Managing the Flow of Information in Your PLN, and Why You Should Stop Buzzing Your Tweets

While I've blogged since 2001, I resisted social networking tools for a long time, probably the result of seeing my students use MySpace. To me it looked like Geocities, only more judgmental and vain. I finally joined Twitter in the fall of 2008, Facebook in spring of 2009, and last fall I took steps to separate personal and professional networks. Now I use all kinds of social services, and often find myself thinking more about how to use them than actually using them. Hopefully in this blog post all that thinking will pay off.

Just like there's no one way to establish friendships, there's no one way to build a PLN (professional learning network). Here are the primary tools I use, ranked in order of importance:

  1. Twitter (there's no easier way to connect and converse with others in real-time)
  2. Blog (everyone needs a flexible place to express original thoughts and receive feedback)
  3. RSS Reader (for finding and keeping up with other people's content, although some just use Twitter for this purpose)
  4. Social Bookmarking Service (for saving the interesting sites/pages you find)

Like I said, those are my primary tools. There are many more out there, and new ones show up all the time. As we add these new tools to our toolboxes we gain powerful new ways of connecting with our peers. Unfortunately, that power is diluted when the interaction between tools gets complex, as it has with Google Buzz. A number people in my PLN have tried to integrate Buzz into their PLN with mixed success. Buzz has too much promise to ignore, so let's learn from our experience and think about how we're using Buzz.

People will remember the privacy mistakes Google made when they launched Buzz, but I think they made another mistake that has gone unnoticed: instead of importing tweets into Buzz, Buzz should be using Twitter to notify people of new buzzes! Buzz is bigger and more capable than Twitter, and I think importing tweets will prove to be a backwards flow of information. If your blog had the option to import each of your tweets as a new blog post, would you do it? Of course not. You wouldn't use Diigo to bookmark your tweets to share them, either. Twitter asks you, "What's happening?" and while we've used it to do much more, tweets aren't proving to be at all useful in Buzz. We've all used Twitter to notify our PLN about our new blog posts; let's use Twitter the same way to alert our PLN about a new buzz.

Here's my attempt to diagram the flow of content in my PLN:

The model is far from perfect, for sure. You can save and share in both Diigo and Google Reader, but the services are different enough that I use each independently for each interesting site I want to share. (Thus the reason for the dotted line.) The "Share to Reader" bookmarklet gets pages into Buzz, and I would personally be happy if Google bought Diigo and really worked to nicely integrate its capabilities into Buzz and Reader. Also, Google really should integrate blog post comments in Buzz to Blogger, and vice versa. We really need a unified commenting system in a lot of places, but there's no excuse for Google to not have this figured out for their own services. Lastly, Twitterfeed shouldn't be necessary, as I think Buzz should have the option to post to Twitter.

So, in summary, remember that 1) there's more than one way to build a PLN; 2) tweet a buzz, but don't buzz a tweet; and 3) expect some bumps along the way. (And try not to stress out about the tools as much as I do!)

It's Up to Educators to Keep the "Open Innovation Portal" Open

Thanks to open source software, such as Linux, Mozilla Firefox, and, as well as thousands of smaller projects, I've come to expect more of things when they're described as "open." When I hear the word "open," I expect a community-oriented process where contributions are welcome, application of the product is flexible, and in turn for receiving something for free, you promise to keep your contributions free, too. This kind of open process is a beautiful thing and a great model of how well we can innovate.

The US Department of Education's recently launched "Open Innovation Portal" is designed to give students, teachers, administrators, and other educators a place to "contribute ideas, collaborate on solutions, and find partners and resources." I welcome this effort, and I hope to see this become a place where classroom-based educators have the power to shape the education reform conversation. If you follow many educators on Twitter or their blogs, you know good ideas are already out there, and innovation is happening because teachers like getting ideas from other teachers. The Open Innovation Forum can do the same thing on an even larger scale, with the key benefit of adding a policy-oriented audience.

As I write this, I rank #1 in Colorado on the Open Innovation Forum with 600 points. (I haven't submitted any ideas, but I did score points for filling out my profile.) While I hope to contribute the best of my ideas, I don't expect my #1 ranking to last. What's troubling, though, is the national leaderboard, where the #1 position belongs to a CEO of a company selling reading programs. I don't mean to judge the quality of their product - for all I know, it could be the ideal solution for a school looking to improve students' reading skills. But I'm troubled by the immediate influence of a for-profit company posting advertisements for their products as ideas, and wondering if the Open Innovation Portal will become little more than a national Craigslist for education.

The Open Innovation Portal will be as open as its members make it. If teachers want to freely share ideas (free as in speech, as well as $$$), then it's our responsibility to participate and take charge of the conversation. There's nothing stopping us. If we don't, I don't see how this will avoid becoming much more than a glorified, government-sponsored classifieds section. So fellow educators, I challenge you to go back through your blog posts and dig up your very best ideas and start posting them on the Open Innovation Portal. When you do, encourage your PLN to participate in the portal so your ideas are heard, and let's all help keep "open" in the open.

Why Digital Books Won't Spread Like Digital Music

Bud Hunt posed a question tonight asking why schools should consider replacing their paper books with eBook readers. After reading and writing responses, I think I know why you (or your school) should hold on to those dead-tree versions a while longer.

People want, even expect, to access books digitally. Wasn't "all the world's libraries in your computer" one of the early promises of the internet? We will still get there someday, but our vision is being clouded somewhat by our memories and experiences with music. I, like you, used to get my music by going to a store and buying the CD (or tape or record). Now if I want music, I can download it instantly, put it on my mp3 player, and take it everywhere. Now that we have that model to follow, why should digital books be any different?

What we lack in the book world are all those college kids in their dorm rooms, ripping their CDs and posting mp3s to their FTP server or onto P2P networks. The music labels certainly didn't want a digital music market, but it quickly became so easy to get music for free that they had to compete on the digital level or risk their business. iTunes and Amazon's mp3 store exist, in large part, because studio executives knew that selling music for $0.99 a track was better than getting nothing at all. Now digital music is everywhere, both legit and otherwise, and the record labels know that raising their prices would only drive customers to illegal downloading.

I'm a college student. I have books. I have a scanner. But if you think I'm going to sit here and scan my books so I can share digital copies with the rest of the world, you're crazy. I'd love to have PDF versions of all my books, but it's not worth my time or effort to digitize them. I know plenty of people who rip CDs and share their mp3s, but I don't know a single one who "rips and shares" their books. The book publishers aren't working with the same market forces as the music labels, and thus can afford to be conservative and patient with their business.

Our eBook revolution is going to happen, to be sure, but it's not going to look like the mp3 revolution. It will be slower, DRM will be as restrictive as the publishers and device manufacturers can make it, and there's no real pressure driving content prices down. Don't think so? Look what happened when Amazon tried to hold their ground on Macmillan's price hikes. Not that I like to promote any sort of illegal activity, but you might want to wait until someone breaks Amazon's (or somebody else's) DRM and spreads universally-readable versions of those books all over the internet. Until then, I wouldn't worry about missing the eBook revolution.

Looking ahead to PhD: Focus and Vision

As the first of my classmates were congratulating me on my PhD acceptance, the inevitable question came: "So what do you want to study?" As I started to answer, I stumbled. I didn't have the 12-second, sure-of-myself answer I was supposed to have, despite having thought hard on the question when I wrote my application essay.

I learned of my acceptance five days ago and ever since I've been thinking about how I'm going to make the most of this opportunity. CU-Boulder's School of Education is home to some of the finest researchers in the field, and my experience in the master's program has been excellent. I've always been intellectually curious, and in the PhD program I'll learn how to apply methodologies to that curiosity in ways that are both personally satisfying and helpful to others. To clearly answer the "What do you want to study?" question, I need to develop "focus." The best demonstration of "focus" that I've seen lately is Gary Vaynerchuk's "Linchpin" video he made for Seth Godin's blog:

Linchpin: GaryVee from Seth Godin on Vimeo.

Even if you think P.Diddy's hair was an odd example, I think you get the point. As I prepared my application essay, I tried to focus on one specific thing in both curriculum and instruction (my major):

Curriculum Focus: I'm interested in the intersection of policy and practice, specifically when and how state and national standards become the curriculum that is experienced by students. I studied the math wars for my undergraduate thesis ten years ago, and my new area of interest is how our standards' increased demand for statistics (including all forms of data analysis and visualization, uncertainty, and probability) is causing change in textbooks, course sequences, standardized tests, and traditional perspectives on school mathematics.
Instruction Focus:Teachers' views of standardized assessment are affecting classroom assessment practices, and in turn poor classroom practice in assessment and grading has an inordinate influence over how teachers teach and how students learn. Additionally, negativity towards assessment deters teachers from climbing the mountains of potentially helpful data produced by assessments. I'm interested in understanding both the theoretical and practical problems teachers have with assessments and grading, and how to develop pragmatic solutions that are favorable to practicing teachers.

It's good to have focus. Unfortunately, I've never been comfortable with the pigeon-holing that happens when someone declares a specialty. I remember talking to other undergraduates after we had declared our majors, frustrated with the feeling that because we had chosen a field, people assumed we were now ignorant of everything else. I might be overreacting, and I hope to "crush it" (as GaryVee says), but not at the expense of stifling my curiosity, or losing sight of something bigger, which I'm calling "vision." Vison is big. I was afraid my vision would be too broad or vague in a specialized world, but my attitude was helped greatly by Aaron Eyler's blog post about connecting research with K-12 teachers. Eyler is personally frustrated with how little research makes its way into the hands of K-12 teachers, and the little that does is presented in a "cookie-cutter" fashion that has little of the impact intended by the researcher. Why don't teachers and administrators do a better job keeping up with research, and why don't researchers spend more time working with K-12 educators?

So what's my vision? In short, I want to help teachers be better teachers. It's that simple. I hope to interact with teachers (or future teachers) whenever possible, whether it be teaching methods classes, visiting schools, giving presentations, or whatever else that might engage me with a community of teachers. When I do research, I want to always think of teachers as my audience, not some journal editor or professor who might be refereeing my work. I want to write things that teachers will want to read, and explore ways of delivering research to teachers in helpful ways. That's my vision, and I should be confidently unapologetic about believing you can't focus without vision.

Math Wars: Seattle

The current battlefront in the math wars seems to be in Seattle, Washington. Complete with the usual "reform" vs. "traditional" arguments, the winner of this argument might be decided in a court of law. Last May, Seattle's school board, after a lengthy review process, selected Key Curriculum Press's Discovering Mathematics series for high school math. The decision came by a 4-3 vote, and opponents to the decision have now filed a lawsuit against the district. The opponents appear to have organized themselves around the following three websites:
There's some pretty fascinating reading here, not because I'm in agreement, but simply because I like to see how the arguments are framed. (And who's doing the framing.) In particular, I read the "History of Math Instruction" page and found several items that I think the NCTM would strongly disagree with. One, it claims in 1989 "the NCTM create[d] a new set of standards but fail[ed] to include any mathematicians in the creation of these standards." I have no idea how anyone could support such a claim. (Note: Clifford F. Mass, one of the leading opponents of the Seattle text adoption, is an atmospheric science professor.) Second, the History page claims the 2000 NCTM standards "urge teachers to now emphasize the fundamentals of computation, accuracy, and basic math fact memorization skills." This too seems to be an unsupportable claim. While I don't mean to attempt to discredit an entire website based on one page, such manipulations of the truth are unfortunate and misleading.

Untruthiness aside, I think the traditionalists have the edge in this battle. Not because they're making a better argument, have research on their side, or other typical reasons, but because in my opinion the Discovering Mathematics series is not something very many ardent reformists will fight for. In Key Curriculum Press's own lineup of textbooks, the NSF-funded Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP) is the clear reform choice. I tried to use Discovering Algebra and Discovering Geometry for a year and found them ill-suited for me and not well aligned with the Colorado mathematics standards. (That said, the geometry book is considerably better than either of the algebra books, in my opinion, and might be worth considering if it aligns to your standards.) I would love to have been in the district's committee meetings leading to the recommendation of the Discovering texts. I can only guess that the selection was a compromise made with hopes that the texts would be traditional enough to quell the arguments of the objectors. (Compared to IMP, they look quite traditional.) If that's what happened, it didn't work.

For more opinion on Math Wars: Seattle, check out the discussion on the Math Forum. It got ugly pretty quickly, for reasons that certainly aren't specific to the Seattle battle. Politics and education can be a curious and frustrating mix!