Getting Connected – Leveraging Your Personal Learning Network (PLN)

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If you have ever relied on our families, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances to grow your knowledge about the world, you have taken advantage of a Personal Learning Network (PLN). You have also used a PLN if you have used reference books, textbooks, television (CNN or MSN, for example) and radio stations (National Public Radio or BBC) , and professional and personal-interest magazines. And, more recently, we have been connecting with people and information through the digital realm via social media sites. The good news is that there is an ever-growing repertoire of applications that have taken content from the printed page, and have given voice to the ideas of people we have never had access to before. This enabling us to redesign our information experiences to suit our needs.

Part of our role as facilitators of learning is helping our learners learn to teach themselves. That is why modeling a learning lifestyle is one of the best things that we can offer our learners.

Harnessing these new technologies to create and grow our own PLNs is imperative for educators who want to stay connected to the changing world we are charged with introducing to our students.

PLNs provide access to sources of information that were not even available a few years ago. This now creates an information overload, which we are seeing every day. To our rescue come continually evolving technologies. They make it easier to capture and tame this overload.

WHERE DO YOU LOOK?

You can find connected and cultivated communities of interest which offer information sources, suggestions for lesson plans, potential collaborators, current events and trends, new opportunities, resources, and a wide variety of other answers and solutions. Twitter is one of the most common PLNs. However, some other locations for a PLN might be Skype, Google Reader, Second Life, Mailing Lists, Diigo, Ning, Delicious, Google Talk, wikis, and blogs.

When speaking of PLNs, there are three main types. Each type has its best methods of use.

PERSONALLY MAINTAINED, SYNCHRONOUS CONNECTIONS

Think of a traditional network. These are the people and places you consult to answer questions, solve problems, and accomplish goals. Today, however, you can enhance this PLN with new tools such as chat, instant and text messaging, teleconferencing (using iChat, Skype, uStream), and Twitter. Using these tools can be similar to a meeting at work, but it becomes enhanced because the traditional barriers of geography, background, language, and culture become transparent.

PERSONALLY AND SOCIALLY MAINTAINED, SEMISYNCHRONOUS CONNECTIONS

Semisynchronous means “Nearly Now”. It is almost synchronous, or occurring at the same time, but not quite. Think of this as texting, Facebook profiles, and Twitter posts. You see this when your children sit with a string of chat windows open on screen as they do their homework, adding the occasional comment to the chat. These are conversations that are not exactly conversations. They may be questions you have directed toward a single friend or colleague. More likely, however, they are sent out to a community of people who, because of their interests, expertise, or perspectives, are in a position to help you do your job.

Because it is not quite real time, collaborators can be geographically distant. They can participate in a discussion when it works best for their schedules. The tools for this type of network include mailing lists, wikis, Google Docs, Twitter, group discussion boards and comment walls in Facebook or LinkedIn, and commenting on blogs, such as this one.

DYNAMICALLY MAINTAINED, ASYNCHRONOUS CONNECTIONS

The first two types of PLN connect us with each other. This type typically connects us with content sources that we have identified as valuable. The central tool for this type of PLN is an RSS aggregator. Aggregators are tools such as Google Reader, Netvibes, and Pageflakes. An RSS Aggregator brings us information that helps us do our jobs. We are no longer hunters and gatherers of information. We now have a way to control our information landscape. When you subscribe to tagged Flickr photos, new videos from YouTube, Google News searches or Alerts, and podcasts, you are controlling all this information. It organizes and delivers itself to you. For example, after finding this Instructional Design blog through a blog search on Technorati or Google, you can subscribe to our RSS feed with your aggregator. Then you can sit back and relax, waiting for your software to periodically check our site for new posts, retrieve them as they appear, and make them available for reading at your leisure. You can also subscribe to ongoing blog searches that will scan the entire blogosphere and automatically send to you new posts on your chosen topic.

As people add new Web sites to their online bookmarks and categorize or tag them, that information becomes available to the entire community in the form of social bookmarking. This is one of the most useful PLN tools out there. How does this help you? If you are looking for articles about mLearning, for example, a Google search will return a list of approximately 25 million Web pages. Searching Delicious returns a more manageable list of Web sites that are likely of better quality. This is because they were probably curated, meaning someone valued them enough to bookmark them for later use. Even better, you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the search so all subsequently bookmarked Web sites tagged with mLearning come to you. This PLN tool is useful because you are connecting yourself to resources that are supported by a recommendation system.

DEVELOP YOUR NETWORK

How do you describe the modern educator? Do you think of the names facilitator, guide, coach, or curator (there’s that term again…)? These names imply an effort to connect learners to the world they are learning about. This then requires us to be learners ourselves. That’s why we need convenient access to new and emerging communication technologies and applications, as well as opportunities to gain and develop new skills. Not only do we need to operate these tools, but also to shape and even invent networks of learning.

A well-designed PLN has traditional tools and high-tech tools. Some traditional tools might be phones, e-mail, and chat or instant messaging. Other, newer tools include wikis, blogs, and RSS aggregators. There are even emerging tools that are still finding their place, such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

The magic in this form of learning is the learners engage in reflective and knowledge building activities, connect and reconnect what they learn, add value to existing knowledge and ideas, and then re-issue them back into the network in a form of amplification. Their PLNs capture this information and push it to people connected to it. It is important to remember that you are almost certainly part of someone else’s network…and you may not know it.

As powerful and beneficial as PLNs can be, they do have a weakness. They can easily become limited in their range of perspective. It is human nature to absorb sources that agree with our own worldviews. To truly learn from your PLN, try to grow networks that challenge your thinking and frames of reference.

ACTION STEPS AND TIPS

Technologies that extend our personal and professional learning beyond our immediate proximity can be difficult to understand and control. Try these tips for creating, cultivating, and maintaining your PLN.

  1. S tart small and limit the number of blogs to which you subscribe.
  2. Organize your subscriptions by topic or job function.
  3. Organize folders in your aggregator based on how frequently you need to read them. Try “Every Day”, “Once Per Week”, and “Once per Month” as a start.
  4. Give yourself permission to switch your PLN off every once in a while. It is alright to ignore parts of your PLN when you need to.
  5. You may need to read only one in 10 of the blogs that come through, but that one will make you better at what you do. I fell into this trap myself. I follow about 30 people or so on Twitter – they happen to be very prolific people. Using an aggregator for Twitter and Facebook, I was missing about 1000 posts if I did not look at it every day. This is a new communication medium – you don’t have to read every statement everyone makes. You will go crazy if you do. SCAN rather than read!
  6. Your aggregator can temporarily grow in different areas. If you are learning new information, find sources that will help you learn that topic and subscribe to them. When you’ve learned what you need, remove those subscriptions from your aggregator.
  7. Your network is much larger than it seems. You are not just reading this blog. Because of the nature of blogging, you are reading all of the blogs that I read. In turn, you are also reading all of the blogs that those bloggers are reading.
  8. Invest some time, but realize it takes only 15 minutes a day to learn something new.
  9. You do not need to subscribe to dozens of educators’ blogs to learn how they are using some new tool (Captivate 6, for example). Instead, conduct a Google Blog Search for Usages of Captivate 6 and subscribe to that search’s RSS feed.
  10. Find the bloggers that are very good connectors and filters. These are people that read lots of information and then blog about the best of what they read.
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