Thursday, April 8, 2010

Building a Personal Learning Network

I have become quite interested in the emerging concepts of personal learning networks, personal learning environments, and social learning environments. For me, the phrases are somewhat interchangeable, but I most commonly use the phrase personal learning network, or the acronym PLN. Whichever phrase we choose, I think all of them refer to our creation and exploration of rhizomatic spaces, and building a PLN can be disorienting for students who are schooled in traditional hierarchical structures that tell them what to study, when and where to study it, with whom to study, and why, and then tell them when they have studied enough, and finally, validate that study for the rest of society. The hierarchical institution, whether K12, university, or yeshiva or madrasah, provides all the signposts and pathways for a student's learning. In the words of D&G, the institution provides the tracing onto reality that the student demonstrates competence in following. Seldom are students encouraged to explore on their own, with or without an experienced guide, and yet, that is exactly what a personal learning network demands.

Landing in the middle of the Internet with the notion of building a personal learning network can be quite disorienting, somewhat similar to being set loose in the middle of a virgin rain forest. We know that the forest teems with life both wonderful and dangerous, with great treasures and equally great perils, but we do not know where we are or how to navigate to someplace we want to be, while avoiding places we don't want to be. What do we do? How do we proceed? How do we navigate the forest?

Or how do we map the rhizome? Deleuze and Guattari are of some help. They provide us with a quote from Carlos Castaneda's book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that may be instructive. In the quote, the Yaqui shaman Don Juan is trying to teach Carlos how to determine the extent and shape of his garden of hallucinogenic plants:

Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (88)

For my purposes here, Don Juan seems to be teaching Carlos how to map his way through the rhizome, and I think we can draw a nice Sunday School lesson from the given text. Note first that Don Juan is not telling Carlos to follow a tracing onto reality. He does not say, "Measure out a plot of land twenty feet by thirty, plow straight rows two feet apart, and then plant seeds every twenty-four inches atop each row." In educational terms, Don Juan does not provide Carlos with a set curriculum to follow, with tests and measurements at fixed intervals along the way to measure progress, and a certificate of achievement at the end of the harvesting season. Rather, Don Juan's advice is to proceed by fixing a point (the first, old plant) and then following crevices from that point. Carlos is to proceed with mapping reality, not tracing over it. Remember the quote from Chuen-Ferng Koh in Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology that mapping is an “active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback. The map is not … a blueprint whose workability has to be taken on faith; the map is never fixed, but a changing flux of adaptation and negotiation.”

This seems to be exactly what Don Juan is telling Carlos, and to my mind, this is good advice for building a personal learning network. Let's follow it for a few posts and see where it takes us.

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