navigating distributed learning networks – first impressions

It’s true. The onslaught of interesting information and ideas flowing from a 9000-member Google+ community can be a bit overwhelming and distracting. It can be motivating. But also disorienting and discouraging in the “I’m all over the map”, “How did I just let the last four hours go by?” and “Man I’m so behind”  kind of way. I keep on asking myself, what am I here for and what is it that I need to get from this course experience? Not entirely sure yet.

Today was the first day that I really started to network in Google+ (I know, I’m a hold-out). It’s also been awhile since I purged my Google Reader, so I unsubscribed a bunch of old RSS feeds while I listened to a Stephen Downes talk. And then I subscribed to a bunch of new people that weren’t around when I first started building my PLN. So, if nothing else, the #medialabcourse has been a good excuse to get back in the “game”, if I can call it that. Part of me finds the information-filtering game exhausting. I don’t think we have the tools yet to really pull out what is most relevant to us personally based on keywords, past favorites, networks, research questions, and active users. It’s the “More like this” algorithm that I really need…

SO related to the course itself. I’ve read so many articles and participant reflections today. And I jump around so fast, I didn’t keep the links. But here’s what stuck:

> I get out of an open course what I want. I don’t “have” to join in on all of the conversations that are happening and I don’t “have” to do all the readings to have a rich experience. One comment in the big Google+ community was basically a plea for some top-down or community-driven direction. In my own words, it was something like: “What are we going to do now that we’re all together? What are we going to make together? What are we going to accomplish? Ideas are not enough.” I could relate to the sentiment behind those words. Yes, I think it’s up to each participant to determine their own “driving question” for each week and pull out what they want and need from this amazing community. But we could use more support somehow. Still figuring that part out (isn’t everybody?).

> Networked humans truly are the best aggregators of information and resources on the web. And we have an excellent human filter in #medialabcourse, so lots of great stuff. The bad news is that everyone seems to be struggling with searching through and tagging/organizing the posts in some coherent way that benefits the community. I don’t think the discussion categories in the Google+ group are enough. There needs to be a bit more top-down curation of content and a pulling out of themes in the dialog — someone to reflect back to us what’s “going on”.

> There also seems to be a general trend that some of the small groups are better prepared to dialog than others. And that’s awkward, because I don’t want to abandon my small group, but I also want to make connections with people who are actively participating. I think it would be great if there was some kind of status you could select about your level of participation in the course, just so people would know where you were at and nobody felt bad engaging at the wrong level. Something like, “I’m a lurker. Don’t make me talk.”,  “I’ll be popping in when I can”, “I’m here to network”, “I want to DO something”, “I’m interested in discussion, but not the assignments”, “I plan on doing all the assignments” — something like that. And even more important, I think the groups should be provided with helpful (but optional) ground rules and possible group roles (more on that below).

> Another thing we need is an easy way to remember who people are, where they are located, some small fact, so we can have hooks for relating to them online. The Google+ profile is not enough for me. I think each participant should be able to take notes on other participants with short phrases and keywords or attach notes, the intro videos, links to their profiles just for the duration of the course, so that on mouseover they can remind themselves who they are talking to and what they are interested in.

> I was impressed by the childhood memories and stories that participants posted. It sort of affirmed this idea that creative people tend to have an open relationships their childhood selves. And I really enjoyed really following how people “discovered” the world through books, materials, stories, and places. Again, I wish there was an easier way to aggregate all the stories I read as I clicked on them into some sort of collection. Better yet, I wish we could go to one page and find all of the “Gears of my childhood” essays linked in one place. A hashtag would be a start, but it would have to be an archival hashtag (auto-storify type of thing) and then have a volunteer monitor the list for quality. I think that would enhance the conversation and minimize the frustration of finding the people who are doing course work versus sharing interesting links.

> But the big takeaway from today, really comes from the Downes talk I mentioned earlier. Downes tells a good story about the specialization of functions in education and online learning. We’ve seen this coming for a long time, but he is more specific in his naming of roles than others I’ve read. A quick click through this slide deck will give you an idea.

At the end of the talk he urges listeners to decide where their talents and interests lie and to pursue that. I was really happy to hear him mention the “Programmers”, not that I am a full-on coder, but he described “programmers” as the people who educate by building tools and the resources that help people use those tools. That definitely hit home for me, since it’s what I do. Listen to his talk, if you get a chance. And related to this idea of roles, I think it would be really great if we could self-identify in the #medialabcourse community (similar to the level of participation idea) something like, “I tend to be a curator”, “I tend to be a connector of ideas,” “I tend to be a connector of people”, “I tend to be a theorist or synthesizer”, “I enjoy being an administrator (ie Google Docs helper)”. I enjoy being the ….. you fill in the blank. Right now, there’s no easy way for participants to declare

  1. what they want out of the course (interests/questions),
  2. their level of intended participation, and
  3. their preferred role in the community.

All of those characteristics seem really important to know up front, especially in large enrollment courses/cMOOCS. Also, if there was some way we could filter participants by these types of criteria, we would have a much easier time finding the people we are looking to network with. I’ll keep thinking about this, because those are the kinds of things technology can address on some level.

See you next Tuesday!

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