The Strength of Weak Ties

Everyone participates. Everyone contributes. Leveraging the power of digital networks to connect people, resources and ideas to drive creativity and innovation forward...and actually accomplish something!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Back up the Moving Trucks

I'm moving this blog over to my new site, The Strength of Weak Ties, available at:

Here's the new look:

Please reset your aggregators to the new RSS feed.


Thursday, December 27, 2007


An essential concept in the study of biology is that of permeability. As a former biology teacher, it was my experience that students often struggled with this concept and what impermeable, permeable, and semi-permeable meant and how it applied to things such as diffusion and osmosis (you remember those, right?).

Permeability can be applied to other concepts besides biology. Specifically, the concept of permeability can apply to learning communities, and how open and closed they are to their members, and potential members. In a typical high school, learning communities are fragmented and isolated, if they even exist at all. It’s unlikely that any of us would label a typical high school classroom, with its characteristic five rows of six desks, limited access to information and conversation, a learning community. Very little interaction exists within the classroom, and interaction from sources outside the four walls of the classroom is generally non-existent-the classroom walls, in effect, are impermeable.

That certainly can be changed, and the tools (blogs, wikis, social networking, RSS, etc.) we have now at our disposal make it doable and achievable, but many things have to fall into place. Teachers have to be willing, the technology must be available, administrators must understand the need, and the school’s climate and culture, which is greatly influenced by the community that the school serves, must be supportive.

So, as a result, the formation of learning communities in schools depends greatly on the school itself. What is a solution, or a plan, in one school may not be a solution, or a plan, in another. Additionally, even within a school, there may be different needs-some teachers may be ready, others may be not so ready, so that a plan for building learning communities needs to be flexible and scaleable, and provide the necessary infrastructure to meet the varying needs of the different constituents of the school. One size does not fit all...

There is no right or wrong answer to building learning communities, but I do think there is a basic flow.

If the end goal is to help students and classrooms build learning communities with individuals and other schools or classrooms, and make the classroom permeable, you have to start with the teachers. Teachers have to learn the tools, learn how to connect and contribute (typically through a blog), learn how to manage time and feeds, learn how to adjust the membership of their learning community, and learn how to accept being criticized when their ideas oppose those of others. Teachers need to see firsthand the benefits of a learning community, and what it means to their personal learning, before it can ever translate successfully to students. To get learning communities to develop and stick, start with teachers first.

From there, I’m interested in building skills in students that will make them successful when they ultimately join wide-open learning communities. I’m teaching them how to read blog posts, how to collaboratively create content in wikis, how to comment appropriately, how to manage RSS feeds, and how to manage content resources with social bookmarking tools. I'm teaching them how to operate in a community. And I’m teaching them all about safety.

Is this a necessary step? Ask yourself-yes or no? If no, stop reading this post. If your answer was yes, then what’s the best way to do that?

What’s the best way to do that on a large scale, and in a systemic way? Where you can impact the most teachers and the most kids, in the most effective and safe way? I’m not talking just blogging now, I’m talking about building learning communities, which is what I’m interested in. Blogging OK, I get it. But that’s just a part of a larger goal.

You can do all of that in a number of ways. You can do it by asking teachers to manage multiple online tools that all work differently and require different management requirements. Or you can do it with a content management system where all of this is under one roof. And before some of you go CMS on me, you could also do it with Ning, couldn't you?

So, what's the plan? Expose the most teachers and kids to these capabilities, teach them in a controlled environment, where teachers and students, mostly new to the process of working in a learning community, can make their mistakes without too high of a cost? Or maybe the plan is to stay "true to the process" and put the kids out there, really out there, but certainly prepare them prior with what they need to know.

I’ll take Door #1 Bob, the semi-permeable classroom, where true community is first established within the classroom. That’s just me. It might not be you.

I think a classroom must be semi-permeable before it can become a permeable classroom.

Creating a truly permeable classroom is a major change in how classrooms work. It is a big departure from where most classrooms are now. You just don’t change that overnight with a few commonly available tools, and just by blogging. It’ll require a great deal of professional support and curriculum design, with a great deal of reflection and course-correction. I’ll approach that carefully. The stakes are too high not to.

And when the time comes, I’d turn them loose. When the specific curricular needs suggest a permeable experience is warranted, I’d turn them loose. When the teacher says, we need to connect outside of our classroom because of this and this, I’d turn them loose. When the teacher says I’m ready and so are my kids, I’d turn them loose.

But I’m crawling before I’m walking.

images from

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Directions Needed

Every school has a mission statement. Chances are that your school district has one too, and that it contains something about life-long learning, the creation of critical thinkers, and the development of high-quality citizens.

I’ve seen Guy Kawasaki speak several times and he never fails to talk about mission statements, why they are not worth much, and how you can develop one quickly and easily with the use of the Dilbert Mission Statement Generator. Here is one, developed with a single click:

We exist to globally network principle-centered data while continuing to proactively simplify high standards in benefits to exceed customer expectations.

So, when I was driving through the town I live in, my eye instantly caught this mission statement on a school's billboard:

Educating Students to Be Self-Directed Learners.

That’s a fine goal, and a worthy mission for any school. But what are the characteristics of self-directed learning? What kind of climate and culture must be present in a school to pull that off? Here is my take on what I think those students should be capable of and what that school should be like, if that mission is indeed actualized. My Twitter network also weighs in, with comments in italics….

Self-directed learners are capable of asking great questions, essential questions.

Self-directed learners have internalized a problem-solving approach, typically some inquiry-based methodology that provides a framework for learning.

Self-directed learners are capable of developing a direction for their learning, and are comfortable and capable of exploring their own path, and can set short and long-term goals for their learning.

Self-directed learners are equally capable of working independently, collaboratively, locally and globally.

From Quentin D’Souza via Twitter: one who perpetually asks questions, explores different opinions, and strives toward answers.

From Tom Turner, via Twitter: self-directed learners are….not afraid to take risks and ask questions to learn.

From pjhiggins, no fear of failure. Self-directed learning is all about being willing to fall down.

From John Howell, via Twitter: a self-directed learner is one who asks questions, seeks answers, and then realizes that it leads to more questions.

Self-directed learners continually engage in metacognitive processes that promote reflective thinking about learning.

Self-directed learners are capable of expressing the outcomes of their learning in multiple media and formats.

Self-directed learners have internalized strategies for self-assessment of their learning and for the representations of their learning. This self-assessment data is used to redirect and refocus their learning.

Self-directed learners are capable of using a variety of tools to drive learning, from paper and pencil to the cell phone and mp3 player they bring to school.

From Arthus, via Twitter: a self-directed learner is a leader of themselves, finding knowledge as its own reward and continually searching for more.

From Dean Shareski, via Twitter: Learning when you want, how you want, with whom you want.

What about the climate and culture of the self-directed learner’s school?

Self-directed learners develop in learning climates where a professional teacher is a catalyst for learning, a connector for learners, and a passionate champion for student learning. No facilitators, no guides-on-the-side, no-sage-on-the-stage or any other 1990 representation of teacher roles are present in these schools.

Self-directed learners develop in a structured and safe school environment, where the responsibility for one’s own learning is gradually increased over time.

Self-directed learners develop in learning climates where their teachers and administrators are self-directed learners.

Self-directed learners develop in learning climates that are permeable and permit students to explore learning connections beyond the four walls of the typical classroom. Self-directed learners form networks of learners.

OK, so how does all of this translate to actual practice? Go no further than Christian Long’s English class in Texas. Take a look at their study of Frankenstein to see what self-directed learning looks like under the tutelage of a master practitioner. From Christian:

Instead of being 'English students' dutifully following my syllabus and daily plan as is so tempting from the teacher's side of the desk, each of my 4 classes will become real-time archeologists, detectives, and futurists in an effort to co-develop a strategic plan for mastering this literary masterpiece. The standards will be blatantly put forward: become an expert. By any means necessary.

And on his role:

I'll offer myself as a 'free' consultant for a specific # of days that they can 'hire' when they feel that they have exhausted their own instincts/research.

Please read the rest of the post, it's well worth it.

From Marie Coleman, via Twitter: a self-directed learner… initiates growth and "stretching" - constantly seeking new skills, knowledge, interactions to improve self amd hopefully impact others.

From Mark Wagner, via Twitter: a self-directed learner can set his or her own objectives, choose learning strategies and resources, self-check for understanding, adjust, and self-assess.

From Glovely, via Twitter, a self-directed learner follows their wonder with purposeful wandering...

Finally, from Chris Lehmann, his description of a self-directed learner:

Someone who wants to be better tomorrow than they were today.

Now that’s a great vision statement.

What's your vision of self-directed learning?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Strength of Weak Ties

Good morning to Mark's class, from Austin, Texas.

The title of this blog originates with Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. In the book, Gladwell talks about connectors (people specialists, or people people), mavens (knowledge specialists, or knowledge people) and how the types of relationships people have can directly influence the way they think. Gladwell argues that your close circle of friends think very similar to you; that's why they're close friends, and this results in a very strong tie-but they don't push your thinking much-they think very similar to you. It is the people that you know that are not in your immediate and closest circle of friends that can have a dramatic impact on your learning-they think differently than you, and their thinking can be very divergent from yours. Gladwell argues that this weak tie, this connection to others that provides you with alternative viewpoints, can be an extremely powerful learning connection, one that can challenge you, and one that can serve personal growth.

Enter Twitter. Twitter enables you to connect with people that share similar interests, and develop that "weak tie" relationship. That is the power behind networks like Twitter; they enable the development of these connections that can serve personal learning.

In terms of my own learning, being connected has had a dramatic influence on how I think about teaching and learning. Sometimes my thoughts are validated, sometimes they are greatly challenged. But that's good, and it forces me to clarify/refine/alter how I think about things. Being connected to others in this way means that I have the opportunity to learn on a daily basis, from some of the brightest and most talented people out there.

When people first see Twitter, they don't get it. Get on and connect. See how tapping into the network can challenge you, sustain you. Give it a try.

Have fun with your workshop!

See my resources on networks at

Thursday, October 18, 2007

New Post at techLEARNING

I've put up a new post on the techLEARNING blog, called Student Absences. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Wiki Presentation Resources

I'll be in Syracuse this week to do a keynote and several workshops for the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES. Specifically, I'll be doing Making IT Stick as the keynote, and then doing a short 3 hour intro into Web 2.o, entitled Igniting Student Achievement with Web 2.0. I finish with an all-day workshop on digital storytelling, including a component that focuses on Digital Storytelling 2.0 (you can never have enough 2.0's). Resources for each presentation, including resources from, are found on each wiki. Feel free to use anything you find interesting.

Making IT Stick

Igniting Student Achievement with Web 2.0

Digital Storytelling 2.0

Monday, October 15, 2007

To Integrate or to be Integral?

There was a small discussion today about redefining the titles of educational technologists on Twitter. Ultimately, the discussion evolved to include integration. I entered into the discussion, but sometimes 140 characters are just not enough.

I'm not a big fan of using the word integration. Do we really want teachers to integrate technology? Or should technology just be an integral part of what teaching is, what classrooms are, and what learning can and should be?

There are no cooperative learning integration specialists, no textbook integration specialists, no assessment integration specialists. Why technology integration specialists? What's different? Why do we hold technology to that standard?

To imply that technology needs to be integrated strongly suggests that it is outside of what the standard skill set is for educators. It's not. The use of technology in a lesson is no different than the use of a lecture, of structuring the lesson so that students learn collaboratively, or preparing an assessment to gauge understanding. Whether or not to use technology tools in the learning process is a curriculum design question, pure and simple.

I've heard teachers say "And now they want us to integrate technology on top of everything we already do." Hold on-the use of technology is not an "extra." It's part of what you should be doing. It's not an addition, but that's the climate that is created when the focus is on technology "integration."

Perhaps you may think this is a matter of semantics. I don't. I think the difference between integration and being integral is absolutely critical.

So, how do you know when technology should be used in a lesson? How do you make that decision during the curriculum design process to ensure that technology is not just bolted on to something that a teacher already does? How do you ensure that technology takes its rightful place along all the other tools and strategies that teachers have to help kids learn? How can you help to develop that climate? Have teachers ask these questions, during lesson preparation.

Ask yourself these three questions:
  1. Does the use of the technology support a fundamental literacy that the school believes in? This can range from a holistic literacy like writing to content specific objectives for a particular course. For example, digital storytelling first and foremost seeks to improve the ability of students to write.
  2. Does the use of technology add value to the lesson? Does the technology extend the lesson to a place that could not be achieved unless the technology was included? For example, using the process of digital storytelling also helps students learn visual literacy skills, project management skills, network skills, and how to use media in an ethical way. If the products are shared, then the student can potentially write for a world-wide audience, and that's a much different experience than writing for a teacher.
  3. How will I structure the lesson so that the technology fulfills the first two criteria? For example, the time-tested methodology of preparing a narrative, developing a script, storyboarding, locating imagery and other media, and then building and sharing the story is a truly effective methodology or framework for effective digital storytelling.
OK, so where does the educational technologist come in to the process? I believe that the person that supports technology (I'm not going to use the i word), learners, and teachers helps teachers understand the three questions.

Do that and you'll take steps towards make technology an integral part of teaching and learning.