By Dr Carol Skyring.
If I were to ask you to draw a diagram illustrating where and from whom you learn, it would probably be quite complex. It might include conferences, workshops, books, social media and blogs. It would most certainly include a range of people: colleagues, peers, practitioners and experts. It would also look quite different from anyone else’s diagram because this is your personal learning network or ‘PLN’.
What is a PLN?
PLN is an acronym for Personal Learning Network. A personal learning network is “a group of people who can guide your learning, point you to learning opportunities, answer your questions, and give you the benefit of their own knowledge and experience”(Tobin, 1998). While the acronym PLN is relatively new, the idea is not. Teachers have always had learning networks – people they learn from and share with. What has changed is that technology now allows us to connect to others in different ways and to extend our networks beyond our local area.
A PLN is about:
It is about you!
Why have a PLN?
There are various reasons such as budget, time and staffing issues that make attending professional development sessions difficult. Creating your own PLN has become an alternate way to cater for your professional development needs. The advantage of a PLN is that it is tailored to your needs and is available when you need it. I have recently completed research into why teachers value PLNs. Some of the advantages are listed below:
- Stay current: Your PLN will give you access to the most current information and thinking from both practitioners and researchers.
- Continuously learn: Your PLN constantly provides you with great resources and ideas.
- Find answers/help/resources/advice when you need it: Your PLN is available 24/7 – there is always someone in your network online.
- Access timely information: Ask a question and have it answered immediately by someone in your PLN.
- Make diverse and global connections:Being able to connect with educators around the world allows you to access learning beyond your immediate surrounds. These connections are particularly important if you are geographically remote as they allow you to be part of a larger community.
- Access valuable resources, advice and support: People in your PLN will constantly share resources and are always available to provide advice and support.
- Access key learnings from conferences, workshops or seminars without having to attend: Most events now have a Twitter hashtag or live bloggers who are constantly sharing information from key presenters.
- Engage in conversations and discussions: Many conversations and discussions will be sparked in your PLN.
- Access experts: You no longer have to wait for an expert to write a book or an article, they are constantly sharing their thoughts with their PLN. They are also available to answer your specific questions.
PLNs allow you to:
- stay current
- continuously learn
- find answers/help/resources/advice when you need it
- access timely information
- make diverse and global connections
- access valuable resources, advice and support
- access key learnings from conferences, workshops or seminars without having to attend
- engage in conversations and discussions
- access experts
Social media enables us to connect with more people in more places than ever before. Savvy educators have realised that social media is not just unremitting triviality where people share what they are eating and with whom they are eating it! Social media platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook enable you to build a PLN that contains peers and experts from around the world.
Firstly, decide which tools will be most useful in your PLN. Ask other educators which social media platforms they find useful. Run a search on some experts you admire to discover which platform they use – their social media accounts usually appear towards the top of a Google search.
Once you have decided which tools to use, the process is basically the same:
- Join and fill out your profile – nobody will connect with a nobody!
- Use key words in your profile that describe your professional interests – educators are more likely to connect with you if they can see that you are an educator.
- Add a good photo of yourself – people are more likely to connect with you than they are with a photo of your cat!
- Make a few posts – your first post could be that you are new and then share a couple of resources.
- Lurk for a while – this is okay until you understand the way things work.
- Follow a few people in your field and see who they follow – they probably follow people that would be of interest to you, so this is a quick way to find people to add to your network.
- Join some groups – add comments and/or ask questions of the group. (With Twitter this would involve joining hashtag discussions, e.g. #edchat or #edtech)
Slowly build up your network over time. The aim is to have valuable people in your PLN – it is not about numbers. Think quality not quantity. Building a PLN requires that you not only seek to learn from others, but also that you help others in the network to learn. Be generous:
- Share resources – e.g. websites, articles, and blog posts that provide good information.
- Comment on other people’s posts – this helps to engage with others.
- Ask questions – people love to answer questions.
- On-share resources and ideas from others – this acknowledges the value of others in your PLN.
Some dos and don’ts:
- Don’t just ‘consume’ – contribute.
- Do acknowledge others.
- Do share freely.
- Don’t share links you have not checked yourself.
- Don’t spam people.
- Do learn the language.
Managing information from your PLN
One problem you may encounter is that you receive a vast amount of information from your PLN. It is essential to have tools and methods for managing this information. Below are a few suggestions that are all free to use but have paid options if you want more features.
Social bookmarking sites such as Diigo and Delicious are useful for storing and organising the numerous website links you will receive from your PLN. Use tags to categorise the links as you save them – this makes it easier to search and find particular links at a later stage. If there is a specific topic you know you will need resources for in the near future, start a ‘list’ for this topic. When you are ready to construct a lesson on the topic, it is easy to go to the list and find links you have been saving over a period of time.
If you are an avid blog reader, Netvibes is a great way to collect all of the blogs you read onto one page. You collect and categorise blogs into your Netvibes account. Each day, at a designated time, Netvibes will check for new posts on the blogs you are following. You can read the posts within Netvibes or you can click through to the blog post itself. This not only saves time, but ensures that all posts are available at a later date in the one convenient location.
Two useful digital curation sites are Scoop-it and Pinterest. These allow you to make ‘topic’ lists and save websites to particular lists. Pinterest is best for visual topics as it picks up on a picture on the website and uses that to represent the site.
If you have several social media accounts, Hootsuite will allow you to manage them from the one page. You can send a post to several accounts, or you can schedule posts for a time in the future. Hootsuite also manages all of your incoming information from platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook. This saves a lot of time having to visit the individual sites.
Create and build
Educators who have a PLN have told me that they have learnt more from their PLN in a few months than they did in four years in their degree course! A PLN can be a valuable resource, but it needs tending. Once you create your PLN, build it by adding valuable people. Check in with it regularly – but do not feel that you have to read everything that everyone in your network shares – this will certainly drive you crazy. Create, build and learn.
Tobin, D. R. (1998). Building your personal learning network. Retrieved from http://www.tobincls.com/learningnetwork.htm
Dr Carol Skyring has researched the use of Twitter as a professional learning tool and the value of PLNs to educators. You can read more about Carol and access a variety of free resources at www.carolskyring.com. You can also follow Carol on Twitter @carolskyring.
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