This post grew out of an NAIS presentation on the topic of Making the Most of Personal Learning Networks. I explain the WHAT, WHY, and HOW of "PLNs", and then share a few thoughts on making the most of your PLN.
What is a PLN?
A PLN is an informal network of people [and web sites] you choose to connect to for the purpose of sharing ideas, and asking & replying to questions. This web of people and sites is self-selected, and is therefore personal. You decide where and when you devote attention to it. You decide what people to connect with. Communication is two-way: not only do you read and take in information from this network, but you also send out your own questions, respond to others' questions, and share your experiences.
Before the internet, our"PLNs were comprised of a few colleagues in our schools and perhaps someone we may have met at a conference. Here is an image of my PLN in 1994:
The digital age has exponentially increased the number of people that we can connect with. Here is a small representation of my PLN with only a few photos of the various groups of people I'm now connected with on a fairly regular basis...
Why do it?
1) Participating in a PLN connects you with peers and colleagues of your choosing to ask or answer questions, share ideas, thinking, resources, and develop professional relationships over time.
2) Participating in a PLN hones your thinking and improves the expression of your ideas. PLNs rely heavily on text, therefore they force you to focus and distill your thinking into coherent patterns of expression. They prompt you to marinate ideas in the blogoshpere and develop them over time.
3) Participating in a PLN is an opportunity to package and message your leadership vision. As a school leader, administrator, or teacher you are responsible for articulating a vision for your stakeholders. By blogging, tweeting, and participating with communications "2.0" tools you have an on-demand publishing medium for pushing your message to interested stake-holders in a personal and authentic way.
4) Participating in a PLN models a powerful communication and learning medium for your faculty and students. If you sense that this brave new world of interwoven online communication has deep implications for teaching and learning, then there's no better way to learn about it and endorse its potential than by participating within it. In other words, walk the talk. Along the way you will get exposure to interesting communication tools like video-chat, collaborative documents, and RSS aggregation.
How do you participate in a PLN?
I would preface this "how" section by saying that this Independent School Educators network is devoted to helping people get started down this path. There are pages on this site devoted to each of the following tools, with descriptions and resources to help you get started (look at the navigation tabs above.) Furthermore, it is a good place to participate and ask questions if you have any trouble with the following; so it can be a launching pad and a part of your own PLN. Secondly, I'd like to stress that PLNs are inherently public, and every item you post online should be treated as public information, quotable in your local newspaper.
Here is how I would suggest getting started building your own PLN…
1) If you are not already on a list-serv for your position, get on one. A list-serv is an email distribution list. NAIS has ones for most school leadership positions and there are many other national and international ones. Some links to list-servs can be found here, or visit the ISED List-serv how-to page. Set your subscription mode to "digest" so that you get one email that combines all messages sent to the list for that day. On active lists this is essential as otherwise your in-box will be flooded with messages. Finally, participate occasionally… ask a question or answer someone else's on the list.
2) The next step is to create a blog and start blogging, and choose a few other bloggers to read occasionally. I would suggest committing an hour a month to this endeavor. Put a recurring event on your calendar where you block out an hour of your day to post to your blog and spend a few minutes of that hour catching up on others' blog posts. I invite you to blog on the ISEnet site if you'd like to dip your toe in, because every member has an instant built-in blog and you have an immediate audience. More likely however you will want to set up a blog (if it doesn't already exist) on your school web site. You should allow moderated "commenting" on your blog. If you don't want to open yourself to the possibility of fielding comments then don't call it a blog, call it "messages from the head" or something else like that. Blogging is a two-way medium - it is the possibility of a conversation. You don't have to respond to readers comments, and you don't have to accept any unsavory comments. Get the right flavor flowing and your readers will respect it. State your policies up front on how comments will be moderated.
In order to "follow" a few other bloggers you need to first find them. Here is a list of some principals and heads who blog. Once you start poking around in the blogoshpere you can find others by seeing who these people follow. [Typically, on the right side of a blog, you'll see a "blog roll" which is a list of other bloggers that blogger follows… Click on some of those links to explore and see what's out there.] Once you've found a few bloggers to follow you can bookmark their sites in order to find them again, but if you want to get fancy you can subscribe to their blogs to get an email update when something new is posted there, or better yet use an RSS reader like Google Reader to get a collated list of new items. Don't worry too much about this part. The important thing is just to have a few colleagues whose blogs you like, and occasionally leave them comments.
3) As a third step I would suggest that you try a regimen of looking at twitter for about five minutes a day and post your own tweet about once a week. Twitter is a lot like blogging, but in miniature, and speeded up. To look at twitter you need to find some people to "follow." Just like blog-rolls, when you look at someone on twitter you can see who they follow, so all you need to do is start with one or two people and then sign up to follow some of the people that they follow. For example, here is a link to my twitter page. Under the "following" heading you'll see the 250 people whose twitter streams I've followed. You can add any of these to your own stream.Here is the page on ISEnet that describes how to get going with twitter. Once you've got your twitter set up and see what others are tweeting, you can throw your own thoughts out there. Ask questions, answer others, share links to articles you're reading, post links to your blog posts, etc. Twitter is a stream into which you can dip your toe, take a leisurely swim, or white-water raft on a daily basis. Just don't go skinny-dipping, because remember this is a public medium. Everything you write is stored, archived, easily located through search, and easily copied & pasted into other mediums or contexts. But don't let this scare you away. If you treat it with some care I can virtually guarantee you will derive value from the experience. So make twitter part of your morning routine for a few weeks. Glance at it after you read the morning headlines or once you clean out your in-box before breakfast.
These are three basic steps for getting started with building your personal learning network. If you are ready for some more steps, here are the next two tools I'd suggest to extend your growth...
4) Tap into the power of collaborative editing with Google Docs. If you don't already have a google user account (i.e. a gmail address) then you are going to want to sign up for one. Better yet, get your technology director to sign up for a free google education apps account for your school and provision an institutional google account for all faculty, staff, and students. (It's pretty amazing how easy Google has made it to do this.) Once you've got your google account use it to create documents that you want to edit and share with others. Google docs is a like a shared file-server in the cloud. Most educators are familiar with the concept of a school fileserver that has a folder for each academic department to store and share their Microsoft Office documents among members of that department as defined by fileserver permission settings. Now, with Google docs, educators decide who to share with and can edit simultaneously and access documents from anywhere. Google Docs is not a replacement for Microsoft Office yet, but it is superb for any collaborative or cloud-based needs. Becoming adept with Google Docs is a powerful tool in the PLN toolbox because it allows dispersed individuals to create and store documents in highly collaborative ways. Also try this within your school community. Use google docs to collaboratively edit and share information -- document, spreadsheets, presentations, online forms.
5) Learn how to social bookmark. Social bookmarking is somewhat of a misnomer, because it is not so much social as collaborative. The social bookmarking tool which I currently prefer is Diigo. You can read why here, but in short, I like the ability to save bookmarks from any number of computers to one single place, and since they are stored in the cloud I don't have to worry about switching computers or losing them. But here is the powerful thing - we can share our bookmarks… I can show you my bookmarks I've tagged "PLN". You can see everything I've bookmarked publicly here. Also, I joined several Diigo "groups" which means that when any group member bookmarks something and shares it to the group I get to see it. Here is a link to the Independent School Educators Group, and here is one for the "Google in Education" group. I am consistently appreciative of the links I get through this process. Here are directions on how to sign up.
To make the most of your personal learning network you need to put some energy into it and grow with it. You need to be doing it because you enjoy it, not because you need to get something out of it. The more that you can weave PLNing into your daily routine, the more natural and effective it becomes. For example, if you treat social bookmarking as a chore rather than as a great way to store and share links, it is bound to fail for you.
If you are just beginning your PLN journey, you may not get many comments or interaction at first. But that's okay. In some ways it is like walking into a cocktail party. Read more about this metaphor on this blog post with tips for twitter.
You may have noticed that I have not even mentioned Facebook and Linked-in. They are two example of social networking platforms, but PLNs use a combination of the collaborative digital networking tools outlined above. Social networking sites are another communications tool in this repertoire of tools.
Making the most of your PLN
1. Reciprocity. Give and ye shall receive. Participating in a PLN means leaving comments on others' blog posts and responding to others' questions on twitter (or Facebook or other tools.) If you focus your participation others will get to know your name, appreciate your participation, and be much more likely to reply to your own questions. Reciprocity builds trust. Collaborate with others online. Send out links to useful resources. Embed links within your blog to others' blogs. Re-tweet things that resonate with you.
2. Recognize the power of weak ties and the long tail. These two concepts label the idea that digital tools allow us to reach a wide audience, and if only a small percentage of that audience is listening, it still results in a significant level of participation. "Weak ties" means we can be connected to a lot of other people in weak ways, such as following them on twitter as opposed to knowing them personally. Your virtual connections are less likely to rush to your aid than your "meat space" friends, but I am consistently amazed at the resources and sharing that come my way through a large network of weak ties. So you need to cast your PLN net wide enough to tap into these concepts, and don't hesitate to answer someone's question or start a new conversation even if you are only a weak tie. Weak ties can easily lead to strong ties if properly nurtured over time.
3. Pace yourself and give yourself permission to come and go. My experience has been that new entrants to the PLN world feel an initial sense of being asked to drink from a fire-hose. There are so many sources of information and communication online it can easily seem overwhelming to try to keep up with twitter or the blogoshpere. It's okay. Everyone has had this experience. It's okay to tune out for awhile or only follow a few blogs or twitterers. It needs to be a balance relationship. You need to feel like you are getting as much energy and inspiration out of it as you are putting in. What you get out of it can take several forms. Maybe you'll get good suggestions if you ask for others experiences. Maybe you'll see links to resources that will extend or enhance your thinking around a particular topic of interest. Perhaps your leadership messaging will reach new stakeholders and provoke constructive conversation that moves your community forward. At the very least you should experience fellowship, good humor, and of participating in an authentic two-way communication medium that models digital citizenship as well as engagement in the civic and civil exchange of ideas. You can also model writing with embedded hyperlinks and citing or sourcing things that inspire your own writing. Our faculty and students need to see good examples from school leadership of embracing the creative commons and remix/mashup culture which it allows. My suggested guidelines for starting out may or may not work for you. Pick whatever does work for you. Don't be hesitant to ask for help or suggestions along the way. When you meet people online, shake hand, and look them in the eye.
4. Be a "connector not a networker." Treat your interactions with your PLN as an opportunity to connect yourself with people as opposed to networking for personal or professional gain.
5. Finally, recognize this as a form of sustained professional development which is one of the research-validated attributes of effective professional development. Participating in a PLN an on-going journey. Your network will evolve over time. The tools you use will change and improve. Your participation may be cyclical as you circle back to use old tools in new ways. Use your PLN to help you grow. Use it for authentic purposes and to share and push your thinking.
What do you think about all of this? What other tips or advice would you add? What has been your experience of PLNing?