We wrapped up our open course on Personal Learning Environments and Networks a few weeks ago. I want to address a few aspects of the discussion about personal learning networks (PLN). Often, on Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, I’ll read some variant of “my PLN is the most wonderful thing evar!!!” “It meets all my knowledge and emotional needs” “It’s better than getting a university degree” “It makes my toast in the morning” “It cleans the oven and the toilet”..and so on. From reading these posts, a reader uninitiated in the land of PLNs would quickly conclude that the key failing in politics, currently in North and South Korea, is the failure of leaders to build their own PLN.
Let’s tackle this in a bit more detail.
Connecting with others is a satisfying experience. Blogs, Facebook, and Twitter greatly reduce the friction to connectedness. I’m still periodically surprised when I come across a former colleague, friend, or classmate on Facebook. Friend suggestions on social networks can sometimes jolt me into an afternoon of reflecting on experiences in grade 6. Connectedness is crazy stuff.
Where things get a bit more confusing with PLNs is when we fail to advance beyond those warm fuzzy feelings about being connected to others with more substantive knowledge and action. Being connected is at best a conduit – a suggestion or hint of potential value in information exchange or general interaction. Perhaps we share YouTube videos, interesting articles, and break into the odd spontaneous debate with political extremists (both lefties and righties are good for much mileage on this topic). Or perhaps we get together and create something – an article, a list of resources on a topic, and so on. These are important “social glue” activities in strengthening and maintaining our connection with others in our PLN.
But, to use a dating metaphor, this is really only the love & infatuation stage of a PLN relationship. Once we get past the thrill of “ooh, I love my PLN”, we can get down to something more practical (and yes, boring). What’s important with a PLN is not “what it does for me” but rather how I can use it to change things in education, society, or the world. Learning networks give us potential for action. For many educators, these networks function on a gift-economy basis. We’re involved in a type of social contract where we share freely with others and, in turn, we receive freely from them. Once the sharing stops, the network collapses. Which is why I’m pushing back against this notion of “what does my PLN do for me?”.
Consider your PLN – perhaps you have a dozen (or many dozen) Twitter followers. Or a handful of readers for your blog. Or a few hundred Facebook friends (for the record, Facebook friends are the Pesos of friend currency – the numbers look big but are largely useless). Think for a moment. What can you do with and for those people in your PLN? Mobilize for a cause? Run an open course? Create something of significance (an image, a video)? For example, Alan Levine is good at producing idea artifacts for his network, such as his Twitter Life Cycle. His work in creating and sharing this image has helped me in many a discussion with educators about how Twitter works. Wendy Drexler’s Networked Student has been viewed by over 80 000 people. Creation, collaboration, and sharing are the true value points of a PLN. It’s not what it does for me, but rather what I am now able to do with and for others.
Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state. I’ve ranted about this before, but there is never a good time to be a lurker. Lurking=taking. The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative. Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding. We noticed this time and again in CCK08/09/EdFutures/PLENK: a resource (image, blog post) created by someone trying to understand a topic is often more valuable than instructor-provided readings. Why? Well, novices and experts have different approaches to topics and tasks. A novice who is grappling with an idea is likely better able to connect with another novice than an expert who advances a more nuanced, pattern-based assessment of a topic.
Online, we are obsessed with size and numbers (Twitter followers, open courses, number of blog hits, Google alerts on ourselves/blogs, etc). But you don’t need to run an open course with large numbers of participants to make an impact. An open course for five people is just fine. It’s the act of giving, not the subsequent impact, that is most significant.