus on the student. In this model the each-one-teach-one model is reinforced and grows a community of learners.

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Educators can make building a PLN a key element in their curriculum that they could build on throughout the school year or semester. The first assignment could be a test that helps students discover their learning style. Once they have studied what their learning style means for the way they take in information, they will be presented with the three types of PLNs as outlined by Warlick. Students will then decide which type they would like to have and begin to formulate a plan for setting it up. As their time with their instructor continues, students who actively participate will see their network grow, and they will complete assignments that give them many opportunities to use it. They will see a difference in the way they study and the amount of time and effort required for tasks. They will also see a change in their level of thinking, a change they can be proud of.

These are not new philosophies; a number of educators have already begun making the shift to extending learning beyond the classroom. Educators in K-12 and in college environments have already begun to use alternative means of giving their students a broader audience. Chuck Rybak explains, “My main goal in utilizing CBOX [Commons in a Box] was outreach; instead of being trapped in the cul-de-sac, I wanted students to see their projects emerging within larger discussions and communities, thus allowing them to reflect on their place in, and relationship with, the humanities in general.” The idea is that students who are encouraged to write to a broader audience while in an educational environment are more likely to engage in thought provoking and productive discourse later. Furthermore, since social media encourages this, why not teach students to flex their cognitive muscles while they have the necessary support? This is how educators can make the connection between reading and writing rhetoric to the real world.

Technology is a useful tool that can enhance learning inside and outside of the classroom. By harnessing its power, students have the ability to build and grow their personal learning network (PLN). While limited access educational platforms such as Blackboard and Canvas centralize classroom material and provide some additional resources that make an effort to broaden PLNs, they still trap students into what Rybak calls an educational cul-de-sac. This in no way encourages public thinking and collaboration. Educators should teach students about PLNs and help them to follow Warlick’s plan for choosing and developing one of their own in order to empower the student to take control of their own education. It is more beneficial for students to be taught the collaborative skills needed to function in the real world early in their academic career. Learners are more engaged and have buy-in when they see that they can add value to the cultivation of their own knowledge. While Blackboard and Canvas are educational tools that facilitate the transfer of information and the storage of data, it fails to meet some of the needs of today’s students. If the tools could incorporate the social media element then systems would prove to be tools that have grown with the changing times. However, until then, it is up to the educators and learners to take control and create a learning network that operates as an orchestra. PLNs allow learners to be networked and receive information that works in concert with the each other.

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