Recently I was asked to write an article for an upcoming edition of Connections, a quarterly newsletter produced by the Schools Catalogue Information Service (SCIS), a business unit of Education Services Australia. Aiming to provide informative and useful material relevant to school libraries which helps keep library professionals up to date, Connections is distributed to all schools in Australia in both hard copy and digital formats.
I was asked to write specifically about Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) both from a general and personal perspective. I found the process of putting my thoughts together both challenging and inspiring. Not all that long ago, I had never heard of PLNs. Today, I feel part of an amazing community and am unable to comprehend how I could be where I am today without the support and guidance of those in my PLN. I extend my thanks and gratitude to you all!
My article in Connections has been published in mid February 2012 and can be read in hard copy and online in Issue #80. With the knowledge and permission of the Connections team, I was able to reproduce it here in advance of its publication.
Just recently I had the most thrilling experience!
I met – in person – some members of my PLN!!
I could never have imagined the feeling of jubilation that filled me when I met, at a conference attended, just some of those people who have mentored, supported, helped, guided and shared so much with me as I’ve travelled the rocky road of self-discovery and learning.
In between shared handshakes, hugs and giggles, gasps could be heard:
“Wow – you’re so tall!”
“Your hair isn’t as red as I thought it’d be!”
“You’re just like I imagined!’
“I can’t believe I’m finally meeting you!”
“You look just like your avatar!!
Trading avatar images for the real person was an amazing experience! Warm and fuzzy feelings of familiarity mixed with a sense of sincere and genuine friendship ebbed and flowed. It felt like I was meeting people I’d known for a lifetime before!
So who are these people? How did they become so significant in my life? Why on earth should the bonds connecting us feel so strong? How was the train of events set in place?
When I started out on my learning journey nearly two years ago, I expected to increase my knowledge and learn heaps about the technology that had evaded me for so many years before. What I didn’t expect though was that I would have the opportunity to meet and mix – virtually – with an amazing bunch of people who have now become firmly entrenched as members of my Personal Learning Network – my PLN.
Meeting some members of my PLN in person was, absolutely, an added bonus!
Meeting them virtually though has been the most fantastic experience imaginable. Comprising a range of professionals that stretch across Australia and the world, my PLN is comprised of many more than the half dozen members I met just recently. Establishing links with them has been exciting and exhilarating. Having a support group on which to lean, to question and to learn from and share with has not only been professionally enriching, but life changing. I get so excited when I talk about the value of my PLN. My impulse is to share my experience in the hope that it may be a source of inspiration to others to ‘get out there’ and start developing their own PLN!
“So what is a PLN?” I hear you ask.
The simplest definition is that it is a group of people or professionals, with whom you connect, communicate and collaborate in the sharing and exchanging of information and ideas and through whom you increase your knowledge and understanding of topics of interest to you. Depending on your own interests, members of your PLN may be known or unknown to each other and may have a set of disparate or similar interests or ideas. Most often they are an extended community of people which stretches across the globe. A key feature is that members of your PLN meet your specific needs for information, knowledge and ideas.
Members of a PLN need not be constant. A PLN is in fact nebulous. It has no structure. There is nothing definite about it. It just kind of “is”. This undefined structure of a PLN is indeed another of its features – albeit a hidden feature – which reveals itself more clearly as time goes by. The size of a PLN most often grows and develops over an extended period of time. Members of a PLN are “out there” wandering through cyberspace. You can expect to bump into them every now and then in any one or all of your “communication” spots: your email inbox or any one of the range of social networking platforms with which you engage.
The communication tools used by members of a PLN make it easy to locate, connect, engage and interact with a range of peers, experts, or anyone with similar interests. PLNs enable us to engage in global learning and sharing and facilitate our ability as learners to increasingly reflect on the thoughts of others as a means of bolstering our own learning.
“So what?” I hear the sceptics among you ask. “How can a PLN differ from the kind of support I get from work colleagues or those with whom I interact at conferences or various face-to-face professional learning programs attended?”
In short – the defining features of a PLN allow you to learn anything, anytime, anywhere with anybody you choose!
You can learn anything you like. Rather than face restrictions of course offerings or conference proceedings, a PLN allows you to decide for yourself what you want to learn or focus upon. The choices of what you learn are in fact limitless. They may connect to absolutely any aspect of your job or you may even decide that time spent pursuing an esoteric subject you’ve always wanted to study may just be the way you want to develop yourself, your knowledge or your skills.
You can learn anytime you like: day, night, weekday or weekend, working year or holiday time. The choice is yours and yours alone. With the freedom to meet up with members of your PLN via any one of the social networking platforms available – Twitter, Facebook, Google + or even via traditional email – a freedom to connect with others any time allows you to balance the time of your learning with the many other commitments in which you engage.
Just imagine having the freedom to pursue learning anywhere such as lounging around the house on a Sunday morning while in your PJs or late at night after the kids are securely tucked away in bed. Or perhaps sitting in the back yard with the family on a Sunday afternoon is a better time to pursue that new thought, idea or interaction with a mentor, an expert, or a teacher in Barcelona, Miami or Paris. Imagine attending a virtual conference where you can take part in events at another end of the world. The location of where you meet up with members of your PLN is yours to make.
And finally, imagine the value of being able to chat or exchange ideas, thoughts and best practice with anybody in the world. No longer are you restricted to work colleagues in your school or your region. You can reach out to anyone in your state, your country or the world. Meet up with experts in your field. Share with the principals of other schools from anywhere in the world, with academics who have written the books you read, with professors from leading universities. The world is your oyster. Social networking platforms allow us to interact with others in ways that were unknown just a few short years ago. Taking advantage of this opportunity opens doors you could never have previously imagined.
A PLN turns each of us into active learners who decide what it is we want to learn, when, where and how. It enables us to take control of our own learning. Just like the students in our classes, we too learn best when given the opportunity to select topics that are of interest to us. Being able to select with whom to learn is far more powerful than being forced or randomly cast into a group with a set activity, topic or issue. Being able to set our own pace, to learn as quickly or as slowly as we like or need or have time for today or this week really means that we are in control of our learning and set our own limits. Being able to find other likeminded people who share your interests and to explore with them and through them is very satisfying. Knowing that you are contributing to the PLN of another and that others are interested in your knowledge, experience and expertise is in turn very empowering.
Getting started is the challenge.
The delineating factor of my PLN was the nature of its inception. Having enrolled in an online program to develop my knowledge and use of Web 2.0 tools, I met – virtually – fellow participants. As we played and experimented, explored and learned, we shared ideas and thoughts with each other through the virtual meeting place established by our mentor: a Ning – an online platform in which people create their own social network. As the course required us to create a blog, a location in which we could share and showcase our personal learning, it was not long before we started to read and then leave comments on each other’s blog posts. As the course invited us to explore a range of social networking platforms, these too became locations in which we could meet and mingle, chat and share, question and support each other on our ongoing learning journey. As new communication channels became established and embedded in our daily routines, each of us saw our PLN grow in size and strength. And without a doubt, the greater the sharing, the stronger the bonds between us grew.
While I highly recommend everyone to enrol in an online learning program, as it can give the initial impetus to getting started, to focusing and to maintaining a commitment to ongoing learning, it is not, by any means, a prerequisite to developing a PLN.
Connect, communicate and collaborate with other teachers in your state, county or anywhere in the world by signing up to any one of the Social Networking platforms that are out there. Together with Web 2.0 tools, Social Networking has transformed the way in which we collect and share resources, ideas, methodologies and best practice.
Select any one of the blog publishing tools available, such as WordPress, Edublogs or Blogger and start publishing your own ideas and thoughts. Locate blogs of others so you can read and delve into the thoughts of others. Ask others for recommendations of good blogs to read. Share your recommendations with others. Use RSS feeders to help you stay abreast of the many blogs you will find and are interested to include in your regular reading. Be sure to participate in the Blogosphere by not only writing and reading blogs, but by leaving comments on the blogs of others. Apart from enriching your experience, this is a way of us building, together, a collective store or pool of thought and knowledge.
Explore the range of Social Networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google +. Select any one with which you feel comfortable as a way of communicating instantly and regularly with members of your PLN. Ask others for recommendations of who to follow. Look at who those people are following and start following them too. Contribute useful information and thoughts and you will soon find that others will be keen to follow you. Also consider exploring Nings. There are a large number of special interest Nings from which to choose. A Ning will provide you with an instant group of likeminded people with whom to communicate and learn.
Explore bookmarking tools such as Diigo or video storing tools such as VodPod or book reading tools such as GoodReads. Apart from storing and sorting, these tools have social networking features that enable the sharing of both the resources and any comments you post about those resources. This can be, if you choose, another powerful way to link with other likeminded people.
Initially you may feel like you are fumbling with new and unexplored tools such as Blogs, Nings and Social Networking tools. One of the side benefits of developing your PLN is having a group of people with whom you can learn and develop new skills. Feeling secure and comfortable within a group such as your PLN, will allow you the confidence to ask questions and experiment. Knowing there is a friendly voice out there to assist is so much better than ‘going it alone’.
At the start you may feel overwhelmed. Slow your pace. Tackle one new tool at a time. Start small and keep it simple. Choose that which meets your needs, the time you have available as well as your skill level. Take time to reflect and digest all that you experience and learn. Share your experience with others and know that they will value your thoughts as much as you value theirs.
So what’s to be gained from a PLN?
A PLN contributes so much to us as individuals, but also furthers the impetus for global learning as we link hands with members of our PLN across the oceans. The value of a PLN is best described visually:
And remember! Developing a PLN is totally free. All you need to get started is a computer, Internet access and a desire to learn. Be transported by your PLN to a new way of learning. Feel engaged, inspired, empowered and challenged as you link up with others. Know that as you gain from your PLN others will gain from you. Never underestimate the knowledge, insights and experience you have to contribute to the PLN of others. Feel empowered by and with your PLN! Read more about PLNs in this Scoop.it!
Start developing your Personal Learning Network today and discover the joy of lifelong learning.