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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Personal Learning Networks

What is a PLN?
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Personal Learning Networks consist of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a Personal Learning Environment. An important part of this concept is the theory of connectivism developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Learners create connections and develop a network that contributes to their professional development and knowledge.[1] The learner does not have to know these people personally or ever meet them in person.[2]
For many educators, in this day and age, a personal learning network allows us to pursue our own professional development with colleagues from all over the world. Imagine the ability to connect with other subject specialists, other 3rd grade teachers, other college counselors...beyond those that you might meet at a conference or interact with in your own environment here at school. We are now able to collaborate and communicate with people just about anywhere on Earth. Imagine what we can learn from people who live outside our immediate sphere. We take our students on trips throughout their educational experience at Charles Wright for a reason. We want them to experience different cultures and be challenged in new environments. We want them to learn new things and see the world from a different perspective. So what if we started expanding our own horizons?  We are, after all, learners ourselves, not just teachers...lifelong learners.

How does one get started down this path of making global connections? My best advice is to start small, and let things grow naturally as you become more comfortable with the digital tools that enhance your personal learning. I can only share with you my own experience, and guide to you to further resources, so here's my attempt at leading by example...

For me, the process has taken a couple of years, and I would say I'm still very much a "work in progress." When I came to CWA, I had been out of the school environment for a while, and educational technology was very different from when I'd last worked in a school. My first professional experience here, before I had actually "officially" started the job, was to attend a PNAIS technology conference in Leavenworth. Day 1, during introductions around the room, I recall saying something like, "My name is Holly. I (almost) work at Charles Wright Academy, and I have no real idea what I'm doing yet, so I'm here to listen and learn, thankyouverymuch." I was surrounded by strangers, seated next to a colleague I had known for about 5 minutes. I was CLUELESS. Though I didn't know it yet, the development of my PLN had begun, as I met other technology integrators, teachers, librarians, and IT directors from other PNAIS schools. We collaborated and shared resources, building a shared bookmark list of great ideas (my first experience with Delicious, which I've written about here before) to take away with us and continue building when we were no longer face to face.

I'm not sure I fully embraced the PLN concept until at least a year later. I was checking out websites of other PNAIS colleagues, reading blog posts on occasion, and following a listserve, but I hadn't streamlined this in any way, and my approach was pretty haphazard. I did begin writing my own blog, in an attempt to share some resources with CWA teachers, but the audience was small to non-existent, I didn't write regularly, and I didn't advertise much. A huge fan of TED talks, I watched several and began to follow links to some of those brilliant minds. I had seen the original "Shift Happens" video in 2006, maybe 2007, and went back to find that again and connect to the creators, Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod. Theirs were the first blogs I actually subscribed to using an RSS reader. As I began adding more and more ed-tech feeds to my reader (which, by the way, is Apple's, which I find much simpler to use than Google Reader if all I'm doing is reading) I began to see the interconnectedness of all these experts, and soon the cream of the crop became apparent.  While my RSS feeds now number 43, and include personal interests as well as professional, there are about a half-dozen that I check faithfully every day. These lead me to excellent resources to share with all of you.

PLNs aren't just a one-way street, however. At some point, you will find yourself thinking, "I have valuable things to contribute also! Let me share too!" When you get there, publishing your own blog is a great idea. Setting up a Twitter feed starts to sound like a reasonable thing to do (read Scott McLeod's "If You Were on Twitter" post*--it's great). There are multiple ways to get your ideas out there. And the more you contribute to others' thinking (by leaving comments on their blogs, for example), the more they will connect back to you...and your PLN grows.

In the realm of digital citizenship, Sam Harris and I have shared with you our Ethics 4 a Digital World project. We got to a point where the work we've done for parent meetings and kid talks had a real and growing audience, and we wanted more and better ways to share resources with families. We started the blog for that very purpose, and quickly jumped into social media (Facebook and Twitter) to spread the message even more. I used these professional accounts to connect with, "like" and "follow" others in our field, and soon some of them began to follow us. We're not melting down any servers anywhere, but we have made some great connections.

In the tech-integration circle, I haven't reached this point of true networking, nor have a had the opportunity to meet many of the ed-tech leaders I so admire. I've left a few comments here and there, but mostly I am teaching myself things with resources shared by others. Many of those I follow, however, have written about the joy of connecting (in real life!) with folks they collaborate with electronically. Personal Learning Networks always (hopefully) include your colleagues right here. Face-to-face conversations still matter. Visiting each other's classrooms for inspiration still works. There is an abundance of energy, intelligence, and thoughtfulness right here on this very campus.

But we can always keep an eye out for more, in the great beyond.

Next up: RSS feeds and a few good ones to get you started.

For further exploration:
thoughtful reflection:  (Bud the Teacher) (the educator's PLN, started by Tom Whitby) (Karl Fisch) (Will Richardson) (Sue Waters of Edublogger)

*Because you’re not on Twitter, what you don’t realize is that Twitter is the back fence you share with your neighbors. Except your neighbors are people all over the world who share your interests and passions and can help you accomplish your personal and professional goals. Every day you have a chance to learn from these online neighbors. Every day you have a chance to receive resources that you otherwise never would have found. Every day you have a chance to intersect with people who care about what you care about and are willing to help you be more productive and save time. And much of it is banal or just friendly chatter, but much of it also is useful. (McLeod, 6/2/11)

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