TL;DR version: This blog posts shares basic principles for educators as they develop their own personal learning network. I detail several options that I personally use...including Google+, Twitter, and several NINGs.
Because of the influx of new and digital literacies the ways in which we learn, socialize, and communicate as a society is constantly in a state of flux. This means that many of the common ways that we would learn from one another is constantly changing. For the educator this means that we have to develop and integrate ourselves into a professional learning network (PLN) to maximize these resources and better prepare our students. This point hit home this morning while working with a school principal as we were preparing for August PD days and the beginning of the school year. The building principal and I were trying to identify ways to start off the school year by focusing on specific objectives in the school’s leadership plan. In terms of how to instructionally make that happen throughout the school year, the principal informed me that each teacher has the opportunity to go online and collect, learn, and/or share learning resources on their own time. In the words of the this administrator, we’re all supposed to be educational professionals. As the new teacher evaluation models take hold, it will be up to the individual how they want to best prepare themselves for their classroom. “Teachers can go online, they can watch YouTube clips, they can join discussion groups, they can go to Twitter to get resources to use in their classroom.” This sentiment is echoed in a recent blog post from the Texas Principal site. The question ultimately becomes…how do I create and develop a PLN using online tools?
What is a PLN?
According to Wikipedia, a PLN is an “informal learning network” in which a person makes a “connection with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection.” This learning happens within a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), or within social networking tools. The idea is that learners within this network will collaborate and learn from different members of the community at different periods of time. Some of these “nodes” or connections will be strong, some will have different roles, or informal responsibilities. In education specifically, these PLNs are often referred to as Professional Learning Networks as they increasingly use these digital texts and tools to connect with, and learn with other like-minded educators.
How do I prepare to connect with others in a PLN?
As we start to prepare to socialize and communicate with others online, I suggest first building up your own digital identity. I have long argued (face-toface, and on this blog) that educators need to create and curate their online brand. To that end, I first believe that educators should start up their own blog, and/or website to act as their “home base.” Other people that you come into contact with online will want to know more about you and your work. You will also want to have a place to share longer, more formal ideas. In many of these PLNs or social networks it is somewhat inappropriate to post longer textual, or multimodal posts. With your own blog, or website you can link readers to another online space in which you expand upon your thoughts. After you create this initial “home base” I believe that you should create accounts, and join some of the established PLNs to connect, learn, and share with others.
What PLNs can I use to connect with other educators like me?
One of the coolest things about PLNs, Connectivism, and learning online is that there are always tons of opportunities for informal, collective learning experiences drawn from a variety of experiences and vantage points. Put simply, we have the opportunity to tap into fountains of learning and information when we chose, or when our interests and time permit. There are numerous PLNs that are available online to use as you explore, learn, and interact with other like-minded educators. The following PLNs represent learning communities that I frequent, and have proven invaluable for me. Please don’t assume that this list is exhaustive.
Google+ is an online social network that have been developed by Google as a way to bring the personal and social into the various tools and data sources that they have on you. What has emerged is a PLN in which a variety of learners can share, communicate, and connect with others. What I love about Google+ is the ability to have somewhat longer conversations with others in the network. Some users in Google+ chose to use their profile page as a blogging platform. I still think the majority of initial posts, or comments made in PLNs, or social networks should be somewhat limited. To me an initial post or comment should be anywhere from 140 to 250 characters…around the length of a “tweet.” This initial post, or comment allows the reader to gather the basic point of your message. If you have something significantly longer (I believe) it should be posted to your blog or website and you link to it. Then the reader can decide if they want to go examine it for more information.
One of the other major benefits of using Google+ is that they embed some of the other fantastic tools that are included in Google Apps and other systems. This allows for use of Hangouts for text and video messaging. YouTube for video distribution and sharing. The recent inclusion of Communities in Google+ has also paved the way for smaller groups of learners to collect, curate, and collaboratively construct information online. Feel free to come find me on Google+ and ask for some directions around…I’ll be glad to connect. Please review the following blog posts for more info on how to take full use of Hangouts, or Google+ and Communities.
Twitter has been the best professional development, or personal learning environment available to educators. I now feel that I get more out of Google+, but I still maintain ties to Twitter…and frequently submit a query to a learning community on Google+ and Twitter to see who will respond first…and with the best resources. Twitter is called a “micro-blogging resource. Basically this means that your posts are limited to 140 characters.
The way that I explain Twitter to interested colleagues is that I create a parallel to email. I basically explain that email is a closed communication device. You send a message to one individual using their email address. You include a subject line, and the content of the message. It goes directly from one person to another…and may be responded to, or redirected. If we follow that basic analogy, imagine that with Twitter you can submit a message to one person directly, but you don’t have to. Additionally, instead of a subject line that indicates the basic ideas of the content, in Twitter we use hashtags. The hashtag is a “marker” used in the tweet (or individual Twitter post). The hashtag is a way for groups of people to search, connect, and respond to messages they might be interested in. In this model, Twitter is an open messaging and communication system in which anyone can (for the most part) read any message. Once you get your head around that…Twitter is pretty powerful.
The other caveat that I explain as we discuss Twitter is that it is a firehose of information. There is an endless torrent of information from all parts of the globe. It can be a challenge for people new to Twitter to think that they have to read all of the messages that come through. They also wonder why others would share this info online if they don’t think someone will read/use it. To get people started on Twitter, I suggest that they create an account, and initially don’t follow anyone. You can still research and read a lot without following anyone. You also don’t need to tweet…you don’t have to send anything out. Since it is a community…and we’re talking about PLNs, you should follow, retweet (RT) and favorite tweets from others. For more information on how to use Twitter, please review the following blog post.
Other PLNs to join
Primarily I use Google+ and Twitter as my PLNs. I do share my materials to Facebook (for some reason ;). At this point I haven’t joined LinkedIN, or any of the other social networks available. I am a member of several other “smaller” connected learning communities, or PLNs that have been very helpful. These include groups that share ideas of a personal, or creative interest to me. These include the Educator’s PLN, Classroom 2.0, edWeb.net, and the Flipped Classroom NING. One of my favorite PLNs is the Making Curriculum POP community. Keep in mind that your professional organization, or the leaders in your content may already have a sanctioned PLN, or social network that you may use to connect.
Next Steps…socialize, be merry…and learn…
Now that you’ve built up your digital identity, Read, learn, and interact with other in your chosen PLN. Don’t worry about using the “wrong” type of PLN. Get in, start reading, and reflect about what you read on your blog. You might also think about using a tool like Evernote, Diigo, or Pocket to save materials that you read online for later. Once you’re in the PLN, don’t forget to create and nurture your PLN.
Image CC by arvindgrover