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PLNs and OERs and TLAs make Me Want To…

cc licensed flickr photo shared by cutglassdecanter

Me barking (or barfing) about un-necessary (to me) Three Letter Acronyms is nothing new around here. And to be the honest, they cause more shrugs, yawns, than upchucks. Scott knows the sound of my tired old saw startting up. I might be boring myself.

But I love this photo. You can find it at the top of flickr interestingness be searching on tags for “sick dog”.

I’m not alone lately in the grumbling about PLNs so called “personal learning networks”.

Let me clear that in the case of these Personal Learning Things as well as Open Education Resources, I am total agreement, and support to the concepts they aim to circumscribe- its been at the heart of most of what I’ve done for my Xx years in this game.

But to me they are things we name that do not really exist.

My gripes are:

  • The suggestion that naming a thing makes it something that exists. My usual quip on PLEs is that they are mostly diagrams. (now I am ducking from the rotten tomato tossed by George Siemens).
  • The last thing I want is to wrestle with definitions, but because of the unbounded way these things are described, Not only can’t I tell for sure what a PLE is, I cannot easily tell what is NOT a PLE. For example, the very exact way people introduce PLNs (“build a network in twitter”) — it is no different from the way I might create a network for my Personal Bicycle Network or My Personal Cooking Network (By the way, there is a great workshop next week on how to fine tune your PCN). It is not bounded at all what makes a learning network any different from any other network; there are really no boundaries beyond the little circles people draw on diagrams. It’s just a network folks. Throwing the “L” in does not make it any different.

    Moreover, what really does the “P” add? Do I brag about the efficiency of my Personal Automobile Unit? How about my Personal Hammering Device? No it’s just “my car” or “my hammer”.

  • Since the TLAs are so unbounded, almost everything can be one. Any way you can link to a person or their stuff becomes part of your PLE. Anything you can to in the open web is an open educational resource? Ok. I agree. If anything can be an OER…. well gaah.

Okay, I am just whinging here, but to me these terms are close to meaningless.

To me.

The web is my PLE.

The web is my PLN.

The web is where I find my OERs.

The TLAs are like group hallucinations.

Now, while the winge-o-meter is turned up past 11…. beware of things that look shiny with nice graphics of smiling happy stock photo people.

I’m going to talk about a site now that I expect will draw a response from the company explaining how wrong I am. It’s not a complete criticism of their ideas and ideals. I am expecting the corrections to fly my way. This was more of a knee jerk reaction, and I bet I have not seen enough… but, it is something that got under my fur, so I gotta itch.

Nixty is a site dedicated to “empowering education for everyone”. Who could argue against that? I don’t. College in my living room, bring on the power of DIY U!

Something about the About page made my chuckle recursively:

NIXTY is the Virginia-based startup that is revolutionizing education. The co-founders wanted to create a service with the outrageous goal of empowering education for everyone. They had experience in the eLearning/LMS market, but needed to learn more about open education. They consulted with several thought leaders, professors, and students around what a next generation learning platform might look like. The result is NIXTY!

If I try an interpret this it comes out like:

We worked in the LMS market, but wanted to do something different. We talked to people about open education, and the result is another LMS!

I clicked around a few of their courses. What they have done looks interesting at first. They have taken material from open courses (or repurposed those OER thingies) and given totally awesome credit. But I am looking at the learning that the guy in the quote above is doing from his living room.

  • Please review the material and interact on the discussion board. Ask a question for others to answer or answer a question that others have asked. (Physics I)
  • Please review the material and interact on the discussion board. Ask a question for others to answer or answer a question that others have asked. (Principles of Digital Communication)
  • Please watch the course video, engage in the quizzes, and interact on the discussion boards. (Introduction to Biology)

Excuse me, but “Watch a video and post to a discussion board” is not really a comprehensive learning experience. It’s not to say that it might not happen among the poor souls who waddle through this, but the odds of many people learning in this manner seem slim.

This is where the promise and the reality of OERs stand on opposite sides of the canyon saying, “What are you doing there?”

Now I again, I am likely totally short shrifting Nixty- I have not looked at their ePortfolio tools or their continuing education credit bits, but what bothers me is this lovely, cleanly designed web site that to me, puts window dressing on what learning really is.

If this is DIY U, then give me that lecture in a classroom thing again.

Enjoy all your PLEs, PLNs, OERs, CBDs, TYAs, ORCs, JUTs, KWEs, I’m just hanging out on the open web drinking in as much as I can.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so)


  1. Laughing: my semester master of edu unit asks me to listen to a marco polo torres podcast from eons ago and make a discussion post. And thats australian higher ed. Eek, i could just barf in my living room after all.

  2. I must confess that I have sucked into the PLN concept “groupthink” and even been caught analysing my own definition on my blog. Goes to show that I should spend more time reading independent thinkers like yourself, D’Arcy and Leigh Blackall rather than get swept away with the reTweet crowd. I’d understand serendipity a bit better if I did.

  3. I don’t like the three letter acronyms, either, but I like the concept. I have honestly met people to whom it’s never occurred that there might be good information out there that they could learn from, and more importantly, people they could learn from. So maybe the acronym helps those people who don’t believe that learning can occur through networks of information and people see it as more concrete.

    As for DIY learning, I’m in the middle of such a project right now, and let me say that it’s one thing to expand existing knowledge and quite another to venture into completely new territory. I’ve become convinced that real education involves some kind of conversation. It doesn’t have to be face-to-face, though certainly it’s more expedient that way. Video or audio, even discussion boards can work if people use those as conversation spaces and not as one-way displays of work done or conveying of knowledge. There’s something about the back and forth of conversation that helps clarify concepts–and of course, that’s why lectures aren’t effective either. 🙂

  4. Amen.
    Preach on.
    Lots of conference miles being logged on these letters though. If that is any judge they must be quite important.
    Meanwhile, I am always listening.

  5. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao, grasshopper. Come up with the name – and then throw it away. And then use it again. And then throw it away. These names are useful as placeholders, but we are lost if we are stuck at the names or in definitions. Does that mean there is no such thing as “a PLN”? Yes. Does that mean there are no PLNs? No. This is one of the reasons I tend to talk in gerunds – “blogging” not blogs; “network learning” not PLNs. It still doesn’t escape the problem of reification ( but helps a bit, in my experience.

  6. Thanks, chorus, for the swell replies.

    To put the foot on another shoe (that is a joke for my grad school office mate we called the”King of Mangled Clichés)…

    People who replied above are ones I know who have been experienced online network travelers. Try to put yourself in someone brand new to all of this. Strip away everything you have known or done, and try to grapple with the flood and complexity of trying to grab the tail fo the dragon.

    So it makes sense, gives some relief, takes away the overwhelmingness of it all, that you are not alone, that you can join/create/use this PLN/E thing.

    The TLAs are not evil, seem to be unavoidable, and if you think they exist, fine, if it gets you started in the game. It’s my guess, with time and experience, that people will come to realize the place y’all have gotten to.

    It’s time for me to have a BFU (Breakfast Food Unit).

  7. Alan,
    I think what bugs me most is the thought of how it must feel to be new. I clearly remember the overwhelming feeling. In fact, you were the one who comforted me. I remember when I first met you, and explained how I didn’t feel worthy to post on your blog. You’re probably the one who tipped me into this world and gave me the confidence to give it a try.
    I just imagine what it’s like to be viewing a real-time clique, wondering how to become accepted, wondering who to believe. There are initiation rituals, whether or not people want to believe anything that significant is happening. Cluster coefficient and all.
    Scott makes a great point about the temporary usefulness of the term. We couldn’t have analyzed it or seen it if we hadn’t named it. But the people who have access to it, likely do it anyway and don’t need a name. They don’t need to be told they’re doing it wrong.
    I’d like to see people moving away from thinking of themselves as the center of a PLN, to thinking of themselves as a connector between individuals. When I work with an instructor who is new to “this,” the most exciting thing is when I am able to connect them with people with shared interests, not just people from whom they can learn.
    I’m working with a new instructor now, who’s more of a subject-matter expert and consultant. He’s not been a teacher, and he doesn’t do social networking. He’s never participated in an online discussion. But he’s so hungry for this, even though he doesn’t know what it is. He said, “I get calls from clients when they have a problem, and I feel bad. I feel like I should have known about it before they called me. I feel like there’s some place out there where they should be talking about it.” I smiled and said, “There is! And they are already there waiting for you and wondering what took you so long to get there.”

  8. Alan, this is the guy from NIXTY. You referenced me coming over to correct your criticisms. First of all, seriously, we welcome the criticism. It is going to be the primary way that we learn to make the site more useful and helpful. Thanks also for recognizing that your quick review of the site was probably not enough for you to make a fair review. That said, that observation about our about us page was laugh out loud hilarious. I was chuckling too when I saw it in that light.

    Let’s talk about open educational resources. What do we do with them? How do we harness them to make them more useful and helpful to others? To your point earlier, clearly we are just in the beginning part of this process. NIXTY just launched and we plan to learn from others as to what our next steps should be around OER. That said, we’ve done a lot to add scaffolding around the content. Here are a few things we’ve done that we think optimize them a bit. If you disagree, or have other ideas, then let me know. We want to make them great.

    -organized and streamlined them — a person can watch the video, read the PDF, engage in a discussion board, take a quiz, in a very easy way. See example here:

    -Provided an easy way for people to track progress. Once they complete an item they can check it off and shows them what percentage of the lesson they have to complete. Another example:

    -Added discussion boards and karma/reputation points. These help people better learn the material and earn a sense of expertise around the material.

    -Added WikiCourses – People can add lessons and add content and tools to lessons to make the material more practical. We’ll be adding an ajax ability to move lesson order in the future.

    -Certificates – not a big deal for those of us with the ability to access higher education, but a very big deal for those who don’t have access to a higher education. We are working with Teachers Without Borders and using one of their OER programs (Certificate of Teaching Mastery) to provide certificates to teachers around the world in late-developing countries.

    I realize that you may not want to click through the whole site to see some of these items, so I’ve included a link to an overview video here:

    This video highlights the lesson tool:

    You are right. The above is not going to be enough to be a comprehensive learning experience for everyone. That is the vision. Educators, students, researchers, more features, more work, more testing, more iterating is going to be required. We’ve been working hard on this for well over a year and are happy to have finally launched. I’d love your feedback on how we can make it better. If you’ve got time for a call this week, then shoot me an email: glen at nixty dot com.

    1. Glen,

      I do not at all criticize your efforts to create a learning environment around open content. However, it seems no different to me to the decade old dream of learning objects, there there would be easy ways to use software to string together smaller bits into a whole. Frankly your example:

      organized and streamlined them — a person can watch the video, read the PDF, engage in a discussion board, take a quiz, in a very easy way. See example here:

      makes me wonder why this is any better from anyone creating a web page, a blog site, that builds the context for a lesson around a video, a PDF. My blogged complaint it that there is no pedagogy (a word I rarely utter) at all in “Watch a video and engage in discussion”

      I cannot really see the progress tracking w/o being logged in I assume.

      Sorry, I’m not going to call and try to offer magic answers, I don;t have any. My sense is, as an environment, what I see lacking is any sense of social connections- a place that encourages people to interact, learn together and not alone — it is the correspondence course model (yes I know you will say a discussion board can do that, and while it can happen there via serendipity, it is not designed).

      1. Alan, the lessons tool actually provides a lot of functionality that is not available from a website creator. If you logged in, then I think you’d get a bit more perspective. However, that said, I don’t think the real point you are making is about the differences in the technology. Rather, I think your main point is that it needs to be more social. I agree. We’ve designed NIXTY to be social and added a number of social features, including: discussion boards, wikicourses, karma points, and eportfolios. We are now actively building the community and working with people to figure out what works best – what helps them work together optimally.

        I also don’t have any “magic answers.” I don’t think any of us do. The question then becomes, how do you make progress? How do you get closer to creating an environment where people can harness technology and optimally learn together? I think you get there through creating, running experiments, and iterating. If this goes well, then we should know more in a month, 6 months, and 1 year out. It is going to be hard and we will make mistakes, but it will get us closer to solving these challenges.

        In one year, to use your word, we will have a better idea of our pedagogy.

    1. This is an awesome thread, and Alan the way you masterfully run the questions around LMS and the promise of (another corporate LMS that decides to do away with the professor) makes a new low point in higher ed LMSs, and simply points to a crisis. Not sure a acronym is behind it though, it is that sense of teaching as an art—and a rather complex one with the tools at our fingertips now. Networking becomes another way of conversing arounf that out in the open. Together, it’s a visiion of openness I embrace.

      En fuego.

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