Friday, July 23, 2010

The Danger of PLNs (and other like-minded groups)

The "next best thing" is PLNs - personal learning networks: a network of people with whom you exchange information - in the case of teachers, about professional development, lesson plans, resources, solutions, news. In the 21st century, your network can include the best minds in the world through twitter, blogs, wikis, nings, webinars and more (or at least the best minds in the world who are engaged in the online world). We are a network of learners learning together. Exciting!

And dangerous. It hit me hard when one of the educators in my network, Scott McLeod (note that in the "real" world I would never get a chance to hear the almost daily musings of this professor and guru of educational technology), posted this question on his blog: Should we require school employees to have RSS readers? An RSS reader, just in case you are one of the many people who haven't "kept up" with technology, is a tool that feeds you updates from your favourite blogs, websites, and news headlines.

It's quite possible that the question was merely meant to provoke. My immediate reaction was against the word "require." Why not require exercise? Meditation? Reading poetry? My further reaction surprised me: I realized I'm at least as concerned with the belief that daily reading of RSS feeds - this stream of information from a network we create - is necessarily a good thing.

The first problem is that we surround ourselves with people who think like we do. Scott McLeod has thousands of readers (on Twitter he has 6400 followers), but while all of them (thankfully) balked at the word "required," none of them (except me) suggested that the idea of RSS for teachers was not a good thing. Can you imagine asking such a question in a staff room? Even with a staff of five teachers?

Despite the size of our PLNs - and perhaps that is what makes them most dangerous, since their very size inflate our certainty - their lack of diversity reinforces our biases and encourages us in our ideas, however nonsensical, rather than holding them up to the light of diverse facts, ideas, and opinions. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, writing in 1859, argues vehemently that while there is no such thing as absolute certainty, the very best thing we can do, in order to act on our beliefs, is to hold them up to those who contradict and disprove them. Without the dissenters, we all lose: "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchange error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth, produced by its collision with error."

We have swallowed the idea that the Internet has allowed us to finally "have our say," to move opinion out of the hands of the elite and into the hands of the "people." We believe that the Internet is a tool, at last, not only of democracy - but also of diversity. I'm wondering. What if someone in my PLN doesn't agree with me? I get to do something I may have secretly wished to do to the curmudgeonly naysayer on my staff - I delete them.

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