Unit 3: Your network

The concept

We all have personal learning networks. They may be local or far-flung, they may be specialist or supportive, they may be tight-knit or ad hoc. We connect with and learn from colleagues in our staff rooms or offices, at conferences and training, at social events. We read journal articles, books and blog posts; we sign up for newsletters. We find out how to do things from people who already know – we ask questions, we find resources, we share what we’ve found.

It can be quite simple, and in any part of life. A book group is a PLN. So is a tennis club, or a quilting group, or Rotary. So – we hope – is your workplace.

But recent years have seen the development of online PLNs: communities into which you can tap if you need help or information; networks that will support you, challenge you, extend you, console you; a PLN that you create to provide ongoing professional development whenever you want it.

In 2005 George Siemens published an article that became one of the foundations for personal learning networks, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.

He wrote about the challenges of learning and teaching in an era where knowledge is rapidly increasing in breadth but decreasing in life-span – and the same can be said of the technologies used to analyse and disseminate that information.  He argued that traditional approaches to teaching and learning were limited in the face of the “chaos” of new information: instead (or as well), he suggested that “the capacity to form connections between sources of information, and thereby create useful information patterns, is required to learn in our knowledge economy”. To the list of traditional “isms” he added a new term – connectivism.

Principles of connectivism:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process.

Siemens and many others had been thinking and writing about PLNs and connected learning for many years before this article appeared, but around the same time something else erupted which enable millions more people to implement these ideas in simple ways: Web 2.0.

Again, most of the elements of what became known as Web 2.0 had been in place for years: light-weight and easy to use web tools such as blogs, online communities, user-generated web publishing, data stored in the cloud (or on servers elsewhere, rather than your own computer), and those critical ingredients of Web 2.0 – lime green and bright orange. (Ah, those were the days!)

But this PLN course (and others) are based on another even more important ingredient: fun. This was added by Helene Blowers and colleagues with their 23 Things course, which introduced librarians to a range of web tools and encouraged everyone just to give it a go.

So we hope that this course brings together those elements: a serious undertaking to enhance and expand our own learning and that of others; cool tools and even cooler online networks; and finally a safe place to have a play. A PLN can offer:

  • Collaboration
  • Mentoring
  • Resources and information
  • Support
  • Answers to specific questions
  • Inspiration
  • Learning
  • Brainstorming
  • Advice
  • Opportunity
  • Bad jokes (though that might just be us).
Here’s one educator’s view on why networks matter: Tanya Roscorla on Five Reasons Educators Should Network.
A carefully selected PLN can break down isolation, provide PD when the training budget has been spent, introduce you to new ideas and old knowledge, and top up the ideas bank.

And that, in essence, is what a PLN is in the 21st century. In this unit, we’ll look at some of the ways we sustain that network, and launch you into it.

But first, head on over to our wall on Padlet and leave us a message: what does your current network offer, what do you like about it, and/or what else do you need? To post on the wall, just double-click anywhere.

Now take a look at some of this video (you don’t have to watch the whole thing), which captures some of the benefits of a PLN, in the words of those who know:

Web tools are not the point of this course, although we can (and probably will) talk about them until we run out of breath. Tools come and go. The concepts they represent are much more important than that – they are the scaffolding on which your PLN can rest.  As George Siemens wrote: “Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today.”

So let’s get started on some of the tools on which our PLN community thrives today.

Go to the next task: Communication tools