The term personal learning network (PLN) has been a part of technology junkies' vocabulary for more than 10 years,1
but the tools and skills needed to take full advantage of networked learning continue to evolve. I define a PLN as a self-created set of experts, colleagues, and resources—usually dependent on networked technology—that meet one's daily learning needs.
I got my first taste of a PLN in the early 1990s when LM_Net—an e-mail list of school librarians around the United States, and later around the world—got started. This peer network provided librarians with a venue for sharing resources, asking questions, venting, and trumpeting successes online. Because our field was being transformed dramatically by technology, LM_Net filled an urgent need.
Opportunities for continuing education for educators, such as reading professional journals, attending conferences, taking college classes, and participating in local inservice sessions, are still available and important. But given the pace and degree of change in education and technology, they alone are insufficient to keep most thoughtful educators current.
Many of us have built PLNs using networked technologies. We've become accustomed to learning on a daily basis, at times most convenient to us. We can regularly read, listen to, respond to, and argue with points of view ranging from those of vaunted academics to the classroom teacher down the hall, from international futurists and visionaries to those who share our own positions in school districts similar to our own.
As we move past the "wow" factor of PLNs, it's imperative that our PLN practices evolve to ensure more thoughtful use of our time. The noise-to-value ratio of digital communication remains high, and the job-related time commitments of school leaders continue to grow. Therefore, ruthless discrimination among information and opinion sources and providers is a professional skill that is growing in importance. And happily, the technology tools for creating a PLN are changing, making it easier to make personal the operative word in personal learning network.
Although mailing lists and electronic newsletters are fine methods of keeping up and keeping in touch with current education issues (ASCD's SmartBriefs are still on my must-read list), many connected educators are finding value in the following:
Social networks. Most of us are familiar with the giant Web 2.0 networks: Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. If these seem overwhelming, try a more profession-specific social network like ASCD's EDge. These more focused networks often provide members with their own home pages and allow smaller interest groups to form within the larger network. They are aimed at creating real-people connections among professionals.
Content aggregators. Blogs and their cousins, podcasts, enable educators to read or hear, react to, and converse about the latest thinking by education leaders. Information on blogs tends to be timely, short, and often opinionated. If you have a favorite blogger, examine his or her blogrolls for leads to related bloggers worth following. (Or check out the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education's "Blogs for Busy Administrators.") The quickest strategy to manage your reading and keep up with the blogs you enjoy is to subscribe to their RSS feeds and group them in one spot through an aggregator or reader.
Virtual meetings and presentations. Presentations, as well as workshops conducted through Internet tools like GoToMeeting or Elluminate, eliminate windshield time and costs. Streamed conference sessions that we attend at our desks enable us to get inspiration from keynotes without paying for airfare or conference registration. Watch your e-mail for webinars and check conference websites to see what sessions might be streamed or archived.
Repositories of high-quality educational resources. TED Talks and other online presentations can delight, inform, and motivate. Some of the best minds in the world share their ideas in free lectures. Universities like Brown and MIT have placed their best courses online for free viewing. Expand your horizons and make creative connections by taking a class—for instance, on archaeology. Maybe you will understand some of your older faculty members a little better.
Twitter. The real trick for success in Twitter is finding the right folks to follow. Those experts whose articles you read, whose conference sessions you attend, and whose classes you have taken are likely Tweeters. Start with them. Tweeters will share their exceptional blog posts, their favorite web-based tools, and publications of value. You'll find at least one great idea every day. If you have a particular area of interest, search Twitter by hashtags—for example, #RTI.
Does your school's mission statement include the words "lifelong learning?" It should. And the sentiment should apply to school leaders as well as to those we lead.
Making It Happen: What School and District Leaders Can Do
- Create a free RSS feed aggregator account with an aggregator like Netvibes or Diigo; subscribe to a few blogs of interest; and make it a habit to check the account daily.
- Create a Twitter account and select one or two professionals to follow.
- Join a professional network. ASCD's EDge is a good place to start.
- Follow the advice of Scott McLeod, Director of Innovation, Prairie Lakes AEA 8: "Set up a RSS reader and/or Twitter stream, load it up with some good feeds, and then just be a lurker. Too many administrators shy away from blogs and Twitter as learning streams because they think they have to post and contribute. That comes later, if at all."
- Weigh the time/benefit ratio of your PLN connections. Toss out those that don't add value to your professional practice or thinking. Don't worry if a tool or a person is not a good fit for your learning needs. These are personal learning networks, after all.
- Make it social—make friends.