My Attempt To Explain (sort of) The Power of Building Your Personal Learning Network (PLN)

Alternate Title: “An Educators Guide to Why You Want A Personal Learning Network”

Realize you already have a PLN, those teachers and colleagues that you plan with, share with, gripe with, support and count on. You know which member(s) of your PLN might help with an idea for any issue or specific subject you are planning for, who is the art expert, or creative writing idea person, who might know a picture book that fits this theme, how do I talk to my principal or a parent about this issue and so on.

Teachers at my school (and probably yours) occasionally email to  everyone on staff to inquire if they’ve seen a certain video or book or science kit or whatever. That’s a PLN. So your PLN is the people on your staff, or used to be on your staff, acquaintances you met along the way at meetings or classes you’ve taken, or at conferences or committees you were part of, even relatives and friends outside of your school or work circle. Think how many times they’ve come through for you.

How many of them would you call after 9pm if you had a non-actual-life/death-emergency question about a lesson or parent or … (see list above) ? How about after 11pm? 2am? I bet the the list goes from very short to zero. Even if you were working on a $50,000 grant that has to be emailed or faxed by 7am tomorrow and you need some information about some research or technology or what computer applications to include on the list, or books to order to get the grant done or you might not make the deadline … I mean no one will die – who would you call at 2am even for that? How long is that list?

What if at 10pm or 2am, you could get on Twitter and ask your question and immediately tie in to all the people in your PLN that live in the eastern hemisphere where it is tomorrow already? Friends you’ve never met in person (well some maybe). And what if they start sending you the answer, or links to where you can find out. One or more of them start a Twitter conversation about your issue – maybe it moves to email or Skype (Maximum 140 characters at a time on Twitter is too confining – sometimes).

Does that happen? Absolutely! I’m not exaggerating – on average, at least several times a day (and usually way more than that) I get answers, or learn about an idea or something that impacts my teaching or life in general from Twitter or Plurk (similar to Twitter) or my blog, that I might follow up on a web site or Delicious or Diigo or Skype or Flickr or a Ning or any number of other places. And that PLN never sleeps. And the more you use it – uh, well – the more you use it. It’s the most incredible, valuable teaching / life in general resource I have ever experienced. I don’t mean to beat you over the head – but it is life changing valuable – THAT valuable.

The downside? You won’t “get it” until you experience it. And you can’t experience it, until you build it. You can build your online PLN at whatever pace you want to. It is eternally patient – it’s there waiting for you. But you have to build it! WARNING! COMMON MISTAKE. Don’t set up a Twitter account and follow 2 to 20 people who include mainly your Mom and brother and 2 teachers you know that work in your building, and 4 teachers from other schools, and your friend in Florida and uncle in Montana, and Ashton Kutcher and Oprah and the Discovery Channel – and then sit back and wait for it to happen. Everyone on that list are fine to follow – but you have to spend a bit of time making the connections to build a network.

Some will come to you, find you. But mainly it’s up to you to go out and make 20 or so connections (and then keep going any chance you get). How? Go to my Twitter page and note who I follow (and other people you may already know that have a Twitter account). Read my blog and note the links to others’ blogs I have and check them out. Follow me on Twitter (you don’t have to though) and start checking out those I follow and who THEY follow. If you click on the “following” link on our Twitter pages it will list who we follow. If you click on the link to anyone you can usually find out a bit about them – “oh they teach too,” or have a common interest or just look interesting, click on the follow button and you will see their Tweets on your Twitter page. AND they just might follow you back (you get an email telling you if that happens). Don’t be shy, – people on Twitter expect that to happen – you don’t have to get their permission – you are not breaking some online etiquette  -that’s how Twitter works.

NOTE: Blogging is similar – read blogs, leave comments, start your own blog, it builds over time, and all these online social applications leverage each other. Then anytime you get a chance, answer someone’s question, Tweet out something your students did, ask a question, share that you are trying something for the first time – it’s OK to just watch a bit – but you need to engage too. Re-Tweet someone’s Tweet that you like. Get into a Twitter conversation with someone. Then it will happen. People will start following you. You will talk more of your local colleagues into joining in. AND THEN you will start reaping the benefits in bushel baskets. Just now I checked Twitter (really) and Dean Shareski asked:

“Anyone have a great story about the power of twitter? Either a personal or something you read? A link would be awesome.”

And I answered:

Maybe this?:

(Check out the link, it’s a cool short story)

The span of time between their question and my answer? 2 minutes.

There is much more to this story because all of the other social networking apps like blogs and Skype and FaceBook, Flickr, wiki pages, Nings, – all of them leverage each other and the whole becomes more than the individual pieces, and – OK, OK – I’m getting carried away now – but it’s all true.

Note that I could write a post like this on most, if not all the applications I’ve mentioned here. I didn’t start out to focus on Twitter, that just happened  I think because it is a fairly painless way or place to begin. Just remember you have to engage to make those connections. It will take some time, but it doesn’t have to be a drag. Just try to consistently do 10 minutes here, an hour there, 5 minutes way over …  you can’t mess this up … except when you don’t keep going … and the great news IS that you
can always come back and pick up where you left off … the network is there always waiting patiently.

Many have tried to explain this social networking / PLN powerhouse and how it impacts teaching and teachers, students, schools and education and learning in general, to those not caught up in it already. And it’s hard, and I have failed to explain it totally here. You are just going to have to trust me (and the hundreds, really untold thousands in certain ways, that comprise my PLN) – jump in, you’ll see.

Learning is messy!

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7 thoughts on “My Attempt To Explain (sort of) The Power of Building Your Personal Learning Network (PLN)

  1. Great post! I’m a student in the Teacher Education Program at Drexel University in Philadelphia and we’re just learning about the use of technology in the classroom. The number of tools and resources is overwhelming and one of my first questions was “Who’s going to help me weed through this stuff?!”

    I see the value in networking. I also see that I’m already a few steps behind my future students with regard to technology!

  2. Through my PLN I have met people who are now more than virtual friends. Last year I travelled half way round the world and visited with people who I had only met on line.

    The world seems a much smaller place when we can all help and encourage each other irrespective of location and time zone.

    Thank YOU for your encouragement and inspiration.

  3. PLNs are a fabulous tool! I never heard the term until this past summer when I had to build one for a graduate course I was taking. Since then, I have found some invaluable if not simply interesting information that’s out there that I may not have stumbled upon. I hope that PLNs are encourage from the beginning in teacher prep programs (it was not in mine, though it’s been several years since I was in it).