Friday, May 31, 2013

Self-Organized Learning

It has been nearly three years since I decided to become a "connected Principal" -- an educator using social media for the purpose of improving my own practice as a school-based administrator.  I wrote a post a couple of years ago called "The Evolution of a Twitter User", and since that time, I feel like I have continued to evolve in my use of social media to learn.  I used to evaluate new applications on a nightly basis and see which ones I might be able to recommend or pass along to others.  However, over the last 18 months or so, I have streamlined my approach to new programs and apps:  I find myself gravitating to tools that allow for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration on projects large and small with people that have similar interests to me.

Recently, I watched the latest Sugata Mitra TED Talk called "Build a School in the Cloud".  I had seen his "Hole in the Wall Project" TED Talk back in 2010, and enjoyed it tremendously. This was an extension of his project which also included a piece on Self Organized Learning Environments, a concept that seems to capture where I am going with my own professional learning, and where I think we could be moving with both student learning and professional development.  Sugata Mitra uses a graphic to illustrate three elements he feels are key to creating these Self-Organized Learning Environments:

The first two pieces of this equation are relatively self-explanatory--connectivity to the internet and some sort of mechanism than enables individuals to assemble in collaborative groups are things that we can understand.  However, the piece that struck me as unique was around what Sugata Mitra calls "encouragement and admiration".  If you have seen the TED talks, you will recall Mitra's reference to what he affectionately calls "the Granny Cloud":  he enlisted 200 volunteer grandmothers to act as 'tutors' to assist students on whatever topic they were working on.  But there was one important feature about the grannies in "granny cloud":

They didn't know anything about the topics that the kids were studying.


All they did was sincerely encourage the students, and continuously ask the students to tell them more about what it was they were learning about.

And the kids learned. And learned. And learned some more.


After watching "Build a School in The Cloud" I began reflecting on my approach to my own professional learning through the lens of a Self-Organized Learning Environment.  Twitter allows me to connect to people with common interests.  Facebook lets me learn a little bit more about them (I am starting to look at LinkedIn, but am not completely immersed in this technology yet).  Diigo allows me to bookmark and catalog their ideas.  I use different Google applications and Drive to share and to work on things collaboratively with them. I am starting to use Google Hangouts to set up synchronous meetings, and will look forward to making a YouTube channel as a repository for some of these meetings. Jing and Screenr help me to capture authentic artifacts that I can share with those that are and are not connected.  Dipity lets me to keep a running timeline of the project that we work on (albeit Dipity seems to be degrading a bit).  Blogger allows me to share my reflections, get feedback and grow personally and professionally with different projects that I may be working on with them.   And while I know that many people use more, different and better applications for to accomplish these and other tasks (and I am always eager to find out what might be more functional for me, so please share your ideas if you wish), these are the tools that I am currently using.

Yet these are sort of the "hows" for me, and I starting thinking about the motivation behind the "whys"--why do I even bother doing this self-organized learning?  I would suspect that I'm as busy as the next person---my school fills my day, my family fills my evenings (a three and a five year old can certainly keep you on the move), my hobbies and interests fill my early mornings, and all of the above fill my weekends in various amounts. But what gets me back to my laptop at night, after the kids go to bed and before I slump over into my keyboard?

It's a bit of a shout-out from my peers:

It's a kick in the pants to be a part of a group:

It's a comment on a post from an expert like Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) that makes me stretch my thinking and links me to other resources:

Each of these falls under that 'encouragement' piece that is suggested in Mitra's model for Self-Organized Learning.  It's my 'granny cloud'.  And like the kids from the "School in the Cloud", I keep learning, and I keep going back to find out more.  Even when I don't have time.

This is the type of learning that I want for my own children.  I want them to self-organize and connect to others who have similar interests (not necessarily similar points of view) and to provide them with as much encouragement as I possibly can to keep learning and to tell me what they have learned.

And extrapolating from that, I am going to spend some time seeing how I can work with our staff and other educators integrate ideas around this concept of Self Organized Learning to parts of our own Professional Learning Communities model.  George Couros (@gcouros) wrote a post on Blended PLCs, and I think this could dovetail nicely into the SOLE idea.

Broadband.  Collaboration.  Encouragement.  It seems too simple.

Yet it seems to have worked for me, and I wonder if it can work for others.

So either I am simple (highly probable) or we may be on to something here....

Stay tuned.


  1. Hello Cale. SOLE is my new favorite acronym. As Will Richardson reminds us, teachers aren't the content keepers any more. Like the Grannies, we need to encourage learners of all sizes to chase and stretch, chase and stretch. Thank you.

  2. I always wanted to be a granny! :)

  3. A deeper analysis of Sugata Mitra's work.

  4. I use SOLE daily in my class. My students love working with SOLE. They love the freedom of choosing their topics and the added luxury of choosing who they work with. Their research and presentation skills have improved dramatically. Reading levels of all students are at or above Grade level. Discipline problems during SOLE have dropped off as the students within their groups are dealing with them and keeping each other focused. I don't see myself going back to a "regular" way of teaching. It doesn;t meet the needs of the students.

  5. Hey Pal,

    First, here's to hoping that you're well and happy! I haven't "seen" you in awhile. Maybe you're golfing? Maybe you're pining for another Red Sox win?


    Second, glad to be a part of your "granny cloud." I GUESS that's a compliment, right?!


    Finally, I can't WAIT to "get together" in a Google Hangout. Is that still an idea rolling around in your head? I'm in -- at least up until October when I hit the road again for an entire month.

    Let's do that. Pick a topic and pitch it to a few people. I want to make that happen. I need the energy that comes from connection.

    Rock on,

  6. Someone please help me. I am thinking of beginning a SOLE in my classrooms but I have several concerns. The first, and maybe most problematic, is that I'm sure my administration will be horrified. They are very much stuck in the old methodology of 1. Warm up, 2. guided practice, 3. well, you get the picture and of course it is failing. I teach in an inner-city charter school who had absolutely horrible state test results last year...and the previous year but they keep on with the same old methodology. My questions are 1. Is SOLE an age group limited endeavor (My kids are 7th and 8th graders) 2. How can you integrate SOLE into the, unfortunately, state mandated performance indicators? 3. How can I sell this idea to my administration? Any ideas are welcome. I not only hate that my kids are not learning, I am beginning to hate my job because if the frustration level!

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