How to Create a Robust and Meaningful Personal Learning Network [PLN]

This post describes how educators can develop a personal learning network that supports meaningful and relevant learning. The MOOC, Education Technology & Media, etmooc, is used here as a working example of how to develop a PLN.

My Personal Learning Network is the key to keeping me up-to-date with all the changes that are happening in education and how technology can best support and engage today’s students.” Brian Metcalfe: teacher, blogger at lifelonglearners.com

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A visual image of participants in an open, online course- etmooc, which shows the potential to find and create personal connections as part of one’s PLN.  (image credit: Alec Couros)

I wrote a post recently about how to develop a personal learning environment [PLE], the need and benefits of doing so,  for educators in particular. A PLE is a self-directed learning space; a virtual  framework that consists of tools to collect, curate and construct knowledge that is customized to an individual’s learning goals and interests.

  What is a PLN?
Another dimension of the PLE is the personal learning network [PLN]. Though the two are often used interchangeably there is a difference. A PLN is an aspect of PLEs, where the individual has a group of people within his or her virtual professional network, and the relationship with each is based upon a common interest, collaborative project or research. Communication and connections are made via social platforms or other Web applications, with the primary intent of sharing or gathering information. Both the PLE and PLN are based on the theory of connectivism, a learning theory conceptualized by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The premise of connectivism is that the learner connects with nodes [connection points that deliver content or facilitate interaction] within a network, and subsequently develops knowledge through this series of connections.

Twitter 6x6

Twitter 6×6 (Photo credit: Steve Woolf)

PLN versus PLE
The personal learning network can be a rich source of learning that fosters connections that become part of our professional development as the quotation at the beginning of the post from Metcalfe describes. Yet building a PLN takes time, energy and purposeful actions, which is why I find it helpful to delineate the two concepts. A PLE can be created independently, building and collecting content sources from the Web, including creating content through blogs, podcasts, Slideshares, etc. A natural extension of one’s PLE is the development of relationships with individuals that emerge from the process of building the PLE, which is how the PLN develops. When connections from a PLN are engaged, knowledge creation becomes interdependent.

Example of a PLN
I will use my own PLE building experience to illustrate the process of developing a PLN, which I have developed  through a variety of vehicles: this blog, Twitter, Pearltrees, Goodreads, and by participating in various MOOCs. This process has allowed me to establish personal connections with numerous knowledgeable and interesting individuals. I developed the majority of these friends through comments on blogs [mine and theirs], Twitter and email. That is the beauty of a PLN, it is dynamic—expanding and contracting as time and energy allows.

Logo for etmooc from etmooc.org

Logo for etmooc from etmooc.org

How to use a cMOOC develop your PLN
The nature of cMOOC is to learn, to connect, to share and create knowledge, which makes MOOCs an ideal venue to build a PLN. Though the level of participation and involvement is up to the learner, if one does not want to, or is unable to build personal connections due to time constraints, that is acceptable and appropriate, there are no rules to cMOOCs. However if building a PLN is a goal, the onus is on the individual to reach out to make connections and develop learning relationships.

In the etmooc we are primarily using Google+ Community , Blackboard Collaborate and Twitter to interact. Blogs are the primary tools that make learning visible, where participants write about and share their experiences about what they are learning.  I’ve listed several strategies that might be helpful to readers who want to develop their own PLN within a cMOOC:

  • Participate in the introductions by creating a personal introduction and by reading others. In a large MOOC it’s impossible, and unnecessary to read all.
  • Engage with participants through introductions by commenting on fellow participant introductions, two or three is ideal.
  • [Try to] Participate in at least one of the events planned for a given week, i.e. webinar, Twitter chat, or Blackboard session. It is through these interactions that you are likely to find someone with a common interest. All the MOOCs I’ve been part of, have a community of organizers that provide support and resources in all aspects of participation, for example how to participate in a Twitter chat, how to use Twitter or set-up a blog etc. etmooc is a good example of such support.
  • Participate daily (if possible), by reading blog posts, daily updates, following/participating in Twitter conversations.
  • Contribute and share by commenting on others’ posts and engaging in conversation. I have found it is through conversation within a blog’s comment functions that I first established my PLN connections. I aim to be supportive of readers that do take the time to comment by responding to their comments and reading their personal blogs.
  • Look for opportunities to join and participate in sub-groups that often form within a MOOC. As we see from the web diagram of the etmooc, there are hundreds of participants—it is through the more intimate groups that spontaneously develop where  more meaningful and deep connections are made.

Closing Thoughts
Developing a PLN does require a commitment of time and energy, but the rewards are abundant. Not only does interacting within a virtual space satisfy the need for social interaction and connection, it also can be the method of professional development, personal satisfaction, relevance, adaptability, and most importantly—may allow us the opportunity to make a difference.

Resources

How To Create a ‘Personal Learning Environment’ to Stay Relevant in 2013

“Our understanding of learning has expanded at a rate that has far outpaced our conceptions of teaching. A growing appreciation for the porous boundaries between the classroom and life experience…has created not only promising changes but also disruptive moments in teaching.” EDUCAUSE Review, 2012

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This quote from Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education (Bass, 2012), gives a good a reason as any for educators to develop a Personal learning Environment [PLE]; a space where we can keep up with the experimental modes of learning, instruction, changing pedagogy and instructional methods that surfaced in 2012. In a previous post I introduced the concept of PLEs and touched on why educators may want to consider developing a PLE for 2013. In this post I’ll outline how educators can develop their own PLE, where to start, and I’ll provide specific action steps, and what tools to use. First though, I’ll share three convincing reasons why we should get serious about PLEs—why they aren’t just for students.

Three Reasons Why Educators Need a PLE
Education is in a phase of disruption (not news to anyone)—and it’s not just a blip or a bump, but is what Harvard professor and author Clayton Christenson describes as disruptive innovation. This concept describes what is happening in higher education now. We can see disruption in the new forms of course delivery  (i.e. Udacity, Cousera), teaching methods (i.e. flipped classrooms), and new learning models (i.e. competency based learning). These experimental forms of teaching (MOOCs) and assessing (peer review, assessment centers) are changing how educators teach, and impact the student/instructor relationship. Below are three [convincing] reasons why educators should consider creating a PLE:

  1. We need to disrupt ourselves: The model of higher education is at a turning point. PLEs provide a framework for us to expand our knowledge in our areas of expertise, and in teaching and instructional methods that are and will be appropriate and relevant for the digital era.
  2. The Instructor’s role has changed. The learner is moving to the center of the learning and teaching model, and relies upon a variety of sources for learning. PLEs will help instructors not only stay relevant in his or her field, but will provide an opportunity to learn how to use tools that will enhance instructional methods and adapt to the changing paradigm.
  3. Access to the Internet has changed how we teach and learn—forever. New tools devices, and applications are changing our culture and society. Education is not immune. We need to adapt and respond—PLEs will help us to do so appropriately by responding from a position of knowledge and understanding.

Creating a PLE: Where to Start
Begin with a model: As I wrote about before a personal learning environment is considered to be a concept rather than an entity—and concepts need a framework or model to flesh out the details.  As with any other model, a diagram is helpful in describing, shaping and explaining the concept. However, by the nature of PLEs, the personalized dimension means that each diagram of an individuals environment will be unique. If you peruse this site, you will see what I mean, no two are the same.

Personal Learning Environment: Janson Hews

Personal Learning Environment: Janson Hews (Photo credit: Janson Hews)

There are several helpful articles describing how to create a PLE on the Web, including several with a focus on creating a Personal Learning Network (a component of the PLE). Below are guidelines gleaned from the resources collected, which I’ve compiled into four steps.

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Chris Sessums “Weblog Brainstorming” diagram, eduspaces.net

  1. Decide on upon areas of focus: establish personal goals for learning. A PLE is holistic, and can include professional and personal interests.
  2. Determine which Web 2.0 tools to use: A PLE requires use of Web tools and applications to create a personal and virtual learning space. A PLE is also dynamic—the learner is an active participant and doing the three key functions: Collect and curate relevant content, resources into a meaningful collection in a virtual space, Construct and create to develop new knowledge and understanding. This could be through blogs, Slideshare presentations, Wikis etc. Sharing is inherent to a PLE, learning does not happen in a vacuum, but involves communicating with others. Another phase in a PLE is collaborating, working with peers to create new knowledge through digital objects, documents, etc. Start slow, it takes time to learn a new application and build and develop content and resources.
  3. Establish time each week to developing the PLE. It takes time to develop and grow a robust PLE.
  4. Create a diagram of the PLE. The purpose of the diagram is to provide a framework for learning goals, identify tools and provide a digital footprint and record of the PLE.

Closing Thoughts

  • PLEs are dynamic, they change and adapt to learning needs and goals.
  • Start small – developing a PLE takes time.
  • If you are able, share your thoughts or diagrams – I am sure readers would appreciate hearing from other educators.

To read the follow-up post on Personal Learning Portfolios and how to create on, click here.

Resources:

Photo Credit: Learn, by Marc Brannan, Flickr

One Essential Resolution for Educators in 2013 – A Personal Learning Environment

This is part one of a three-part series for educators that describes how to create a rich, robust learning network and virtual space—a personal learning environment that supports professional and personal enrichment for lifelong learning.

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PLE, Francesc Esteve, FLICKR

I plan to embrace 2013 with a new focus and direction, an emphasis that is different from a resolution. Resolutions don’t work, yet I still look forward to each New Year with a sense of anticipation, energy and a new plan. This year is no exception. I’ve spent much time considering carefully where I want to invest my time and energy, and it begins with a personal learning environment (PLE). A PLE is the hub of personal and professional development, and what better time than the New Year to commit to a renewed focus on one’s personal development.

This year I’ve selected three areas to focus on, of which I’ll write more about in the coming weeks, but the fulcrum of all projects is my personal learning environment. In this post I’ll share briefly what a personal learning environment is, why it is an essential dimension to any educator’s personal profile, share examples of other educators PLEs, and in parts two and three will explore how-to create a personal learning environment specific to educators.

Personal Learning Environment (PLE) Defined
A personal learning environment is a concept, not a thing or an event, but encompasses formal and informal learning experiences and interactions with various resources and people through a network of Web 2.0 platforms. It becomes a system that each individual [learner] manages, creates and builds, a learner centered, self-directed environment.

Personal Learning Environments (PLE) are systems that learners create and control to manage and direct their own learning. In this environment learners do the following:

  • set their own learning goals
  • manage their learning, both content and process
  • communicate with others in the process of learning  [modified from Wikipedia]

Part of the PLE is a Personal Learning Network, which is an essential sub-system of the PLE. It is the people, the personal connections within one’s PLE that are sources for new knowledge, collaboration partners, and serve as ‘nodes’ within the personal network that contributes to the wholeness of the PLE. Individuals become interdependent within a PLE, not independent [learning in a vacuum] or dependent [consuming knowledge only, and not creating knowledge].

Lifelong Learning

Lifelong Learning (Photo credit: Stephen Downes)

A Model for Life-Long Learning
The concept of a personal learning environment is based on the premise of lifelong learning, and [obviously] not a new idea given the history of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom by Socrates and his followers. Yet a model for life-long learning was formalized as recently as 2007 by the Eurpoean Union with the launch of the Lifelong Learning Programme 2007–2013, with its primary goal to support the development of quality lifelong learning across four phases: K-12, higher education, vocational training and adult education. The focus of the adult education phase is on the development of a network between people, institutions and other countries in education and training.

Examples of PLEs
Despite several excellent projects resulting from the efforts of the Eurpoean Union, describing how to create, build and interact within a personal learning environment is somewhat difficult to outline as I’ve discovered as I write this post. Mostly because PLEs are personalized, open, dynamic and unique to each person. Furthermore, environments take time to develop and are dependent on the motivation of the learner, and the direction and goals of him or her— all of which contribute to unique systems.

Below is an excellent example of a PLE where the learner describes the functions within her PLE, and the tools used for each.

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Michele Martin’s PLE, The Bamboo Project Blog, April 2007

Click here to view more examples of visual representations of PLE’s from other lifelong learners. The visual images are representative of the model or framework of each learners’ PLE, showing the Web 2.0 platforms used to catalogue, curate, develop, create, connect, record and/or save an individuals work, personal connections and knowledge created.

Next Steps for PLE
Over the next two postings I will provide guidelines and suggestions for how to develop a PLE, though my experience is limited, I will share how I have started to develop my PLE,  share resources and tools that may be of support to readers wanting to further develop their own. I would welcome any feedback or suggestions from readers, so please comment and share on your experience with PLEs if you are able to. Happy New Year!

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