In defence of the virtual conference: PD every day and immersion in online community/ Focus #1

Standards: 1.1; 1.2; 1.3; 1.5; 1.6/ 2.1; 2.2; 2.3; 2.4; 2.5; 2.6/ 3.1; 3.2; 3.3; 3.4; 3.6/ 4.1; 4.2; 4.5/ 5.1/ 6.1; 6.2; 6.3; 6.4/ 7.1; 7.4

Since most of my professional development lately has taken place online, the reflection in this post is a solid attempt to unpack the value of online conferences and courses.  Connecting to people whose areas of expertise lie in education and across different disciplines is the most effective way for me, as a teacher librarian, to stay in conversation with these people, follow their writings in their blogs, join with them in social media groups on Google +, Facebook groups, Twitter, etc., and reap the benefits of this distributed knowledge and expertise.  My aim is to provide resources and platforms which address the needs of students from diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as those with learning disabilities and with diverse learning needs. These are some of the virtual communities I am currently involved in and from which I create resources to support teachers and students:

  • on Google +: CLMOOC (Connected Learning MOOC), etc 

These are the ways I save/curate the knowledge and resources as a result of my interaction with these communities:

For Studio Art, Visual Communication and Design, Photography for head of Arts, I share with Mihaela and her staff:

  • when resources/information is requested
  • I initiate sharing the resources if I believe they are relevant/useful to programs

I share in the following formats:

For English teachers, eg Amanda Carroll: blogging with her year 10 class through the teacher’s blog, The Great Writing Experiment, onto which student blogs are linked;

Conversations and email exchanges with Chris Bush: I wrote blog posts in the library blog about his Peardeck class as well as his involvement in IDAHOT Day to promote tolerance and respect, and promoted these posts to my networks, showcasing what we do at MHS to local and global communities, extending the generosity of ideas to other teacher librarians and schools, and receiving positive feedback, sometimes with additional ideas.

Liaison with Helene Malavieille: During the course of regular meetings with Helene, I create French resources in the French libguides. The collaboration informs me in my curation, making the resources relevant and targeted.

Collaboration with Mark Kaderle and Ken Ong for Study Skills: I attended their session for  year 11 students and talked to them about making the Study Skills libguides more relevant, editing out what was unnecessary and adding Ken’s mindfulness resources and additional minfulness resources I had found.

Following this, we were approached by Ross Pritchard and David Veale about running study skills sessions for year 9 and 10 students. I continue to develop the study skills libguide to support our bi-weekly study skills sessions after school.

Working with Pelissa Tsilimidos and Lynne Hamilton to help them with their powerpoint presentation to staff about Gifted and Talented learning. I shared with them my free image resources and selection of alternative platforms to powerpoint eg Haiku Deck. We talked about Creative Commons options and how to create effective presentations which were not text-heavy.

Working with Steve Bowler to help him set up a WordPress blog: Steve and I had talked about blogs during the swimming sports. This was my first liaison with a music teacher so I was pleased to help him create a blog and show him how to post. I was happy to promote his blog to my networks and our staff.

With Libby and Ross and their year 10 cohort : I create study skills resources in Libguides for students, providing for differentiation.

What I find in my social media networks feeds directly into what I share with teachers and students, eg in Google Docs, Pinterest collections, Diigo collections, etc.  Everything is bookmarked for easy access and sharing with others, or for my own use in blog posts, displays or curricular resources online. 

PLN, unconference or virtual learning?  Maha Bali’s excellent article entitled Living the Unconference Life – a Form of Praxis?  has me nodding and highlighting like a crazy woman. In fact I may as well jump straight into the disclaimer that I’ll be quoting her extensively in this post while I tease out some of my own experiences in unconference-like practices. What are the differences between traditional conferences and less structured, more informal opportunities for professional development – unconferences? What might we get from a traditional conference?  Maha mentions “gaining visibility through presenting or discussing our work, receiving feedback, meeting people outside of conference sessions and jotting down contact details for further contact.” But, as she says, once the conference is over, that’s basically the end of it. Whereas unconferences are “all about connectivism, and I’m going to suggest this lifestyle is a form of praxis. A form of praxis. Maha said it, and I’ve also been more and more convinced about this, but more from me later. Maha identifies some of the special things about unconferences:

  • the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the speakers you admire and would not normally get a chance to talk to
  • a chance for everyone to feel like they can contribute to everyone else’s learning
  • a chance for people to set their own agenda
  • a chance for people to take that agenda where they wish
  • break-down of the traditional conference hierarchy
  • a chance to encourage the agency of participants without the feeling they will be evaluated (in the same way as contributing by submitting a paper and running a session)

Maha mixes everything up.  And why not if it improves learning experiences? She talks about the time she implemented an unconference in a formal workshop within a conference and in a faculty development event and observed the following:

  • the energy in the room soars
  • people feel they can share their learning in a relatively egalitarian atmosphere
  • everyone is learning from everyone else about topics they are interested in
  • people are creating their own agenda instead of following someone else’s
  • it’s high impact learning in a very short time frame

So what does it mean to live the unconference life? Maha identifies social media and connectivist MOOCs as central to this kind of life. The PLN (personal learning network) is another way of doing similar things –  seeing what the people you are connected to are discussing, jumping into their hashtagged conversations, following conferences on Twitter, reading what they’ve shared about conferences in their blogs. This is the kind of learning which has, for years now, directed my learning and nourished my need to connect to people interested in ongoing conversations, and I am one of so many others. Unlike conferences, this kind of learning is continuous and through it we get to know people better over time. It gives us the opportunity to build our understanding of things with people, it exposes us to the diversity of their thoughts and expands our own knowledge. Maha and I have something in common. We want to be involved in so many conferences but are geographically disadvantaged – she’s in Cairo, Egypt, I’m in Melbourne, Australia. Maha also has a young child but this doesn’t stop her from being arguably the most engaged person in the conference/MOOC world. She’s there in the hashtagged Twitter discussions, in the Google Hangouts, in the Facebook groups, and recently she took her involvement to a new level by experiencing conferences virtually through a buddy.  Alan Levine also wrote a great post about the conference buddy experience. I do attend local conferences and live events, I love getting out and seeing other schools and school libraries, and talking to people about what they do. But on a daily basis my PLN and unconferencing life feeds my personal and professional need to learn and keep learning from people. Like Maha has stated, so much of value feeds directly into my practice as a teacher librarian. It feeds, it stimulates, expands, challenges and keeps on doing these things daily. You might say I can’t live without it – couldn’t imagine living without it. Is it just an internal thing? I don’t believe it is. Maha realises the same thing:

But I realized something. Praxis is about the thoughtful, reflective action that we take, not just the action. And I realized something really important: we take action  every day in our lives. But it may not be thoughtful or reflective. And here’s what connectivist MOOCs and engaging with other educators on social media has done for me: it has made me constantly reflective. People often talk about social media as a form of information overload, as hyper alertness, as attention deficit, and it gets described as if it’s a superficial kind of engagement.  This has not been my experience. When we engage with social media in thoughtful ways, when we interact with others with similar interests, and open our minds to engaging with each other’s ideas and practice deeply, we’re helping make our day-to-day action a form of praxis, because we are constantly reflecting on it with others.

I looked up praxis on Wikipedia for a quick summary: Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realised. “Praxis” may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas. This has been a recurrent topic in the field of philosophy, discussed in the writings ofPlato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Paulo Freire, Ludwig von Mises, and many others. I agree with Maha that this constant engagement and reflection makes us lifelong learners in the truest sense and that my life, too, has become one continuous and wonderful unconference. I suppose that this kind of learning started with the creation of my blog, Brave New World, in May of 2008, and my leap onto Twitter even before November of 2009 (as stated in my Twitter profile) because I somehow managed to delete my entire Twitter account the first time around and had to start again from scratch. I don’t think I could list all the hashtags I’ve followed on Twitter, but some of the most important ones are associated with communities of people I want to keep learning from and with, for example, #vicpln (started by Judith Way for a specific course and still going strong as a local community hashtag), #austl, #tlchat (both library-related communities). More recently I’ve expanded my online networks to include people taking part in MOOCs such as #ccourses, #moocmooc and #rhizo15. So my questions is: How do I show this kind of learning and praxis to my colleagues, to the teachers at my school? It still feels like I’m living a secret life or at least that it’s the invisible alternative life. How do I show others – without being intrusive or condescending (this is great, I know what I’m talking about) that it’s easy to connect to people and events online and that this world is just as real as the external world of work? In fact, in many cases I know more about  people I’m connected to  online than I do of staff at my own school. How do we change our behaviours in a system that doesn’t change?


2 thoughts on “In defence of the virtual conference: PD every day and immersion in online community/ Focus #1

  1. Hi Tania,

    I offer no simple answer and what I think I will write will sound banally obvious.

    It’s not that the system won’t change, it’s just that its rate and measure of change will never be quite what you hope, want, are ready for. It probably never will be.

    So continue what you do, get your energies charged, experiences lifted by the external PLN connections. In time, it’s likely some of that will seep back home, no guarantee. But i know when I started in edtech, there was no one in my office, and very few in my system who were doing anything similar or cared. In time, usually when I was ready to give up on anyone caring, someone would approach with “I heard some about _______”.

    I rarely got as much from my internal systemic connections as I did from external, but each small one from inside was savory.

    You probably cannot win over the system by trying to win over the system, so just latch on the small opportunities you can make on a smaller scale. And yes, not about being a know it all, but just seed them with what you find/learn externally.

    And you may never get a wide uptake on the home front, you cannot force that, and you will burn yourself trying. As far as the record of what you are doing, keep writing and blogging and whatever else you do to share your work. You have and will have a body of work ready when they do look.

    It’s not even leading the hors to water, you might have to wait until the horses realize they are thirsty or just look up from the field. But do not hold on to much hope for systemic change. Not to be pessimistic, but if it every does, well it can be a nice surprise rather than a long term disappointment.


    • Alan, thank you so much for finding and reading this blog. When I didn’t expect a response yours came and surprised me. Everything you say makes sense. It’s crazy to expect sudden systemic change but I do wish some of the horses would get thirsty. In the meantime I connect to those educators who are open to collaboration, and learn a lot from them. I’m thinking about visibility lately – being visible and credible when you don’t have an official title/role that often goes with the power of being listened to. Thanks again, Alan, you made my day.


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