It usually starts out the same way: A colleague is looking for ideas for a lesson plan, I’ll overhear the conversation, and pipe up automatically with an online resource or web20 tool that he or she can use to supplement it. I’ve done it so often that my peers start to look at me in amazement (and maybe some annoyance), and then the questions flood in.
“How did you know that? Where do you get all your information from? How do you keep up to date with all of these things? You’re amazing!”
Of course I nod my head because I AM amazing (wink wink), but as much as I’d like to take credit for all the awesome-ness, I can’t. Instead, I give them a big grin and reply: “I get it from my PLN.”
So then I proceed to explain what a PLN is, but as soon as I say the words “Twitter” and “social network”, I see their eyes flicker and know that they have immediately shut down. It’s the same fight all over again too. They want to be resourceful, but either they can’t be bothered to put in the effort to set their foundations for a PLN or they are worried about the possible repercussions of having something so public, and so…open.
But I think that is exactly what makes social networks and specifically, personal learning networks (PLN), so powerful. The beauty of a personal learning network is in its customization and thus, the power of control. It is up to the individual to decide its purpose for learning, to pick and choose among resources, to filter the incoming information, and decide what and how much to contribute and share with others.
What exactly is a personal learning network? I don’t think there is a conclusive definition for it, and while my former teachers would skin me alive for attempting to define it with the same words… a personal learning network is exactly that. It is personal. It is about learning. And it is about community. I am sure many other bloggers have better definitions for a personal learning network, but for me, ultimately it is about the connections we make with one another in our efforts to learn. Like the image below, it is a community powered by its individuals. Especially today, the sheer amount of information available makes it hard to for an individual to learn everything and so must rely on a collaborative network to attain that knowledge.
Why do I have a personal learning network? While there are many reasons I can give about my PLN, I’ll stick with the most important two. On a professional level, I become a more efficient and much more reflective educator through the many resources and conversations that constantly flow in and out of my PLN. On a personal level, I am connected to a living and breathing community of individuals who seek the same things I seek. There is a sense of belonging, of friendship and acceptance that I believe shape us all into better forms of ourselves. Through my PLN, I have learned, to put it mildly in Alvin Toffler’s words, how “to learn, unlearn, and relearn”. Through my interactions with my PLN, I reflected and questioned so many of my own beliefs, values, and ideas about education so many times, and each time I come away with better understanding and a clearer sense of who I am as a teacher.
It is the exactly the social aspect of the PLN that I benefit most from. All teachers know that greater learning takes place when there are connections in the classroom. The PLN works in the same way. Our learning grows when we know more about each other. Vacation plans, photos of last night’s dinner, anecdotes about children and pets, and jokes are just as much a part of the information traffic as the links and articles that flow through my Tweetdeck columns. My personal learning network transcends state lines, oceans, and time zones and connects me not with strangers, but with friends and mentors. This is one of my many communities, my pursuit of knowledge in action. It is the living and breathing form of what I have learned, will unlearn, and will relearn.
At this point I have learned to make peace with the younger version of me. The younger me was arrogant, dangerously flippant, and believed she knew everything there was to know about teaching (regardless of the fact that I have yet to have my own classroom). My PLN has helped me to evolve and shed that skin; it has taught me that changes we seek in education and technology does not come from ignorance, or standing on a soapbox. It comes from active pursuit of more knowledge, and teacher leadership. For now, I can only continue to lead through example with my PLN. Maybe one day my peers might make that decision on their own to jump in. When they do, I’ll be right there with them to help and guide, like those from my PLN, who helped me before.