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May 28, 2010

Lessons of the Long Tail for Professional Learning

by Peter Skillen

“Why don’t people participate in our online space?”

There are very few online spaces that maintain an ongoing conversation around ‘events’ or ‘topics’. This has been thought to be the case and so organizations set them up with all the best intentions and dreams.  And, believe me, there is a HUGE number of these online…that have come and gone. Part of what we need to realize is that we are in an evolutionary, discovery stage of the societal implementation of social media.

…we are in an evolutionary, discovery stage of the societal implementation of social media

We also need to realize the implications for ‘centralized’ vs ‘distributed’ / ‘connectivist’ structures for learning.  What this means is that organizations are not the controllers/creators/disseminators of information or conversations.  The role of the organization needs to be different these days. Note that we are encouraging our classrooms to become ‘studio classrooms‘ that are inquiry and project based.
…support students as they struggle to make sense of the maze of cognitive turbulence…
We are stimulating our teachers to become facilitators of students taking charge of their own learning and of the learning of their group rather than their more traditional role of pouring curriculum into the students. Teachers are inspired to provide moments of awe, to encourage cognitive dissonance, to support students as they struggle to make sense of the maze of cognitive turbulence, to incite and support backwards and forwards reflection.  And, the real learning occurs within the student or between students or perhaps among a small group of students.
…think about how we fortify and brace these learners to engage in distributed conversations…
In this same way, we need to think of our role as professional development organizations. We need to reframe our language to reflect this. Many attempts exist – ‘communities of learners’ and ‘professional learning communities’.  I believe we should consider how this frame applies to how we structure and nourish our learners.  Rather than attempting to bring everyone to a central place to have conversations, we need to think about how we fortify and brace these learners to engage in distributed conversations in their own blogs and/or wikis or Facebook.  Twitter’s role is interesting here.  It provides the mechanism for individuals to flit from one flower to another in search of the nectar.  We could think of it as a ‘butterfly effect’.

 

The real learning exists where people are seeking that nectar and providing links to information and deep conversations (in personal blogs for example).
It is ‘the long tail‘ where this occurs.  Not to say there isn’t a role for the blog that thousands read – but conversation doesn’t occur there – it occurs in the thousands of individual blogs that 5 – 10 people regularly read and chat.  For further explanation of the ‘long tail’ read Clay Shirky’s book – “Here Comes Everybody – The Power of Organizing without Organizations” or read this description.
…provide the encouragement to self-organize…
I believe our role in supporting teachers is to provide the encouragement to self-organize and to teach them the tools to be able to do that effectively.

 

How do these ideas impact our professional learning initiatives?

 

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