My brother and I had walkie-talkies when we were kids. I think we got them for Christmas one year. They were red, ran on 9-volt batteries, and had ridiculously long antennas. We used them constantly until the batteries died. Then, they fell into disuse (we never seemed to have a battery surplus). In the half-dozen years that followed, occasionally one would be discovered, and a new battery installed. The trouble was that we never seemed to be able to find both walkie-talkies at the same time. Since the range was pathetically short, about all we could do with one of them was listen to static. So it would go back in the toy box. A few months later, the other one would show up, but by that time the first one was lost. We never seemed to get both working at the same time after that first Christmas.
Years later, when I signed up for my first email account, I didn’t really have a good idea of what I was going to do with it. In truth, I just needed an account on the university’s mainframe so I could participate in some online forums. I didn’t even know I had an email account until several weeks later.
The new account, and the discovery of what it could do, weren’t much help to me. I didn’t know anyone else who had an email address, so there wasn’t anyone to write to. Eventually, I met some other people on campus who had email accounts, so I started writing to them. It was a year or more before I started emailing people who lived more than half a mile away.
Last week, I spent some time with a group of teachers in a class on developing personal learning networks. We focused on collaborative tools and technologies, like social bookmarking, Internet telephony, video conferencing, and shared online productivity tools. I talked a lot about my network. I’ve met a lot of smart people who have similar interests and goals, and I can rely on them to help when I’m in a pinch. As we went through the various tools, I tried to describe how I use that tool to interact with my network. I’ve certainly learned more from my network over the last two years than I ever learned in a college classroom.
The teachers liked the tools, and immediately starting thinking of ways to use them in their classes. That’s great. I expected them to do that. But they were less keen on the idea of a professional learning network. Sure, they can share their bookmarks with other Delicious users. But no one they know uses Delicious. It’s great that they can use Skype to conference with other second grade teachers, but they don’t know any other second grade teachers who use Skype. They only have one walkie-talkie. There’s no one to talk to.
The solution — I think — is blogging. Nearly everyone I interact with online in a professional way is someone I met through blogging. When I started writing a blog, I wrote it for my district staff. Most of them don’t read it. I think it was a year or more before anyone read my blog who doesn’t live in my house. At the same time, though, I started reading other blogs. I commented on those, and contributed to some conversations. Occasionally, I’ve posted on things people are interested in, and I’ve received some comments on this blog. That’s how I started building connections.
The same could be said for other “pull” technologies. I’ve met some people by listening to their podcasts (most notably those crazy people at EdTechTalk). I’ve found some new friends through Twitter, too, mostly by looking at who the people I’m following are following. Take recommendations from people you trust and respect.
It’s hard to get traction. It’s hard to see how interactive technologies work when you don’t have anyone to interact with. If you work at it, you’ll develop your own network. It starts with a lot of reading and a little writing. But if your network is as good as mine is, you’ll wonder how you lived without it.