Re: Social Networks as Exclusive Clubs…and more…

In a couple of recent tweets, comments, and blog posts I’ve hinted at my feeling that Twitter and other social networks used for informal learning, may be collapsing under their own success.  During the PLN Backlash conversation last week, there was a tweet which implied that Twitter as a PLN is becoming somewhat of an “exclusive club”.  I wanted to hash out a few thoughts I’ve had that don’t entirely fit into solid post format:

  • It’s already hard to stick with Twitter…from the Nielson study in April 2009, we learned that 60% of Twitter users quit within the first 30 days.  That means, most of those who have a cursory introduction to PLNs will likely struggle with Twitter before adding any of the things below into the mix.
  • Twitter restructuring has caused problems…Initially, when you followed someone on Twitter, you could see their tweets to users you did not already follow.  This meant you could see half a conversation, which allowed you to find other half and follow that user if they interested you enough.  Now, you can only see conversations between those parties where you follow both (or all) users.  This severely limits the visibility of those within the community of educators.  Someone starting out small (as I’ve suggested frequently) will struggle to see who else to follow.
  • Increase in network size makes it hard to get started…As we build larger and larger groups from which to learn, it becomes harder for new users to wade through hundreds that someone is following.  For example, I started building my learning network through Twitter after a session (like many) with Will Richardson.  Will has kept the number of users he is following relatively small at ~150.  That is a reasonable number to wade through.  As many of our networks grow into the 400 – 2000 range, it becomes entirely impossible for a new user to wade through and find the users with the most relevance to themselves. This leads to…
  • Lists as the starting point…hey, look there’s a dead horse, let me beat it…seriously, digging through a small list (<50) and finding the most relevant from there is great, just don’t follow a list en masse because it’s easy.
  • Plurk isn’t easy either…This is not a problem inherent in Twitter.  From my own recent experience, Plurk is a different environment, but with many of the same issues.  It’s been stated that Plurk is a more tight-knit community.  If Twitter is becoming an exclusive club, Plurk is a different “club” if you will, but it’s still hard to get a foot in the door.  Despite having been an active participant on Twitter for nearly two years, an active user, blogger, and general PLN/NIHCTTAR supporter, I’m struggling to find folks to follow on Plurk, and am having very few response to my attempts to engage the community.  Time will tell, but it seems to be the same song, different verse for new users to either service.
  • When everyone knows everyone it’s hard for the new folks to get their voices heard…going back to the analogy in my previous post: When everyone at the party knows everyone else, it’s hard for someone new to come in and join the conversation.  This is where it becomes imperative that we, as a community, work to embrace new members.  We can’t just hand them a network and say “go to town”.
  • Strange occurrence…for the first year I was on Twitter, I maxed out at being able to follow tweets from 100 users.  Beyond that, I began to get lost in the stream.  In the last 6 months, my time “reading” Twitter has drastically decreased.  During that time, I’ve ballooned from following approximately 100 users, to following 400 users…May never get comfortable with 2,000+ but it seems to me, that the less I focus on reading everything the more conversations I can get involved in.

Some Advice to those Building PLNs…

…or Freds…or Sergios…or NIHCTTARs…

image from flickr licensed through creative commons by e.m.fields

The conventional wisdom passed along to those just starting out on the Informal, Networked Learning Path is to jump in, start following some people and engage with them.  After my recent rants here and here I had an encounter today that has totally cemented in my brain that network formation is an art/skill that cannot be distilled down into a few succinct statements of “Here’s how you build a PLN.”  This encounter happened in large part due to the sharing of a couple of TweepML lists during recent trainings I completed with @kellyhines.  I tried to stress to my group of participants that the lists were merely a suggestion, and not a definitive staring point.  However, today I got a plea from one of the participants:

I need twitter help!…when I wake up and have 300 tweets, I’m overwhelmed and want to shut it down. Advice, please

I received this plea as a DM while I was walking through Wal-mart and began to think through responses while I was walking around.  Here’s what I wound up telling her:

1) It’s not email…remember you don’t have to READ everything that comes through your Twitter stream.  Many times I will simply scan through the 20 or 30 most recent tweets and see if anything catches my eye. If not, I move on…if so, then I’ll pull up the link in Firefox, and leave it sitting in a tab until I can clear out my FF tabs. It’s nothing for me to have 20 tabs open in FF, go through and read some articles, add others to Delicious, and just nix some of the others. The key is, I do this when I have the time…if I don’t have the time, then I’ll close them out and move on, because…

2)  The best stuff will show up again…another reason not to feel like you need to read every tweet is because the sites and info that are the most useful will show up in your Twitter stream again. If you have a focused group of people that you follow, they’re going to be finding a lot of the same things you are and sharing them again.  That way, if you see a link show up 2 or 3 times, you know it’s probably pretty good (just like we discussed more people bookmarking a site in delicious giving you some idea of its value).

3) Focus your Following list…This may be the biggest recommendation I can give you…you’ve been on Twitter for roughly 4 days now and you’re following 72 people…after a year on Twitter, I was managing to keep up with 120…Network building is a slow process (trying to keep from getting on my soapbox here). The reason I’m somewhat against the “Instant PLN” idea is a personal learning network is just that: Personal.  Who you follow makes sense to you…someone else can’t tell you who is and is not good to follow. So task #1, whittle down your list…pick about 20 folks from your list that you want to continue to follow.

That final point was the one that I think has really been sticking in my craw lately.  This teacher is a high school, Family and Consumer Sciences teacher.  She came to a week of training on Web 2.0 and has begun to incorporate some of the things she learned into an awesome Weebly website.  She’s added a blog, knows what it means for her blog to have an RSS feed, even found out how to add a single tag category to her sidebar of her blog.  She is a pretty savvy Internet user from what I can tell through working with her for just a few days.  But the Prefabricated PLN created through suddenly following a laundry list of users was overwhelming and counterproductive for her.  The focus of many of these lists (at the present) is on social media thinkers, big idea guys in education, the “movers and the shakers” if you will.  Sure, those of us in the fight to get more SM attention in schools love their ideas and their tweets, but to the standard Educational Twitter user, they aren’t the right place to start.

During our session I gave this analogy:

You’ve moved to a new town.  In an effort to gain some friends, learn the area, and become more comfortable, you throw an enormous party.  During the course of the evening you have 200 people whom you’ve never met show up.  They all know each other.  They all have a lot to say.  In fact, there conversations are so interwoven, you can barely get a word in edgewise.  Is that the best way to get acquainted with your new town?

The parallels to Twitter, Plurk,, Diigo, Ning, and many of the other social networking sites people use to build personal learning networks are very important.  I “network” starts small, and takes time to build.  When you move to a new area, you generally meet a few similar individuals, branch out into their networks, and make more and more connections on your own over time.  Plopping down 200 new friends in your life is not an advisable way to get acquainted with any of them.

There is still no one “right path” for everyone beginning to use social media.  Sure, some out there could jump into the conversation with 200 others, just as some could do that at a party in real life. For most, however, it’s important to gain traction and a foothold on the conversation, and go from there.

What other advice do you have for those folks coming into social media for the classroom for the first time? Especially those that are not specifically exploring from the most technological perspective?

Great PLN Backlash of 2010…

*dusts off The Technorate Teacher*

Thank you @nashworld for bringing me back out of my blogging shell…it’s been too long since I had a chance to stretch my fingers a bit

A short while ago, this tweet floated through my TweetDeck stream:

And there it began…the Great PLN Backlash of 2010…You had a good run there Personal Learning Network…but now, we must inevitably march on to some other “better” form of online learning.

The strange thing is, I totally get what he’s saying. While a learning network, be it personal, professional, online, offline, real, or imagined is an infinitely powerful tool…it’s still just that. A tool.

That’s one of those things where education tends to get very cloudy. Taking A tool and trying to turn it into THE tool. During my session at Middle Level Essentials, I shared a number of slides showing the “March of Technology Tools”. No doubt there were people throughout the last 50 years of education heralding one hardware or software tool after the other as THE tool which would “revolutionize” education.

The conversation continued on with tweets from @mbteach, @mattguthrie, and @jswiatek among others chiming in about the various benefits and issues with these networks, as well as the dangers of trying to make them required or giving them too much power.  It seems to me, that almost inevitably, when we make anything in education a “required” practice there is more pushback than when someone comes to an idea out of casual conversation.  I’ve witnessed it firsthand in discussions of fair grading practices, parent communication practices, etc.  When these practices are imposed as “required” in the classroom, people lose sight of their merit.

I’m wondering if all the talk about how great it is to have a “PLN” is making it seem like required practice for many teachers.  Matt then asked how you get the folks who are always late to the game or never get there to adopt good ideas.  And there we are again, back at the idea that something is unequivocally “good” while other things are “not as good” or “bad”.

How have we wound up in this spot in education where we are constantly looking for THE silver bullet? Yes, A PLN or alternatively a NIHCTTAR (Network I Have Come to Trust and Respect) is a powerful tool for some.  Attending “real” conferences with planned sessions and presenters is a powerful tool for some.  Attending unconferences with conversations about reform are a powerful tool for some.  And at the risk of having my technogeek card removed: Textbooks, tests, and lectures are a powerful tool for some.

I don’t want someone building my house with just a hammer…I don’t want a teacher with only a PLN teaching my kids…

Not sure I want my builder or teachers to lack those tools either…

MLE Session 2: Getting the Most Out of Your Students in the Networked World

MLE Session 2: Getting the Most Out of Your Students in the Networked World

MLE Session 2 Handout

Links Used During Session

Session 2 Presentation (Phoenix videos out of intended order…)

My second presentation at MLE2010 was on Getting the Most Out of Your Students.  It focused on the rational behind changing our classroom practice through the use of technology. This was a jam-packed session with information ranging from Digital Natives/Immigrants/More, Filtering, Remix Culture, Verifying Information Online, Wikipedia, and Building a PLN.

We started with a look at Wes Fryer’s impressions on Digital Natives/Immigrants/Voyeurs/Refugees.  I made sure to discuss my views on the problems with Prensky’s oversimplified view of Natives/Immigrants.  I think this false dichotomy causes problems for educators who are told they will “never get it” like their students. The Fryer Spectrum of Digital Immersion (bet he’d love to see it called that) gives a much more accurate picture, especially since it’s specific to individual tools/technologies.

We then moved toward a discussion of the new media landscape presented by Clay Shirky in “Here Comes Everybody”.  People really seemed to like the idea of computers putting the power of a printing press, music studio, and video production unit into their student’s hands. We had a wonderful discussion of the similarities between verifying information online and verifying information in Dead Tree resources in the past.

We then moved on to discussing how to verify information on a Wikipedia entry, looked at the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and other similar sites, and then into a discussion of how and WHY to build a Personal Learning Network.

This session could have used an extra 30 to 45 minutes (I’m a bit of an over-planner) but I think I hit many of the high points trying to introduce a group of educators to the ideas of how our students are different.

Would love to know your thoughts on the presentation and handouts.