Information Services Today: Global Personal Learning Networks

April 24, 2015

Preparing a personal learning networks (PLNs) webinar and reading Jan Holmquist’s “Global Learning Networks” chapter in Sandra Hirsh’s newly-released anthology Information Services Today: An Introduction makes me realize how wonderfully expansive and rewarding our PLNs have become.

Information_Services_Today--CoverThe idea driving the creation of a personal learning network—the ever-changing informal group of people each of us personally and uniquely defines, forms, and turns to in our lifelong learning endeavors—appears to be timeless; I can’t imagine a period of our recorded or unrecorded history during which people didn’t learn from each other informally, beyond the confines of classrooms or other formal learning spaces. And yet, as Holmquist notes at the beginning of his chapter, changes in the technology we use are expanding the pool of potential PLN members from which we can draw tremendously: “The world keeps getting smaller. Technology has challenged the need for physical presence regarding how, when, and where learning, collaboration, and sharing information takes place” (p. 374).

PLNs, he continues, provide a tremendous set of benefits by offering us connections to colleagues with whom we can “interact and exchange information and resources; share knowledge, experiences, and ideas; and collect and create an informed guide to professional development opportunities and lifelong learning” (p. 377).

We don’t want or need to become too technical or academic in exploring what personal learning networks mean to us to fully appreciate how they operate and what they provide. They are flexible (because we continually modify them to meet our learning needs). They are responsive (because we define them, nurture them, and turn to them in our moments of need, not someone else’s). They can be collaborative (although there are times when we learn from members of our PLNs without directly contacting them, e.g., when we learn by reading a PLN colleague’s writing on a topic we’re exploring or drawing upon a list of resources curated by members of our PLNs). They thrive on our willingness to contribute to them rather than seeing them solely as one-way resources—something where we take but never give. They are as local or as global as we choose to make them, drawing upon colleagues we see face-to-face as well as colleagues with whom we might have only the most cursory of online interactions via social media tools such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ Communities,, and Storify. And as the name implies, personal learning networks are deeply and inevitably personal (both in the sense of being something that is centered on each of us, individually, and in the sense of being centered on persons)—and they change as our learning changes need, but also have a sense of continuity that reflects the continuities in our own learning interests and endeavors.

xplrpln_logoThere seems to be no definitive answer as to how small or large a PLN should be. The work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that there is a point (Dunbar’s number) beyond which members of any social group lose their ability to function effectively in social relationships, and I suspect that an overly large PLN eventually becomes ineffective in that valuable resources become overlooked because they are lost in the PLN crowd. The diversity of members and the variety of interests represented by those members, on the other hand, suggests that a PLN benefits from not being overly small or exclusive. And the resources from which we draw members seems to be limited only by our own imaginations: A cursory glance at my own PLN shows that it includes people with whom I’ve learned in formal academic settings, onsite workshops, and professional associations (e.g., the New Media Consortium, the American Library Association, and the Association for Talent Development); from people I’ve met in tweet chats (e.g., through #lrnchat); and from learning facilitators and learners in connectivist massive open online courses (MOOCs)—including one (#xplrpln—”Exploring Personal Learning Networks”) focused on the creation and nurturing of PLNs. My PLN has also grown significantly by adding people whose published work—including work they publish on their blogs—provides learning opportunities for me. I’ve even realized that drawing upon an anthology such as Information Services Today can contribute to the development of a PLN; reading chapters written by and interacting with other contributors to the book has made me consciously include Michael Stephens and Kristin Fontichiaro, along with Jan Holmquist, in my own PLN.

If this inspires you to expand your personal learning network by adding Stephens, Fontichiaro, Holmquist, or other writers, and to expand your own ideas about where you can find additional members to strengthen your own PLN, then you’ve taken another step in recognizing how global and open our personal learning networks have become.

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of reflections inspired by Information Services Today: An Introduction, which includes Paul’s chapter on “Infinite [Lifelong] Learning.”

Small Groups, Big Results: Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Points, and Learning

February 3, 2010

In a world in which people face far more information than they can possibly absorb, the spread of innovation depends on simple, memorable, and trusted means of information, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point a decade ago.

The fact that the book remains frequently discussed and extremely popular among users of libraries—there were 194 reserves on the 37 copies of the book owned by the Seattle Public Library, 84 reserves on the 27 copies of the book owned by the San Francisco Public Library, and several other libraries reporting all copies checked out yesterday—tells us that trainer-teacher-learners need to be paying attention as we attempt to support change within the organizations we support—which is, after all the point of training-teaching-learning.

What is tremendously encouraging from Gladwell is the confirmation that change doesn’t necessarily require large numbers of people in its initial stages. Nor does change and innovation require huge groups of people to be efficacious. The power of smaller rather than larger groups in the change process receives ample attention in his chapter “The Power of Context (Part Two).” Citing the work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Gladwell shows how groups ranging from baboons to hunter-gather tribes to religious groups including the Hutterites (pp. 177-181) work most effectively in smaller rather than larger conglomerations, with groups comprised of approximately 150 members being about the largest effective unit: “The Rule of 150 suggests that the size of a group is another one of those subtle contextual factors that can make a big difference” (p. 182). One repercussion of this proposal is explicitly addressed in an afterward to the 2002 edition of the book.

“We are about to enter the age of word of mouth,” Gladwell wrote shortly before Web 2.0 tools boosted the pervasiveness of word of mouth diffusion of ideas through the use of Facebook, LinkedIn, book recommendations, and many other resources key players—what Gladwell calls “connectors,” “mavens,” and “salesmen”—use to expand their reach beyond the social and professional groups in which they are most intimately and personally involved.

LinkedIn itself demonstrates how easy it has become to build these ever-expanding groups of connections. As Gladwell notes, “Connectors…are people whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because, for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches” (p. 48). As LinkedIn makes the process easier, previously separated connectors become connected; ideas which would otherwise have been known to small numbers of people leap from person to person and social network to social network in a viral way.

The conclusion of Gladwell’s work returns readers to its beginning: “When people are overwhelmed with information and develop immunity to traditional forms of communication, they turn instead for advice and information to the people in their lives whom they respect, admire, and trust…Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen” (p. 275). And there’s every reason in the world for trainer-teacher-learners to recognize their role in that process—and use it to the advantage of those with whom they interact.

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