Ponderances of Steve

October 25, 2010

PLN Competencies

Filed under: Coaching,MOOC — Steve LeBlanc @ 1:28 am

Kids studying

You don’t have a strong PLN (Personal Learning Network) the moment you show up at the right group, even if it is the perfect fit for your particular interest. Admittedly, finding a group of folks who share your passions can offer support, guidance and quick tips for simple challenges. For example, finding the right quilting group for a lone quilter can be a dream come true.

But what if your passions are not so neatly contained? What if your interests are broad and interdisciplinary? Specifically, what if you just can’t find a group that shares your varied interests? You could join different groups for your different interests or even create a new one. That works fine for discrete fields, that is, until you start to ask cross-cultural questions no one else in that group is interested in.

A strong PLN is not just a group of people, any more than a strong college education is the particular college you went to. A friend of mine had this to say of his Harvard degree: “The classes I took were not what made my education so valuable. It was more about the friendships I made and the radically different world view I acquired while there. Things I used to think impossible became matter-of-fact, almost mundane.”

Sure, choosing a good fitting network can be invaluable. But the quality of your learning journey rests largely upon the quality of your relationships. The skills required to build strong connections do not come naturally to most people. They must be learned, refined and practiced in order to build a strong PLN. The strength of your PLN rests more on your skills than on the people you surround yourself with.

So, what abilities would we want to develop in order to grow a strong PLN, one which feeds our need for learning and embraces our unique contributions?

Some people define competencies as merely skills, something which the person has practiced to reasonable proficiency. I prefer the larger, more encompassing definition which includes attitudes, habits and perspective. Competencies are not just what a person can do, but rather includes what they are inclined to do and even to notice.

For example, I have the smarts, skills and experience to become a good computer programmer. However, after learning the basics of over ten computer languages, it is clear to me that I’ll never be an outstanding programmer. Why? Because I don’t have the discipline to maintain my focus for that long, nor do I have the memory required. In short, while I’m moderately proficient at my hobby, I lack the competencies to do well professionally in the field. The question is, can competencies be developed to at least proficiency levels? I believe they can … through training, coaching and rehearsal.

The following list is more descriptive than prescriptive. The actual development of such skills and habits is the focus of a course I am designing.

  1. Contribution: We need to learn which online behaviors actually contribute to another’s journey, as well as which are neutral and what is in fact a request. Sometimes our “gifts” may be asking a lot of the other. It is not always obvious. Critical feedback, for example, is abhorred by some, tolerated by others and warmly welcome by a few. Having learned what makes for great contributions, we then need to build habits and reliably add value to the discussions we follow. This includes comments, coaching, creating content and connecting people.
  2. Great Questions: They don’t come easily. For simple requests, it hardly matters. “What’s a good site for online security for kids and parents?” But even simple questions can be worded in a such a way as to make them difficult to answer. “What’s the best web host?” That’s a weak question. Best for what? Without a context and clear criteria, such questions are easily dismissed. The more people have to ask clarifying questions, the harder you made it for them to answer.
  3. Feedback: The ability to offer, collect and make effective use of feedback is critical to any success. Why? Because practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. It actually takes good feedback to make the effective course corrections for consistent improvements.
  4. Evaluation: In an ever-expanding sea of social media sites and web apps, the ability to quickly evaluate new products is crucial. We need to determine how well it might serve our intended usage and user population. A great product which is too complex or buggy for the experience level of our users is a waste of time. We need to know when to say, “Next!”
  5. Humble Boldness: Newbies to social media are usually so concerned about looking bad that they do far more “lurking” than participating. While you should listen to the tone of a discussion before you comment, at some point you just have to jump in. We need to learn how to step in with humility, to offer our help, perspective and support, knowing full well we will bumble some of it. That’s the price of entry. And we need to be quick to ask the questions that will support our quest, without worrying about burdening people or looking dumb. Hiding does not play well in social media.
  6. Basic Computer Skills: You need to know how to do things like copy and paste, how to download and install programs, and how to create text files. Without these kinds of skills, life is just harder online.
  7. Celebrating Aloud: I think of gratefulness as an internal feeling and thankfulness as the external expression of that feeling. How you feel inside does not matter to your online network unless you tell them. They don’t see the unspoken cues they might get in person. In addition to thanking individuals, there is also thanking your lucky stars. Tell the world when you feel fortunate, blessed, lucky. Celebrate the achievements, contributions and milestones of others. People want to feel that what they do matters, especially online, where feedback may be so sparse for newbies.
  8. Remixing: Reworking the things you’re exploring improves learning. Remix, repurpose, reuse, curate. The real challenge is to take what exists and make it better. Make it easier for others to use and understand.
  9. Leaving the Virtual: Sometimes you just have to get offline. You have to know when and how to leave the virtual world of online connections and pick up the phone (or Skype). You need balance or your learning will get scrambled. This might include play, time with friends and family and even walking the dog.

These are what I consider to be some of the basic competencies of social media for building a strong PLN. I chose them because they are doable, measurable and coachable. It’s easy to build meaningful tasks around them and they draw in other skills. What have I left out? How might we construct exercises that would help refine these skills?

Extra Notes on Competencies and Literacies

Competencies and literacies are fairly new constructs in learning theory, and not yet well agreed upon, not even on Wikipedia. The Washington State Department of Personnel defines competencies as, “the measurable or observable knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors (KSABs) critical to successful job performance.” I like acronyms.  And Microsoft offers a dizzying array of competencies here, with rubrics for measuring Basic, Intermediate, Advanced and Expert Proficiency Level on each.  It seems that competencies have more to do with actions, and literacies have more to do with thinking and understanding. Rita Kop cites research that people might not necessarily have the critical literacies (thinking skills) required to learn and search independently, suggesting the need for some level of training or coaching. Here are Howard Rheingold‘s 5 Literacies: Attention, participation, evaluating credibility or critical consumption or “crap detection”, cooperation or collaboration and network awareness. He defines literacies as skills plus community (social media). He says,  “An RSS reader is not a queue; it’s a flow. You need to learn to sample the flow.”  In a SlideShare called Digital Tribes and the Social Web, Steve Wheeler identifies what he calls the Digital Literacies: Social Networking, Transliteracy, Privacy Maintenance, Identity Management, Creating content, Organizing content, Reusing/Repurposing content, Filtering and selecting, Self presenting. Others include taxonomies, social tagging, and collaboration.

All learning begins when our comfortable ideas turn out to be inadequate.” – John Dewey


MOOC: Massive Open Online Course
PLENK2010: A MOOC to study PLE’s PLN’s and PKN. For more information, see my earlier post.

This post is part of my participation in the #PLENK2010 MOOC .

October 2, 2010

What Does Surplus Mean?

Filed under: other — Steve LeBlanc @ 2:12 pm

Today I saw this tweet by @timoreilly: From Amazon paper http://bit.ly/avoNpd: “The consumer surplus generated by niche books has increased at least five fold from 2000 to 2008.”  Without fully understanding that, I went to the article. I found myself still wondering what they meant by surplus. It seemed to be a technical term that meant more than just having extra books.

I thought about tweeting it, but having gotten limited response to my Twitter questions of late, I decided to search it on Google, which took me to Wikipedia. Surplus is when there is more supply than demand. But how does that benefit consumers, besides lower prices? And what does a five fold increase mean? I saw a link to Economic surplus, which then gave a unique definition for “consumer surplus.” It’s the amount that consumers benefit by being able to purchase a product for a price that is less than the most that they would be willing to pay. As it turns out, the law of supply and demand is actually measured in terms of consumer surplus and producer surplus.

Now it was starting to make sense. If a consumer would be willing to pay more than the current asking price, then they are getting more benefit from the purchased product than they spent to buy it. That benefit often translates into buying more products. So the place where I stumbled was thinking that the word I had misunderstood was, “surplus,” when in fact it was the phrase, “consumer surplus,” a technical term used in economics. But how does the Long Tail model of Amazon book sales translate to a consumer surplus? Oh, as it gets easier to sell niche books, there are more of them and they can be offered at a lower price than they used to be offered. Twenty years ago, I might have been willing to pay $120 for a rare book on collecting Victorian pottery. But now, when publishing is so much easier, I might well see it for $20. The Long Tail means more people are enjoying niche products, and Amazon can offer them cheaply.

Okay then. I’m glad we got that straightened out. Not sure what Long Tail is? Google it. In short it’s the idea that our old assumptions about the bad profit margins of niche products were wrong. Amazon now makes over 36% of its sales from niche books, from the Long Tail.

October 1, 2010

Why Having a PLE Matters

Filed under: MOOC — Steve LeBlanc @ 5:06 pm

An epiphany is a strange thing. You look at something that’s been around you for weeks or years and you see it as if for the first time. We have been told repeatedly in this #PLENK2010 MOOC * that we will get our largest benefits and leaps in understanding when we participate in the open space, specifically by posting in the forum and on our own blog. I didn’t quite get that until now.

One task I found particularly difficult to do was to post a concept map (CMap or Mind Map) of my PLE (Personal Learning Environment). I hate mind maps. I think better in outlines and I’m already aware of the implicit connections between different items on my lists. The lines don’t help me. I gain no new insights from them. It just feels like extra work to cram something into that form.

I thought I might try to detail my PLE in words, but that seemed counter to the spirit of the task. They wanted a picture. While it was sort of interesting to look at the CMAPs of others PLE, they didn’t seem to help my process. One reason I resisted doing a CMAP of my PLE was that my PLE was so paltry. I use less than a dozen web apps, mostly Twitter surfing, email and google. I have some social bookmarking accounts but I don’t use them. I never check my FaceBook account unless I get some activity on it, which is not often. I rarely go to Q&A sites, even though I love the idea. Heck, I don’t even use my RSS Feed reader (Google Reader) even though I set up a few dozen feeds. In short, my PLE is boring, too simple to make an interesting graphic.

What’s the point? I could not see any benefit to others or to me.

Ironically, while my tools are simple, my process is not. It’s fairly sophisticated, even if little of it is visible online. I use a wonderful a Notepad replacement called Win32pad, a text editor which allows me to click links and launch them in the default browser. I create text files, lots of them, to save links, write reviews and articles and develop projects. I rarely post the reviews, as they lean toward sloppy, snarky and incomplete. I admit to being something of a perfectionist and workaholic, so most of my work is never “good enough”. With effort, some of them would make for strong blog posts. But then, my attention is drawn to the next cool idea. Okay, so I have a little ADD, as well.

I know my current PLE does not fully support the PLN that I want. I even know about most of the tools that other people use, given that most of what I do online is to review web apps for social media. I begrudgingly admit that a mind map of my PLE might expose some of the more blatant weaknesses.

But why draw what is already clear in my mind? Why post what I know to be a sparse PLE? What good would that do others? Oh, I suppose they could give me feedback to improve it. And it might possibly serve someone reading it.

I will admit my PLE is not great. I want a strong PLN. And to get that, I’ll have to improve my PLE. But how? I have researched the heck out of the tools and I’m even in a MOOC that wants to define the PLE over and over again, ad nauseam. I’m choking on all the discussion while not getting my own questions answered. How can I improve my PLE?

Then it occurred to me. Oh, I can’t ask them that question without first showing them the current state of my PLE. I can’t ask them how to improve it until I tell them were it is today. One way to create it would be CMAP, but there are others ways, like bubbl.us. I could even draw them a word picture and then ask my question. Yes, that could work. Even if I just wrote a few paragraphs of my process, it would give them a starting point.

Okay, where to begin?

Tools: email, Skype/Phone, TwitterFall, PLENK, Twitter Surf, w/Chrome, Posterous, MyWPBlog, gCalendar, Memiary


I’m Twitter-centric, which is to say my world revolves around Twitter. After I check my email, I look at Twitter to find interesting links from those few I follow (30). I open a new tab for each intriguing link I find in my Twitter feed. Usually that means 5-15 new tabs. Then as I go from tab to tab, the page has fully loaded. I use both the Twitter homepage and Chromed Bird, a Chrome extension, to read and post tweets. I then look for any @mentions of my name and DM’s.

I don’t get a lot of email, so that takes 5-20 minutes. I use Google Calendar to track recurring meetings and appointments. I use Skype to call into several weekly teleconferences. I check my blog for new comments to recent posts, and reply as needed. And I use TwitterFall to track Twitter Chats, such as #lrnChat, #EdChat and #InnoChat. And occasionally will use TwitterFall to look for things like #PLENK2010 or follow some conference. Then I put a few items of what I did this day into Memiary, a private diary which allows up to five items or insights per day. I use Posterous to post drafts of articles I’m writing on a password protected site that is open to my editor friends. It has too many formatting problems to be used as a real blog.

That’s pretty much it for what I use daily. I do keep lots of tabs open in Chrome, like 30-70, following my current interests, such as PLENK2010 for which I may have 15 open. I have lots of other Web 2.0 accounts, but rarely use them. Playlist.com, Delicio.us, Hulu.com, FaceBook, and some Q&A sites.

As an introverted, self-directed learner, I get most of what I want from my process of search and reading. Most, but not all. I don’t need much social engagement to learn stuff (even if recent research suggests I am not learning it as well as I think I am). But I do need social engagement to feel connected, aligned and a part of something important. And while my need for information is reasonably well satisfied, my need for connection is sorely shorted.

So it seems if I am to map out my PLE more completely, I will first need to better define what I want from it. What kinds of people do I want in my network and how many? What kinds of roles would I like them to play? I need to detail that.

How can I improve my PLE? It is apparent that I could use a dashboard, at least for #PLENK2010. Maybe NetVibes. Using a browser for my dashboard is cumbersome. I’m absolutely open to feedback.

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