Recently I hold my first seminar explicitly about PLN with trainee teachers. Frankly, the seminar didn’t work exactly as I was hoping. But, as Sebastian Hirsch put it: failing forward is the new success. With one modification, I gladly agree: the next failing cycle will only be a motion forward if I can identify the problem, and find a different way for the next attempt. I’ll be grateful for your help with feedbacks, hints, and suggestions!
Only 13 trainee teachers attended my eight-hour course, which they had chosen out of 20 different offers. Out of these 13 participants actually only seven attended it voluntarily – the other six were forced to take part of my course, since all the other courses were overcrowded with participation numbers between 20 and 32. So I was really curious about what my PLN course would actually look like, and what would be the outcome. Fortunately the participants turned out to be curious about these issues too, though some of them expressed that they didn’t expect much. We worked together in a friendly, unagitated atmosphere – because I also dropped most of my expectations in relation to an eligible outcome. I decided to turn the mutual sharing of experiences and thoughts about how we communicate issues related to our work and learning, into the main content of the seminar’s first phase.
In this exchange it became apparent that none of the participants ever used social media for professional or non-professional learning purposes so far. All of them were using Facebook and WhatsApp for only private purposes. “Private”, so several trainees stated, meant to them a communication that is either “not serious, just for fun and entertainment”, or, on the other hand, it is trivial communication in order to arrange the everyday life with family, friends and colleagues. Most of the participants regarded it as a bad idea to get in touch with somebody online one is not already befriended with offline. And never ever they would discuss important things related to their profession, or politics, with strangers. So this was the starting point of their joint convictions.
I was surprised: Do we all live in a dictatorship, where everybody has to hide his thoughts about public matter? Or do the work of teachers and politics not matter publicly? Or is it a self-censorship, and if so, where does it come from? What is an open society, democracy, and free speech for?
Digging deeper in the conversation something interesting came up: They considered publishing one’s thoughts about work or politics as more compromising privacy than to publish a photo about what you have been eating and drinking yesterday, at what place, and with whom. Paul told us that he was not used to posting his thoughts on “serious issues” – things related to work, politics or his philosophy of life. His thoughts won’t be worth to be shared. And more important: Someone could criticize his thoughts, and therefore him. Or even worse: The audience could think of him as a lazy idiot, who had no serious work to do, and therefore time for useless discussions. And political discussion, at least in social media – so other participants explained – is mostly a disgusting, populist hefty exchange, it would be embarrassing to take part in anyway. Only stupid, uneducated people would do that.
The arrangements of cards below show how the trainees prioritized networking activities in social media (x) in relation to compromised privacy (y)
Group 1 ranked the activity “Writing contributions about learning and teaching” much higher in respect of compromising their privacy than “posting photographs of my apartment”. And as you can see in the arrangement of the second group, the trainees considered to „critically discuss a book“ as the highest possible level both of network acitivity and exposing themselves.
Then I asked them what they would think about authors writing books or essays, especially scientific writers or journalists. Do they also highly compromise their privacy when writing about their thoughts on things that publicly matter? And what do they usually show about themselves at the book cover? Then we had to clarify that these writers actually do write about their thoughts – and not about so called “objective facts”.
It was nice to observe how astonished they reacted. They admitted they had never thought about it. And when I told them that I would rather speak openly about my thoughts on learning and society than about my meals, or the interiors of my flat, we all agreed that something has definitely changed in the common definition of “privacy”.
But it was also obviously: Although everyone can publish, and be an author today, many well educated people hold on to the rule that you have to be “authorized” to be an author. Authorized by whom? And what purpose is actually publishing for? And what should teachers do?
We agreed that there is one main purpose for publishing – at least to this day: If someone has to say something relevant for an audience. Let’s say a journalist or a scientist. Both are publishing information, news, or knowledge relevant to society, or a part of it. Teachers don’t see themselves as experts, but rather as users who only apply knowledge of experts. My trainee teachers were convinced that they don’t have to tell anything publicly relevant so far. So why should they publish?
The knowledge of a second function of publishing is not very wide spread amongst teachers. This function is the exchange of thoughts among colleagues in order to develop their respective expertise. Or simply put: Learning without dialog is impossible. Unless you externalize your thoughts (let’s say in a post), you even don’t know exactly by yourself what you’re thinking. And if you don’t exchange your externalizations, you’ll have nothing (new) to internalize, and no learning will happen.
And I showed them Harold Jarche’s graphic “Learning out Loud, Working out Loud”:
Actually it was pretty new for the trainees to consider learning and working as connected in such way. And in respect to speaking publicly about one’s own working & learning, my trainees admitted to feel rather uncomfortable with. They would only use the blue and the red sector of Jarche’s model. They identified the blue section with collaboration amongst colleagues teaching the same group of students, or the same subject at their school. No “social media” is necessary here. Mostly the telephone, and printed paper put in the colleagues’ post boxes by hand, is commonly the media of choice to connect and collaborate. The red section could be represented by working groups with members of different schools. The members of these groups experiment in their classes and afterwards exchange experiences with colleagues who conducted the same experiments in theirs. The concepts behind are invented and the experiments are overseen by a teacher trainer’s or researcher’s program (these are „authorized people“!). No social media is being used beside a closed LMS platform like Commsy (which is well known, but fewer used by teachers in Hamburg). This platform can hardly ever initiating a lively communication, but rather functions merely as storage of materials. Actually it makes no big difference whether or not this storage is digital instead of physical.
The green area of Jarche’s model, and its possible values, seem to be a big unknown at German schools and teacher-training. That applies to many so called “media educators” too. Networking is a skill not even being seen as related to learning and teaching. Not to mention the role of networking as a presumably essential skill of the decades to come.
Though most of the participants, as beginners in the professional field of teaching, were eager to learn further, they didn’t think positive about self-organizing professional learning networks. They told me they were quite satisfied with using administrated, mostly commercial LMS, from where they can pick new teaching ideas and resources – even if they are with costs. They are not interested in sharing their thoughts, or in giving feedback to these resources. And they are definitely not interested in sharing their homemade education resources. The problems they’re facing at work they handle through communicating face-to-face with their colleagues at the workplace.
But what, I asked them, if the really useful feedback you can learn from, is not given by your closest colleagues at your working place, but rather from someone working and thinking in another city, or even in another country? Or even in another profession? What if your closest colleagues have not only the same experiences as you but also the same limitations of ideas? What if they are too close to find a good answer to some sort of problems? You passed through the same socialization at your German school. You had the same teacher-training at your German university. Now you share the same presumptions about what school, classes, and student’s behavior have to look like. You have the same concept of what learning was, is, will be forever, and has to be. And therefore it is very unlikely for you and your peers to question these shared assumptions. So you never hear of something different. No different answer to your problem or question. And no different perspective on what the problems could even be named.
[And I thought only inwardly: And it is even worse. You stuck in an education system which refuses delivery of the collection of teacher experiences from all over the world, sampled by Andreas Schleicher and the OECD. And if you put your finger in the Finish direction, demanding similar working conditions – because in spite of everything you have heard of it – you would get the answer everywhere in Germany: “Finland is different. And because it’s different, we can’t learn from it.” You can bet on it.]
But instead of talking about the possibilities of global knowledge I demonstrated my PLN – the tools I use, some stories worth to tell, and experiences I made, and of course I told them why I am so happy with it. And I presented the “institution” of #edchat (and of course #EdchatDE ), and I suggested them to explore some education professional groups at Facebook, Google+ and diigo. They asked a lot of questions. But there were only two big issues: Privacy and data security on the one hand and on the other hand: time.
At the end of the seminar, two of the participants friendly returned the handouts I had made for them, telling me that they don’t see any use for it – not for now and not for the future. [And I said to me inwardly: Everything you really learn, you only learn because you can make personal sense of it NOW! And I remembered that I myself didn’t widen my scope beyond the common teacher talk, meetings, and further trainings till 2000 when I was already deeply frustrated by the limitations of this sort of communication, and after 15 years of traditional teaching. So it was possibly not the right issue at the right time for most of my trainee-teachers. Using PLN definitely triggers a trajectory of changes in the way you learn, and in the way you think about knowledge and learning. How can I expect of all people the beginners or even the trainees to change the current system of practice during a time in which their main purpose is to adapt to it? PLN could only be interesting for those who already feel contradictions between the system of teaching and the prerequisites of learning. And it is only possible for those who can bear the tensions which come up when they do things differently whereas they are expected to do them “right”.
And another issue turned out to be an important obstacle that hinders the mere considering PLN as a next step in the German teachers’ professional learning: The teachers’ constant experience having too little time for communicating and collaborating even with their closest colleagues at their schools. Teachers in Germany – and especially in Hamburg – have a lot of classes. Hardly any consultation time to prepare the collaboration with their colleagues and evaluate their teaching collaboratively is included in the officially acknowledged workload. And so the trainees think that investing time in constructing a PLN would only come as an additional consumer of hours, before the promised benefits could emerge.
So I was not too surprised that only one out of the 13 participants started a twitter account to experiment with. He quickly found various possibilities for his own purposes and was happy with my hint to tweetdeck. A few were satisfied with the discovery of diigo and started their own account – one of them in order to use it for his pupils to manage their online resources and collaboration, the others to manage the online resources for their own learning and teaching.
But one thing was regarded as useful by all of them: For the first time ever they looked consciously at their current personal learning network, some of them using Prezi.com to visualize it (externalization!). It turned out that their learning nodes were mostly offline acquaintances on the one hand and some websites and platforms containing educational resources on the other hand. But it was interesting for them to regard these nodes as their personal net of learning resources. And to consider learning meant their own learning – not that of their students – in the first place. And last but not least, to realize that they could do something to develop this network for their own purposes.
The “dangers of social media” is a big issue amongst German teachers. It holds many of them off from experimenting with social media for learning purposes. Not to mention the hurdles they face when it comes to the use of social media at their workplaces for teaching or learning purposes: In many Hamburg schools even the internet access is neither stable nor is it open for students’ access. There are filters at the school servers which hinder the students to download or upload data, and in most cases any access to social media sites is blocked. Mobiles are forbidden to use during classes, sometimes even during the breaks.
My seminar had started with a trivial participants’ question: What is the access code to the WIFI? Obviously many of them were asked for the first time to use internet during a teacher-training course. There was no need to know the code till now. Some of them already stood just before their final exam. It was the year 2016 in one of the most developed countries of the world.
As a feedback my trainee teachers assured me that they didn’t take the seminar as a waste of time, but were grateful having been confronted with some “interesting ideas” they would have now to think about. But I am not so sure. Presumably they were only kind. They were all punctual, attentive and so friendly during the whole 2×4-hour seminar. Only one who was obviously in need of sleep took the offered opportunity to leave earlier (without punishment).
I noted inwardly: Processes of societal transitions take much longer than you think, possibly longer than your children’s life time. And some stages within these processes won’t happen everywhere. Especially not at places laying way behind the global develompment.
Only a few days after the seminar I stumbled upon the following graphic in my PLN:
I am not surprised. Even if you question the scientific methodological basis of the findings, you have to admit: The German perception of social media as “Klowände des Internets” formulated by Jean-Remy von Matt in 2006 seems to have worked rather well as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
 “Weblogs, the toilet walls of the internet. (What on earth gives every computer owner the right to exude their opinion, unasked for? And most bloggers really just exude. This new, lowest level of opinion-forming becomes evident when you search for „Du bist Deutschland“ on www.technorati.com.)”