The 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, Scoop.it, 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.
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.
It’s difficult to know where to start in describing how the learning connections expanded rapidly and rhizomatically during that one-hour session that was fast-paced and well-facilitated by #oclmooc co-conspiratorVerena Roberts. There’s a temptation to talk about the obvious connections to be made between #oclmooc and the equally fabulous Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) community of learning since at least a few of us are participating in both and extending conversations between the two MOOC communities. There’s also the temptation to talk about how the #oclmooc session and so much of what we’re doing in #ccourses is making us more aware and appreciative of the importance of personal learning networks in learning—particularly since #ccourses just produced an engaging and inspiring session on “Social Capital and PLNs: Discovering, Building, and Cultivating Networks of Learners,” as I documented in a blog article posted yesterday. There is even a temptation to focus on the fact that what was originally designed to be a MOOC to connect educators in Alberta (Canada) quickly morphed into a MOOC open to—and attracting participation from—trainer-teacher-learners around the world (an obviously brazen and much-appreciated attempt by our Alberta colleagues to make the entire world a protectorate of Alberta and its innovative onsite-online learning community!).
But what was most interesting to me at a personal level was how the open conversation taking place within Twitter drew in colleagues not previously connected through either MOOC. This has happened to me in other MOOCs, as I wrote in an earlier article, and I would be surprised if it hasn’t happened to others engaged in connected-learning environments. What was noteworthy and unexpected this time was how quickly everyone naturally and playfully fell into exchanges that suggest the blossoming of new learning—and, more importantly for explorations and documentation of how connected-learning works, the blossoming of new learning relationships, as Verena quipped when it became obvious that one of my New Mexico-based colleagues from the New Media Consortium had seen one of my tweets and retweeted it to her own followers. Not more than a few minutes passed before a Kansas-based colleague from an entirely different community of learning—the American Library Association Learning Round Table—saw my online admission that I hadn’t yet participated in edcamp activities.
“You, of all people, need to crash an edcamp,” she commanded with mock consternation shared openly with other #oclmooc participants. “Get with it.”
And to emphasize yet another element of these connected-learning rhizomatically-expanding interactions—the idea that our online interactions are not and need not all be conducted synchronously—I later realized, while reviewing a record of the #oclmooc tweet chat, that a North Carolina-based colleague that I know well from yet another first-rate community of learning (#lrnchat) had also responded with an edcamp response directed to two #oclmooc members and one other #lrnchat colleague.
The tally of net gains (networked gains?) from the session, then, include a strengthening of the #oclmooc community, which was designed to foster greater communication between teacher-trainer-learners; more cross-pollination between #oclmooc and #ccourses through the tweets and this follow-up blog post; the possible beginning of interactions between various members of my own personal learning network outside of the MOOCs and members of the two connectivist MOOCs—with no need for me to remain anywhere near the center of those interactions; additional interactions between all of us and a group of young connected-learning students we were encouraged to contact through their own group blogging efforts; and the pleasure of encountering new ideas through articles—including Clay Shirky’s essay “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Away Their Laptops,” and Laura Hilliger’s article “Teach the Web (MOOC)”—mentioned during the live tweet chat. And there clearly is much more to come.
When learning turns in on itself, the results are magnificent—as is the case when we learn about personal learning networks (PLNs) by engaging with members of our personal learning networks, for example.
Social Capital and PLNs, the opening session in a two-week exploration of “Trust and Network Fluency” through the three-month #ccourses MOOC, brought together a dynamic panel of experts (Kira Baker-Doyle as moderator, with Cristina Cantrill, Meenoo Rami, Howard Rheingold, and Shelly Sanchez Terrell as participants). The tips and reminders were wonderful; the interactions with those panelists and with #ccourses learners via Twitter were engaging reminders that this is a community of learning that is quickly connecting numerous personal learning networks around the world. And each individual learner is a node within that ever-growing network of networks.
The session, early on, included a reminder that, for many teachers (and other learning facilitators, I would add), Twitter is a starting point in developing social capital. Just as Twitter can rapidly increase our contacts with valuable colleagues we might otherwise not encounter, our PLNs can serve as “social magnifiers,” Rheingold suggested. Bringing value to our online interactions is essential, he continued: when we give away things of value (e.g., shared resources and links to useful information), we draw upon a “reservoir of reciprocity,” contribute to the value of the PLNs, and strengthen our own positions as valuable members within those interwoven and incredibly extensive personal learning networks—as all of us participating saw time and time again during our hour together.
Acknowledging the reciprocity and uniqueness of social capital helps us better appreciate it, he continued: the more social capital we spend, the more we have.
This was obvious throughout the session. As we provided resources for each other, we gathered even more, including links to a Storify document containing Rheingold’s tweeted tips for developing PLNs at one point, for example, and to the Peeragogy handbook—a “collection of techniques for collaborative learning and collaborative work”—at another.
PLNs, we were reminded, are not just about learning; they provide emotional support and can be important resources that sustain us when we are beginning to feel overwhelmed, Terrell suggested. They also are among the resources we need to help our learners master—by helping those learners acquire the skills to effectively function within and use them; helping them understand that online social networks are not necessarily just for fun; and promoting the idea that good PLNs ask as much of their members as they offer.
Developing PLNs can include relatively simple steps: finding “your hashtag,” for example—the hashtag that brings someone together with other members of his or her learning community.
What helps those communities coalesce is the realization that making and building things together is an essential part of cementing relationships within communities—which suggests that for those of us creating teaching-training-learning opportunities through active participation in #ccourses, #oclmooc, and other first-rate learning opportunities, there is positive result of drawing ever closer to having even stronger learning communities and personal learning networks than we previously believed possible.
I’m in the middle of an unexpected lifelong learning experience that is the training-teaching-learning equivalent of a quadruple caffè latte. My heart is racing. My mind is engaged. And I feel as if the best is yet to come—if I don’t completely explode.
The day began as many do for me: I set aside a little time to skim a few blogs and check my social media feeds for articles that would help me keep up with the myriad topics I attempt (unsuccessfully) to follow. And there it was, the first gem of the day: Gustavus Adolphus College professor/writer/librarian Barbara Fister’s fresh-off-the-presses article “What PIL [Project Information Literacy] Teaches Us About Lifelong Learning” in Library Journal. It’s the sort of article I adore—an intellectual home run—in that it’s well written, it provides thought-provoking information I can immediately apply to the work I do, it draws attention to another fabulous resource (the Project Information Literacy lifelong learning Phase 1 Research Brief that inspired Fister to write her Library Journal article), and it was something I immediately wanted to share (via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+) with my colleagues involved in training-teaching-learning.
Fister gracefully and enthusiastically summarizes and builds upon a few of the key points made in this report, which is drawn from interviews with 65 relatively recent graduates of 10 American colleges and universities. (The research brief is part of a continuing two-year study to determine, in part, how “today’s graduates use information support systems for lifelong learning.”) The interviewees, Fister notes, “sought out learning opportunities, either through formal certificates or graduate education or through more informal means: enrolling in MOOCs [massive open online courses] or looking for websites and YouTube videos that teach the skills they want to develop.” She recaps something that many of us involved in learning already know viscerally: “the learning that stuck came through doing things…the learning that comes from creating things transfers even if content knowledge doesn’t.” And most importantly, she makes us want to read the original six-page brief ourselves so we can more fully absorb the nuances of what PIL is continuing to produce in its overall study of information literacy—a topic we could explore for several lifetimes without ever fully absorbing all there is to contemplate.
When we succumb to our natural instincts and do skim the PIL brief, we find plenty worth pursuing among the five elements explored through the PIL researchers’ initial interviews (interviewees’ lifelong learning needs, use of information sources, use of social media, best practices for lifelong learning, and adaptable information-seeking practices from their higher education experiences). The interviewees consistently admit to being “challenged by ‘staying smart’ in a rapidly changing world.” Google search is their “go-to source for lifelong learning” as they attempt to find resources responsive to their lifelong learning needs. And “[m]any mentioned actively building a social network of go-to experts they could consult at work”—in essence, developing what many of us refer to as our personal learning networks (PLNs).
None of this would have been as significant to me at a personal level if I hadn’t immediately connected it to what I do in my own lifelong learning efforts—and if I hadn’t immediately begun to apply it. Knowing that I was less than two hours away from joining an online discussion session I try to attend biweekly, as time allows—Maurice Coleman’sT is for Training podcast—I contacted Maurice and one other T is for Training colleague to see if we could incorporate Fister’s article into our discussion this morning. My lifelong learning efforts successfully continued, therefore, when we did spend nearly an hour exploring what the PIL research brief, Fister’s article, and our extended (and often overlapping) personal learning networks do to support us and the learners we serve. And the lifelong-learning adrenaline continued to flow when I returned to the archived recording of the T is for Training conversation, copied the podcast link, and added it to my own website as a free resource for others interested in exploring lifelong learning and personal learning networks. Which, of course, brings us to this moment in which I’m further solidifying this augmentation of my own lifelong learning efforts by reflecting on all that has come out of the simple act of reading Fister’s article and seeking ways to connect it to what I do for myself and the trainer-teacher-learners I serve.
The learning is not over yet; it really never is. In fine-tuning this piece by exploring the Project Information Literacy site (a fabulous lifelong learning resource in and of itself), I discovered a section of “Smart Talks” featuring “interviews with leading experts about PIL’s findings and their thoughts about the challenges of finding information and conducting research in the digital age.” Better yet, among the interviewees are colleagues and others whose work I have followed and admired. So, as I suggested at the beginning of this article, I remain very much in the middle of consuming the intellectual equivalent of a quadruple caffè latte. And I am doing all I can to avoid being overwhelmed by this magnificent lifelong –learning experience that Fister and my personal learning network colleagues are supporting.
But it didn’t occur to me, until this morning, that I had overlooked the use of one more piece of technology—one so familiar that I had completely overlooked it. The moment of revelation and experimentation came when I was again reading and reacting to tweets from the conference. Among the flood of messages was one from Walt Hansmann, a long-time ASTD friend and colleague with whom I’ve presented, brainstormed, learned, dined, laughed, and groused countless times. (In fact, it was through Walt that I met Larry Straining, whose Facebook posting a week ago sent me down the path of more creatively and intensely experimenting with learning through virtual-conference attendance; ATD/ASTD really has been and continues to be pivotal in helping me understand what a small world we all inhabit and serve.) So there was Walt, tweeting about the fact that he was already wearing a new ATD pin while I was on the other side of the country thinking, “If I was there, I’d be wearing one of those, too.” And then it dawned on me: all I needed to do was try to reach him on his cell phone. Which I did. And the ensuing conversation led to his assurance that one of those pins would work its way across the United States and into my hands sooner than later.
That combination of tweeting and calling may have produced the virtual-conference-attendance equivalent of the joys and rewards of meeting and learning from each other in conference hallways. More importantly in terms of the virtual-conference experiment, the call carried us back into cross-platform conference participation as he immediately posted a tweet (“@paulsignorelli @trainersleaders may not be @ #astd2014 physically, but he is sharing via SoMe [social media] and just called to touch base!”) while I was tweeting my own response to the phone conversation: “Oh, technology, with all your lovely variations: just briefly joined @WaltHansmann at #ASTD2014—via a phone call. #NoLongerLeftBehind.” I was also, at the same time, responding to another tweet suggesting that Dan Steer’s tweets had made the tweeter sorry to have missed the conference—to which I responded, “made me feel closer to it.” We closed the circle on that conversation when Dan himself—whom I’ve never met face to face—used the “favorite” option on Twitter to acknowledge my appreciation for all he had done to carry the conference far beyond the physical site of the conference.
This exploration of how we might more creatively incorporate the use of social media tools into learning opportunities benefitted from a wonderful combination of resources. The fact that many ATD members are adept at synthesizing content via backchannel interactions on Twitter is an essential starting point; they were the portal to the conference for me and for others who were attending from a (physical) distance. ATD’s first-rate conference app made it possible to monitor the conference schedule and access some presenters’ conference materials; that helped me see and understand what others were reacting to onsite. Having a tablet meant I could turn this into a mobile-learning/mobile-conferencing experience at times by following the backchannel feed even while I was using public transportation here in San Francisco to move from appointment to appointment when I wasn’t at home using a desktop/laptop combination. And the encouragement of training-teaching-learning colleagues provided what a successful learner needs: a great community of learning and engaged personal learning network that supports the learner’s process and explorations.
There was a time, for me, when having that stimulatingly immersive experience face-to-face with conference colleagues—call it “conference high” for lack of a better term—concluded with a sense of melancholy that came from knowing I was about to leave them and wouldn’t see them again for anywhere from six to twelve months—until we were reunited for the next intensely inspiring set of learning interactions that we found through our shared conference experiences. The bouts of melancholy diminished noticeably over the past few years when it became obvious that we would be “seeing” each other far more often through our shared use of social media tools, conference calls, and interactions via Skype and Google Hangouts. But I found a different, yet parallel, sense of melancholy setting in this afternoon for the first time as we said our virtual good-byes. And I realized that it wasn’t just the coming and going of friends who interact, then are apart for considerable periods of time, that used to cause that melancholy. It’s the fact that a well-run conference or any other sort of convocation is, in and of itself, the catalyst—a special meeting of friends and colleagues to creatively explore, at a very human level, what is important to all of us; it’s a form of augmented reality that might best be described as “augmented intellectual and emotional reality.” It deepens the emotional connections that draw us together. It ignites all that is most worth cultivating within each of us. And it reminds us that without those shared community-building moments of engagement regardless of whether they are onsite or online, we would be far less than what we are.
Seaman’s wonderful example of how a well-written blog posting can engagingly serve as a valuable learning object—the piece is among the recommended readings during the second week of Exploring Personal Learning Networks—not only carries us through a first-rate exploration of what personal learning networks (PLNs) are and how they function to our benefit, but also extends our own personal learning networks if we care to follow the numerous well-chosen links to other writers’ work on the subject.
Even reading nothing more than the first paragraph of the piece leaves us with the recognition that our personal learning network is expanding in very rewarding ways and our role as connected educators working at trainer-teacher-learners is similarly growing. Seaman herself becomes part of that PLN if she wasn’t already there. Then, by following the link to Nathan Jurgenson’sCyborgology blog article about digital dualism (the questionable practice of seeing our onsite and online personalities as different rather than seamlessly interwoven), we add Jurgenson, the blog he and PJ Rey created, and Rey into the mix.
While the potential connections to be forged through Seaman’s links are numerous, one that is particularly rewarding introduces us to global networker Shelley Terrell. It has the added benefit of calling attention to its writer (Howard Rheingold) if we’re not already familiar with his work, and it brings the topic back to human scale through Rheingold’s description of how Terrell refers to PLNs as “‘passionate learning networks’ and defines simply as ‘the people you choose to connect with and learn from.’”
These are the sort of contemporary, mind-twisting, landscape-changing questions and challenges we can explore through our ever-expanding and resource-rich PLNs, drawing upon the people and the resources at our physical and virtual fingertips.
Reading James Paul Gee’sThe Anti-Education Era, leads us to an interesting extension of how we and our resources interact to produce something positive that might otherwise not have come our way:
“The genius of human beings was and is the invention and use of tools to make themselves smarter. It is misleading to talk about human intelligence and think only of unaided humans. Humans are tool users. The real unit of analysis for intelligence ought often to be human + tool. If you want to know how much a human can lift, pair them with a forklift. If you want to know how much information they can store, pair them with a computer. If you want to know how far they can see, pair them with a telescope” (p. 122).
And, to continue his thought: If you want to know how much they know, connect them with a vibrant and vital personal learning network and then see where that takes them—and the rest of us.
Celebrating Life. Making positive connections and collaborating with people from around the world. Living everyday with positive energy, possibility, passion and peace of mind. Learning from a School Counsellor lens. I'm not a Counsellor because I want to make a living. I am a Counsellor because I want to make a difference. Gratitude for ETMOOC roots.