Immersion as learning: collaborating on the learning journey Print E-mail
By Camilla Elliott   
At the conclusion of a recent international conference, the organisers circulated a survey to members enquiring about their motives for attending. Conducted by the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE), this United States conference attracts between 16,000 and 19,000 delegates annually. In keeping with other conferences, an increasing proportion of presentations were streamed live or made available online soon after the event. While this increases the influence of the conference and creates opportunities for those unable to attend, organisers are noticing a change in the behaviour of delegates and are attempting to analyse this change. It is interesting to glimpse the democratisation of learning, the implications for traditional systems and exposure to opportunities for the learning community.

Changing values

The questions in the ISTE survey relating to the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) could have come from any number of conference organisers worldwide. In summary, they asked: Did you attend the conference for the presentations, workshops, the trade show, keynotes or for the social interaction with fellow delegates? They have noticed the growing trend of delegates choosing to socialise in preference to attending conference sessions even when they travelled half way around the world to attend. The reason is summed up in responses to a survey conducted by educator Sue Waters as she attempted to establish that many other delegates shared her approach of bypassing workshops and presentations for the opportunity to physically meet with members of her digital Personal Learning Network (PLN). As she explains:
I don’t have many opportunities to meet and network with others f2f. NECC may have been my one opportunity to ever meet a people who I network with online f2f as there is no guarantee I will ever get a chance to visit USA again. Creating stronger connections with people, by interacting f2f, in my view long term provides greater opportunity for learning than any session you can attend (Waters, 2009).
Rather than dismissing the value of conference activities, the opinion being articulated here and shared by respondents to the survey, is indicative of the changing nature of our professional learning. For some delegates the conference will be an opportunity to attend on a traditional basis while for others with established, digital learning networks, it is an opportunity to cement relationships and link a real person to a digital identity. It is an indication of the complexity of the changed environment of learning, the options available and the value of choice.

Setting up connections

While attending the same conference myself in 2008, I used the experience of my PLN to meet a teacher from Oregon, USA, and together we formed the ground work for a collaborative project between students from Oregon and Victoria, Australia. Leading educators Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis are members of my PLN. They met at NECC some years previous and set up the renowned Flat Classroom Project. In their first project, students used interactive and communication web 2.0 tools to study, analyse, and draw conclusions relating to real-world scenarios based on 'The World is Flat' by Thomas L. Friedman. The project has grown until it now includes new and intended projects such as Digiteen, NetGen Remix and Eracism.
Julie and Vicki lead a ‘birds of a feather’ session as an opportunity for like minds to gather, share knowledge and form their own collaborative partnerships with expert guidance. The value of collaborative online projects as tools for learning has been proven through projects such as the Flat Classrooms Project. This particular conference session would explore further options for creating global networks of students drawn together with a common learning goal.

Cementing PLN relationships

The power of an active PLN is illustrated in the ability of Diane and myself to arrive at a conference session with a bank of knowledge about conducting a collaborative project and being able to cement it into reality by adding a personal relationship to that knowledge. Although we had not met previously, being within a learning network that included Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis gave us the confidence to embark on a project knowing that support would still be available after the event. The PLN style of professional learning is social, held within the moment, occurring here and now at the time of need. It varies from traditional professional development in that it is constant, always on. Research has proven the ineffectiveness of ‘one shot’ professional learning where knowledge gained and not applied within a short period of time is lost (Garet, 1999). The PLN model of social physical and online learning is the building of relationships to support constant knowledge growth as needed.
Meeting and deciding on a partnership with Diane was a hopeful beginning. While at the conference under the guidance of Julie Lindsay and with the advantage of face to face contact, we used our time together to plan an authentic project for collaboration. An analogy of caution that often accompanies the application of technology to the classroom is the danger of ‘putting old wine into new wineskins’. It’s a misconception to believe that adding technology to an existing project is all that is required to make it collaborative. Conscious of this warning, but working as novices in a collaborative online environment on opposite sides of the globe, we proceeded with a familiar project; however, we purposely built into it a sense of exploration for students.