Finding myself… Being connected

How do I learn? Where is my place in the world? What can I contribute?

(This post forms part of an assessment submission for a Master of Education subject)

During the beginning of my time as an Education Officer, I struggled with the perceived need to know as much as possible about online technologies in order to live up to the label of ‘expert’ in this area. It became an overwhelming and unachievable task, especially since this was around the time that Web 2.0 was really starting to take off and “21st Century learning” was a catch phrase in education.

During a conference in 2006, I was lucky to attend a keynote by George Siemens. Siemens (2004) postulates that learning in the digital age occurs through connections such as people, knowledge and tools. In essence, where the ‘network is the learning’. In his slides he included the image below. This really spoke to me – I was philosophically on the ‘right track’ but needed to trust my network rather than try and collect and store all of what I thought was important knowledge relating to my role.

In 2009, I was intrigued by the relevance of connectivism to teacher practice, so as part of a masters subject, I decided to use twitter to converse on some of these ideas and then to offer a survey to members of my Personal Learning Network (PLN – also known as Professional Learning Network). Interestingly, I found that while many of the teachers surveyed agreed with the principles of connectivism, they were more likely to apply them to their own professional learning than the learning their students.

Theory, technology, and circumstances collided beautifully at this point in time to help me meet and form my PLN. A lot of who I am professionally right now I can attribute to the learning and support gained through my PLN, established in a large part through my use of twitter. A PLN is a set of connections to people and resources that enrich our learning, allowing learning to take place anywhere and anytime with others who share our interests (Richardson and Mancabelli, 2011).

While I always had a physical PLN and was part of many email lists, my PLN had a rebirth in 2008 while attending ISTE’s NECC (including edubloggercon) as part of an Australian study tour group. In the company of great Aussie educators, I was armed with a twitter account, an iPod touch, an abundance of free wireless connections and the enthusiasm to share. I was too overwhelmed to blog (as I might not be good enough – see Fear and Self Loathing) but thought I could be a microblogger to at least take notes and share them while at conferences and other professional learning events. This was somewhat low risk as it was not exactly my ideas but reflections on my experiences with others.

At first I was little confused by twitter, which according to Boss (2008) is not uncommon, but once I followed enough people that shared things that interested me I began to value it as one of my main forms of informal professional learning. Some people may argue that there is too much ‘chatter’ on twitter for it to be worthwhile, however, I would agree with Boss (2008) that the social elements of this conversation can actually enhance the connection and the relationship. I developed a taste for sharing my reflections as questions and this lead to conversations and the expansion of my PLN. I became obsessed with staying in touch with those in my network and I had to read everything in my twitter stream and didn’t want to miss a classroom idea that could change what I do and how I work with teachers. McLeay (2008) also identifies this feeling of addiction and its potential for ‘just-in-time’ learning but also it can be a source of distraction. Just like educators who responded to a survey on their use of twitter (Gerstein, 2011), a majority of my use of Twitter has been to connect with educators across the globe for my own learning and growth. These connections are diverse and this strengthens the depth of knowledge shared and created (McLeay, 2008). I would often tweet a thought during a meeting or professional learning workshop and I’m sure many people thought I was being a typical Gen Y person and texting my friends because I was bored. I learnt to let go of my obsession and now view twitter as a stream of consciousness that I visit when I want/need to.

It would be remise to discuss connection (or even hyperconnection) without considering disconnection. At times I would choose when to be disconnected and at other times this was beyond my control. Life, family and other realities put a pause on my online connectedness and changed its focus. Helping my sister care for her dying husband; a new job with a different context; pregnancy and illness lead to somewhat of a disconnect from my PLN and a reshaping of my identity and the forming of new connections.

When I became disconnected, I felt that I lost part of myself (Turkle, 2012)- the ‘education expert’ that I’d been basing my identity on… Although I knew my PLN was still there if I needed them to be.

I was meant to complete my Masters last year, but I was pregnant and seriously unwell with hyperemesis gravidarum. During this time I also suffered from depression and looked again to online communities for help and a sense of connection, hope and support. The helpher forums enabled me to follow the stories of others battling the same illness. Overcoming isolation is a theme for my participation in online communities but I would also agree with Turkle’s (2012) reflection that despite being more connected we are “together alone”.

Since becoming a mother, I again use online communities to connect with and learn from. The just-in-time connection of this very active community has again been a source of learning but also a snapshot of the diversity of opinions, experiences and ideas of what it means to be a mother. In a private space I feel more comfortable to ask difficult questions that I may be too embarrassed to ask of friends and family.

The online connections I have (both personal and professional) have strengthened my sense of agency and contribution through the “active engagement with individuals with aspects of their contexts-for-action” as well as the sharing of my own personal and professional narrative (Biesta and Tedder, 2007, p.??? – check wording). As I now re-establish my professional connections, I hope to gather the courage to live out more of what I believe and who I am in past, present and future.

References in this post:

Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 39(2), 132-149. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Boss, S. (2008). Twittering, not frittering: Professional development in 140 characters. Edutopia. Retrieved http://www.edutopia.org/twitter-professional-development-technology-microblogging

Gerstein, J. (2011). The Use of Twitter for Professional Growth and Development. International Journal on E-Learning, 10(3), 273-276.

McLeay, J. (2008). Twitter as a Community of Practice for Educators: Microblogging Explored. Retrieved from: http://www.scribd.com/doc/37064076/Twitter-as-a-Community-of-Practice-for-Educators-Microblogging-Explored

Richardson, W. & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education. Bloomingtom, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved April 1, 2009 from: http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm

Turkle, S. (2012). Connected, but alone? [TED talks video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html

** Rablin, A. (2009). “Connecting the Theory of Connectivism to Practice” – currently under revision for submission to ACEC 2012 as a refereed paper. Available through request to the author.

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