Sunday, November 18, 2007

What Was the Gateway Drug to your PLN?

I was sitting in on Kim Cofino's amazing session at the Teach IT 2007 conference here in Singapore. Her topic was Developing the Global Student: Practical Ways to Infuse 21st Century Literacy Skills in Your Classroom. I could blog for a month on all the compelling ideas she presented, but for now I'll just tease apart one idea that she sent skittering across my brain.

Part of her presentation had her showing teachers how to choose the best Web 2.0 tool for the job. As she discussed social networking, she dropped a comment about her personal learning network (PLN) only being 1.5 years old. My jaw dropped as I realized she was right. How could something that had only been part of my life for less than two years feel like such an essential part of me?

That brought to mind Alan Levine's post titled Twitter The Gateway Drug. I laughed out loud when I read the title, and I DO think time away from Twitter brings on drug-like withdrawals. Just this week I felt myself twitching a bit as conference prep kept me away.

Thinking about what Kim and Alan were saying I realized a few things. First, my personal learning network has been around much longer than Twitter or Ning. I think it actually started in the mid- 1990's when I scored my first Internet account as part of a grant that had me teaching science and math teachers about radical new tools like email and Mozilla and Netscape. It was around that time I joined the TAWL listserv for teachers applying whole language. I gained valuable knowledge and a sense of community from belonging to that group. Within a few years of that, I joined the EdTech listserv and I still make use of that group today when wresting with tech problems or questions.

That was probably the extent of my online learning network until fall 2003 0r 2004 when Kent installed NetNewsWire Lite on my computer. It had a directory of blogs and although I didn't know what a blog was, I started poking around in the education and technology sections and found one by a passionate writer who was blogging about educational blogging. I'd never heard of him before but his passion for the topic, for the educational potential of blogs hooked me. Soon I was reading Will Richardson's Weblogg-ed blog a few times a week and started to expand my blog roll, started to comment on other people's posts. By spring of 2005 Will's blog had convinced me I needed to be doing this with students, and this blog was born.

Much to my amazement Will himself promoted my blog and soon other educational bloggers like Bud Hunt and Clarence Fisher started leaving comments on my blog. You should have seen the happy dance I did in my living room in KL when I was listening to one of Bud Hunt's podcasts that spring and he mentioned my blog online. I admit it-- I reversed the podcast and listened to it again (and again), amazed that someone in Colorado was reading and podcasting about what I had to say.

For the next few years, blogs were really the center of my PLN. They still are the biggest chunk of it, the part that most informs my practice. Podcasts are also a huge part of my PLN. As my job has left me less leisure time, podcasts entertain and inform me as I wash dishes, work out, and ride the train.

Chat and VOIP are peripheral parts of my PLN. I am not exaggerating when I say that I had Skype on my computer years before I had anyone to Skype with -- the down side of being an early adopter, or just a geek with few social skills? Now, I find that I mostly use Skype in my PLN when we are in Twitter or even Gchat and we start having a real discussion and need a smoother tool in which to have it. I also use Skype a lot when testing out other web apps with friends. We chat in Skype while trying to get the tool working.

In the past year, my PLN has expanded to include Ning and Twitter. Ning is still only peripheral. I think it has tremendous potential but at first it was too slow to access here in Singapore. Even now that it has RSS and is faster to use, I still have to make myself go there and check my networks, interact with them. Something about it isn't a good fit with my own learning process or flow. I also find its navigation cumbersome but I keep going back because I know at some point it is going to click for me.

Twitter eluded me for a long time. I think it was some time last year that I joined, or maybe I just looked at it and didn't join until this year. The reason I question if it is a gateway drug, is that Twitter seems to work best when you already have a PLN. You add those people to your Twitterverse, and then see who they follow to expand your own list.

When I first started using Twitter, I had very few people on my follow list, and most of them were in North America so they were Twittering when I was asleep. Now I have Twitterific so my tweets appear every few minutes on my desktop without me needing to refresh a web page, and I follow more people who are in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, so I am able to be part of real-time twittering rather than reading old tweets after the fact. I also follow more North Americans who seem to never sleep because they are twittering when I am online (I'm talking about you Jennifer Wagner, Chris Craft, John Pederson, Dean Shareski, and D'Arcy Norman!) That has brought Twitter to life and let me leverage its potential.

Now I am constantly amazed at how much I learn from Twitter. From the Alan Duke webcast to a ridiculous amount of just-in-time learning, it channels me to resources that inform my practice. Faster than any other tool in my PLN, it helps me know the people in my PLN on a different level, somehow a more superficial and more personal level as their tech journeys are interspersed with tweets about a daughter's engagement or a relative's illness.

I enjoy Twitter so much that I was confused to find something about it niggled me. I couldn't quite figure out what that was until I read Kathy Sierra's post Is Twitter TOO Good?...

Twitter scares me. For all its popularity, I see at least three issues: 1) it's a near-perfect example of the psychological principle of intermittent variable reward, the key addictive element of slot machines. 2) The strong "feeling of connectedness" Twitterers get can trick the brain into thinking its having a meaningful social interaction, while another (ancient) part of the brain "knows" something crucial to human survival is missing. 3) Twitter is yet another--potentially more dramatic--contribution to the problems of always-on multi-tasking... you can't be Twittering (or emailing or chatting, of course) and simultaneously be in deep thought and/or a flow state.
I'm trying to sort out if this niggle is a legacy brain sort of thing or from some other cause. I'll leave you to chew on that.

So now it is your turn...
What was the gateway drug to your PLN?