Ponderances of Steve

August 5, 2011

Teachers Need Mentors, Tutorials and Aggregators

Filed under: Coaching,MOOC — Steve LeBlanc @ 9:03 pm

LeadershipDay11 LogoI was inspired when I read this post  CALLING ALL BLOGGERS! – LEADERSHIP DAY 2011, (Twitter hashtag #LeadershipDay11). It said on Friday, August 5, 2011, bloggers should “Blog about whatever you like related to effective school technology leadership.” Unfortunately, I did not have time to write a good tutorial or deep think piece. What I could post is what I believe are the three most important resources that a teacher of computer technology could have: Mentors, Tutorials and Aggregators.

But first some background. When I use the word “tech”, I mean all introductory computer technologies that might be used or taught in schools. This includes things like social media, programming, hardware repair, smart phones, web search and online teaching.

This is a challenging time to be a teacher. Added regulations, economic cuts, troubled kids. We need our kids to be better prepared for a technical future we are racing toward. But how do we ask our teachers to do that? How do we ask them to teach better use of technologies to students who sometimes have more experience than the teacher? How do we even begin to hold schools accountable for teaching certain skills when our administrators are unsure of what to measure?

The problem is not that we lack quality information and resources to teach such tech skills. It is readily available online. The problem is that the good information we need is often buried under a pile of mediocre or faulty information. As more and more bloggers come online to “create useful content” and “generate revenues,” we find the quality of their posts faltering. They get rewarded for dramatic stories and page hits, rather than information quality.

Take, for example, something as simple as a web search for buying a computer hard drive. If you know the brand, you can easily find it online and buy it. But what if you don’t even know what brand you want? Does it even matter? Do some hard drives last longer and get better reviews than others? Do some come with better warranties? Which online vendors have the best prices, service and reputation? More importantly, which vendors should you avoid at all costs? Recently I needed a hard drive. I could buy a 500 GB drive locally for about $60 including tax. But I got a Seagate with great reviews in only three days for under $40 delivered from a world class online vendor called http://newEgg.com. I could just as easily have ordered it from a company known for hidden charges and terrible service, if I were shopping on price alone.

Doing a simple websearch looks so simple that you can explain it in about a minute. Once you’ve done a search yourself, you feel confident you have no need to learn any more. But what about doing a powerful websearch? That takes some training. You have to learn how to use what are called “operators” and “Advanced Search” in order to do highly specific searches. You have to read the Help files of search engines and the Tips articles on blogs. You have to care enough to get good at the basics of real web searches.

But why? When search engines are so good at guessing what I want, why do I even have to learn how to use operators for more refined searches? Because sometimes, you just can’t find what you want with a simple search. You get too many results. Or worse, you think you’ve found it, but it is not a quality source. Just because it was on a web page does not make it true.

One of the computer literacy skills students need is advanced websearch. These skills are so important that I feel schools need to have monthly drills for all students. Why monthly? Because you tend to forget what you don’t use regularly. And even if you don’t use advanced search skills now, you will absolutely need them in the future.

So at one level I really am telling teachers to train students in Advanced Search skills and to test on it regularly. That would be great. But you won’t find that in most tech curriculums. Why? Because it looks too simple and no one on the tech team saw the importance of it. They had no reference for its place of value.

Unless you’ve been in the industry (blogging, business, web development, computer repair, whatever), you have no way to know what is most important. If you are lucky, you are told what to teach and what sites to use. If not, then you do your own search and hope for the best. The teaching of Advanced Web Search is only one example of the many areas in which teachers need a mentor.

Learning tech is necessarily a social event. You can’t learn it alone, except in very small slices. You can’t possibly have learned in college all you need to teach your students now. By the time teachers graduate, much of what they learned was outdated. Those teachers who learned tech skills did so with the aid of others. They had people available to answer questions. Ideally they had a mentor as well.

 Teachers Need Mentors

Teachers need the guidance of seasoned tech mentors. It’s not simply to teach them all they want to know, but rather to point them in the right directions. That mentor need not be a consultant, but it can be. Teachers need mentors to help them distill which skills are most important and enduring for students. If a mentor can also teach, that’s great, but it is not the best use of their time. It is their wisdom and experience you want, more than their knowledge. The more time mentors spend teaching you the basics (which you can learn online), the less time they have to review your plans and answer your big questions. The greatest gift you can give to your mentor is to make effective use of their time, take reasonable risks and accomplish greatness. A mentor should point you to local business resources, tutorials, forums, social networks and online events, such as Twitter Chats for educators. They should even assign homework. They might even be a tech education evangelist. You need people who can share that vision. Mentor homework might look like this: Use TwitterFall and TweetGrid to follow #LrnChat and #edChat and #blogChat on Twitter. How will you find the time they meet?

 Teachers Need Tutorials

Teachers need great tutorials that walk them through what they need to do in order to launch a new program, step by step. Take student blogging, for example. Today it is almost as easy to set up a blog as it is to create an online email account. The problem is learning which ones are easiest to set up and use, and which sites allow for the best kinds of privacy your students deserve. Which features do I need to enable? How can I minimize my administration time and setup a sort of dashboard of all the student blogs in my class? None of these things are particularly hard, but figuring it out on your own takes a long time. One could argue that it’s not even possible to do it well on your own, not without a good social media network to point you to great tutorials.

 Teachers Need Aggregators

Finally, teachers need great aggregators. The term aggregator, as used in social networks, refers to people who review and collect the best resources in an area of expertise. Ideally they also publish them for others to view.  Jane Hart at Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies is a world class aggregator. No matter how great your mentor is, no matter how extensive your tutorials are, great aggregators are a joy to behold. These people love reviewing things. They love to distill the good stuff from the pile. They love being helpful and sharing what they’ve learned. What sounds like a burdensome request to you may be a great challenge to them. Students often make great aggregators, especially if you will coach them in the skills required to get there. Dictionary.com also defines the word aggregator as: a web application that draws together syndicated content from various online sources and displays it in a single location for the user’s convenience.

Questions you might ask an aggregator:

  1. “Find me the best, easiest, and safest sites to create student blogs for our 4th grade class.” That might be very different than creating a blog for a high school class.
  2. “What’s the fastest way for our team to create online documentation on this project?” Notice I said fastest, and not the most secure. Such nuances matter. They are where great aggregators excel.
  3. “What are the top 10 sites and articles on teaching students to do their own crud detecting online?”

There are many things a teacher needs in order to succeed in presenting technology to kids: money, training, books and political support. But to excel at tech training for our kids, teachers need a solid foundation. That foundation includes mentors, tutorials and aggregators. All the rest can be worked out later.

Some Resources for Tech in Education


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 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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