Tuesday, February 15, 2011

PLNs: The Power of Personal Learning Networks

PLE as subset of PLNImage by catspyjamasnz via FlickrWhat is a PLN? I am not talking about the Polish Zloty but "personal learning networks" - the collection of links, tools, and people on the internet we use to support our teaching and learning. I have been reading some critical literature on "personal learning networks." We are seeing now the formalized study and analysis of informal learning networks (see some of the articles at the bottom of this posting). Why the interest? First of all, there is the growth of social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Students (and instructors) and connected in ways that were not possible even five years ago. Second, there is a power relationship inherent in traditional teaching that does not always make the classroom (online or off) the ideal place for learning, creativity, or innovation. The problem often comes from the idea that somehow the student is broken and needs to be fixed or contains a void that needs to be filled with a one-way dump of information. This is the "sage on the stage" model of teaching and learning. What often really happens is students attend a lecture and then talk to their friends, wikipedia, and Google to figure out what the teacher was talking about. This is a primitive personal learning network.

Interestingly enough, there is still a lot of language around PLNs that harken back to the one-way dump. This comes from instructors seeing new technology in terms of the old technology (e.g. the internet is a library). A PLN should not just be a place where one goes just to consult "experts." A true PLN requires participation and engagement. A PLN is a practice and a discipline just like traditional scholarship: it requires you to read, think, and create. In order for your PLN to be effective, you need to do four things:
  1. Link to others: Find the other participants in your field. Some will be "experts" and some will be participants just like yourself. If you are in education, for instance, there are many lists of educators in twitter. Link to people with opinions and ideas different from your own.
  2. Ask questions: Post questions. The wider your network, the wider variety of answers you will find.
  3. Share: Share ideas that you have found in your network with others. Share your bookmarks in Delicious and what you are reading on your blog. Share other people; let others know about your network and and recommend people and sources of information.
  4. Answer questions: Offer solutions or help others find the means to answer questions.
4 Faces of Personal Learning Network (Activity)Image by catspyjamasnz via FlickrYou can see from the list above, that as simple as it is, there is a lot going on. It would be just as big a mistake to abandon a traditional learning management system and just adopt PLNs as an answer as it would be to adopt an LMS and not sufficiently train students in its use. All of the skills around critical thinking and evaluating sources come into play here.We need a curriculum that teaches students how to make choices about who they are connecting to and why. Critical thinking skills around networks needs to be explored. Teaching and modeling technologies for sharing are also a part of this.These are critical skills in the community college, and we are still using early computer curriculum to show students how to use software that won't exist in two years.

In the right-hand side-bar of this blog is are some links to the HIM 101 class that I co-taught with Charlene Gore at Tacoma Community College. It includes a map of how we used Twitter in the class that I think represents an interesting use of Twitter as a PLN.
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