Your Personal Learning Network, Environment and Operating System

networkI didn't get to attend a workshop on personal learning networks (PLNs) led by Helen Blunden in Ghent, Belgium at Learning Tech Day. I would have loved to travel to Belgium, but thankfully, someone who did attend posted about it. (I keep reading that blogging is dead. I disagree. And the post I found and I am passing along is some evidence of blog usefulness.)

When I first heard about a Personal Learning Network, I thought "Well, most of us already have a PLN." What I was thinking of was the informal network of people and sites that we use to do our work. Keyword: informal. 

I discovered that PLNs were more formalized. The authors define a PLN as "a trusted network of current and former colleagues or other people that are valuable to you as a professional or in other areas of your life," and Rajagopal, Verjans, and Sloep (2012) refer to it as “the network of people a self-directed learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning”

I'm editing a dissertation about "Knowledge Broker Teachers" (KBTs). They are those teachers that other teachers go to for help because of their extensive knowledge. The subjects in the dissertation are technology KBTs, but in any type of knowledge work this tends to be more cross-disciplinary. A network that involves people with different skills working together is a good way to add novelty to problem solving.

Not all PLNs are professional. People naturally create them around common interests or practices, to exchange ideas, and give or receive support to others. Blunden is interested in the professional variety. 

PLN plan

Her workshop explored "elements of your personal profile; build trust online; building reputation and credibility; curating learning and experiences; reflecting and sharing your work and projects; working out loud, and then also learning how to use social tools and media for the purposes of building trust, sharing your expertise and building a personal learning community."

Back in 2007, I was noticing that people were talking about Facebook as a PLE (Personal Learning Environment) which was another term that emerged for me about the same time as PLN. Facebook did not become a true Personal Learning Environment though people seemed to think that after MySpace it might be such a thing. 

I was reading in the "Jargon Watch" section of Wired magazine and came across the term "Social Operating System" (SOS) which they defined as "a social network site like Facebook or MySpace that seamlessly integrates activities, including entertainment and shopping, to become a platform for online living."

You can put the PLE and the PLN (and the SOS) under the heading Personalized Learning

In 2013, I was changing jobs and started get more serious about trying to build a more formal network and wrote about creating your own PLN. I did that, but within a larger professional organization. Now, that PLN has formally disbanded because the larger organization decided to no longer support it after a reorganization.

I still maintain many of the personal connections I made in that PLN, but it is again informal. How has the network changed for me? It is weaker. We meet - online and in person - a lot less than we used to connect. Formal is better.

You Don't Need a College Degree: New Edition

graduateThe argument that a college degree is or isn't the path to a job surfaces regularly. Many studies show that having a degree ultimately leads to greater earnings in a lifetime, and colleges love to see that research out there. But in the past few decades, you find more stories in the news about people succeeding in the workplace without degrees.

This year, I am seeing two trends: more vocational training in high schools, and companies not requiring degrees for some jobs that once did require a degree.

An article on wsj.com discusses the direct ties between some big companies and local high schools to prepare students for jobs. Volkswagen is working with schools in Tennessee to modernize their engineering programs. Tesla is partnering with Nevada schools on an advanced manufacturing curriculum. Fisheries in Louisiana have created courses for students to train for jobs in “sustainability.”

There have long been high school career education programs, and the U.S.. has had specialized vocational schools for a century, but this is a shift. The idea that not all students need a degree (and especially not a liberal-arts degree) in order to get a good job is gaining strength through relationships and changes with employers.

The outlier examples of the billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who never finished college are anomalies. Students - and parents - were not convinced that skipping college was the right path. When I was an undergrad back in the 1970s, we all knew that with good grades from a decent college in almost anything you could get some kind of job. I had art history friends who ended up in banking, education majors who went into publishing etc. It was an early enough time in computers that you could get in on the ground floor of that area without a degree. I knew people who got training in network administration at post-secondary vocational schools and did very well.

But there was also a time a bit later when if you wanted a job at Google you had better have a degree, and really a doctorate from Stanford. That is less true today.

The job-search site Glassdoor compiledlist of 15 top employers that have said they no longer require applicants to have a college degree that includes companies like Google, Apple and IBM. 

These companies are not saying they don't want any college graduates and this doesn't apply to all their positions, but it does apply to many more than before. Passing on college degree requirements for some positions is probably a reaction in part to the tight labor market and mounting concerns surrounding student debt.

For example, Apple is considering and hiring people without degrees for positions such as Genius (in their stores), Design Verification Engineer, Engineering Project Manager, iPhone Buyer, Apple Technical Specialist, AppleCare at Home Team Manager, Apple TV Product Design Internship, Business Traveler Specialist, and Part Time Reseller Specialist.

Google lists these positions as open to non-graduates: Product Manager, Recruiter, Software Engineer, Product Marketing Manager, Research Scientist, Mechanical Engineer, Developer Relations Intern, UX Engineer, SAP Cloud Consultant, Administrative Business Partner.

Do these companies penalize someone with a computer science or marketing degree who applies? That would be foolish. But they do seriously consider people without degrees who would not have made the first round of interviews ten years ago.

Threats to the college degree in the past 30 years have been many: tuition costs, online learning, MOOCs, and OER have all been viewed as things that would take down the traditional degree and perhaps the traditional college itself. We would have Education 2.0 as we had Web 2.0. Still, students still apply, take courses, study, party, attend sporting events and graduate. But do they get jobs in their field of study? Sometimes. Do they discover when they get a job that much of those 120 credits seem to play no constructive role in their work? Sometimes.

Technical Writing

Technical Writers are often the link between engineers, marketing associates, developers and external users of a product or service.

When I have taught undergraduate classes in technical writing, something I have to address with students right away is their definition of technical writing. In many people's minds, writing that is "technical" is complicated, full of jargon and difficult to read. But in fact, the goal of the technical writer is exactly the opposite. It is usually to make technical subject matter less complicated and easier to understand and use.

In my undergraduate technical writing classes (which are considered advanced writing courses) we combines current theory with actual practice to prepare students as technical writers. They analyze complex communication situations and then design appropriate responses through tasks that involve problem solving, rhetorical theory, document design, oral presentations, writing teams, audience awareness, ethical considerations and ethical issues.

When I teach at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), my students are engineers, computer scientists, architects and scientists who often dislike writing and are used to only academic writing. Unfortunately, much academic writing is students demonstrating their learning to a professor who already knows the subject. In most real technical communication, the writer is the expert and the readers are the learners. In professional life, you may be writing for supervisors, colleagues or customers. You might be explaining a problem, a product, an experiment, or a project, and the format may be a proposal, abstract, report, email or manual.

When I teach technical writing at a more comprehensive university, such as Montclair State University, the students are more comfortable with writing, but less comfortable with the technical part.  That is because they don't think of technical writing as being a part of every field. For education, biology, art, music, and other science and liberal arts students, they need to rethink the technical aspects of their studies. For example, I have had art history majors who wrote technical documentation on art restoration.

My graduate students in professional technical communication are often dealing with social media, documentation, video presentations and a variety of real world tasks. NJIT offers a Technical Communications Certificate that attracts primarily professionals who intend to learn/expand their careers as technical writers, editors, trainers, website designers, and documentation specialists.

I don't know that being a technical writer at Google is typical of that job, but this video gives you a little taste of technical writing and life at Google.


Education Versus Training

training

Factory training, 1941

Professional learning, often referred to as training, has been in companies for a long time.  But as a history of  training would show, that training is different from education and their evolutions have differed and crossed paths at times.

Education is instruction in more general knowledge, such as the history of the society, or mathematics. Training teaches how to do a specific task, such as building or running a machine.  As societies developed, there accumulated more knowledge than people could pick up on their own or learn informally from others.

That training history would reach back to antiquity when "On-The-Job Training" was the way people learned a job or career. In the Middle Ages, the apprenticeship was the new trend - learning from an expert while on the job. The Industrial Revolution brought about actual classrooms and factory schools with more formal training inside the company. 

I thought about this history when I was reading about the work of the Director of Learning at Slack, Kristen Swanson. Her job is to develop training for the tech company's employees and to help explain their messaging tool to customers around the globe. Swanson came to the company after an earlier career in EdTech. She started in education as an elementary school teacher, then served as a district director of technology, moved to directing a research department at BrightBytes, and then founded the Edcamp Foundation. That last role helped teachers run free, grassroots professional-development workshops. 

Directing learning at a company like Slack, must be very different, right? 

Amazon operates its own education division, Amazon Education. It currently offers products and services aimed at K-12 classrooms, such as TenMarks, an online math and writing program, and Inspire, a directory of online educational materials where teachers can find and share teaching materials. And Candace Thille, a professor of education at Stanford University, is now Amazon's Director of Learning Science and Engineering

A newish trend is for large technology companies to hire former educators to lead training and education efforts. Is professional learning outside academia becoming more like learning inside academia?

Returning to that training history, we saw that "vestibule training" emerged at the start of the 20th century blending the classroom with on-the-job training or "near-the-job" training. The training room was located close to the workplace and equipped with the same machines, equipment and technology that are used in production. The trainer was usually a skilled worker or supervisor, much like the much older apprentice model.

During and after the two world wars, there was a need to train large numbers of defense workers because of increased demand for products and a loss of workers to the military. Several shifts occurred during this period. Training was done by supervisors who were being trained how to teach. Training classes were smaller, generally 9-11 workers.

As training departments became established in many companies, so did ways of providing more efficient, less expensive methods of training. Individualized automated instruction came into play, and was the basis for CBT (computer-based training) which is still used in various forms in companies today.

Has training been learning from education, or has education been trying to include training in the curriculum?

Should You Be Teaching Systems Thinking?

An article I read suggests that systems thinking could become a new liberal art and prepare students for a world where they will need to compete with AI, robots and machine thinking. What is it that humans can do that the machines can't do?

Systems thinking grew out of system dynamics which was a new thing in the 1960s. Invented by an MIT management professor, Jay Wright Forrester,  it took in the parallels between engineering, information systems and social systems.

Relationships in dynamic systems can both amplify or balance other effects. I always found examples of this too technical and complex for my purposes in the humanities, but the basic ideas seemed to make sense.

One example from environmentalists seems like a clearer one. Most of us can see that there are connections between human systems and ecological systems. Certainly, discussions about climate change have used versions of this kind of thinking to make the point that human systems are having a negative effect on ecological systems. And you can look at how those changed ecological systems are then having effect on economic and industrial systems.

Some people view systems thinking as something we can do better, at lest currently, than machines. That means it is a skill that makes a person more marketable. Philip D. Gardner believes that systems thinking is a key attribute of the "T-shaped professional." This person is deep as well as broad, with not only a depth of knowledge in an area of expertise, but also able to work and communicate across disciplines.  

coverJoseph E. Aoun believes that systems thinking will be a "higher-order mental skill" that gives humans an edge over machines. 

But isn't it likely that machines that learn will also be programmed one day to think across systems? Probably, but Aoun says that currently "the big creative leaps that occur when humans engage in it are as yet unreachable by machines." 

When my oldest son was exploring colleges more than a decade ago, systems engineering was a major that I thought looked interesting. It is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management. It focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their life cycles.

If systems thinking grows in popularity, it may well be adopted into existing disciplines as a way to connect fields that are usually in silos and don't interact. Would behavioral economics qualify as systems thinking? Is this a way to make STEAM or STEM actually a single thing?

 


David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change

Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence