Putting It All Together: Connectivism, Personalized Learning Networks, & Communities of Practice

As I began exploring the concept of Connectivism, I couldn’t help but liken lifelong learning to building puzzles. Puzzles range in skill and complexity, much like one’s learning, whatever it may be focused upon. “Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, complexity… Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements…Learning is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.” (Siemens, 2004, p.1)

Even as children, many of us can remember putting together our first basic puzzle. It was probably primary in its colors and contained a small set of pieces. At the center of my image, we see a lightbulb representing the concept of learning, with component pieces representing Personalized Learning Networks (PLNs) and Communities of Practice (CoPs), which are different and yet the same in that each tie back to the initial learner (Me) and may/may not be comprised of other similar participants. One thing is certain, these fit together like our childhood play puzzles. We select them based upon our interests whether it be our favorite butterflies, dinosaurs, or technologies.

The Ripple Effect

As we grow older and become more skilled at piecing concepts and ideas together, the puzzles grow larger and entail more pieces. This is much like our PLNs and CoPs. Gutierrez (2016) notes we should conceptualize PLNs in layers with ourselves as the starting points. The PLNs closest to us may include friends and personal mentors, and this layer expands to another with groups of professionals sharing our interests (CoPs). As the layers from which we learn ripple outward, the people within these layers may not involve much personal interaction, but we may view them as inspiration and learn from them. The concentric rings of networking icons and silhouettes of professionals graphically represent this.

As we grow older, our puzzles are not merely selected from those offered to us; we seek them out based upon our personal interests and skills. Our CoPs are the groups we recognize as professionals who share our interests. We seek guidance from them to help us piece ideas and concepts together; we learn from them and share, another skill obtained in our childhood years. Our childhood skills of solving and sharing evolve much like our CoPs. “The dynamic nature of communities is key to their evolution. As the community grows, new members bring new interests and may pull the focus of the community in different directions” (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p.1). As we change through practice, our skills and learning expand, often into other related areas, thus representing the growth of our connected learning in the center of the image to those in the outer circle.

Often, we reflect upon our younger years as times of folly and inexperience, But I’d rather think of those years as full of wonder and excitement that grew from our favorite activities and how we shared them unabashedly. They are, afterall, what helped us piece together our learning then and formed the foundation for making our current connections.


Gutierrez, K. (2016). What are personal learning networks? Retrieved June 8, 2018, from https://www.shiftelearning.com/blog/personal-learning-networks

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved June 05, 2018, from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge-seven principles for cultivating communities of practice. Retrieved June 8, 2018, from: https://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/cultivating-communities-of-practice-a-guide-to-managing-knowledge-seven-principles-for-cultivating-communities-of-practice

Connecting with Students via Flipgrid

The new school year just started this week, and like all teachers, the task of learning about my students and connecting with them needed a touch of tech creativity.

Aside from the innate attractiveness of using the 1:1 technology available to my students, I was also tasking myself with a new way of getting to know my students without all the “about me” paperwork since our copy numbers were reduced this year.

At first, I considered the typical verbal icebreakers, but often students don’t want to stand up or speak out of the first day or two. Solution: Flipgrid

Flipgrid is an interactive discussion board. Teachers can post a topic and invite students to record a video response. Other students with the link or code to the grid may post their replies and respond to classmate video responses.  It’s a great way to get students talking, and it also opens doors for collaborative discussions with other classrooms across the hallway or across the world. It can also be easily integrated into your favorite educational platforms.

Flipgrid One is the free trial for educators, allowing for one grid and topic. A classroom subscription is $65/year, a value for the quality interaction and engagement amongst students. However, you can try the full classroom version for FREE until September 30, 2017 by using the code JORNEAERWIN. She’s a local instructional partner turned Flipgrid advocate. I had used Flipgrid during a PD session, so I figured I would try it in my own classroom.

This year I began a new learning journey with my freshmen. I posted a personal introduction topic using the 3-2-1 strategy. Aside from their names and blocks(periods), I wanted them to share three things about themselves, 2 things they were excited about this year (Did I mention I have freshmen?), and 1 way I would be sure to remember them. Of course, I began with a video about myself, and I share the link via our course LMS.

Not only has this been a wonderful tool for me to put faces with names, but it has also allowed my students across blocks to interact with each other.  I not only can name my “kids,” but I can also say I know a little more about them within these three shorts days at school. So far, I would say this has been a great success in making the technology work in the classroom, and I look forward to more online grid discussions.

Classroom Communication Poll

We all know school is about to start for a great many of us, and one aspect of teaching is extremely important: communication.

Please participate in the following poll about classroom communication tools. Thanks!

Classroom Communication

Literature & Art Blended Beautifully

So, of course, I am bit biased where books are concerned, but I had to share my favorite new way to keep literature at the center of my classroom decor: Litographs. 

Litographs is a company out of Boston that takes favorite works of literature and turns the text into art.  They use the text to create and shape beautiful images out of the words. I started out by ordering one poster for my classroom, and now that collection has grown by eight. The students comment on them frequently, and it gets them talking about certain books. Not only does the company create posters, there are also tees, totes, and tattoos (temporary) in an array of colors.

Here are the posters that started it all!


Romeo & Juliet

Check out my new birthday tees. (Jane Eyre of the left/The Princess Bride on the right) What a wonderful present for the book lover in your life!

Like most teachers, I am busy now prepping my classroom for the new school year, but I just wanted to be sure to share my love for Litographs.

FYI: They do offer a teacher discount if you send them an email and verify your status!


Othello poster. [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.litographs.com/collections/othello/products/othello

Romeo & Juliet poster. [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.litographs.com/collections/romeo-and-juliet/products/romeo

The Technophilic EdTech Skeptic

This guest blog post is written by Dr. Dave Mulder. Dave is a teacher educator at Dordt College, where he takes his work very seriously, but himself decidedly less so. His professional interests are related to preparing pre-service teachers for technology integration, online teaching and learning, and social presence and community development in online settings.

I have been a professional educator for all of my adult life; I’m beginning my 20th year of teaching this fall. I have always been a “techie” teacher, and I definitely have a love gadgets and learning about the latest tech toys. I was often (and continue to be) an early adopter of various educational technologies on the various faculties I’ve been part of, both when I taught in K-12 schools and also now in higher education.


The longer I’ve taught, and the more technologies I’ve tried out in my own teaching practice, the more skeptical I’ve become of the claims made of the value of many potential educational technologies. I am a technophile, but I’m also an EdTech skeptic. I am simply not convinced by the claims made by many companies touting a particular educational technology that they will have the promised impact on student learning.

I wonder sometimes about the supposed need to become certified in using various EdTech tools. Do I need to become an Apple Distinguished Educator? Should I invest the time in becoming a Google Certified Innovator? If I want to use tools like FlipGrid, or VoiceThread, or Edmodo, or a SMARTBoard, do I need to pass some sort of course first?

Let’s back up for a moment and think about what EdTech tools are supposed to be doing in the classroom.

Actually, let’s back way up, to the 1700s.

What, you thought EdTech began with the advent of the personal computer in the 1970s? I suppose it depends on your definition of “educational technology.” I prefer Neil Postman’s thinking about what makes a “technology” from his 1992 book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, where Postman suggests that technologies are tools devised by humans to solve particular problems. This broad definition goes far beyond the typical conception of “technology” as something digital.

Postman uses examples as “low-tech” as the practice of assigning letter grades in school: “This procedure seems so natural to most of us that we are hardly aware of its significance. We may even find it difficult to imagine that the number or letter is a tool, or, if you will, a technology; still lets that, when we use such a technology to judge someone’s behavior, we have done something peculiar” (Postman, 1992, pp. 12-13). Postman goes on to elaborate the beginning of the assignment of letter grades to judge the quality of students’ work at the suggestion of a Cambridge University tutor in 1792. This use of a technology–a tool, even if that tool is really just an idea–to evaluate the quality of students’ work is so taken for granted today, it almost sounds a little odd to think about letter grades as an educational technology! But…should we require “Letter Grade Assignment Certification” as a prerequisite for allowing teachers to wield this technology?

Do you see what I’m getting at here? Do teachers need to be certified to use tools in their classroom to ensure that they will result in students’ learning? Should teachers be “textbook certified,” or “chalkboard certified,” or “pencil-and-notebook certified” if we expect them to use these tools?

You might argue, “Well, Dave, digital tools are different! They are more complicated and have more features than these analog tools. So teachers need training and support!”

You’re right about that. I think that the tools are often more complex, and if we really do want teachers to use them to their utmost, the will likely need training and support.


Here’s my real question: is it worth the tradeoff? If teachers need to devote that much time and energy to being able to effectively use a digital tool, is it worth implementing it in the classroom? Is “good enough” technology…good enough?

What do you think? What criteria should we demand for educational technologies we use in the classrooms of today and tomorrow?

Work Cited:

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vantage.


It’s that time of year again: back to school season. It’s a time of mixed emotions. Parents are happy (and a little sad) for the kids to be back in the classroom. Teachers are sad to see summer go, but deep down, they’re ready to help your kiddos learn. But, before any of the learning begins, parents and students find themselves busy purchasing materials from THE SUPPLY LIST. You know, the list of all the required supplies needed for the respective grade of your student, the list that inspired Monica Brown to pen her blog post “Why I won’t buy one extra box of Kleenex for my kid’s school supplies; signed, a frustrated parent.”

Sure, the lists can seem long and sometimes overly specific, but trust that the items are there for a reason, even in the secondary grades.  While Brown addresses the list from a parental perspective (one I applaud), I’d like to clarify a few misconceptions about supplies in high school. (YES, students and classrooms still need supplies!)

No, high schools classrooms do not have a set supply list available, and while I admit that I can see how this might be frustrating, it’s due to the variability of a student’s schedule by grade and course selections. As a parent myself, I, too, want to buy supplies as cheaply as possible and preferably during the tax-free weekend, but without THE LIST, many parents find themselves at a loss and refuse to guess. Result: a classroom full of students with little to no supplies. Most teachers would agree that paper and writing utensils are must haves for the year, so start there.

Yes, high school courses often ask for more expensive items like graphing calculators, bigger binders, and sticky notes, but rest assured, these are tools of the respective trade, and often, the more expensive items will last the rest of high school. And, let’s be honest, those sticky notes make annotating texts helpful when you can’t write in the books.

No, class fees do not go to the respective teacher. Often, they pay for student access to the online materials, books, food/fabric (family and consumer science classes), etc. necessary for the class, which leaves basic supplies like paper, pencils, folders, copy paper to be procured by students at the behest of individual teachers.

Yes, most teachers do receive a small amount of classroom money, but it pales in comparison to the amount teachers spend on extra (much needed) supplies. Plus, this small classroom fund is typically not available until OCTOBER, well beyond the start of school. So, what is a teacher do? Well, simply put, we have to put it in the syllabus and hope and pray students come prepared.

Brown’s blog speaks volumes of the magic happening in classrooms thanks to THE LIST, and it even addresses community supplies such as tissues and cleaning implements. We still need these in high school, but all too often, when students are requested to bring these, they request extra credit points, as if these are items of requested luxury. Sure, we could send students to the bathroom for tissue, but that’s lost instructional time. See, we truly do care about delivering the best instruction we can, and we have to get by with a little help from a LIST. But, what about the classroom monies teachers receive each year you ask? Yeah, those, classroom supply money cannot be used to purchase items like band-aids, sanitizer, wipes, tissues, or anything else that might remotely clean, not even the whiteboard. Oh, and copies? Sure, teachers may have access to the machines, but often, teachers must supply their own copy paper, and yes, while we might have access to electronic copies, students may not always have Internet access. Besides, there’s just something about physically working with colored paper and pens and markers that sparks learning.

I’ve already completed my two daughters’ lists, and I’ve already bought new supplies for my classroom as well. Honestly, I’ve even bought supplies not on the list for the teachers my kids will have because elementary papers are always happier with stickers. As a parent AND secondary teacher,  I realize the cost of supplies adds up, but so does the cost of a daily frappuccino or fast food meal or even adding extra data or lines to your monthly mobile plan. All I ask is that before you question THE LIST (whether elementary or secondary), remind yourself that if it helps your child learn in a clean and comfortable environment, isn’t it worth the extra expense?

Sure, teachers are known for their willingness to go the extra mile to make sure students have what they need to learn, but let’s be honest, should they be responsible for ensuring THE LIST is fulfilled? Pay it forward, buy extra where you can,  and see unadulterated (and uninterrupted) learning happen.