Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Not Your Father's PLN

I. Calling London

At first it was a bit disconcerting. My husband, son and I were driving from northern New Jersey to Washington D.C. to participate in the SOS March. From the back of the car I could hear my son talking. I turned and saw him hunkered down in the seat, wearing headphones and holding his phone. He was clearly chatting, not talking to himself.

Who are you talking to?



Yeah, Tom from London.

Tom from London is a 13 year old boy who plays Minecraft on my son's server. My son is 12. He and a half dozen boys, ranging from 9-years-old to 13-years-old, are avid players of Minecraft. The boys are from London, New Jersey, Russia, and Pennsylvania. In some important ways these boys are a PLN (Personal Learning Network), not that any of them would define themselves in such a manner. But they do learn from one another and do so based on a shared passion.

A few things my son says he has learned a lot about during the last few weeks his server has been up and running include: how to work with others, how to run a good server, how to explain installation process of mods, how to build together, how to give and take ideas, how to build from someone's idea, how to script, how to model, and how to resolve problems when they arise. During this learning, the boys are also learning about one another: siblings, where they live, currency, geography, and all things Minecraft. My son is adamant that this playing is not learning.
It's not like school, he tells me repeatedly.
Sadly, I think he's right.

II. Marking Time

I imagined my mom, deceased these last 11 years, along for the ride to DC and what she might have to say about the technology that allows a 12 year old while in a moving car in the United States to talk with a boy he has never met who is in London.

I can imagine her saying:

But Mary Ann, think of the cost. This must be quite dear.

Not really mom. He's skyping and it is free.

I mark time by death. My mother's passing in 2000 in many ways marks the ushering in of a world she would have delighted in, marveled at, and have been puzzled by--perhaps in the same breath. We live at a time when Internet technologies alter how we live--alter our very definitions of friendship and intimacy. My mom's friends were all people she knew. She would have had no trouble picking out a friend in a crowd. For me such definition no longer works. There are people I have "met" via Twitter who I have shared intimacies with and yet we have never physically met.  Alongside this new knowledge, I also recognize that there is a niggling distrust I carry with me of naming people I have met on line as friends.  This is a fear-based conditioning I am relinquishing as the conversations I have with these new friends morph, take on weight, allow me to adjust my schema.

For my son, the lines between physically meeting and meeting on line are inconsequential, not even a line to traverse. His idea of friend is not based on a singular reality. My son tells me he has no interest in limiting by definition what a friend is.  I push a bit and he says, A friend is someone who isn't mean, shares interests, and makes sense.   Age oddly isn't that important.

III. Seeing in the Dark

Last Tuesday during #EDCHAT, the idea of PLNs were discussed.

I wanted to suggest that the task may be for us, as educators, to recognize students' PLNs as being meaningful and to lean in and try to learn, especially from those learning networks based on student-determined passions and ones that may well reside outside of school. An important task is for us to relinquish definitions we have about learning and school. We need to look at things as they are. 

Wallace Stevens in "The Man with the Blue Guitar," tells us:
Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.
Rotted names.  I think about this, about our trip to Save Our Schools March, and wonder if the one reform we must do is one that is more personal, less institutional.  What rotted names do we repeat that keep us stuck in a time long gone? How do we allow ourselves to peer in the dark and say what we see?

Surely some of the language we use at schools has rotted. Just as my definition of friendship needs to be updated, stretched, made more inclusive--so too do we need to acknowledge that our students' learning sources will most likely be beyond the purview of school. Internet-based technologies allow for personal learning in ways most of us could not imagine a decade ago. It is simply foolish to shut the door on these actual learning networks simply because they aren't institutionalized.

Our conversation about engendering student-based PLNs, must begin with us acknowledging that alternative learning networks our students already name as their own need to be privileged.


  1. I am "tinkering" with the idea...and wondering where this is heading in terms of teacher's support or role.
    Learning, indeed, has taken new paths and shapes through the mere use of technology - because technology allows an extension of our social, communicative nature.
    Getting closer to your focus...are you suuggesting we harness this student PLN in the classroom space?
    I would do so...but on the other hand, I think children need their "own" lives and friends outside school. Something that is theirs and theirs alone.
    I don't know - just waiting for you to elaborate on our role.

  2. Good post & comment...

    Our classroom must be a "learning community." For Devon, the LA teacher can suggest a server maintenance "tips-and-tricks" essay that can be drafted, peer-edited and published (electronically/globally); In SS, the Minecraft society can be compared and contrasted to other "real-world" societies, past and present; In math class, Minecraft game navigation strategies can be drawn as network topologies (recall the "Seven Bridges of Konigsburg" problem).

    If we are to create a learning community, we MUST allow students to follow and share their passions. It does not mean that they are to be permitted to play Minecraft in our classrooms, or that direct "passion-related" learning is all they do. Devon may or may not have been interested in a server-maintenance class one year ago, but now that his passion requires this skill, server-maintenance mastery has become a priority for him. This he can (and will) do on his own.

    As Maryann states, our challenge is to lean-in and guide the passion to higher-level thinking and learning. Not always an easy task... 25 Devon's per class will require a lot of patience, listening, and coaching. That said, we didn't join this profession for the money or the easy days. (I would hope that) Students whose ideas and interests are valued are much more likely to be open to all types of learning.

    Tinkering and Tottering, Too

  3. The roles of a teacher surely will and in many cases are evolving. I like the idea of designing learning spaces built from learner Peres chives asmopposed to institutional perspective. What would a learner need? Is different from how best to organize classes of kids.

    I have no idea as to how to organize this, how teachers earn salaries, etc. Perhaps there's simply alternatives to tradtiina school that are honored. The child's PLN is not what schools need to be about. I simpy want to bring to the conversation that kids already are forming alliances via the Internet. These alliances are based on passions. We would do well to simply observe how they function as learning is electric, meaningful in ways I simply do not see occurring ini my son's school life.

  4. In a sense, the world has already moved on past this conversation about student PLNs. And as with "school", there are commercial interests at play and there are natural affinity spaces that spring up by themselves.

    Take a look at the Q2 2011 report from KZero radar on virtual worlds and MMOs and note the companies in this segment or moving into this segment.

    Then take a look at the big picture (you'll have to squint at the numbers on this page. $$ for the properly readable version.)

    Sure, not all of the virtual worlds/MMOs allow deeper PLN type interactions, but affinity spaces spring up around them.

    For example, consider World of Warcraft.
    Most subscribed MMO in the world, population 11-ish million.

    According to Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia founder):

    ... Nov 1, 2010, in an interview with the Toronto Star, Jimmy Wales described sites in entertainment and gaming as the most popular part of Wikia, stating that "in gaming, every major video game has a huge wiki about it. World of Warcraft is probably the biggest. ... Just for that particular wiki alone, I think we see 4 to 5 million people a month."

    At SXSX08, it was noted that the WoW wiki was "the second largest English-language wiki in the world behind Wikipedia". (

    WoW developers Blizzard sure didn't pay for the wiki to be created. Fan based content, impassioned participants, collaborating organically. Another example of rhizomatic learning, or some of the principles or connectivism at work. James Paul Gee's idea of affinity spaces and Henry Jenkin's "transmedia" culture all meshing under our noses.

    Yes - it's a JUST video game. With a self-populated PLN who built the world's 2nd largest wiki. What do they talk about?

    Stuff like this:

    Or ...

    The harder questions that I invite deepers discussion are not about the validity of children/youth PLNs, but deeper complicated issues about how to propagate learning by intentional network design. How to design for serendipity for the network, how to build ways of implicit nurturing of citizenship and collaboration, teaching the principles of the commons, ethical remix and crediting of sources.

    Issues of subversion, ethics and "playful" game based learning that folk like Sara Grimes are researching:

    Must find some time to write up my thoughts over a series of posts, so it's more coherent than a blog comment here Mary Ann. This is important stuff, and extremely high on my agenda. I would welcome you and others' deep thinking.

    Your "friend" wishing you well, (-;

    - Ian

  5. Bunch of minor typos in that comment. Sorry - just typed away. Wished I could edit comments to fix the grammatical/spelling error. :(