A PLN is a way of describing the group of people that each of us connects with to learn from, and sometimes with. It's personal because we choose the people we want to involve ie we see advantages of being connected to them, and forming and sustaining a relationship with them in order to develop our thinking and capabilities. We also participate in networks of connected people in order to be involved in something and/or to achieve something and learning then becomes a bi-product of our involvement.
Connectivity - is the defining property of the Social Age, and it is central to the idea of PLN's. Forming connections and relationships with people who can help us learn and or achieve something, is part and parcel of being the social animals we are. But the idea of networking for learning has become more important as a result of the new affordances provided by the internet, smart phones and other mobile communication devices, and Web 2.0 and social media technologies. Our PLN is not limited to online interactions, but it is the ability to connect easily with many people from all over the world, in a sustained manner, that makes the social practice of a PLN so powerful. In a world of just-in-time learning the affordances provided by the internet means it is also possible to find people quickly at the point that a problem has to be solved. Such possibilities were simply not available ten years ago.
When we give something a name it defines the way we view it. The words PERSONAL (meaningful to me), LEARNING (the act of gaining new, or modifying existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values or beliefs) and NETWORK(S) (a group of people we connect to or who are connected to us), clearly emphasise these three ideas but perhaps the term encourages us to ignore other important features of the concept.
When I look at my own PLN and read about the ways other people have used their PLN, it is clear that our PLN’s often assist and enable us to involve ourselves in something, often to accomplish something we value. PLNs and the relationships we build within them are also a way of involving people in our own learning projects and for disseminating the results of our learning. In other words they provide a vehicle for influencing the thinking and actions of others. These dimensions of activity are camouflaged within the PLN concept.
Our PLN's change through time as we move from formal education, into a career, we change jobs, roles and careers or engage in new projects, and perhaps move to new cities or new countries. Because of this our PLN's have both lifelong and lifewide dimensions. Our development through life, it might be argued, is the result of a constellation of PLN's we have created and been a part of tracking the sorts of changes in our circumstances outlined above.
Our PLN’s vary according to types of knowledge we want to access. If we need to learn complex things like ways of thinking, communicating and behaving in a specific field of social practice, we create networks for learning that will enable us to participate in such social practices and gain access to the embodied knowledge of others who are more experienced and expert than ourselves. To some extent we can engage in conversations through which tacit knowledge can be shared through on-line forum’s but such forms of communication will not allow us to observe people in action and appreciate the nuances of their actions in the particularities of the contexts and situations they inhabit. But there is a world of networking through which people share their personal knowledge, insights and experiences through the medium of the internet. It is these computer-mediated networks for personal learning that have extended our scope for PLN’s.
Our PLN's are central to the idea of learning ecologies 'the complex set of relationships we create in a particular context for a particular purpose that provide us with opportunities and resources for learning, development and achievement'. PLNs are like the blood vessels in our body or the roots and capillary vessels of a tree. They provide the relational structure and means of connecting to others and the means of tapping into the medium and nutrients for learning - the flow of information, knowledge and wisdom within our learning ecology. They connect our ecology for learning with the ecologies developed by others for their learning. So gaining deeper understandings of our PLN's will also help us understand our own ecologies for learning better.
I will illustrate the use of PLN using the one I created to produce Lifewidee Magazine Issue 14 . As Commissioning Editor I had to identify relevant and useful content in order to find the people who were responsible for the content. Every issue of the magazine requires me to draw upon my existing PLN and to expand it by identifying new people with particular knowledge, expertise and interests in the topics we chose to explore. The Figure reveals the emergent and iterative process which began about 8 weeks before publication.
My process began with the self-made problem called, 'How do we produce a magazine on the theme of Personal Learning Networks'? With the knowledge I already had I tried to create a framing statement to explain what this issue of the magazine was about.
I shared this framing statement with my co-editor and with a few other people who I rely on to give me feedback on my ideas. On this occasion I got some useful feedback from John Cowan and in true JC form he began to elaborate some of his own thoughts. So I took the opportunity of using his 'musings' to invite him to draw these out in an article. However, on this occasion he declined - and that is the way it works isn't it?
Having overcome the hurdle called 'making a start', I was energised enough to begin searching for content that might be included. Google was my main search tool, combined with searches on twitter, google images and academia.edu. Over a couple of days I identified a number of interesting blog posts and downloaded several articles and I felt I had a 'feel' for what was readily accessible and for the key ideas we could include. Two articles in particular seemed to offer the most useful and comprehensive understandings: both were written by Kamakashi Rajagopal. I decided to approach her to see if she would be willing to be our featured author and, if she was, to offer her the opportunity to co-edit this issue of the magazine. She readily agreed and we had a skype conversation a few days later where these initial intentions were elaborated She sent me a copy of her thesis containing a lot of unpublished material that convinced me that she was committed to the project and willing to contribute to my PLN, at least for this learning project. In return I sent her my early thinking on PLNs and learning ecologies. Over the next few weeks we shared ideas and questions through the process of writing, editing and preparing illustrations, and in this way contributed to each others' understandings.
I encountered four types of response to my invitation to join the learning network project:
1 The person responded and gave me their permission to include their article often citing that it was published under a
Creative Commons licence
2 The person responded and declined the opportunity to participate, or in one case - an agent informed me they required a fee
3 The person did not respond even after several attempts to contact them
4 The person responded in such a way as to open up the possibility for conversation and engagement.
The way the person responded held the potential for making the desired contribution to my learning project and/or moving beyond my expectations opening up new possibilities. I contacted 13 individuals using the first two strategies of whom 8 agreed to contribute, 1 person declined to be involved, another indicated they would consider involvement for a fee, and 3 people did not respond to my inquiries. Four people responded with enthusiasm and the interactions that ensued held the most potential for learning and were the most satisfying and mutually beneficial.
I also involved a group of higher education professionals participating in a workshop I was running, in a questionnaire-based survey and discussion. The information I gained through the responses to this survey helped me refine my thinking and develop the questionnaire for a larger scale survey. Through the on-line questionnaire I sought to involve many more people who were part of Lifewide Education's list of subscribers, or who belonged to the Higher Education Teaching and Learning and Higher Education Academy Groups on Linked-In. A total of 41 people completed the survey. The Magazine is the product of these conversations and commissions.
So what might universities encourage and help students develop their PLNs? Here are three possible strategies.
1) The professional route - universities might emulate the ways in which professionals working in business and industry develop and maintain their links. A starting point might be to utilise their network of alumni, and involve students in using professional networking platforms like LinkedIn and Academia.edu
2) The subject route - within the programme and the broader social/cultural environment of a department, students could be encouraged to network around social activities, study groups, and projects and assignments that deliberately encourage learners to discover things not only through books but through finding people who can help them.
3) The lifewide route - universities might recognise that students are active networks in other parts of their lives outside the academic programme through which they form PLNs. Perhaps these experiences can be used to explore the idea and practice of networking perhaps in the context of personal development planning?
How important do you feel it is for students to develop their understandings and capabilities for networking and what sort of strategies might or are being used?
LIfewide Magazine June 2015 Exploring Personal Learning Networks